The Promise of Presence

Sermon preached for the Second Sunday of Easter for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church. It explores the experiences of the Apostle Thomas from his own perspective, incorporating both the biblical witness and my own imagination.

John 20:19-31
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.”After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

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.

Sometimes it’s really hard to be a twin. 

It’s literally what my name means, twin. My twin brother and I grew up all lockstep. We fished together. We raced each other through the fields. We went to synagogue together. We learned the stories of scripture together. 

I liked a lot of them. I liked when God showed up all big and wild. I liked when God made the bush burn for Moses, or killed all the evil prophets of Jezebel. Plus I liked the story where a bear chased off two boys that were teasing Elijah for being bald. 

But I hated the story of Esau and Jacob. 

It’s the first story of my ancestors I remember learning. When you’re a twin in a Jewish town, everybody wants to tell you about Esau and Jacob. Stupid, foolish, hairy, ugly, Esau, who sold his birthright for a bowl of stew, and grew up to worship idols and kill people. And Jacob. So clever, so sneaky. The one his mother loved. He grew up to be the father of us all, Father Israel, father of the twelve tribes.

I still remember, when I was really young, overhearing some old women who had come to our house say to my mother, you have to watch them closely, twins. Guide them in the way that they should go. It’s all too easy for one to be an Esau. For one to go bad. A good twin, a bad twin. 

My mother found me crying in our bed that night. I asked her if she thought I was the bad twin. She told me not to believe everything I hear, that I was wonderful, that God didn’t make anybody evil, that if I chose righteousness and wisdom I would always be her good boy. She told me not to cry anymore, and to cast my fears on the waters, and let the waves wash them away. 

I tried. I tried not to worry, and mostly I didn’t, but still, in the back of my mind, whenever I did something wrong that my twin did right, whenever I felt like I was foolish or foolable, I wondered: am I Esau? Am I the bad twin?

It was a hard day, the day I left my twin behind. But I’d met this man named Jesus. He had been preaching in our town, he had healed this little boy I’d known for years who was born with his legs all mangled and turned in to each other. My twin and I used to take turns carrying him on our shoulders, even when he got bigger and heavier. And Jesus came and his legs were just… healed. Strong. He didn’t even walk, he went off running right away, like he’d been waiting all his life to run, like he couldn’t do anything else. 

Then Jesus said he had to keep going, that his Father was calling him elsewhere. At first I thought it meant he had to go home to his parents. But then he said his Father was God in heaven, and I would have spat if anyone else had said that, so heretical, but somehow with Jesus I believed it. Listening to him was like all those stories from the Torah coming to life, all those stories when God had power and good things happened instead of bad. I believed Jesus when he said his Father was God. 

Jesus had brothers and sisters, he told me once, back home. But they weren’t like Jesus. They were just normal people like me. He was an only son, in a way. God’s only son. I envied him that, that he didn’t have to compare himself with anybody. He never seemed to worry that he wasn’t good enough. He just went out and did good, like he couldn’t imagine doing anything else. 

So when Jesus left town, I left with him. I thought my brother would go with me. I didn’t even ask him, I just assumed he’d feel what I felt, just… compelled to go. But he didn’t. I remember our last argument. He wasn’t angry, just puzzled. He couldn’t understand why I was going. 

Jesus was certainly an impressive rabbi, and my brother was very glad that the neighbor boy was better now, but how on earth was it any business of ours? Our business was out in the boats. Our business was here, with mom and dad. Our business was the business of all our people, to live quietly in faith and fastidiousness, keeping mouths fed, pots clean, and prayers lifted until we die and are gathered to our ancestors. 

If you are lucky, he said with a lopsided grin at that point, you’ll get a beautiful wife along the way. 

I laughed, but I wasn’t distracted. I told him I had to go. I had to go with Jesus, join the little group that had come to our town with him. 

So I kissed him goodbye, and I left my twin behind. 

For the next few years I traveled with Jesus. I saw him heal lots more people, some of whom were almost dead when we got to them. I saw him walk on water. I saw him feed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish, and I myself walked around picking up scraps, my back and arms aching as I climbed up and down the hill with my basket. 

Mostly I listened. Jesus was a talker, but I never got tired of listening, and he never seemed to talk just to hear himself, like my uncles did. Everything he said sounded important, and at night I’d go over in my head what he’d said, trying to commit it to memory. 

A week ago, we came into Jerusalem for the Passover. Jesus was… he’s been different, lately. More somber. 

