Hard to Believe

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday of Easter.

John 20:19, 24-31

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 Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

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.

***

This week I woke up to the best headline I’d read in a long time.

“Five Monkeys Sighted On the Loose in Cincinnati.”

I mean, what’s not to love?

In case you all did not follow this breaking news story as avidly as I did, the police received several reports late Wednesday night of monkeys hanging about the trees of St. Joseph Cemetery in Price Hill. Residents reported seeing monkeys as big as five feet tall and hearing their grunts. There’s even some grainy video footage of animals moving around up in the trees. 

The first port of call, of course, was the zoo. The zoo had all their monkeys, so it was assumed that these came from a private collection. 

As soon as the next morning, however, our intrepid Cincinnati community began to have its doubts. Nobody stepped forward to say they had lost any monkeys from their private collection. There were no sightings in sunlight. And a cemetery caretaker noted that there are frequently wild turkeys that roost in those cemetery trees. 

Now, I am not here to make a political statement about whether or not I believe in the quintet of Cincinnati monkeys. I will not tell you whether I am pro- or –anti-monkey. 

But I understand the doubters. No matter how much you want it to be monkeys, it’s never monkeys, right? Waaaaay more believable that it would be turkeys, seen at a distance by tired eyes. 

Except. Except once in my lifetime, it was monkeys—or at least a monkey. When I was in high school, a monkey escaped from our local zoo, and it took a week of search parties to bring him home. He hid out on the mountain near the hospital and every day patients would look out their windows and give us new reports. The monkey’s name, perfectly, was Oops. 

So I understand the believers, too. 

It’s never monkeys, except sometimes, very rarely, it is monkeys. 

This was a delightful news story all its own, but even more delightfully, it seems custom built for the Sunday when we talk about Doubting Thomas, who wanted to believe but needed more proof. And if these monkeys were an intentional hoax—and I’m not saying they were, but if they were—I would put my money on a tired preacher who needed fresh material for Doubting Thomas Sunday. 

We Christians have been known to look down on Doubting Thomas—or, let’s just call him Thomas. We’ve been known to look down on this guy, this killjoy, this straggler, this “he-of-little-faith.” 

It’s easy to sit on the cushion of 2000 years of Christian history and dogma and pooh pooh poor Thomas and his doubts. Of course it’s Jesus back from the dead, Thomas? Didn’t you hear the Easter cantata last Sunday?

Perhaps Thomas’ doubts make us uncomfortable. Perhaps we don’t like to imagine that someone who was in Jesus’ inner circle could have doubts—because if someone who lived it could doubt, what hope do we have to believe?

Belief is a baffling thing. 

As far as I’m aware, it’s a uniquely human thing, the logical dance of deciding something is true without evidence. To the best of my admittedly limited zoological knowledge, animals do not try to convince each other that there is better hunting on the other side of the mountain, or fresher water down by the stream, sight unseen. 

But they will follow each other. They will follow other animals they trust, their parents, or members of their pack. 

And ultimately, I think we are not too different. We may talk about all the complex reasons we believe what we believe—we may have tomes of theology, philosophy, and anthropology on our shelves—but most often I think we believe because we’re following someone we trust. 

Thomas didn’t fully trust his fellow disciples when they told him Jesus stopped by while he was out. I don’t know why. Maybe his own grief over Jesus’ death made it hard for him to feel connected; maybe their grief and fear made him question their objectivity; maybe the fact that they’d all scattered when Jesus was arrested left some lingering trust issues among them all. But for whatever reason, when Thomas comes back to the crew, and they tell him Jesus was there, he reserves judgment. 

“I won’t believe,” he says, “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 don’t blame Thomas. We like to sigh nostalgically about “the olden days” and “simpler times,” but the truth is that Thomas’ world was as full of charlatans, inaccurate reporting, innocent mistakes, sloppy gossip, and out and out hoaxes as ours is. He may not have been subject to instagram influencers—those professional manipulators who make their living off of getting us to believe that one brand of toothpaste is infinitely better than another—but Thomas still knew how easy it was for untruths to flourish. He knew how many healers had turned out to be scam artists, how many teachers had turned out to be flashes in the pan, and how messiahs had turned out to be myths.

