Sermon preached for the Third Sunday of Easter at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”
But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”
After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”
Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.
Our scripture this morning picks up right where last week’s left off, but it’s been a minute, so let’s recap.
The Story So Far: On Easter morning, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body, and instead finds the tomb empty but a strange gardener hanging around the place. This gardener calls him by name and she recognizes Jesus, risen from the grave. He tells her to go and share the good news, and she runs to the disciples, saying,I have seen the Lord!
And the disciples… do nothing. I mean, we don’t actually get their reaction in the Bible, but come nightfall they’re still all locked away in an upper room, so it’s not like they’ve believed Mary and rejoiced or even gone to investigate for themselves. They haven’t believed, and I can’t entirely blame them. It’s a pretty crazy idea, that death isn’t permanent.
But then Jesus shows up in person, and says “Peace be with you.” That’s the bit we read last week. Jesus shows up, where they can hear him and see him and feel his breath, and that’s when the disciples rejoice. That’s when they believe.
Except one of the disciples missed the moment. Thomas was out, that Easter evening, and we don’t know why he wasn’t there. He just wasn’t. But he comes back, maybe with takeout, I don’t know, and all the other disciples say, We have seen the Lord!
And Thomas… isn’t impressed. Thomas knows the kind of death Jesus died, a brutal, painful, disfiguring death, not the kind you get up and walk away from. There is no chance that Jesus was only mostly dead when they took him from the cross. Thomas has seen Jesus work miracles, even raise Lazarus from the dead, but who works the miracle for the miracle-man? There are so many other explanations, like grief-induced hysteria, or even a con man playing the part. Thomas refuses to place his joy in anyone but the real, risen Jesus. He will not risk his faith on a charlatan.
Because you see, Thomas doesn’t dismiss the disciples entirely. He doesn’t say, “you’re crazy, and I’ll never believe you.” Instead, what he says is “unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.” In other words, unless I have proof that it’s really Jesus, really the same Jesus I have loved and followed these last few years, than rumors do me no good. I need to know for myself its really Jesus.I need to know.
I empathize so much with Thomas. I’ve got a bit of the investigator in me too. I like to do the research, to figure things out for myself. To get corroborating evidence. To be entirely honest, Thomas is one of my heroes in the faith. Becausehe doubts. Becausehe questions. Becausehe demands more than mere words. But also—and this is important—also because he sticks with his people. Eight days after Thomas says he doesn’t believe them about Jesus, he’s still in the house with them. Eight days of being the only one not full of Eastertide joy, and he’s still there, because these are his people, the friends he has walked through three years with. He doesn’t know what he believes, but he knows where he belongs.
I know that place where Thomas is, that place between faith and doubt. That place where you’re 99% sure all this religion stuff is total malarkey, but there’s a chance—just a chance—that it might be true, and somehow that sliver of a chance is enough, and you stay. You stay with your people. You stay in your church. Because even when you don’t believe, can’t believe, it helps to be with people who do. It helps keep that sliver of hope alive. You let them believe for you, for a while, even.
Thomas had criteria—if he could touch Jesus’ wounds, he would believe. A sliver of a chance, but he left the door open to faith. He didn’t slam it shut. He didn’t walk away. He kept the door open, and sometimes I think it’s the most faithful among us, who have the strength to wedge that door to faith open, even when all our doubts and fears are doing their best to slam it shut. For eight days, Thomas doesn’t believe, but he doesn’t decide he’s done with believing either; he simply waits, to see what might happen, to see if Jesus might show up in his life after all. It’s an exhausting holding pattern, keeping faith with only the possibility of faith to come—but Thomas manages.
And Jesus comes. Eight days later, Jesus shows up, one more time, to catch this last disciple, this last friend. To give him what he needs. To let him poke and prod at the wounds. Even if it hurt Jesus, as I imagine poking an open flesh wound would. Jesus shows up and makes use of that crack in the door, that 1% chance Thomas might believe. He doesn’t write Thomas off for having questions, having doubts. Instead, he makes a special effort for him, to meet Thomas exactly where he is.
And once Thomas touches, he believes. My Lord and God!he says, and that’s it. So simple. You can almost hear the relief in his voice, the joy. It took him longer to get there, but it’s no less beautiful. Thomas gets his Easter eight days later than everyone else, and it is just as worth celebrating.
