2nd Sunday of Easter — 3 April 2016
Christ Church, Burlington – 10:00 am
Acts 5:27-32 | Psalm 118:14-29 | Revelation 1:4-8 | John 20:19-31
But Thomas...was not with them when Jesus came...[And] he said to them, "Unless I... put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."
“Doubting Thomas” has become a household word, something of the “patron saint of skepticism.” Today, as this Gospel reading from St. John is proclaimed in the Church all over the world, as it has been on this Sunday for hundreds and hundreds of years, innumerable sermons are being preached on Doubt and Faith - some saying, I suppose, that doubt is a dreadfully wicked thing; others that doubt can be healthy, that we must not fear to be honest about our doubts and to explore them relentlessly, that we may come to a deeper faith. If you’re expecting the first kind of sermon today, that doubt is a dreadfully wicked thing, then you’ve engaged the wrong supply priest; in fact, you’ve probably come to the wrong church; truth to tell, you’re a member of the wrong species and you’re living in the wrong universe! On the other hand, if you’re expecting the second kind of sermon, about doubts being a potentially constructive moment in the deepening of our faith, that’s a lot better, but that isn’t the sermon you’re going to get this morning!
Because it's always seemed to me that poor old “doubting Thomas” is getting a bum rap.
Let's go back in the story a little bit. Shortly before his last journey up to Jerusalem, Jesus heard of the illness of his friend Lazarus of Bethany. You remember the story. Jesus said, “Let’s go up to Judea again.” (They were down in the Jordan valley at the time.) The disciples began to moan and whine: “Master, the last time you were up at Jerusalem you laid all that ‘good shepherd’ stuff on them and they got so mad they tried to stone you to death for blasphemy! You want to go back up there again so soon?” It was Thomas who said to his fellow disciples, “We're going with him, even if it means we have to die with him!” Whatever we say about Thomas, we can’t say that he wasn’t a man of loyalty, of bravery, of faithful commitment. Not, I think, a skeptic by temperament.
Now, we know the whole story of the cross and the resurrection. And so we are perhaps not quite so sensitive to what must really have been going on the minds of Jesus’ followers in the aftermath of their leader’s execution. To them, the crucifixion of Jesus was a total disaster, utterly devastating to them. All their expectations about the Kingdom of God which had been raised so high by all the truth Jesus spoke and the signs Jesus did, the power of his personality as the One who himself embodied the Reign of God – all these hopes are completely dashed, their expectations collapsed. This man whom they had followed as God’s Messiah, God’s Chosen One, the Son of Man whom God would send to intervene on behalf of the Kingdom of Heaven, has now died as one accursed, abandoned by God. They must have been immobilized. Their entire world had come crashing down in ruins around them. Their master and teacher and dearest friend – the one who had given meaning to their lives and color to their world as no one else ever had – had turned out to be either a fraud or a fool, either the perpetrator or else the pathetic victim of a viciously cruel hoax. It was all an illusion. He hadn’t been the Messiah after all. He had died alone, forsaken by the God whom he claimed as his Father. It was all over. Everything was all over.
And perhaps Thomas as much as any of them – loyal Thomas, brave Thomas, Thomas-who-was-willing-to-go-and-die-with-him (but who at the last had run away, of course, like all the others) - this Thomas felt bitterly the devastation of his hopes and dreams, the desolation of the failure and fall and death of the one he had loved and called Master and Teacher.
And now they come to him with this cockamamie story about seeing Jesus alive again? No! No! Do not do this! Do not do this to me! Do not do this to yourselves! What do you think we are made of? Are my hopes and dreams your toy, that you can spin up and down like a yo-yo, that you can bounce like a ball? Do not bring me this story! I will not set myself up again. I will not risk myself like that again. I will not believe – not unless I can see him myself, not unless I can touch those his dreadful wounds....
Thomas’ problem, it seems to me, is not so much that he is a skeptic who doubts what God can do, as it is that his heart is not quite big enough to accept what God will do. It’s very easy and very fashionable to question whether people are really raised from the dead. It’s hardly an everyday occurrence in this day and age. It was hardly an everyday occurrence in the first century, either, and the disciples weren’t simpletons, after all. But is all that really the issue for us in our lack of faith? I wonder if we aren’t really very much like poor old “doubting Thomas” – but, like Thomas, it’s not any skeptical narrowness of mind but our untrusting narrowness of heart that’s the real issue. Is the Resurrection of Jesus too incredible to be true? Or it is really that the Resurrection is too good to be true? We won’t accept it because we won’t believe that God cares about us and values us enough to go to such amazing lengths in order to restore us to the fullness of life. We will not believe that we are really worth all that.
For if God raised Jesus from the dead, that means God can and will raise you and me from the dead, and he’ll start right now. If Jesus is really raised, then newness of life for us is not just pious prattle easily dismissed, but a genuine possibility for my future, and yours – the Reign of God is true and real and we can live in it! And that’s a hard thing to deal with, and it’s a lot easier for us to cop out by pretending an intellectual skepticism. It’s a lot easier just to try to keep Jesus in the tomb.
But of course Jesus won’t stay in the tomb. Even when we lock the doors, Jesus still comes into our midst. Jesus still comes, saying “Peace be with you” – the true peace of new and eternal life, the shalom of the Reign of God. Jesus comes to us. Jesus comes now. Our minds are open enough to recognize that God can do this, but are our hearts open enough to accept that God will do this? Are our hearts open enough to accept the gift of life from the risen Jesus, our Lord and our God?