Sunday, April 27, 2014

I'll Have What He's Having--a sermon on "doubting" Thomas

Rev. Teri Peterson
I’ll Have What He’s Having
John 20.19-31
27 April 2014, Easter 2, NL4-34

 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 Jewish leaders, 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.’
 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Poor Thomas.

For centuries he has been labeled in our Bibles and in our psyches as Doubting Thomas. We’ve placed him in the disciple hierarchy somewhere just barely above Judas and just below the disciples whose names we can’t remember—Thaddeus and Bartholomew and what’s-his-name. There are even videos and children’s stories that encourage kids not to be like Thomas. I feel bad for the guy, as he’s endured a centuries-long shaming.

Part of the reason this happens, I think, is that we read this part of the chapter without the first half. Last week we ended the reading at verse 18, where Mary Magdalene goes to the disciples, straight from her conversation with the risen Christ, and says “I have seen the Lord.”

Yet by evening, all of them are locked in a room, huddled together in fear. They didn’t believe her, and they hid themselves away…except Thomas.

Suddenly their locked room has been infiltrated by someone saying “Peace be with you”—still nothing. Then Jesus shows them his hands and his side…and then—and then—the disciples rejoice, for they have seen the Lord.

This is the moment we always forget about when we talk about Thomas—the moment when the other disciples were equally unbelieving until they saw for themselves. And then the moment that truly defines the story: Jesus breathes on them and gives them the Holy Spirit and a commission: to witness to others, to share with their words and their lives that God in Christ lives.

When Thomas returns from who-knows-where, the disciples are still locked in their room, and they say the same thing Mary Magdalene had said: “We have seen the Lord.”

And Thomas does not trust their testimony any more than they had trusted Mary’s. Why should he? They’re still hiding. They can tell all they want, but their actions proclaim a different story. So he says what almost anyone else would say to someone whose actions don’t line up with their words: I’ll believe it when I see it.

All Thomas wants is the same up-close-and-personal moment that the other disciples have had.

Don’t we often do the same? We look at our own lives and then at our neighbors or at people on TV or on Facebook, and we want what they have. Whether it’s talent or fashion or a particular body type or a smiling happy family photo or a vacation or an opportunity, it seems almost human nature to look around and say “I’ll have what she’s having.”

We do it as a group, too. We look at the church down the street or across town, and we want what they have. We can’t understand why they always seem to have enough money, bursting Sunday School rooms, or better media coverage, while we struggle over here.

And every time we read the story of the burning bush, or Paul’s flashing-light-booming-voice conversion, or the transfiguration, we say things like “I wish God would speak so obviously now.” We want what they had.

Yet for voicing that desire, we have painted Thomas with a doubter’s brush, looking down on him for his unbelief.

I have to wonder why we feel the need to do that? Especially when no one else in the story shames Thomas—it’s something we’ve read into the text from our own perspective. John doesn’t tell us what the disciples did during the intervening week—whether they tried to convince Thomas, or whether they sat together wondering and praying and remembering and questioning together. Yet it’s so easy to forget the first part of the story and simply look pityingly at poor doubting Thomas, as if he is beneath us. A week later, when the disciples were still hiding out behind locked doors, Jesus did say “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.” It’s interesting that we hear that as a condemnation of Thomas, rather than as a condemnation of the other disciples, who cannot offer a convincing witness—blessed are those who are part of a community that witnesses to the risen Christ with both word and action. Or if it has to be about Thomas, perhaps it is a reminder that we don’t need what someone else has, what we need is to recognize Christ already with us? After all, it could be a blessing on those who live faithfully who they are, rather than trying to be someone else.

I wonder if our need to look down on Thomas stems from a desire to cover up our own uncertainty? Because we have made belief mean intellectual assent, rather than its true meaning of trust. And once belief became something we did with our minds, it wasn’t long before many of us were locked there, hiding ourselves, afraid someone might discover that we had some questions about faith, about the Bible, the church, Jesus, God, the Spirit, prayer. We’ve made faith mean certainty, even though certainty is the opposite of faith—for certainty leaves no room for mystery, for the unknown, for God. Certainty is about us figuring it all out, and if there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that if we’ve figured it out, it’s not God. Faith includes doubts and questions, but much of the time ours are locked away.

Locks, whether on doors or minds or hearts, are no obstacle for Jesus. Where we thought we had to hide our questions, Jesus comes right in and invites us to come and see. Where we thought we had to be certain, Jesus offers peace instead. Where we have compared ourselves to others, or wished for what others have, Christ enters and offers us what we need in order to be who we are created and called to be. And isn’t that what peace is, on some level? To be who we are made to be, rather than always trying to be something else? On that second visit to the locked room, Jesus gave Thomas exactly what he needed in order to be a witness—and in the process, showed all the disciples yet again what it means to make God visible: to meet people where they are and love them into transformation.

The story doesn’t end with the disciples seeing Jesus and coming to trust. In fact, that’s just the beginning. They were commissioned to both show and tell God’s love and peace and forgiveness, in their actions and their words. So I invite you think of a tangible way that you can let others see God this week, right where they are. What doors can you open, what questions can you make space for, what love can you share? Remember Jesus’ words: blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.
Rather than hearing those as shaming words, try hearing something like:
Blessed are those who are part of a community that witnesses to trust and love and joy in ways that make trust and love and joy possible.
Blessed are those who see God’s miracles around every corner, and blessed are those who are the miracle around the corner.
Blessed are those who ask questions, and blessed are those who resist the temptation to easy answers.
Blessed are those who make Christ visible, and blessed are those who see Christ in every face.
Blessed are those who see the movement of the Spirit, and blessed are those who give hands and feet to the Spirit’s work in the everyday, that all may see and believe.

And remember: we are blessed in order to be a blessing to the world.

May it be so.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this. As someone with many doubts (and someone who finds it hard to trust) I have three favorite moments in the Bible. Doubting Thomas is one, Martha declaring that if Lazarus' tomb were opened "surely there will be a stench," is another, and Peter stepping out of the boat to go to Jesus -- and then sinking -- is the third. In all three, it seems to me, the disciples might be seen as missing something big . . . but Jesus met them where they were and loved them still the same.