Sympathy for Thomas
Acts 5:27-32; John 20:19-31
Good morning! Where is everyone? Everyone seemed to love worship last Sunday, so I was thinking they’d all come back. Right? What’s that? I need to have realistic expectations? Okay. Let me start working on that.
All kidding aside, wasn’t last Sunday great? We had close to 200 people in worship last Sunday. I’m not saying that to bask in the glory or get cheap applause or laughs. But last Sunday was a great reminder of what worship feels like when this place is full of people and full of joy and full of the Spirit. That’s what it feels like: love and joy.
Those feelings of love and joy are contagious—they spread easily around the sanctuary. Yet we have a very large sanctuary. Transmitting those feelings is a bigger challenge when we only have 60 or 70 in worship. It still happens, but it isn’t always as apparent as it was last Sunday.
My challenge to you is to make that happen again. I want to see you bring people into this place. I want to see 150 or 200 people in worship again, and not just on Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday. I know that you all hope that I will draw new people into this congregation—that your new pastor will be so charismatic and engaging that people will flock to this church. But the truth is, most of our extra guests were there because you folks invited them.
It’s going to be you folks who bring us back to the point of having 100 or 150 or 200 people in worship.
You look skeptical.
Are you all a bunch of doubting Thomases?
Speaking of Thomas….
In this morning’s reading from the Gospel of John, the risen Christ visits the disciples. They’re huddled together in a locked room; they fear reprisals from the religious authorities or angry mobs. And then Jesus enters into the room and takes away all of their fears. Everyone except Thomas, that is. Thomas had the misfortune of being away when Jesus returned.
Honestly, I think Thomas gets a bad rap. The name “doubting Thomas” doesn’t appear in the text of this story; it doesn’t appear anywhere in the Gospel of John. Some of the Fathers of the Early Church are probably responsible for this nickname, or at least the perception of Thomas as being full of doubt. Medieval and Renaissance artists ran with this theme. There are dozens of famous paintings of Thomas examining or touching Jesus’ wounds; most of these images are titled, The Incredulity of Thomas. They are practically calling Thomas an unbeliever.
And it’s not fair. It’s not fair to Thomas and it’s not fair to the text of this story. All Thomas wants is the same experience as the other disciples. They all got to see Jesus, in the flesh. They all got to see the wounds in his hands and on his side. He wants the direct experience of the risen Christ, just like all the other disciples. That’s not unbelief; that’s equality. Thomas wants to be made whole in the same way that the other disciples were made whole; in the same way that their fears were relieved.
Yet we hear this story with over a thousand years of the tradition of “doubting Thomas.” We can’t unhear that nickname. At the core of this problem is the word, belief. When we hear that word, we interpret it as an intellectual or cognitive function. That is, believing is something that we do in our brains. But in the Gospel of John, belief is a category of relationship.
I think of the Gospel of John as the gospel of relationship. In Jesus, the disciples had a direct relationship with God, in the flesh. Through Jesus, God could be known and seen and touched; God is made known to humanity through this physical presence. The disciples had a direct experience of God’s love, as they traveled the Judean countryside, watching Jesus perform healings and other signs of the inbreaking of the kingdom of God.
Then, after the last supper, he tells the disciples that he is going away. This occurs in chapters 13 and 14 of John’s Gospel, and it really helps to round out the picture of Thomas. Jesus knows that he’ll be leaving the disciples and that they will have to carry on his work in the world. They’re upset, so he tells them:
1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14:1-4)
The disciples don’t quite understand what Jesus is saying. But, how can they? They haven’t yet seen Jesus die, and then rise from the dead. Of course, they can’t understand this! Not yet. And this may be another reason why Thomas gets a bad rap, as he expresses the doubts of all the disciples—really, of all of us, too:
5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:5-7)
The disciples can’t possibly understand this until they see Jesus arrested and crucified. They can’t possibly understand this until they are visited by the risen Christ. And Thomas needs the same proof that was offered to the other disciples.
When Jesus offers Thomas the opportunity to examine and touch his wounds, Thomas exclaims, “My Lord and My God!” This is a confession, a declaration of faith. This isn’t an intellectual faith, it’s an embodied faith. It’s a faith in the real presence of the human Jesus, the Word of God, made flesh.
To put it another way, in chapter 14, Thomas asks a necessary question, “How can we know the way?” This prompts Jesus to proclaim: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Jesus is speaking directly into the disciples’ doubts and fears. In this morning’s reading, Thomas’s confession, “My Lord and my God!” breaks the cycle of doubt. After this, the disciples can carry on Christ’s work.
This raises another problem. The disciples need to communicate this new reality—that Jesus Christ has died and risen so that our sins may be forgiven and all of us may be united with God the Father. And they need to communicate this to a world full of people who did not see or did not fully believe in the human Jesus during Jesus’ lifetime. Then they’re going to have spread this message in the absence of the human Jesus. And then they’re also going to have to train a corps of believers—who never had a direct relationship with the human Jesus—to spread the Word to the rest of the world.
That seems like an impossible task. How could they convey the reality of the human Jesus, the healings, the feedings, the signs, to generations of followers who never met or saw Jesus? They didn’t persuade new believers through logic or through great sermons. They demonstrated the truth of the risen Christ by practicing love and relationship. And it worked. The fact that we’re here today is a testament to the practice of relationship, and how the Early Church got it right!
That’s why I’m challenging you folks to bring in more people, so that every Sunday is as full as Easter Sunday. I know that sounds like an impossible task. But I’m sure we can do this. I think you know the way. Perhaps you want to ask, as Thomas did, “Pastor, how can we know the way.”
Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life. We can communicate that intellectually and relationally. We can do that by loving the whole world and building human relationships with people outside of our walls. By the way, I am not accusing any of you of having a lack of love. This congregation is loving and committed to mission. That’s why I accepted your call to ministry.
I’m simply challenging you to channel this love by inviting others into relationship, and then into this space. That might require you to step outside of your comfort zone a little bit. What does this look like? Maybe it’s cultivating deeper relationships with people you already know, and then having conversations about faith. Or maybe it’s putting yourself in places to meet new people, which could happen through professional networks, social networks, or even mission work. Listen to the stories you hear, and when you’re invited, share your stories. Practice love and practice relationship.
In our broken and hurting world, relationship is the way forward, the way out of pain, fear, and anxiety. This is what the Church can offer; this is what Jesus offers to everyone. We can remind people of that. In the process, we can help to ease the anxieties of those we meet and welcome into the fold. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are an Easter people. We are called to be Christ’s church in the world, the world today. We are called to live in the light of Easter morning! We are called to love one another; to act with justice and mercy; to walk humbly with God. So, go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!