Texts: Acts 2:14a,22-32 ; Psalm 16 ; 1 Peter 1:3-9 ; John 20:19-31
Over the last year and a half, as some of you have considered membership here at St. Luke’s, I’ve heard a set of similar and related questions and comments. One of you shared that you appreciated the fellowship here at St. Luke’s, but that you weren’t sure you believed all the same things we do – and that you were waiting to understand Lutherans better before joining us. Another of you said something similar, that you understand yourself to be a seeker after truth and that you respect the world’s many wisdom traditions. You wondered if you belonged here if you confessed that ours is a path to God among many.
Underneath these questions I hear an assumption that within the community of Christian faith there is a mutually agreed upon understanding of what Christian faith is and how it is to be practiced. That in order to join us you need to get yourself squared up to our pre-existing consensus.
I am here to relieve you of that assumption.
In the March 25th issue of The Christian Century, Editor John Buchanan writes,
“The preacher’s task on Easter is to talk about something that doesn’t submit to reasonable discourse – the resurrection of the dead.”
In his column on the resurrection, retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong writes,
“something of enormous power gripped the disciples following the crucifixion that transformed their lives… it was some fifty years before that transforming experience was interpreted as the resuscitation of a three days dead Jesus to the life of the world. Our conversation about the meaning of Easter must begin where these two realities meet.”
American novelist John Updike writes,
“Make no mistake: if He rose at all / it was as His body / … it was as his flesh…”
New Testament professor Gail O’Day, author of one of the best-selling commentaries on the gospel of John[i] writes,
“It is not physical sight and signs that are decisive for faith, but the truth they reveal.”
Clearly the assumption that there is any uniform understanding within Christianity about the meaning of our proclamation of faith is a false one.
But it’s not just contemporary Christians who struggle to tell the story of the meaning of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. That struggle is revealed in the texts of the gospels themselves. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians – which we believe to be about forty or fifty years older than the gospel of John – we get one of the earliest accounts of how the first Christians talked about this event. Paul writes,
“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” (1 Cor 15:3-5)
He doesn’t get much more elaborate than that. He was raised and then he appeared. The four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – each give different accounts. They share these things in common a visit to the tomb early on Sunday morning, the presence of Mary Magdalene at the tomb, the stone rolled away, and an angel (single or plural) at the graveside. After that, each story goes its own way.
Take, for example, this morning’s story about the appearance of Jesus to the disciples as they huddle behind closed doors – the absence of Thomas and Jesus’ words to him. The gospel of Matthew, which is the one we’re generally reading from this year, says nothing about this event. Mark reduces the whole story to one verse that doesn’t even mention Thomas, only that Jesus “appeared to the eleven as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness” (Mk 16:14). In Luke the entire group of disciples thinks Jesus is a ghost and he encourages them to touch him – again, no mention of Thomas.
So, to any of you who harbor secret worries that the church is a place of like-minded believers, who worry that you may be alone in your confusion about what all this means, please rest assured: you are not. Your faith and your doubts are not only welcome – they are a part of the very story itself.
In John our doubts seem to get collected and then collectively pinned on the apostle Thomas. He is often remembered as “doubting Thomas,” a name that is both unfortunate and unfair. As we’ve already established, it’s only in this gospel that he is singled out for his questions – and, more importantly, he behaves just as the rest of the disciples did when Mary brought the news that Jesus was risen – he questions the meaning of these words.
If anything, I like to think that Thomas was extraordinary in his bravery. The scriptures say that the disciples were meeting behind locked doors for fear of the Jews…
and, as an aside, I know many of you already know this – but I think it bears repeating that when we hear this language in the gospel of John about “the Jews,” language that can sound so harsh and full of judgment, we need to remember that the early Christian community was also made up of Jews. By the time the gospel of John was composed the Christians were a group of both Jews and Gentiles, but they were both minorities in the Roman Empire and their conflicts were viewed by outsiders as internal squabbles at this point. When we hear this language we really ought to read it as a family feud – not pretty, but still family. We have justified terrible mistreatment of our elder sisters and brothers, the Jews, when we have forgotten that fact.
But there they were, the disciples, hiding out from the temple authorities… all except Thomas.
There’s something fearless about Thomas that I love and admire. In India the Mar Thoma Orthodox church claims that by the year 52 AD the apostle Thomas had arrived carrying the good news of the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. There is something in the legend of this man that recalls his fearlessness, and his readiness to travel.
The last time we heard him mentioned in worship was the week before Palm Sunday, when we heard about the death and resurrection of Lazarus. In that story, also from the gospel of John, you remember that Jesus hears how Lazarus has died and his disciples urge him not to return to Bethany because the authorities are after him. Jesus is determined to return and when Thomas realizes this he says, “then let us also go, that we might die with him” (Jn 11:16).
So when we hear his words this morning, when he says, “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,” let’s not dismiss him as a doubter. Let’s not forget that this man was ready to return to Bethany to die with his Lord. I imagine he assumed some kind of hoax was taking place. I imagine he would have been ready to lay into someone who would trade on false hope to fool his friends who were filled with fear. I think there is something very brave and very noble about his questioning. Hearing the only thing that might have relieved his grief, that Jesus was not in fact dead, Thomas asks for proof.
And it is at this point that I think we most often get the story wrong, because by focusing on Thomas and his doubts and his requests – we miss the truly extraordinary thing that happens here: God in Jesus gives Thomas what he needs in order to believe. Thomas lays out the criteria for his belief and God provides them. Jesus says, “put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” A literal translation o
f this verse is “do not be unbelieving, but believing[ii].” Like the father in the gospel of Mark whose child is brought back to life, who cries out to Jesus, “I believe – help my unbelief,” (Mk 9:24) God in Christ Jesus demonstrates that God has not come to test our faith, but to give it grounding. God has come to raise dead things to life not as a way of testing our ability to believe the unbelievable – but because God is the God of life, the ground of all being. God gives us what we need because God loves us.
God is revealed to Thomas as he rejoins the community of faith in their assembly. We could draw a parallel here and say that God stands ready to confirm your faith as your live out your lives among the community of faith. God dispels Thomas’ doubts by giving him a body to touch. We could draw a parallel here and say that it is as we come in contact with the wounded body of Christ in one another we become aware of the living presence of God in the world. Or we could interpret the story in completely different ways. Obviously others have.
What I hope we can hear – the Thomas in all of us – is that God, and therefore (we hope) our church, has not set up a litmus test for faith. To all the Thomases in the room, to all of you with questions, with doubts – to you whose believing side asks for help addressing your unbelieving side – what we are left with here is not a condemnation of our questions, but the assurance that God is making appearances in our midst. God is using word and sacraments and friendships and congregations to become tangible in our lives. God is reaching out in love to give us proof we can trust that we are not abandoned in a fearful world.
Come, Thomas, with your questions. There is room for them here. Come speak your mind, demand your proof. God is waiting for you.
[i] The New Interpreter’s Bible, v.IX. Nashville: Abingdon Press .
[ii] Ibid, p. 850.