Faithful Thomas

Sermon for April 12th, 2015 ||  Second Sunday of Easter, Year B ||  Acts 4: 32-35; Psalm 133; I John: 1:1-2:2; John 20: 19-31||  The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield 

Someone once told me I suffered from what they called the “you-missed-it syndrome”— a condition in which one feels compelled to say “yes” to just about every opportunity that comes along, driven by a fear that one might – heaven forbid – miss something wonderful and regret it. Maybe you know someone like that, or maybe you’re a little like that yourself from time to time.

At first glance, it would seem the disciple Thomas was decidedly not familiar with this particular affliction, or surely he would have been there with the rest of the disciples on that first night…that incredible night when Jesus appeared out of nowhere in a locked room and said, “Peace be with you.”

But Thomas wasn’t there that first Easter night, and our gospel reading doesn’t explain why. Maybe Thomas was ashamed that he, like all the others, had abandoned Jesus in the end. Or maybe he was so broken-hearted after the crucifixion, that he needed time to be alone with his grief—grief not just for Jesus, his beloved friend and teacher, but for all the hopes and dreams that had died with Jesus. Maybe Thomas just didn’t see the point anymore. We don’t really know.

The truth is, there’s a lot we don’t know about Thomas. What little we do know comes from his three ‘speaking parts’, including this one, in John’s Gospel. The other three gospels only mention him in passing as one of the twelve disciples. What John does tell us about Thomas suggests that Thomas is as grounded in the concrete and the sensible as Peter is in the impulsive and the emotional. Thomas is the thinking disciple where Peter is the feeling one. Thomas plays the realist to Peter’s idealist. And Thomas can teach us much.

Now, the first time we meet Thomas, he’s the only one besides Jesus who’s looking reality straight in the face: Jesus and the twelve are in the wilderness keeping a low profile after an especially close call in Jerusalem. Jesus had just narrowly escaped arrest by a group of stone-wielding Pharisees.

But now from their desert hide-away, Jesus announces he’s going back to see his friend Lazarus. Well, they all know that going back to see Lazarus, who lives within two miles of Jerusalem, is setting a date with death.  The disciples react instinctively with emotions of alarm and incredulity: “Rabbi,” they exclaim,“the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again!?”

Jesus explains that he needs to go because their friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, and taking him literally the disciples say, “Lord, if he’s fallen asleep, he’ll be all right.”

But Thomas-the-Realist cuts right to the chase. Thomas knows they can’t talk Jesus out of it. He knows Jesus is likely to be killed. And, he knows they can’t let Jesus go alone. So, matter-of-factly, Thomas says with resignation: “Let us also go, that we might die with him.”

The second time we meet Thomas is at the Last Supper, in a section of John’s gospel known as “the Last Discourse.” It’s after Judas has taken the piece of bread from Jesus and left to betray him. After dinner, Jesus and the remaining disciples are still at the table. There’s so much on Jesus’ heart that he wants to say to his friends before facing what’s to come. He begins with the now familiar words, “Do not let your hearts be troubled . . .” and he goes on to assure them that his“Father’s house has many dwelling places,” that he’s “going to prepare a place for them,” and that he will “come again to take them to himself.”

It’s some of the most beautiful, metaphorical, language in the New Testament.  But it shouldn’t surprise us that when Jesus says, “And you know the way to the place where I am going,” Thomas cuts to the chase again with a perfectly sensible question for a concrete thinker: “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?” I imagine Thomas saying that with quite a bit of exasperation in his voice, more like, “What the heck are you talking about? We have no clue where you’re going much less how to get there!”

Jesus responds, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Lovely words, but probably not a very helpful answer for concrete-thinking Thomas.

Finally, today, we meet Thomas in his third ‘speaking part’—the one that starts on that first Easter evening when the other disciples tell him, “We have seen the Lord,” to which Thomas responds, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in them, and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Now, traditionally, Thomas gets a bad rap for not believing. “Doubting Thomas” he’s come to be known. But you may remember that no one believed Mary Magdalene when just hours earlier she said she’d seen the Lord. And when Jesus appeared to the other disciples later, they didn’t have to ask to see his wounds because Jesus anticipated the question. Remember the gospel says that Jesus greeted them with the peace, then “showed them his hands and his side.”

“Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord, John writes. It’s after they’ve seen Jesus’ wounds.

Of course it’s entirely possible that, as a concrete thinker, Thomas really has to touch and see the wounds for himself in order to believe, and that’s why he insists that, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in them, and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  But I’m not so sure. I wonder who Thomas is really trying to convince of his disbelief, the others or himself? I think Thomas may very well be trying to convince himself that he doesn’t belief Christ is risen.

I’m guessing that after the other disciples told Thomas they’d seen the Lord, Thomas had one wicked case of the “you missed it syndrome.” I imagine it was the beginning of a week from hell for Thomas, thinking Jesus had come back and he’d missed it, and not knowing he would meet the Risen Jesus a week later. He must’ve turned those words over and over in his head all week long—“We have seen the Lord”—and feared it was really true. Feared that the other disciples had met the Risen Jesus, and he hadn’t. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in them, and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

What if Thomas’ problem isn’t that he doesn’t believe, but that he’s really afraid because he does believe? Afraid because he is the kind of realist who finds it way too disturbing to believe in something as pie-in-the-sky as a crucified Messiah who rises from the dead, ascends to God and comes back glorified. Afraid because if Jesus really is alive and risen, it means he will have to risk opening his heart to him again, will have to risk the pain of loving – and losing – Jesus, again. Afraid because if Jesus is risen, it begs the question: Why had he come when Thomas wasn’t there? Why had Jesus been present for the others but not for him? Wasn’t he good enough? Didn’t Jesus love him, too?

Yes, I imagine questions like these must’ve tortured Thomas all week long. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in them, and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” I won’t believe, I won’t believe, I won’t believe…

Of course, we’ll never know for sure what really keeps Thomas from embracing the reality of the Risen Christ right away. But whatever it was, it must have been hard for him living with all those questions, wondering what he’d missed and how and why; trying not to believe it, but not being able to let it go either; feeling like he was the only one struggling, living in so much confusion and fear…

…Until Jesus shows up again, totally unexpectedly—just for Thomas. And here’s how Jesus meets all of Thomas’ fears: “Peace be with you,” he says.“Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”  Yet nowhere does the gospel say Thomas actually took Jesus up on his invitation.  Nowhere does it say Thomas even touched Jesus!

Because now he doesn’t need to. Now Thomas is so overcome by the very real and very loving presence of the Risen Christ, that good old down-to-earth Thomas… concrete-thinking Thomas… Thomas-the-realist… utters what is perhaps the most profound confession of faith in the gospels: “My Lord and my God!”

It turns out that in the end, the only evidence Thomas ever really needed was to experience the loving presence of the Risen Lord. And the only doubt that he ever really had, was the fear that he’d missed his chance. The good news for Thomas, and for us, is that when it comes to Christ, there’s no such thing as the “you missed it syndrome.” Because it’s never too late to experience, and believe in, the Risen Lord.

As you continue your journey over these next 50 days of Easter, may the loving presence of the Risen Lord appear unexpectedly to each of you—overcoming your fears, bringing you peace, and blessing you with a new and profound faith—that you may boldly proclaim, with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” Amen.

 

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