April 8, 2018: "Poor Thomas"
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
April 8, 2018: Easter 2
As routinely as we observe Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter, today is the Sunday each year when we sit back, sometimes smugly and say, “Poor Thomas.” The gospel reading for the Sunday after Easter every year is the reading we heard today from the gospel of John. In it, the disciples have locked themselves in the upper room where the Last Supper took place. It is not a few days after Easter or even a week later; it is the night of the first day of the week, the day when Jesus rose from the tomb. The disciples were afraid—they were afraid of the crowds that had put Jesus to death; they were afraid that the tomb was empty; they were afraid to believe what the women had told them. Into that fear, Jesus appears and offers them a sign of peace. Then Jesus breaths on them the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Thomas, John says, was not with the disciples when Jesus appeared. Naturally, Thomas will not take the disciples at their word. Thomas is also afraid—he is afraid of the crowds that had put Jesus to death; he is afraid that the tomb is empty; he is afraid to believe what his eyes have not seen. A week later, when the doors were still locked and the disciples were still afraid, Jesus appears again. This time Thomas is in the room. Jesus offers the disciples a sign of peace, then he invites Thomas to touch his hands and feel his side. “Do not doubt but believe,” Jesus says to Thomas. Thomas is so overwhelmed that he utters the most concise and accurate confession of Christian faith: “My Lord and my God!” Unfortunately, though, the church of Jesus Christ doesn’t remember Thomas for his confession. Instead, we remember him as the doubter, Poor Thomas, the weak one who couldn’t believe unless he had seen and touched.
I’ve never appreciated preachers or Christians who put Thomas down for his doubts, mostly because I am Thomas a lot of the time. I have doubts about faith and life and God and the mystery of the universe and about the whole Jesus rising from the dead thing. Alfred Lord Tennyson once said that, “There is more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds of the Church.” Theologian Frederick Beuchner famously said, “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” Thomas’ nickname in the Gospels was “Didymus,” which means ‘twin,’ and I feel like he could be my twin, and maybe he could be yours, too. When we hound Thomas for his doubts, we’re actually picking on ourselves and one another for someone that is so completely common.
The thing with Thomas is that he didn’t ask for any more evidence of resurrection than the other friends of Jesus had already been given. Thomas wasn’t with the disciples when they saw Jesus—they saw Jesus, and Thomas didn’t, so Thomas simply asks to have the same experience the others had. We don’t know why Thomas wasn’t in the room; some have suggested that he was out doing Jesus things instead of hiding in a room. The other disciples saw and heard Jesus before Thomas did, and try as they might to convince Thomas that Jesus has been raised from the dead, Thomas wanted to see for himself. He wasn’t asking for anything that hadn’t already happened, but now all these generations later he is still paying a terrible price. If you don’t at least has a few doubts or hesitations about the bodily resurrection of Jesus, I’m not sure you’ve thought about it hard enough. It isn’t a matter of faithlessness or weakness or ego; wanting to see and touch and hear is about as human as we can get.
Of course, a week later Thomas got what he asked for. Jesus came and Thomas was able to touch and see and confess. This is where our twinning with Thomas starts to fade a little, though. Jesus says to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” And that’s really tough, especially for you and me here today. While we might have the same doubts and hesitations and reservations as Thomas, I don’t know about you, but Jesus hasn’t appeared near me in a locked room lately. Sure, Jesus is present with us at all times by the power of the Holy Spirit—there is no doubt about that. But I haven’t literally touched his hands or put my hand in his side…have you? That means that if you and I are going to believe, we’ll have to do so without seeing Jesus.
So let’s put the Doubting Thomas thing away for now—actually, let’s put it away for good. It is a lazy reading of the Biblical text and doesn’t really offer any concrete instruction on how we should live now that the tomb is empty. Instead, let’s mediate on this question: If we are not going to see Jesus with our own eyes and hear Jesus with our own ears, is there any evidence at all on which we can base our faith?
It seems simple, but the answer to that question is the church. The more I read the New Testament, and the more time I spend thinking about our life together and the life of Christ’s people throughout the world, that is where I land. The life of the church is to be a witness to the resurrection, evidence to the world that Jesus Christ is alive in the here and now. The church is the wounded hands and pierced side of Jesus, waiting for the touch of the unsure. The early church leapt into existence when those first disciples realized they had an unbroken and unbreakable connection to Jesus Christ. Enlivened and emboldened by that connection, they lived in their world with such passion and compassion, such love and grace, such generosity and power, that the only plausible explanation for their life together was the presence and power of the risen Jesus. That early community of Christians lived in such a counter-cultural way, in such a strange and nonsensical way, they were either crazy or they had Jesus…and we know they weren’t crazy.
