(a sermon for April 19, 2020, the 2nd Sunday of Easter, based on John 20:19-31)
So… how about this morning we just say a few good words on behalf of Thomas?
That’s right… Thomas, as in
“Doubting Thomas,” that nickname that has forevermore been bestowed to anyone who has ever been even remotely skeptical about anything! I mean, never mind that history has recorded Thomas as having been a fiercely loyal disciple of Jesus: it’s believed that after the resurrection Thomas brought the good news of the gospel to the ancient region of Khorasan, located in what is now Iran and Afghanistan, and finally to India, where to this day there exists an Order of St. Thomas which claims Thomas as its founder; in fact, legend also has it that it was in India that Thomas was martyred for his faith, pierced by four spears. It can safely be said that Thomas lived a life fully devoted to Christ, and yet, what is it that everybody always remembers about Thomas? It’s that he was the one disciple who would not, could not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead… unless and until he had proof.And really, friends, who could blame him?
You know, it’s been said that each of the disciples in some way or another serve to represent an aspect of ourselves and our own personalities: Peter, for instance, represents our tendency to be bold and impulsive about things; Matthew, the tax collector, tells us of the importance of leaving our old ways behind to follow Jesus; and James and his brother John, the fishermen who left their nets behind, tell us a lot about the courage it takes to answer a call. But of all the disciples, Thomas was the diehard realist of the group, and as such, represents the more skeptical part of our nature!
Thomas, you see, knew what was what; he knew how life works, where the limits are placed and what it is you have to look out for. And if there was one thing Thomas knew for certain, it was that when someone dies, that person is dead and gone and cannot, under any circumstances, return! And so, when he heard the other disciples talk about having seen Jesus on that Easter evening, and how they’d seen the wounds in his hands and side, Thomas was not about to take what they said at face value, for what they were saying broke all the rules. Yes, he could hear the joy in their voices as they described to him how Jesus had appeared to them in the darkness of that Easter night; and he did remember how that very morning, Mary had run to them, breathless with the news that she’d seen the Lord!
But you see, to Thomas’ mind this was all too incredible to even consider. Because Thomas knew exactly what he’d seen; and what he’d seen was Jesus die; in fact, Thomas could still feel the dull ache of emptiness inside of him because Jesus had died. It was painful enough to have to accept the fact that Jesus was gone, but this? Jesus… alive? No… no matter what anybody else was saying, he hadn’t been there to see it, and Thomas, ever the realist, was not about to place any kind of hope in that which he hadn’t personally experienced himself!
Of course, this is not to say he didn’t want that experience.
We know this because, as John tells the story, when Thomas heard what the other disciples were claiming, he responded the only way he could: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Bottom line, Thomas needed some hard evidence of this so-called resurrection if he was to believe, and therein lies the part of this story that makes us uncomfortable; mostly because, truth be told, we’d like to see that evidence ourselves! Theologian John Westerhoff explains it this way: “Poor Thomas,” he writes, “desired only sacrament, only an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual truth of the resurrection. He didn’t doubt the stories told, but he did want some sign. [And] that’s the story of our lives,” Westerhoff goes on to say. “It isn’t enough for most of us to be told that someone else loves us; we want that person to do something that expresses love for us. So it is with Easter faith – it’s difficult to believe the words, but an action along with the words surely helps.”
I suspect we can all understand that! I remember once way back when I was in the seventh grade, and one of the girls in my class came to me with the news that there was another girl in the class who really “liked me.” (And not just “liked me,” mind you, but liked me liked me, which, when you’re 13 is something altogether different!) Now, I was way too shy ever to do anything about that revelation, and even at that ageI remained fairly skeptical as to how legitimate this confession of “like” actually was! But, oh, I wanted it to be true, and I remember waiting for some sort of outward and visible sign to come forth from my admirer: you know, the tell-tale look, the note inside the home room desk (the one that read, “Do you like me? Check Yes or No”). My doubt, you see, wasn’t so much as denial, as it was the desire for it to be true!
