A Sermon preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
April 7, 2013
Text: 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. 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.
It is no small thing to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, not then and not now. It is not quite the same as believing spring will come again, or believing the butterflies will soon emerge from their chrysalis, or believing that your beloved Wolverines will pull through and make into the NCAA Championships, although I can’t say I ever doubted them…
For the disciples, who had witnessed it all; watched the crowd mocking, watched the slow painful death of their beloved Jesus– it was impossible to let go of that experience so quickly, no way they could suspend the full understanding of the death and burial of Jesus to imagine that it could be reversed a mere three days later. How could you believe it?
The gospel text for this morning is one of the most well known stories of appearances of the risen Jesus. Next to the story of Mary in the garden, this story is so beloved that the first Sunday after Easter is sometimes giving the nickname “Doubting Thomas Sunday.” And Thomas probably deserves this tribute.
For those of us prone to doubt, we may feel a bit like Thomas is our patron saint, and certainly Thomas is not alone in his doubting. Others throughout the gospels, not just Thomas, expected signs as a precondition for belief. All of the disciples responded to the message of Jesus’ resurrection with disbelief, doubting the plausibility of the women’s story – that the tomb was empty, that angels had proclaimed Jesus risen indeed.
The truth is that the story of Thomas’s doubt is part and parcel of a post resurrection tradition that none of the gospels seeks to suppress. And perhaps there in lies something that we can’t affirm too often – doubt is a part of faith. In fact, a faith without doubt is often lacking in the kind of depth needed to sustain us through a life filled with grief and suffering, pain and hardships. The life of faith is not one of unbending doctrine, but instead marked in equal parts by ambiguity and conviction, responsive to skepticism and also faithful to our own experiences of the sacred.
On a wall in my office hangs a print I bought many years ago during my time in Alaska. It is a painting of Mary holding the infant Jesus, drawn in the traditional black and white and red totem style of Native American art which dominates the area of Southeastern Alaska in which I lived. The woman who painted it was not native, her name was Cindy, but she had grown up in Alaska and lived in and around this beautiful art all her life. One of the more well known Native artists in her community had taken her under his wing, and from time to time he would come and advise Cindy, consult with her on her designs and give her feedback.
When Cindy had painted this particular painting, a blending of Christian faith and the highly spiritual Native American art she loved, her artist friend Ben came to view it. “It is beautiful,” he said, “perfectly rendered. And I love how you included a heron in the folds of Mary’s headdress.”
Now in the Tlingit tradition, as in many Native American spiritualities, each animal has deep meaning and symbolism. The heron, a lanky bird with majestic flight, is understood to be a messenger of God – the one who delivers the intent and power of our Creator to those willing to listen and watch for it.
Cindy looked again at her painting. “I don’t know what you are talking about,” she said, “I did not include a heron in my painting.”
“Ah, but you did,” her friend responded, and marked out the outline of the beak, the wings, the long legs. And there it was, clear as day, the messenger of God in the folds of Mary’s headdress.
Now, the Thomas in us hears stories like this and can perhaps say this was a coincidence. The eye sees what it wants to see, optical illusions are merely biology meeting psychology. We have all heard stories like this before. And yet, one cannot simply write these stories off as metaphor or symbol, they cannot be explained away by any modern science or metaphysical projections. There are some things that simply stretch our understanding of plausibility, some things meant to remind us of the words of Hamlet, “That there are more things in heaven and in earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies;” More truths in this life than we can see or touch or prove.
Theologian and Author Marilyn Chandler McIntyre puts it this way; “We know, not just from theology but also from science, that our senses account for only a limited part of what is actual. To reach beyond them we need mathematics and particle physics, bioenergetics and poetry, abstract art and good biblical theology. We need people whose callings take them to these borderlands and who deploy their imaginations in the service of barely inconceivable truth.”
Many of us have heard or experienced stories similar to Cindy’s. I know someone who insists that butterflies filled the room after his grandfather died, and then they appeared again at the funeral. I have been told stories of uncanny coincidence, near-death experiences and answers to prayer. I have been witness to indescribable moments, where the liminal space between what is tangible and what is true has become a thin passage for the Divine.
We don’t fault Thomas for asking something that each of us would have asked: Prove it. Unless I see with my own eyes, touch and feel, I will not believe. Whether it was his grief or his brain, whether he simply longed for the same experience that his fellow disciples had been given, a chance to embrace the one who had died, we can’t fault him.
And yet, perhaps the thing most difficult about the doubt that Thomas claims is not that he doubts the resurrection, not that he doubts the plausibility of God’s power. But instead that he doubts his friends. These fellow disciples along the way, the ones who had broken bread with him and weeped with him and sat amazed and confused with him, these same, came to him and told them something from their hearts, something transformative and amazing, and he did not believe them.
Thomas’ doubt does not dilute what God has done, cannot change or diminish the Spirit’s work, cannot disprove the truth of the resurrection. But it does affect the bonds of communion amongst the faithful. It does put a crack in the community gathered. When Thomas turns to his friends and says effectively, “I cannot believe unless I see it for myself,” he says also, “Your experience is not enough.” He does not say, “I do not believe it, but I do not believe you.”
I have long since given up on trying to prove the truth of my faith. One cannot prove or disprove these things. Even year after year, as confirmands again and again ask the questions that plague them, akin to Mary’s “How can this be?” I know that I cannot effectively prove to them something that they do not already sense in their bones to be true. I know that faith begins in relationship. It grows through sharing testimony and stories of the heart. It is built on tears and laughter, and gatherings around the table where we break bread together.
The miraculous thing is that Jesus gives Thomas just what he needs. He comes to Thomas and says, “Peace be with you.” Jesus says, “Here, put your finger in my hands; Here, touch my side; Here, do not be unbelieving, but believing.” Thomas responds with the strongest statement about Jesus in the gospel of John, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus offers Thomas just what he needs for belief.
This is not Jesus asking us to believe in a creed or set of theological doctrine. This is instead Jesus giving a real experience of himself, just what is asked for and needed, to be felt and known and loved. In so doing Jesus binds Thomas to his friends, and us to each other, reminding us not simply to believe in the power of God, but in God’s power to speak to us through the people we meet.
It is a discipline to pause over the implausible, to wonder at the possibilities held within what seems impossible. It is a practice to suspend our own disbelief, to not be so quick to judge or doubt. It is a choice we make, to trust in the community of the faithful, to trust our brothers and sisters of the faith, that the stories we tell here point to something that lies beyond what we can see and touch. Not to be proven, but believed.
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.” Blessed indeed are those who have come to believe and share their faith with with those they meet. In the name of the Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit, Amen.