It’s very rare these days that I get to preach. I think the last time was the Sunday after Christmas 2013. This Sunday I was in the happy position of having my work done for the semester and was able to give my priest a Sunday off after Holy Week, a gift that every busy preacher and parish priest welcomes. I wasn’t intending to preach on Thomas from John 20. In fact, I was hoping to avoid him. However, Tom muscled his way into my sermon, which I think was better for it, though this can’t hold a candle to the sermon preached today by a dear friend of mine as he bid farewell to his parish after sixteen years. Go with God, Gene. MP+
Texts for the Second Sunday of Easter (Yr A): Acts 2: 141, 22-33, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31
Preached at St. Columba’s Anglican Church, Waterloo, Ontario
It seems that movies with religious and biblical themes are back in style. Last month there was a big-budget film about Noah’s ark, which I saw and didn’t quite understand. Another film that came out recently was about a little boy who comes back from the dead This film, called Heaven Is For Real, is based on the bestselling book from a few years back by a Christian pastor whose four-year old son survived a near-death medical experience. When the boy wakes up, he describes how he went to heaven, met family members who had died, and sat in God’s lap. I haven’t seen this fil, but it got me to thinking. I started wondering, what if someone told me that they had been to heaven while their body was on the operating table. How would I react? Would I be reassured? Would I be encouraged to persist in my own life of faith? Would I be a better Christian? Or, would I be polite but unconvinced? After all, such a story could be explained any number of ways. I could react sceptically. I could be, well, I could be like Thomas.
Oh, poor Thomas. He has such a bad rap, doesn’t he? In no bible that I know of is he called Doubting Thomas. In John’s gospel he’s simply “Thomas”, or sometimes “Thomas called the Twin” (John 21.2). The poor guy got that name “Doubting Thomas” got added a long time later, and he’s carried that burden for centuries. How would I like that for a moniker, to have all my church friends calling me “Doubting Mike?” I blame preachers for this. How many of you have heard a sermon on this story where you were told “Don’t be like Thomas. Don’t be a doubter”? The preacher would usually go on to say that good Christians should believe in the risen Jesus without needing or demanding proof. This line of thought can be encouraged from Jesus’ words “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (Jn 20.29). It’s tempting to explain this verse as if Jesus is saying that believers, that is, people who can get by on faith alone without wanting proof or certainty, are superior, more “blessed” than are people who have doubts. The problem with this explanation, I think, is that it asks more of us than we can give. My own faith life is also a doubt life. There are times when I just can’t get to a place of serene, untroubled, unquestioning belief. One of my favourite characters in the gospels is the father in Mark who brings his sick son to Jesus. When Jesus tells him that “All things can be done for the one who believes” (Mk 9:23), the man replies, helplessly and honestly, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24). Some of you, I suspect, also feel that way from time to time, wanting God to remove the burden of doubt so that you can believe more easily. What I want to suggest, however, is that the story of Thomas can be read another way, not as a lesson about “Belief Good / Doubt Bad”, but rather as an invitation to relationship with a Jesus who is willing to meet us where we are and start from there.
Can Thomas really be blamed for not believing in the resurrection at first? In his defence, he wasn’t with the other disciples when they first saw the risen Jesus (Jn 20:24). It’s true , he doesn’t believe the others when they tell him that “We have seen the Lord”, but he’s not the only doubter. In Luke’s version of the resurrection story, the disciples don’t believe the women when they tell of the empty tomb and the two mysterious men in “dazzling white clothes”. The disciples in Luke call the women’s story “an idle tale” and Peter has to go see for himself (Lk 24:5-12). So in and of itself, the reaction of doubt and wanting proof seems entirely normal. We can’t just single out Thomas for feeling this way. And then I got to wondering, what went on in Thomas’ head before Jesus returned? He had a while to think about it, a full week. Did Thomas feel envious of his fellow disciples because they had seen Jesus and he hadn’t? Did he wonder if Jesus had judged him? Perhaps he wasn’t good enough to see the risen Jesus? Off course, John doesn’t tell us what Thomas was thinking, but we can imagine what we might have thought had we been in his place. Doubt, after all, isn’t just a lack of belief in God’s existence. Doubt can also be self-doubt, a sense that we aren’t worthy of the love or affection of God. Thomas, like the other disciples, knew that he had made promises to Jesus, even said once that he was willing to die with Jesus (Jn 11:16), and then abandoned him. Perhaps Thomas’ greatest doubt was in doubting that he could be forgiven.
