The Faith of Thomas – Lectionary 04/28/2019

John 20:19-29

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Sermon Text

Poor, Thomas. We don’t know why he wasn’t with the other disciples the week before he saw Jesus, but he missed the first appearance of the Resurrected Lord. He came home, no doubt from a long day’s walking and the first thing he hears is the other disciple’s story. “Jesus walked right through a locked door and talked to us! He’s back, and he gave us all God’s spirit!”.

Can we really blame Thomas for questioning that? Imagine if you came home to a spouse or roommate saying someone you saw die had come over for dinner. Thomas responds, fairly reasonably, “I’ll believe it when I see it. No, no, because you guys could just dress someone up like Jesus, I want to see the scars in his hand!”

A week later. Jesus finally appears in front of Thomas, and Thomas does not even wait for Jesus to hold out his hands. As soon as Jesus walks up to him, he is ready to declare his faith. And then what Jesus says what we usually see as the take away of this story, “Blessed are those who believe without seeing.”

If we let ourselves, we can look back at Thomas and shake our heads. We can look him in the eye and waggle our fingers saying, “For shame!” Or maybe, we can be a bit more graceful. Not only can we be graceful, but if we are a little honest, a little vulnerable, I think we might see a bit more of Thomas in our life than we are at first willing to admit.

Thomas was among the disciples who, following Jesus’ death, scattered, and it is hard to tell how far away he went. We know that the disciples made their way to Galilee after the Resurrection, but we can imagine some of them may have taken longer than others. For many of the Disciples, coming to Galilee meant going home, but as for Thomas, we are never told where he came from. He’s listed with Matthew the tax collector, and given his Greek name, it certainly seems like he was not from the same region as the other disciples. Thomas may have gone the long way back to Galilee, maybe to visit home, maybe just to think.

We do not know much about Thomas: where he was born or who his twin was, but we are told a few things about him. The first thing is that Thomas was devoted to Jesus like none of the other disciples. When Jesus was going to raise Lazarus it is implied that some of the disciples were afraid Jesus going so close to Jerusalem would be dangerous. Before anyone could really object though, Thomas stood up and said, “Let us go with him, so that we can die with him.” Thomas was willing to die for Jesus, even early into their ministry.

Thomas was also willing to risk asking questions that would open him up to ridicule, vulnerable questions that were honest about where he was and what he knew. It isn’t hard to think of those times when we in the church hear a sermon preached, read a book, or sit in a bible study, and we hear something we don’t understand and sit there quietly in case we seem like we don’t “get it” as well as the other people in the room. Thomas did not seem to have this fear though, and when Jesus said, “You know where I’m going,” only Thomas was willing to stand up and say, “No we don’t!” Imagine if half of us were so willing to openly question what happens in our life.

I can only think of a handful of times in which I have seen such a willingness to risk looking silly to get to a deeper truth. Sitting in a class just last week, a professor of mine looked out at us all, and quoted the book we had been reading, “God’s coming, bears the impress no longer of Christ’s struggle but of his kingdom, but by a tarrying and abiding in the felicitous moment.” The professor, having read this text, looked out at us, his eyes full of some sort of transcendent happiness. There was a moment of silence, every student waiting for his explanation, and then he opened his mouth and said, “I have no idea what that means.”

Such honesty from someone of authority! That was the sort of thing that we see in Thomas. We are given such little information about Thomas, but every time he appears, he is presented as someone willing to follow Christ to the end, someone who was willing to ask any question he could to understand what Jesus was really getting at. Why do we always hear Thomas talked about so negatively? Why do we look to him as the worst disciple we could ever embody… Well, the second worst.

There was a move within the latter half of the first millennia to make the Bible a bit more palatable. The disciple’s mistakes were made into spiritual lessons or else into lessons in how not to live. It was in this time where Peter’s sinking on the waves went from a testimony of God’s ability to save us to one of our inability to believe. We take the work of God and make it about us. It is this self-centered thinking that makes a story like Thomas’ doubt into a story about Thomas and not about Jesus.

