Here’s my sermon from a week or two after Easter Sunday…
Last week we spoke about Thomas, ‘doubting Thomas’ as we have been taught to think. We explored the idea that before he was ‘doubting Thomas’ maybe he was ‘disillusioned Thomas’ and ‘disappointed Thomas’. We allowed ourselves to imagine the world-ending letdown that Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion would have been for his closest friends, his closest followers.
We talked about how regardless of what happened next, those disciples had lost the Jesus they thought they knew, the Jesus they had hoped in, the Messiah they figured he was. He was going to win, not lose. He was going to overthrow the corrupt and the oppressive, not be overcome by them. He was going to put everything right, not be defeated by everything that was wrong. So with Jesus’ death, there was another death, the death of the disciple’s dreams and hopes that were tied up with Jesus.
The Jesus they knew, or thought they knew, was gone. The one without nail marks in his hands and feet, and a scar in his side was gone forever. Even when Jesus came back, he wasn’t the way he had been.
So even those disciples who saw him when he appeared to them on that first resurrection Sunday evening wouldn’t really have known what to make of it. It wouldn’t have fitted into any previous plan they had imagined. It’s not like Jesus appeared and they all go ‘Oh I get it now!’ Like we said last week, no one sees resurrection coming. It is an absolute break with the natural order, where death has followed life with a painful predictability since time out of mind. Now Jesus is presenting them with a new order, where life follows death. It is the unravelling of everything they’ve ever known. Even for those who’d seen him, it would have been near impossible to comprehend.
And we remembered that Thomas hadn’t seen Jesus, that he was being asked for a level of faith that none of the others had had to display. His last vision of Jesus was him being hauled away amidst an angry mob. His last memory may have been watching from a distance as Jesus carried his cross through a jeering crowd. And now he is expected to overturn those agonising memories on the basis of hearsay!? We talked about how powerfully we can protect ourselves when we have been hurt once, from being hurt again. Losing Jesus once would have been more than enough for Thomas to cope with. The idea that he was back would represent everything Thomas wanted, but also everything he couldn’t cope with losing again. It would be better to doubt, to shield himself with layer of disbelief, to insulate himself from repeating that devastating loss. Jesus hadn’t been who he thought he was, he hadn’t saved them, he had died. How could Thomas be expected to hope and trust in that name again? And so he uttered those well-known words, ‘Unless I see…I will not believe.’
Last week we spoke about those around Thomas, the community of faith around this faithless follower of Jesus. Thomas had given them his ultimatum, ‘I need to see him, like you have, if I’m going to give my life to him again’ – and yet it’s another week before Jesus appears. But they don’t excommunicate him for doubting the very foundation of their ongoing faith in Jesus. They don’t give him the cold shoulder and ask him to wait outside and come back when he’s ready to believe. They keep him around – in the family where he might get to meet the risen Jesus for himself. They seem to know it’s not about arguing him around, but keeping him around – so that he can be there when Jesus shows up, and Jesus can help him through his unbelief. Jesus alone can give faith, it is a gift from him – and the disciples know that it’s his job and not theirs. So they focus on what they can do, they can wait with Thomas, and live with him, until Jesus shows up. They can be patient and gracious, knowing that before Jesus showed up to them, they were just the same.
This week I want to look at Thomas himself. We’ve spoken about how we need to be a community of faith that can cope with having the faithless in our midst, that can live with Thomas. This week I want us to think about if we can live with being Thomas. After spending my entire lifetime in the church, and hearing my fair share of messages on Thomas, ‘doubting Thomas’ that is, I reckon most of them have focussed in on those last words of Jesus’, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
And from these messages we get given the impression that Jesus is tolerating Thomas’ doubt, but he’s not that happy about it. We get told that since most of us haven’t seen Jesus with our eyes, then we’re doing better than Thomas if we can still manage to believe.
But what if we feel just like Thomas? What if we’re scared of risking more of ourselves on something that feels suspiciously like a rumour? What if we’ve been hurt before and can’t cope with the thought of being hurt again?
Well, then I think we roll out some well worn phrases that have been prepared for us earlier, like, ‘get over it’, ‘harden up’, ‘don’t be such a ____’ whatever. Now we never say these things to each other, or at least no where nearly as often as we say them to ourselves. We can be remarkably harsh and unsympathetic with ourselves. We can tell ourselves, ‘You’ve been believing this all your life, why can’t you believe it now?!’ or ‘Nobody else is having trouble with this, why am I!?’ We must use up all our patience and graciousness on each other, because often if seems we have none left for ourselves! The result is that we can be downright mean to ourselves.
And it may be this meanness that keeps us from owning up to our own struggles, our own disbelief, our own failure. We think so little of ourselves for our weakness, we can’t cope with others thinking so little of us as well. So we lie. We say we are ‘fine’ when people ask us how we are; we leave the sanctuary and talk about the weather when we know we could be in the chapel asking for prayer. We can be downright mean to ourselves.