What happens instead is not condemnation or guilt. Jesus doesn’t say to Thomas “Hey, I missed you last week, where were you?” or “So, you heard about me but you didn’t believe it?”. Instead Jesus comes to Thomas, accepts that he doubts, and invites him to believe. One commentator notes that when he responds by saying “My Lord and My God”. Thomas says more about Jesus and who he is than does anyone else in the Gospels. So in fact it’s Thomas who gets it theologically, who understands who Jesus really is, but he also gets it in a very concrete, very relational way. It’s not like one of us accepting the truth of something that seems abstract and hard to understand, like saying “Now I believe in particle physics” or “I accept that there could be life on other planets”. The words “My Lord and My God” show us Thomas getting a bunch of specific things at once: he understands that Jesus is real, he’s who he says is, Lord and God, and that he’s come back from the dead. Thomas may not understand these things fully. He probably doesn’t understand how Jesus came back from the dead, or what it all means for him and everyone else, but in a very real, very solid way, he believes. So what about us?
There’s an old Christmas carol, In Dulci Jubilo, that has the refrain, “Oh that we were there, Oh that we were there”. It’s tempting to think this about the Thomas story, to wish we too could stand there with Thomas before the risen Christ, with all our doubts and failings, to hear that we are loved and forgiven, and to say all the things we wish we could say to him, but really, don’t we get that chance here? John’s gospel tells us that Jesus comes to Thomas and the disciples “A week later” (Jn 20:26). Doesn’t Jesus come here week by week? Don’t we find Jesus in our fellowship, in our prayers, in our worship and sacrament, and in the sense of the Holy Spirit inspires and leads us? Here, as in all other churches where Jesus is worshipped, we gather, with all our doubts and all our shortcomings. Here we gather with the church, in all of its flaws, to learn that the Easter story isn’t over yet. God hasn’t finished with us yet. Like the disciples, we are called to go into the world and “forgive the sins of any” (Jn 20:23). As many commentators note, in John’s gospel the word “sin” means unbelief”. Which means that we who are disciples, all called to lead others from unbelief to belief. Belief doesn’t mean “fanaticism”, or a total state of commitment, free from doubt. Rather, I would say, belief is the sense that while we don’t understand everything about God, we understand that we can know him through his Son, that Jesus is there for us, Our Lord and Our God.
We who call Jesus Our Lord and Our God are called to show this relationship to others who might want it. We don’t have to be doubt free, but we have to live a belief that matters, in our lives, in our families, in our church. We can’t bring others to touch the wounds of Jesus, but we can bring others to see that Jesus has touched the wounds in our lives. We can show others how Jesus has inspired our commitment to God’s kingdom of love and justice. Going back to my original thoughts about films and religion, I think that if someone told me about their vision of heaven, I suspect that I would be sceptical. After all, the Bible doesn’t have a lot to say about heaven, except that it’s a good place. However, the Bible does have a lot to say about Jesus, and if someone told me about Jesus, and if I could see that Jesus made a difference in that person’t life, I think I would be curious. I would want to know more. So, If we can show Jesus to the world by who he is in our lives and in our church life, it will do more good than any ten Hollywood films. It’s not that we can show anyone that “Heaven is for real”, but we can show people that “Jesus is for real” and that he is risen. For the Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.