If we read the story as it was meant to be read, we do not see a story about how a disciple failed to acknowledge Jesus, but a story about how quick Jesus was to accommodate someone who was pursuing him. We see in this story that Jesus came to the disciples when Thomas wasn’t there. Thomas showed up later, and when everyone said, “Jesus was here! He really is risen, he showed us the wounds in his hands, the wound in his side.” Imagine you’re Thomas, having walked miles and miles to meet the disciples and they tell you this. Thomas, never afraid of what other people would think about him says quite reasonably, “You all got to see him! I want to see him too! I’m not about to just believe something like this.”

If Jesus really thought that this was an unreasonable request, then he wouldn’t have come back. He would have done his appearances to Peter and the select others he appeared to before he ascended, and that would have been it. Yet, a week later Jesus walked into the room and showed Thomas exactly what he asked for. Thomas was not being unreasonable in his request; he was just asking for the same thing which the disciples had received.

Jesus does say though, “Blessed are those who have not seen but still believe.” What is important about this statement is that Jesus places it as something which happens, not something which we make happen. He is saying, “It is good if you can believe without evidence, better even!” He does not, in saying that it is better to have this, say that Thomas has bad faith.

If we are honest, most of us have a faith like Thomas’. We did not come into the faith purely because someone told us and we believed them. For many of us, something special happened that made us believe in God, believe that Christ really was raised from the dead. Sometimes that was a grandparent who really knew what it was to love, other times it was someone coming to us in our time of need and doing God’s work with us. Whatever it took for us to have that moment, that realization that made us cry out, “My Lord and my God!” That is the moment that Jesus came back to see us, the moment Jesus held out his hands to show us it really was him.

That is one of God’s infinite shows of grace to us. That when we pray to God for a sign that God is still there and still looking out for us, God is ready to give it to us. It may not be the sign we asked for, but it will be there. For Thomas, he asked to touch Jesus’ hands, but in the moment Jesus appeared he only needed to see it. Jonah wanted God to show in fire to his enemies and shade for himself, but God showed up as mercy for Ninevah and a burning hot day for Jonah. At all times and all places, God is ready to show up and make the presence of Christ in our life known to us.

This is not to diminish the moments we feel God as far away. Thomas had to wait a week, but for many of us, God seems to disappear for months, maybe even years. Mother Theresa was known to say that God only spoke to her a handful of times, most of her life was silence. We must not rush people to see God, because, at the end of the day, it is God who moves toward us – not us toward God. We can make ourselves available, we can hold onto our trust that God is there whether we feel it or not, but it is God who will walk through the door and show us what we need to see.

The duty then becomes, for any among us who feel Christ is working in their life. To be that appearance of God for others. We are told that we are the body of Christ, and if we really believe that then we are given the ability to be the presence of Christ in the lives of those who need it. It is one thing to stand on a high hill, to look at those who are struggling to believe, or are in a time of mourning and shout down to them, “Blessed are those who believe without seeing.” It is something else entirely to go down into the pit with them. If we who now claim to be Christians are not comfortable with sharing the pain of others, with appearing as Christ did to them and loving them as Christ did – then we are no Christians.

To have a faith like Thomas is to be open and honest about our doubt, about our feelings of absence. It is to acknowledge that faith is not just the summits of joy and celebration, but the solemn worship we offer in the midst of our deepest sorrow. It is also a willingness to approach those in pain, and rather than patronizing them or condescending to them, to offer them a love that says, “I know what it is to doubt. Let me sit with you, let me know if you need anything.” That sort of presence is divine, that sort of presence is what Thomas went on to do.

Thomas went further than any disciple, founding churches in the Indus Valley of what is now Pakistan and moving South into India. This church exists today, it still continues to praise God, and it owes its existence to a disciple who had doubts, who wasn’t afraid to make them known. It also was born of a God who was willing to answer those doubts, to bridge those gaps. Let us always strive to be honest in our doubts, and radical in our love, making Christ known to the world no matter which of the two we do. – Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

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