For so many of us, you see, doubt is not so much a nagging source of denial as it is the persistent push that keeps us searching. It’s the way we seek to know and to name what it is that we believe, and then to live up to that belief. Thomas’ doubt was not borne of any kind of weakness nor was it an exercise in mental or spiritual acrobatics. Thomas doubted in order to become sure; he was not content with second-hand believing. He asked questions, he pushed the envelope, he wrestled with truth as surely as Jacob wrestled with the angel; and in the end, what Thomas believed, he owned…
…and it seems to me that’s a pretty good definition for faith.
It strikes me, you know, that right about now we’re all living in the midst of a modern-day age of doubt; a time when our natural -born skepticism has become mingled with fear. I don’t know about you, but everyday I go to the news hoping for some good news regarding this current pandemic crisis; but what I get is not at all reassuring with mixed signals at best. So not only do I end up not knowing what to believe, I begin to wonder if there’s any end in sight to this crisis and if life will ever get back to normal. I think you’ll agree with me when I say that these are the days when doubt flourishes!
Like Thomas, I suppose, we need proof; we want some empirical evidence that things are going to change for the better… but the kind of evidence that goes beyond daily briefings and data reports. I dare say that right now you and I need the kind of assurance that will drive out our fears, calm our anxieties and ease our ever-increasing weariness we’re feeling over having to stay away and apart. We need peace… the kind of peace that will strengthen us for the full way ahead and that will bolster us to face whatever obstacles and storms are still before us.
We need the peace that comes from the Lord.
What’s interesting about this story of “Doubting” Thomas, of course, is that when the risen Christ appears to the disciples a week later, this time Thomas is with them and he gets the “proof” that he’d insisted upon. Jesus even offers him the opportunity to actually reach out his hand and touch his side so that he would “not doubt but believe.” But in the end, Thomas never actually does touch Jesus. Maybe all it took was to actually see Jesus standing there to shift his point of view; maybe it was the fact that Jesus had specifically reached out to Thomas in his doubt; or perhaps it came from a sudden profound awareness of God’s shalom, God’s whole peace, that had come in the greeting and the very presence of the risen Christ. But whatever it was that moved Thomas, his response ends up being the single most profound and complete recognition of who Jesus is; and though it doesn’t say, I have to think that the words were spoken in barely a whisper, for such was his sudden wonder and amazement: “My Lord and my God!” To which Jesus answers, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”
And blessed are you and me when we believe, most especially in such difficult and uncertain times as these…. understanding, of course, that what we’re given in believing is not a clear slate of answers as to how and when things in this world and our lives are going to resolve themselves. What we’re given in believing, beloved, is God… and all of God’s sure and certain promises that come to us in the Risen Christ.
It’s sort of like what Frederick Beuchner has said is the difference between “believing in God” and “believing God.” Believing in God, he writes, “is an intellectual position. It need have no more effect on your life than believing in Freud’s method of interpreting dreams or the theory that Sir Francis Bacon wrote Romeo and Juliet.
“[But] believing God is something else again,” he continues. “It is less a position than a journey, less a realization than a relationship. It doesn’t leave you cold like believing the world is round. It stirs your blood like believing the world is a miracle. It affects who you are and what you do with your life like believing your house is on fire or somebody loves you. We believe God when somehow we run into God in a way that by and large leaves us no choice but to do otherwise.”
Beloved, in these times when doubt cannot help but daily run rampant through our minds and our hearts, we would do well to believe God… to believe his presence with us… to believe his power over the world… to believe his hope in which we abide… to believe his peace that passes our human understanding… and to believe his perfect love that casts out all fear.
Our good news, today and every day and amidst every struggle we face, is that God is with us and loves us… and we know it, we have our proof, because Christ, our Lord and our God, has risen indeed.
I pray that even as these difficult days stretch onward, we’ll each and all open our eyes to the signs of his presence that are all around, finding in his wonders the joy of his countenance and the truth of his love.
And as we do, may our thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN!
© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.