I believe I have mentioned before that the Greek word for believe is pistis, which can also be translated trust. For Greek-speaking peoples, those were not two meanings: the concept of belief and the concept of trust were one and the same. To believe in God, to believe in the resurrection, to believe that Jesus was both human and divine and that somehow that math works out right, it’s not just a head thing. It’s not just a matter of saying the right words and memorizing the right creeds and reiterating the right dogmas. To believe in God is to trust God, to make that leap over the mystery that always does and always will separate what we can knowfrom God’s full presence. To trust God is to come to the end of ourselves and say there is more out there, and that we want to explore whatever that “more” may be.
A few weeks ago, I came across a fairly bizarre story in the news. I clicked on the article at first because it had the phrase “Rocket Man” in the title, and who among us can resist that? The Rocket Man in question turned out to be a man named Mike Hughes, a 61-year-old limo driver and self-described “walking reality show” who has taught himself the fundamentals of rocket science. Mad Mike, as he is often known, launched himself nearly 2000 feet into the sky a few Saturdays ago in a homemade rocket made of scrap metal and emblazoned with the words “Flat Earth.”
You see, Mike does not believe the earth is round. He has said he believes the earth is Frisbee-shaped, despite scholars from Aristotle to NASA scientists providing solid rationale to the contrary. He doesn’t trust satellite images or even, apparently, commercial airplanes. He wants to see for himself. Occasionally he has said he doesn’t believe the earth is flat either—that he won’t believe either way until he gets into space himself and can take his own picture.
“I don’t believe in science,” Mike has told the media. “I know about aerodynamics and fluid dynamics and how things move through the air, about the certain size of rocket nozzles, and thrust. But that’s not science, that’s just a formula.”
I know some scientists who would beg to differ with Mike on that last one.
I read Mike’s story with such fascination because it reminds me that blind disbelief can be just as dangerous as blind belief. Mike is unwilling to trust anything, anyone except himself, and he is putting himself in harm’s way because of it.
Even someone who likes to do her own research, like me, takes millions of things on trust a day. I trust in the overwhelming scientific conclusions on the shape of the earth and the use of medicines and the changes in our climate. I trust the scientists and the doctors and the experts. I have to. If all I did was doubt, I wouldn’t have time to really live.
It is the same way with my faith. I take much on trust. I trust in the wisdom of generations, I trust in the collection of the scriptures, I trust in the testimony of faithful people. I trust that all the little glimpses of God I get—peace and courage and joy and love I don’t deserve—I trust that those are enough to launch me sky-high into the mystery of God’s presence.
Our doubts are a part of our faith. They push us deeper into our faith; they are the springboard from which we seek to know more, to know God more. Questions and doubts do not make us less faithful; I think they make us more faithful. As long as we stick with them. As long as we leave the door open, even just a crack, to the possibility that one day, God will have an answer for us.
I do fervently wish that I could get the same hands-on research Thomas did. That Jesus would show up in person with some distinctive proof that it’s really him (maybe a nametag, I’m kind of squeamish about flesh wounds). That I could know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the God I’m giving my life to is who I think he is, and has done what I think he’s done.
But you and I don’t get that. We don’t get to touch Jesus, not literally, not physically. And yet I feel as if I have seen the Lord every time I have witnessed love that healed hurts and forgiveness when anger has reigned. And I feel I have touched Jesus’ wounds every time I have sat with a family for whom death has veered too close or heard the cries of people gassed or bombed or abused or harried from their homes. And I feel I have felt Jesus’ presence every time I have been strong enough to take myself into the world, doubts and fears and all, and do the work Jesus calls me to—to preach and teach and love and forgive and bind up the brokenhearted.
We need to honor our doubts, but we need also, eventually, to find something to trust in. To balance ourselves somewhere between blind faith and blind disbelief, lest we become Mad Mikes. Because at the end of the day, we all trust in something. Sometimes only ourselves, and friends, that’s dangerous. Sometimes only people who think like us, and friends, that may even be worse.
Jesus said, “blessed are those who don’t see and yet trust.” I have found that when I trust God, when I trust that God’s love will see me through every darkness, when I trust that my faith is not a relic or an opiate, but real and relevant, I almost always find Jesus proved right.
Friends, I ask you to believe a lot. Sometimes it’s stuff I’m not even 100% sure of, on any given day. And so I give thanks that there are days when you will believe for me, and that there are days when I will believe for you, until your trust is restored, and you see Jesus with you, one more time.
For Thomas, in his doubts, his tenacity, his questions, his integrity, and his joy, I give thanks and praise. May it be so with us. Amen.