Sunday, April 23, 2017

Way to Go, Thomas!

Second Sunday of Easter
John 20.19-31
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

I often start off sermons for the Sunday after Easter – for which the Gospel reading is always the story of Jesus’ appearance to Thomas – with some statement like “poor Thomas. He always gets a bad rap.” But not this year. Instead, I say, “Way to go, Thomas!”

Now sure, when, on the evening of Easter, of Jesus’ resurrection, he appears to all the disciples except for Thomas, and when the disciples later tell Thomas of their encounter, Thomas famously responds, “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” (Jn 20.25b). A comment that has forever labeled him as “Doubting Thomas.” But casting this in a less than positive light is neither fair to Thomas nor particularly helpful for us. If anything, Thomas is to be applauded. After all, he is merely being honest.

To be clear, Thomas did not refuse to believe what the other disciples told him. He merely wanted some additional proof. After all, there had never been a bodily resurrection before. This was completely beyond any human experience or comprehension. Before blindly accepting something so improbable, so extraordinary, so fantastical, he wanted a little more to go on. Today, we would not call that “doubt,” but rather “due diligence.”

And to be fair to our friend Thomas, he is not asking for anything more than what the other disciples already had – first-hand experience of the Risen Christ. What we tend to forget is that the ten disciples were not quite sure of what was going on when Christ came to them. Remember, they were locked up in a room, cowering in fear. Fear for their own lives. And then Christ appears before them. He first says “Peace be with you.” There does not seem to be any immediate reaction or recognition on the part of the disciples. I mean, how many times had he said those words to them before? And they knew he was resurrected. Mary Magdalene had come to them that morning and proclaimed, “I have seen the Lord” (Jn 20.18). But even with all this, they did not know what was happening. We are told that only after he showed them his hands and his side, did they recognize him and rejoice. See? They needed the proof of seeing Christ’s wounds, the marks of his crucifixion, before they were able to recognize him. Before they were able to accept that he was there before them in resurrected glory.

Thomas does ultimately receive what he asks, what the others had already received. A week later, the Risen Christ again appears to the disciples, and this time Thomas is there. Jesus has come back specifically to see Thomas. To give Thomas what he wants. Proof. After greeting them all, Jesus turns his attention to Thomas and says, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe” (Jn 20.27). Thomas doesn’t need to touch the wounds, as Jesus invites him. He merely needs to see them. His questions are answered. His doubt turns to belief. And in his joy, he exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20.28). Thomas’ disbelief is immediately turned into a profound declaration of faith. “My Lord and my God!”

One of my favorite quotes is attributed to an unnamed English monk: “The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.” When we are absolutely certain, when we know without a shadow of a doubt, we confine our beliefs to a box. When we do that, we do not leave room for the mystery that is God to break through into our lives in the many, varied, and unexpected ways that God choses to make himself know. When we think we have all the answers, when we think we have it all figured out, we do not leave room for mystery. We do not allow room for true faith to happen. On this subject, Peter Abelard, described by Chambers Biographical Dictionary as "the keenest thinker and boldest theologian of the 12th century," observed: “By doubting we come to inquiry, by inquiry we come to truth.”

The truth that is being proclaimed in the first and second resurrection appearances to the disciples – the real truth that is the subject of today’s Gospel lesson – is the abiding persistence and presence of the resurrected Christ. Jesus did not dismiss Thomas because he questioned. He came to him in his questioning, revealing himself to him precisely because of his questioning. In this, Thomas is the archetype of us all. For if there is one disciple, if there is one person in all the Bible, who most exemplifies us average, everyday Christians, it is Thomas. We are naturally inquisitive beings. Particularly when it comes to the unseen, the mysterious, the holy. We question. We doubt. To this, David Bartlett, an American Baptist minister and professor at Yale Divinity School, notes that the line between faith and doubt runs right through the middle of the sanctuary. We all question and doubt at one time or another.

Thomas shows us that it’s okay to question when it comes to matters of faith and spirituality. The honest, heartfelt questioning of Thomas gives us the courage to persist in our own lives of faith, even when – perhaps especially when – we have questions and doubts. And as Abelard notes, this is what brings us to truth. To the truth of Christ’s abiding presence in our own lives. This is what our Gospel reading is really getting at. It is really about the truth of Christ’s continued presence in the lives of the disciples. And about perseverance in making that presence know. There’s no denying that the resurrection is – or at least the post-resurrection appearances are – in part about Jesus’ desire for ongoing presence in the lives of those who follow him. Not even death could keep him from this!

The post-resurrection appearances themselves particularly emphasize Christ’s focus on relationship and presence. We see in today’s Gospel account that Jesus meets the disciples where they are – fearful, behind locked doors. He meets them in those situations in which they most need him. When they are most in need of assurance of his continued presence in their lives. While we are assured that he is always with us, this particular encounter emphasizes the fact that Jesus especially meets us when we are fearful, when we lock ourselves off from the world. Even our best defense mechanisms – psychological or physical – cannot keep him away when from us.

And then seven days later, Jesus came and stood with Thomas, even when he could not rejoice with the other disciples. When his grief at the loss of his dear friend and master would not allow him to even entertain the notion that Jesus had returned from death. When his grief would not allow even the hope. When his questioning got in the way. Jesus came to him anyway.

This is the message that our Gospel conveys about the reality of the resurrection. It is not just about salvation and new life. It is about continued and abiding relationship with Christ. He just keeps appearing, again and again, to break down the barriers that separate us from him. The barrier between fear and the ability to rejoice in his presence. The barrier between life and death. The barrier between the past and the future. Even the barrier between doubt and belief. Jesus continually comes and stands with us in the midst of whatever we face. We may not always recognize it, just as the disciples did not initially recognize Jesus. But he is there, present among us, persevering in making his loving presence known.

Christ’s ongoing presence transcends his resurrection appearances to the disciples. For us, living post-resurrection and post-ascension, Christ no longer appears to us in a physical, bodily form. Yet, his presence continues to be felt in our lives through his Spirit.

At the moment of Jesus’ death, we are told “he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (Jn 19.30). In his first encounter with the disciples after his resurrection, Jesus gives that same spirit to them. The disciples are empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry out the mission given them by Jesus at this first post-resurrection meeting – “as the Father has sent me, so I send you” – sending them out to proclaim God’s unbounded love, particularly as exemplified in the resurrection. This is intended as a model for Christian community. That the Church is empowered by the Holy Spirit and sent out as Jesus himself was sent by the Father, to be an abiding presence of God’s love through Christ. To be a presence standing in the midst of the hurts and the fears of the world. To be a presence standing in the midst of questioning and doubts. To reveal Christ to the world, as the one who dispels the hurts and fears, questions and doubts.

Jesus concludes today’s round of post-resurrection appearances by saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (Jn 20.29b). He declares the blessedness of those who come to faith through the witness of others without the need for physical proof. This is not meant as a chastisement of Thomas. Rather it is an affirmation that the generations to come—and that would be us—must rely not on physical proof, but on the words of scripture and the testimony of others who have encountered the Risen Christ in their own lives. Including the testimony of those who question and doubt. Like Thomas.

And others will rely on our own testimonies and come to believe through us. As Brother Mark Brown of the Society of St. John the Evangelist eloquently notes, “The resurrection appearances continue in us—we’re the risen body of Christ. Each of us, in a sense, and in a very flawed way, is a resurrection appearance. The story continues—there is no ending to the gospel, because resurrection continues in us.”

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