So he holds back. He doesn’t discount the possibility of the resurrection altogether, but he wants evidence. His loyalty, his faithfulness to his friend Jesus is strong enough that he can’t stand the idea of falling for a sham, delusion, or conspiracy. He wants to be sure it’s really Jesus. 

After all, no matter how badly you want someone not to be dead, it’s never resurrection, right? Waaaaaay more believable that someone has pulled the wool over the grieving disciples’ tired eyes. 

Except. Except, once, this one time, it was true. Jesus was alive. Jesus was alive, and he was not leaving Thomas behind. 

So a week later, Jesus comes back to the group, just to catch Thomas, just to let him have what he needs, to feel the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side. And I think this is how we know Thomas’ doubts were genuine—to use a phrase, how we know he was doubting in good faith. When he gets what he needs, he believes. He doesn’t throw up more roadblocks. He doesn’t have an army of strawmen at his back. He touches Jesus’ wounds, wounds that no ghost or scam artist or delusion would choose to bear, and he believes. 

The author of John tells us, explicitly, that he preserved this memory, this little scene of Jesus and Thomas, so that we too could believe. That even with our doubts, we could trust. Trust Thomas. If even the doubter believed, so can we. 

It’s hard, though. Hard to know what to believe these days. Hard to know who to trust. 

Because it does come down to that. Who do we trust? As much as we’d like to believe that we are independent thinkers and voracious fact-checkers, most of us believe what the people we trust believe. Especially if they’ve given us evidence that what they believe has altered their whole life. 

Some of you may remember my friend Laura, the hospice chaplain up near Columbus. I interviewed her for a sermon last summer, while we were still fully online, and she told the most beautiful story. 

Laura did not grow up particularly religious—her family was Christian, but in a sort of scattershot way. A baptism here, a VBS there, but they were not regularly part of a church. Laura may have known the buzzwords of Christianity, but she wasn’t raised with a community of Christians to show her what belief can do in the world. 

And then, when she was a teenager, her aunt Jan died unexpectedly. She went to the funeral and something happened. This is what she said. “It was beautiful to witness to the hope in the midst of grief. I remember, I’d been taught these prayers growing up by my grandmother, and I’d always recite them, but when I was at the graveside I prayed that I wanted to understand what was different about my aunt, and I felt that it was her love of Jesus and following Jesus. After that, I started going to church, to find more people like Jan, who could show me Jesus.”

Those Christian words began to mean something, as Laura realized how tied they were to the kind of person her aunt had been—generous, loving, joyful, and kind. Laura loved her aunt, and she trusted her. And through her, Laura learned that she could trust in Christ. 

The resurrection is hard to believe. Christianity—to those who didn’t grow up with it—is, in fact, hard to believe. And I don’t know many people—a few, but not many—who came to faith in Christ by reading a theology textbook. What I have dozens and dozens and dozens of stories of, is people to came to trust in Christ by trusting one of his disciples. 

None of us have the opportunity to touch, to see, to hear the physical Christ today. But we do have the opportunity to touch, to see, and to hear Christ through those who love with his heart, teach with his voice, and work at finishing his mission. And perhaps more importantly, we have the opportunity to be those people, who can present even an echo of Christ to others. 

And the amazing thing is that to be Christ to others, we don’t have to have our dogma all straightened out. We don’t have to have the Bible memorized. We don’t even have to crush out our doubts. All we have to do is be trustworthy. 

Can people trust you, to show them Christ? Can they trust you, to live out his love and mercy to the best of your human ability? Can they trust you, and through you come to trust the Christ you serve?

Friends, folks are desperate to believe in something—whether it’s a religion, a diet, a political party, a global conspiracy, or a line of skincare. For whatever reason, our brains are wired to believe. 

And we cannot ask people to believe in the ridiculous, mysterious, unutterably strange and miraculous truths of Christianity without just a liiiiiiiittle bit of evidence. 

Do we have the fortitude, the faithfulness, to be that evidence? Can we be the hands and feet of Jesus that the Thomases of today can still touch, and rejoice in?

It may be hard to believe, but I think we can. 

Because I see it. When I see you, I see the Lord. 

Amen. 

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