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Sermon: Believing Thomas

Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on April 27, 2014.

The 2nd Sunday of Easter, Year A (RCL): Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31.

I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The journey to Easter, to that empty tomb and about our risen Lord, is one filled with questions and reconciliation as we follow the narratives which bring us to and through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  These stories provide many examples of what God would have us do and be through the living example of his Son.  We even experience through Jesus the mystery of belief complete with its companions: questioning doubt and ultimate obedience.


     It never fails.  The week following the Passion of Our Lord, his crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection, we come round about to this story of Thomas.  Good old “doubting” Thomas.  Many have suggested Thomas could be the patron saint of most modern day people.  Remember that just last week, Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty and could not imagine Christ risen until he appeared and called her by name.


     It is recorded in scripture that Thomas was a twin.  Was he an identical twin, familiar with mistaken identity?  Thomas may have known how easy it was to be wrong about something, even when we see it with our very own eyes.  Perhaps that explains why he couldn’t accept the disciples’ claims that they, too, along with Mary Magdalene, had seen the risen Lord.  Thomas needed proof.  He wanted to be sure.


     Somehow, Thomas was not there for this supremely important moment.  Where was he?  Was he out getting provisions, less recognizable than the others and better able to go about undetected?  Scripture says nothing other than he was not present that first time Christ appears to his disciples.  When he does arrive and the other disciples tell him what had happened, Thomas could not overcome his sense of loss and doubt.  He had had courage enough to face death with Jesus, but to believe in Christ’s resurrection required even more.  “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.”  The tension of a doubter in the midst of the believing community that had seen the risen Lord continued for a week until Jesus reappeared with Thomas present.


      Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  That would include us, right?  None of us were there that day to walk or run to the tomb, we did not see the angels, nor we did hear Jesus call us by name in the garden.  We were not present with the other disciples who were hiding from the Jewish authorities when Jesus first appeared in the Upper Room.


      When we hear the Gospel, we sometimes identify with characters in these stories.  I know I do.  Are we like Peter, who was overcome by fear when things got tough?  Could we be strong like the women who stayed with Jesus despite the cost?  Maybe.  Perhaps some of us are most like Thomas.  We have our doubts.  We need answers.  We want proof.

 

Many of us seek accuracy in these stories about Jesus so that we can feel assured of the Truth - that proof - that all the witnesses agreed with one another and that this is what happened.  If you’re like me, you want everything in good and proper order, organized in our heads and laid upon our hearts.  Yes, we all seek that nice, neat and tidy bundle that will build up our faith, help us to persevere and believe when we find ourselves in crisis, and that keeps us going forward over the long haul of discipleship.


      What we get from the Gospels are different stories filled with conflicting accounts.  Some see only the tomb left empty with burial linens strewn behind, others see an angel sitting on the stone rolled back or two angels inside the tomb, and more only recognize Jesus after he speaks or when he gives thanks while breaking bread.  Everyone in these stories seems to be caught off guard by the resurrection.  The disciples don’t seem capable of capturing their experiences with any accuracy.  They always seem surprised by Jesus’ appearances.  Even though he tried to tell them many times beforehand, they still seem to struggle with how this resurrection thing works!  Jesus comes to them in their fear, their confusion, and yes, their doubts, and greets them all with “Peace be with you.”  Now we hear, he makes a return visit the next week so Thomas can also experience the resurrection first hand.


      My wife Chrissie introduced me long ago to the works of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.  Caravaggio was an Italian painter in the late 16th-early 17th century who masterfully used shadow and light to create dramatic images.  For those of you who were here the Wednesday of Holy Week for Tenebrae, you remember the effect of diminishing light and growing darkness.


      One such work of Caravaggio is “The Incredulity of Thomas.”  This rendering shows the risen Christ with Thomas and two others.  The composition brings the heads of the four men together, all in close proximity to one another.  Christ has drawn back his robe to expose his chest and right side as he grasps the wrist of Thomas to help guide his finger to the wound from the spear.  “Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”The wide-eyed expression of Thomas is a moment of amazement as he feels the physicality of one now alive who he knew had died on a cross at Golgotha.  “My Lord and my God.”  The other two, with mouths agape and peering intently, are both mesmerized by Thomas’ need to know, and the Lord’s assurance that he, indeed, has risen.  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  This is but one depiction of this encounter, and please note, the Gospel account does not say Thomas actually touched the wounds of Christ.


      Yet, we remember Thomas as ‘doubting.’  I’m not sure that’s fair to Thomas.