Thankfully Jesus isn’t mean to us. And we see this in his interaction with Thomas. Firstly Thomas’ hurt, and his unwillingness to be hurt again means he is not prepared to inflict anymore pain on himself by being anything less than honest. We could learn something here, choosing to be kind to ourselves is something we too often think of as being selfish. Losing Jesus has gutted Thomas, and he can’t play the ‘I’m fine’ game anymore. When Thomas says to his friends, ‘Unless I see…I will not believe’ we may have heard it in the past as defiant doubt. But I wonder if it was rather a desperate confession. He says to the other disciples, ‘This is where I am, and I don’t think I can go any further. Jesus is going to have to meet me here.’
There are times for steps of faith, for stepping into the unknown and trusting God will see us right. But Thomas is showing us that there is also a time for saying, ‘No more, I can’t take another step. You need to come and find me.’
We may think from Jesus’ words about ‘blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’ that Jesus is at least a little begrudging in conceding to Thomas’ demands. But let’s remember the bigger picture; Jesus is the good shepherd who goes after the one sheep that gets itself lost. Jesus is the one who tells us of a Father who rushes out to welcome the lost child home. Jesus is the one who comes amongst his own, even though his own do not recognise him, even though his own kill him, so that they may know God loves them, that God is not angry with them, that God wants them in his life. Do we really think Jesus is going to resent Thomas for saying, ‘Unless I see…I will not believe’? Do we really think Jesus is going to resent us if we say, ‘I want to believe, but I can’t. Come and find me in my unbelief’? Of course he isn’t. He wants to connect with us and commune with us far more than we do with him.
Thomas’ declaration to the disciples becomes a prayer of confession. They are the body of Christ – they are the ears of Christ. He blurts out his frustration and his desperation to them, ‘I have to see the nail marks and the wound in his side. I have to know it’s him, the one we followed, the one who died’, and he says this to those who know better than anyone the journey he has been on, and Jesus hears it as a prayer. Have we ever thought of our conversations with one another as prayer? Thomas tells the disciples, the body of Christ, that unless he sees the Risen Jesus, he can’t believe it’s true, and the risen Jesus hears him, and answers that prayer. He turns up and says, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
We know from Thomas’ response that he hasn’t been foxing. He’s not just playing hard to get, he’s not just making excuses for his unbelief. He is utterly sincere when he says, ‘Unless I see…I will not believe’ which really means, ‘If I could see, I could believe.’ Thomas isn’t like the Pharisees, who just came up with another question so they can feel justified in their doubt. Thomas is not testing God for the sake of it. Thomas is desperate to stop doubting, but he has to know God is going to meet him there.
Finally, I love that we get told that the room is locked. Thomas’ declaration to his friends becomes a prayer that reaches the ears of the risen Jesus, and even in this secret, barricaded place, where the disciples hide in fear, Jesus is able to enter and speak peace and belief into their hearts. This tells us that there is nowhere Jesus cannot find us. There is no state of mind, or place on earth where we can cry out ‘Here I am, this is as far as I can go, please come and find me here’ and Jesus will not be able to reach us there. There is no locked room he cannot miraculously enter, no dark place in our hearts or in our heads that he will not come into and bring peace and faith with him.
What do we need from God to go on? What have we been afraid to ask for, afraid to admit that we are someone who doubts, someone who struggles, someone who fails. What god do we believe in if we think the God of Jesus isn’t willing to give us all we need to know him and be loved by him?
Is there something God is asking us for? Someplace he wants us to follow him, a new level of faith and trust he wants us to experience, a gift we have he wants us to start sharing – but we just can’t. What do we need so we could? Because I have the feeling that asking is a good place to start. Thomas is not scorned for wanting to see Jesus. Sure it would have been better if he could have believed without seeing, but he couldn’t. Jesus doesn’t stay away to teach Thomas a lesson, Jesus comes close enough to see, close enough to touch, close enough to believe in and love. 1st John 2 begins by saying even when we do what is wrong we can count on Jesus to do what is right. We will never be scorned for wanting to see Jesus – it’s what we’re living for after all! Can we find the courage to tell one another what we need from God, to confess that there is a step we cannot take unless God meets us where we are?
After the service we are going to have our time of processing here in the sanctuary. It will be a time for those of you who want to practice what’s been preached. It’ll be an opportunity to say to someone else, ‘I need this from God, then I could follow, then I could stop doubting and believe.’
I’m going to play a song now, based on Thomas’ experience of doubt and faith. Please take this time to ask, ‘what do I need God to do? What do I need the courage to ask for, and the faith to believe for.’ And together let us be truthful about where we are and who we are, even the doubters, the disappointed and the disillusioned – knowing that God longs for us to have what we need to believe, to have all that is required to know Jesus and share his life forever.