Sermon preached for the Second Sunday of Easter for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
John 20:19-31 (CEB, my substitutions in brackets)
It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
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 [trust].”
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 [mistrust]. [Trust]!”
Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus replied, “Do you [trust] because you see me? [Blessed] are those who don’t see and yet [trust].”
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 [trust] that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that [trusting], you will have life in his name.
Disney’s classic 1992 film Aladdin was one of the first movies I ever saw in theaters.
Well, I think technically I slept through most of it. I was just a month past two at the time. My mom had been unsure how well my brother, at a rambunctious four years old, would handle sitting still for the film, but according to family legend he stood still the entire time, holding on to the back of a movie theater seat and gazing in wonder. Also, according to family legend, when he got home my mom discovered he had a fever of 104, which had probably helped him stand so still.
I don’t remember when I actually watched Aladdin for the first time, but it was one of those movies on a constant replay in my house as a kid. My brother and I both loved it, and somewhere in the VHS tapes of my parents home videos there’s a pretty gosh darn adorable recording of the two of us lip synching our way through “A Whole New World” while sitting on a magic… well, in our case, a magic towel.
You know that scene. The one where Aladdin, masquerading as the wealthy and eligible Prince Ali, invites the princess Jasmine on a magic carpet ride. At first, she’s suspicious—both of him and of the wisdom of travel by rug. She asks, “is it safe?” and, leaning down, Aladdin responds, “Sure. Do you trust me?”
The camera narrows in at that point, cropping out his bejeweled turban and billowing cloak, to just the widening of his eyes. And if you weren’t asleep for the start of the movie, you’ll remember, just like Jasmine does, that Aladdin said the exact same words to her earlier, when he was just a street rat and she was in need of help escaping an angry guard. In that moment, so unsubtly telegraphed by the animators, Jasmine decides to trust him—because, she realizes, she knows him. Not well, they’ve only met the once—but in that meeting, he proved himself. And so, even while she doesn’t quite know what the whole Prince Ali charade is about, she jumps onto the carpet, and we get one of the best songs in the whole Disney canon.
Do you trust me?
It’s such a simple question; simple enough to speak to even the four and five and ten year olds who watched and watched and rewatched Aladdin. That’s one of the central tensions of the movie, after all: before Jasmine can fall in love with Aladdin, she has to know if she can trust him. And before she can fully trust him, she has to know who he truly is.
Trust is one of those short and terrifying words. I expect every one of us here knows the bitterness of broken trust. Whether it was a relationship gone sour, a favorite celebrity who acted badly, or a prized creed that fell apart—finding out that our trust was misplaced hurts like the dickens. It makes us doubt everything about ourselves. And so sometimes we find it’s easier to, preemptively, doubt others.
Doubt figures strongly in our scripture this morning, like a shadowy extra figure haunting the locked room where the disciples sit. We find ourselves still on Easter day, but in a very different mood than the triumphant discovery of the empty tomb. Mary Magdalene has seen the Lord—seen him, and talked to him, and run to her fellow disciples to tell them the good news—but they doubt. They don’t believe her. Perhaps they don’t trust her, for any number of reasons, fair or not—or perhaps they just don’t trust the very idea of resurrection, when there are so many more plausible ways Jesus’ body could have been disappeared. Perhaps they don’t trust themselves, to be able to handle it if they get their hopes up and find them dashed again.
And so on Easter evening those disciples sit vigil with their doubts and their fears. And into that room Jesus comes, unexpectedly. No knock at the door; no slide of the bolt. Just, suddenly, from nowhere, Jesus.
The Gospel of John doesn’t record the disciples’ initial reaction, but it does make a point of telling us what Jesus does: he shows them his hands and his side, the place where he was wounded. This is proof, written into his very skin, that the Jesus who returned from the dead is the same Jesus they knew. Not a copycat. Not an imposter. Not a changeling. But Jesus. The one they have known for the last three years. The one they’ve already built their trust with.
Then, John says, the disciples are filled with joy.