       It’s important to remember that Jesus did not come to the disciples in a blaze of glory, surrounded by the heavenly host of angels, or accompanied by trumpet fanfares with pyrotechnic displays of thunder and light.  Instead, our Lord comes quietly, even softly; he catches the disciples unaware, by surprise.


      Jesus appears in that Upper Room with his wounds visible - a wounded Savior coming before his wounded disciples.  He’s not all neat and tidy, for he still bears the scourge marks on his back, the nail marks in his hands and feet, and the spear wound to his side.  Jesus bears the marks of his suffering, for it is those marks which show his humanity.  His resurrected body still shows signs of his becoming incarnate for us and dwelling among us.


      As people, we often struggle to hide our woundedness from one another, fearing that it will be seen as a sign of weakness.  Some times we are in need of care or prayer, something we readily offer others, but when our own needs arise, or prayer is called for, we refrain from asking that for ourselves.  Why is that?  Here is the risen Christ, standing before his disciples then, and before us now, bearing his wounds and coming to meet us to bring us his peace.  “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises, we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)  When our risen Lord appeared to the disciples in the Upper Room, he brought them his peace, he breathed his spirit upon them, and then he commissioned them to live and preach his Gospel of love, forgiveness, and peace.


      In the creation account of Genesis, God molded Adam out of dirt and breathed life into him.  In that Upper Room, Jesus breathes that restoring life of God into fearful, trembling disciples, making them new people and, through them, offering new life to the world.  That we are all here today, in this place, for this reason, to continue celebrating the resurrection of our Lord, attests to the power of the Holy Spirit present in the disciples then, and in the Church throughout the ages.


      Jesus’ return to the Upper Room to appear before Thomas should tell us that doubts do not disqualify us from being Christ’s disciples. Jesus said to Thomas, and says to us now, “Do not doubt, but believe.”  Here Jesus is telling us, “Fear not.”  Theologian and Philosopher Paul Tillich suggested that doubt isn’t the opposite of faith, but rather it is an element of faith.  No, we dare not suggest that doubts disqualify us from discipleship.


      The Gospel of John opens, with the writer proclaiming that, through Jesus, God has brought life and light to the world.  You remember from the great Prologue: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)


      In the death of Jesus on the cross, it appeared that the powers of darkness were stronger than the power of light, that darkness had overcome the light.  Yet through his resurrection, we are shown that the light of Christ still shines.  Jesus commissioned the disciples to continue his work, to spread that light throughout the world.  Their future changed through Christ’s gift of the Holy Spirit.  By our baptism, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and made Christ’s own forever.  We, too, have a new future because of Christ’s triumph over death by rising to new life.  We, like those first disciples, have also been commissioned to spread the light of Christ.


     Verna Dozier, the late DC public school teacher and administrator who became a leading theologian and lay preacher in the Episcopal Church wrote in her book, The Dream of God: A Call To Return, “The opposite of faith is not doubt; it is fear.  Fear will not risk that even if I am wrong, I will trust that if I move today by the light that is given me, knowing it is only finite and partial, I will know more and different things tomorrow that I know today, and I can be open to the new possibility I cannot even imagine today.”


      One week after the baskets have been stowed away, and all the chocolate bunnies, robins eggs, jelly beans and color peeps of Easter have been consumed, we still journey forward as though the resurrection truly does illumine our lives.  Like Thomas, we dare to reach out and embrace the future in faith, believing that the light of Christ will help us make our way in this world.  We seek peace and reconciliation, knowing it is the work of the Holy Trinity and of the Church.  Most of all, we remember that while we may look at ourselves and see only doubting Thomases, God gazes upon us and sees the best in us: Beloved children, faithful friends, spirit-filled partners, engaging in the ongoing work of creation and redemption in this world.


       This story of Thomas isn’t a picture frozen in time in that Upper Room in Jerusalem, even though Caravaggio painted it that way; it is Gospel, that good news which transcends time and place.  If we practice forgiveness, whenever we push aside doubts to do the right thing, wherever we overcome the power of death in its many forms - whether it be hatred, violence or indifference - the spirit of Christ is alive and well in believers, and resurrection life is again expressed in the ‘here and now.’  None of us can ‘prove’ the resurrection, but we point to it whenever we are living signs that the life of Christ has not been extinguished; it continues to be enfleshed in us and in every Christian community.


     So if I leave you with one thought this day, let it be this: There is so much more to Thomas than meets the eye. “Thomas the Believer,” that is.


     Let us pray.


     Ever-living God, who didst strengthen thine apostle Thomas with sure and certain faith in thy Son’s resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in thy sight; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee, and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.