Listen to this narrative from the book of Acts, the chronicle of the early church: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Strange, compassionate, passionate, nonsensical, graceful, generous, powerful—all these describe the early church of Jesus.
You don’t read many articles like that about the church today, do you? I hear a lot about how the traditional church is dying and the prosperity church is growing. I hear a lot about what the church hates, about who the church hates. I hear a lot about celebrity pastors, as if Jesus said, “Grab your best-seller and go on tour with me.” You know what the difference is? You know what the difference is between the early church and the church today? The early church knew what it was about. The early church didn’t have time for image or marketing or branding; they didn’t spend all their time and money trying new gimmicks to fill the pews; they didn’t hire and fire preachers based on worship attendance. The Gospel was life and death to them, and they knew that if anything got in the way of that Gospel reaching the world, Jesus would have died and risen again for nothing. The early church knew that the impact of the Gospel, the very essence of the good news of Jesus, depended on them living together in harmony, with generosity and gladness and compassion and joy—they knew they were the only resurrected Jesus most of the world would ever meet.
It wasn’t a perfect, though. It was no less human and flawed than this church right here today. It numbered among its leaders a denying Peter, a competitive John, an ambitious James, and, yes, even a doubting Thomas. The book of Acts tells us honestly that Jesus’ followers were often embroiled in conflict and embittered by controversy. In that fellowship you could hear the noise of disagreement and discord just as often as you could hear the notes of the community’s favorite hymn. But if that oh-so-human and imperfect bunch could rise with Jesus above its own pettiness to be an Easter church, then maybe there is hope for the Church of Jesus Christ today. Maybe we, too, can gather together, break the bread, tell our stories, sing our songs, pray our prayers, bear witness to the good news, care for those in need, work for peace, struggle for justice, and discover yet again that Jesus is truly alive among us. Maybe if we recommit to the basic practices of being the church, the body of Christ, there will be something to for us to touch and see when we reach out for the risen Lord.
When doubt creeps in, my friends, and it will, don’t run and hide; don’t lock yourself away in a room, don’t lash out against your brothers and sisters, don’t give up and don’t walk out. Don’t say, “Poor Me." Open your eyes—open your hearts. When I am tempted to doubt the Easter message or the good news of the Gospel, when I’m tempted to pack it up and head out, I call to mind your faces, the faces of God’s faithful people. You are the best sign of resurrection I could ever hope for. When musicians rehearse long hours to lead and lift us to the praise of God, it is a sign of the resurrection. When flowers grace our worship space on Sunday morning, then are gathered on Monday morning and taken to those who can no longer attend worship, it is a sign of the resurrection. When members of this fellowship spend their Saturday morning feeding the hungry of our community, or their Tuesday night preparing for tutoring, or their Wednesday night teaching our youth, it is a sign of the resurrection.
When a quiet word is spoken to someone in pain, when Jesus’ people pray for peace then do something about it, it is a sign of the resurrection. When we celebrate our storied past, but never let it confine us, it is a sign of the resurrection. When we give up lamenting what could have been and celebrate who God is, it is a sign of resurrection. When people laugh and cry together over the joys and disappointments of their lives, when death is faced honestly and hopefully, when grace and mercy and not condemnation and harshness govern our relationships, when the church opens its heart and its doors to whoever comes yearning for the love of God, excluding no one, it is a sign of the resurrection. When we get real with each other and put to rest the posturing and pretension and pretending, it is a sign of the resurrection. Sounds good, right? Well, I’ve seen it happen—I’ve seen you, yes you, do each one of these. And because you have and because you will continue to do so, I am convinced that Jesus is alive. I won’t be the last one either; we’ll stick to this work, we’ll continue with passion and compassion, and every Thomas in here and out there will know for sure that He is risen.
Over and over again, by God’s great grace, the simple and ordinary practices of the church are the means by which Jesus becomes real to us and to the world. There is room for Thomas in the church of Jesus Christ and that means there is room for all his twins who sit in the pews today. There is also plenty of room for Jesus’ followers who want to show the wounded hands and side of their savior to a world so desperate for a glimmer of hope. So I’ll say to you today the same thing I said to you last Sunday: He is risen! Now lets go and live like it. Amen.