Sermon for Sunday April 28, 2019 2 Easter John 20:19-31
Thomas the Doubter, or Thomas the Pragmatic?
The story of “Thomas the Doubter” is one of my favorite readings of the entire church year. Perhaps it’s because Thomas seems so very human, as do all the disciples, hiding out as they were in that upper room on the first Easter Sunday.
Throughout this past week, I was pondering our Gospel reading for today and wondering if there is anything new I might say about it. One of the things I thought about is how different it is for us today in the way we get our information, and how we get at the truth.
We live in an age that offers a constant barrage of information, most of which can be accessed in a blink of an eye. We carry a palm-size super computer in our pocket, and we can use that to gain knowledge, play games, and to communicate with others, whether they be close family members or distant “friends” whom we will never actually meet in person.
But getting information and getting at the truth can be very different things. Most of us can remember having access to news in only a few ways—word of mouth, reading the newspaper, and television or radio. But those were very limited resources; we had three channels on TV, one or two local papers, and perhaps a handful of radio stations. Today, it is much easier to get “the news” of the day, but a lot harder to determine what is true because anyone with a computer and an opinion can instantly become an expert at distributing information that may or may not be true.
For the disciples, living in fear after the arrest and execution of Jesus, things were much simpler. You believed what you saw with your own eyes. Mary Magdalene and the other women told the disciples that they had seen the empty tomb on Easter morning, but that did not convince them that it was true. Peter and John had to go and see it for themselves. And even then they did not understand. They end up going back to their hideout and hunkering down, trying to make sense of it all. That evening, Jesus appears to them, and they believe, incredible as it is, that Jesus has indeed risen from the dead.
Were these fear-filled men overjoyed when Jesus suddenly appeared among them on that first Easter evening? I think their first reaction was shock. Jesus saw this, so his first words to them were “Peace be with you.” Jesus was reminding them of what he had said to them on the night he was betrayed: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you…Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” Jesus showed them the wounds from his crucifixion—the nail holes in his hands and feet, the opening where the spear had pierced his side. He then fulfilled his promise to them by breathing new life into them. Just as God breathed life into Adam, Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into his apostles, sending them out to do God’s work in the world. The powers that Jesus had during his earthly ministry—healing the sick and forgiving sins—were now being given to those who would carry on that ministry after the Resurrection. That gave the disciples something else to worry about. The miraculous healing that Jesus did along with stating that he could forgive sins was what got him into trouble with the Pharisees and led directly to his arrest and death.
We do not know why, but not all of the apostles were present in the locked room on that first Easter evening when Jesus appeared. Thomas was not there; after he returns, the others tell him with great joy and excitement what has happened. But seeing is believing; Thomas did not believe his brother disciples when they told him this news.
But Thomas must have had at least a bit of hope, because the following Sunday, he was in that room with the others. The door was closed, as before, but Jesus showed up in the midst of them, greeting them once again with “Peace be with you,” just as he had the week before. Jesus already knew what Thomas had said to the others. He said, “Go ahead, Thomas, touch my wounds. It’s time for you to stop doubting and believe.” Thomas’s response goes beyond the simple joy of seeing his teacher alive again. Thomas sees Jesus in a completely new way: “My Lord and my God!” he exclaims. Thomas is the first person in the Bible to name Jesus as God. Thomas’ doubt was instantly transformed into faith!
Jesus takes the opportunity to gently chastise Thomas, telling him, “You believe in me now because you’ve seen me; blessed are those who have not seen, yet have believed.” Those are the words that are directed to us through John’s Gospel, two thousand years after the Resurrection. Those words are for our benefit—we who did not live with Jesus while he accomplished his earthly mission, but who are blessed because we know and believe in him. Thomas is a disciple that many of us can identify with, especially when our faith is not at its strongest. He is able to overcome his skeptical nature and fills his heart with the knowledge that Jesus lives for the sake of everyone, on that day in the upper room, and for each of us today.
When the Gospels tell us these unflattering stories about the apostles’ behavior, it strengthens our own faith. It would have been easy for those early Christian writers to gloss over the weakness of the disciples. They could have left out the part about Peter’s failings and Thomas’s doubts. But those are the very passages that show us the human side of the apostles. Those are the Scriptures that offer us encouragement that it is possible to change, with God’s help. It makes the Good News of the Gospel so much better when we can identify with those first followers of Jesus, those original eleven who did not always have unwavering faith in our Lord. It took time and a lot of hard work for them to gain the faith they needed to go out into the world and preach about God who took on our humanity and dwelled among us.
Like Thomas, even with our own failings and doubts, we can still carry the message of the Risen Lord to the ends of the earth, or at least to our immediate neighbors. Discerning the truth is, perhaps, more difficult in the age we live in, but when we recognize God’s love for us, and share that love with others, we strengthen our own faith in Jesus Christ. This is the true path to knowing Jesus as he really is, our Lord and our God.