He washed our feet, that night. I was—I was shocked, if I’m honest. I didn’t grow up with servants to wash my feet. I handled it myself. But for Jesus—Jesus the son of God, Jesus the miracle maker, Jesus the master teacher—to see him crouched down at my feet, it didn’t feel right. He told us we were to serve others the way he’d served us. I’m still wondering what that means, exactly. I don’t think he meant it only about feet. 

And then he told us one of us was going to betray him, and I’m sure you’ve heard by now, it was Judas. I’d liked Judas. I thought he was clever, like Jacob. Sometimes I compared myself to him. Worried I was stupid, like Esau, while he was clever, like Jacob. 

Jesus talked so much, that last night. Talked and talked till his voice was hoarse. Told us all sorts of things. I try to remember them. 

He told us that bad things, horrible things, would happen. That he would die, and that people would come after us, that they wouldn’t understand what we were doing. But mostly he made promises. 

The very first thing he said was that he was going to prepare a place for us, and that we would know the way there. 

I interrupted him then. I shouldn’t have. I’m embarrassed by it now, but I can be slow, and I want to understand. “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” I asked. 

I should have known better then to expect a straight answer. He just said, “I am the way,” and I shut my mouth. I’ve learned, over the years, that when Jesus doesn’t give a straight answer, it’s because he wants us to think for ourselves. He wants us to chew on what he says, like we chewed on miracle bread on a hillside. 

Once we stopped interrupting him, Jesus went on with his promises. He promised us that we would see God in him. He promised us that he would give the Holy Spirit to us—to us—to be our companion and to advocate for us out there in the world. Told us that we were like branches growing out of a vine, that we would bear good fruit if we loved him and followed his commands. Told us he loved us. Told us God loved us.

He called us his friends, and he prayed for us. 

And then the soldiers came, and took him away.  

I don’t… I don’t really want to talk about that part. Jesus had been saying… but I didn’t want to believe him. And… we just sort of all left. Scattered. 

I was halfway down the road to home before I even knew where my feet had taken me. 

They say he died on Friday, about three hours after noon. I was fishing with my twin for the first time in years. He’d grown a beard. We sat in the boat and mended nets. We didn’t talk much. 

All those promises… and Jesus was dead. It takes a while for news to get to us in our small town, but I knew in my heart that he was dead. The good always die young, and he was so, so, so good. 

I’d told Jesus, once upon a time, that I would be willing to be killed with him. But when the time came, he died alone. 

And I finally knew, since I’d run, since I’d left, since I’d abandoned him:

I was the bad one. The bad twin. The faithless. Doubting. 

Like I said, news gets to our town a little late. But a few days later the rumor reached us, that Jesus had been killed but then had risen from his tomb. 

I’d seen Lazarus raised to life. I helped roll up the linens they’d used to bind his dead body, while he went off laughing with his sisters. But somehow, I didn’t believe that Jesus could be raised. Because Jesus was the one who raised Lazarus, and once he was dead, who’d be around to raise him? None of us—not even Peter, who managed a few steps walking on the water—could do that. Nobody but Jesus could save Jesus, I thought. And my heart was so heavy, so heavy with self-reproach and self-doubt, that it spilled out into doubting everything Jesus had ever said, and I didn’t believe it, when the word came to our village, that Jesus was alive. 

But I did start walking. My feet knew the way, the way to Jerusalem. The way to Jesus. 

It took a day or two, but I found my old friends, Jesus’ other disciples. They had locked the room where they were huddled up, but they let me in. They all told me they’d seen Jesus, that he’d given them peace, that he’d given them the Spirit, just like he promised, that everything he’d said was true, true, true! Their faces just radiated this peace and this joy, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so twisted up inside, to know that once and for all I was doomed to be the bad twin, the slow one, the stupid one, the outsider. 

The one who lost the birthright. 

Ten disciples filled with the Holy Spirit, one betrayer, and one me. Thomas, who doubted himself, and God, and everything. Thomas, the bad twin. 

I couldn’t stand it. I didn’t want it to be true, that they had seen Jesus and I hadn’t. I didn’t want it to be true, that I would forever be cast out of that circle of brothers I had come to love, just as lost as Judas in my own way. 

So I said, wildly and cruelly, that I wouldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t. With all my heart, I would notbelieve it was Jesus unless he came back to me, so I could see him, so close I could feel him, put my hands right in the wounds, know that he wasn’t some prank all the other kids had thought up to tease me with. 

I wouldn’t believe anyone but Jesus, I said. Only him. Only him. 

And he came. 

I may be Esau. I may be slow. I may be literalistic. I may be the most foolish of all his disciples. 

But he came back for me. He came back, just for me. 

Like he promised he would. 

My Lord and my God. I believe. 


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