But there’s someone missing. Thomas isn’t there that night; no one knows why. But when he comes back all the disciples are eager to tell him that they have seen the Lord! And Thomas—he doesn’t trust them.
It’s ironic, really. The disciples didn’t trust Mary Magdalene’s story; now their own is being called into question. And nothing they say, second-hand, will satisfy Thomas. I have to know it’s really him, Thomas says. I have to touch the wounds. I won’t put my trust in anyone but the real Jesus.
If you were following along in your own Bible, you may have noticed that it’s more common to translate Thomas’ statement as “I will not believe.” But Greek does not have separate words for believing and trusting, and there is something happening here that “believe” just doesn’t quite seem to capture. Generally, as the English language is nuanced, believing happens in the brain. Trusting happens in the gut.
Do you trust me?
Eight days later, and the disciples are back together again, and this time, Thomas is there too. I wonder what that week was like, with all his friends riding their high of peace and joy while he wondered whether he was the only sane one of the bunch. Eight days of wondering whether he still belonged with them. Eight days of wondering whether he could convince himself to trust, sight unseen—or if he would be forever shunted aside.
But on the eighth night, Jesus comes back.
Again, he just shows up, unexpectedly. No RSVP, no messenger to prepare the way. He just shows up, offers his peace once more, and heads straight to Thomas.
“Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more [mistrust]. [Trust]!”
And I know it seems silly, and slight, but I can almost see the camera pan in on Jesus’ face, that known, lined, beloved face, as he reaches out his hand.
“Do you trust me?”
And Thomas, out of the blue, unexpectedly, exclaims! “My Lord and my God!”
This is more faith, more trust, than anyone else has shown. Thomas is the first one to see that not only is Jesus really Jesus—but Jesus is also really God.
In an instant, he goes from doubt to faith. You’d think this guy would put up more of a fight, but he doesn’t; and the only reason I can see for that kind of reversal is that Thomas is picking up a line of trust he had established long ago. Once he sees that it is really Jesus, the trust he has always had in his friend springs back to life. This is not new faith. This is the joy of rediscovering a treasure he thought he’d lost.
On that palace balcony, Jasmine trusts Aladdin, not because he is grand or impressive or magical, but because she knows him. She knows he is good. She knows he is safe. That’s where their love really begins. With trust.
Thomas trusts Jesus, not because he is glamorous or impervious or dazzling, but because he knows him. He knows that he is good. He knows that he is safe. That’s where Thomas’ love for Jesus really begins. With trust.
Ultimately, the Bible doesn’t even say that Thomas ever touches the wounds. In fact the wounds may have been a red herring all along. What Thomas really needed was to know that Jesus, even resurrected, even divine, still cared about him. Still wanted a relationship with him. Still would come to an ordinary room on an ordinary night just to give him peace.
If I were to ask you what you believed about God, you might start with a list of God’s qualities: loving, just, omnipotent, eternal, strong, gracious. Or you might recite to me the Apostles’ Creed: I believe in God the father almighty. Or you might start telling me what God wants of us: to love our neighbors, serve the poor, work for peace, etc. All well and good, and I am glad you believe those things. They are excellent guidelines for discipleship.
But what if God simply asks us this: do you trust me? Do you know me enough to trust me?
Let me put it this way: if God were to stand on a magic carpet and put out a hand for you to step aboard, would you go?
When I titled this sermon, I expected to write about the faith that Thomas unexpectedly found. But the more I studied this scripture, the more I realized that the truly unexpected faithfulness really belongs to another character: Jesus Christ. Who, instead of blowing up at Thomas—like a God who had undergone crucifixion and resurrection would have every right to—instead of snarling out “haven’t I done enough for you people”—instead of leaving Thomas out in the cold—comes softly back in, still searching for that one lost sheep. The unexpected faithfulness of our Lord and our God, who will always come looking for us, to help us believe, as many times as we need.
Thomas found an unexpected faith, and he found it in a God who is faithful beyond all expectation.
And it opened up for him a whole new world.