My sermon from April 28, 2019, 2nd Sunday of Easter, when we hear about Thomas and his doubts of the veracity of Jesus’ resurrection. I also specifically deconstruct the phrase “for fear of the Jews” in light of Saturday’s shooting at the Chabad synagogue in Poway, CA. – it is critical that we acknowledge how Scripture has been used to justify such actions, and commit to fighting against such horrific misuse of what is essentially an incorrect translation.
19When 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.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.25So 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.”
26A 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.” 27Then 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.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But 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.
Dear friends, grace and peace to you this day from our wondrous God, through the risen Christ. Amen.
Every year on the Sunday after Easter we hear this story, which features the character we have nicknamed “Doubting Thomas.”
I’m not sure how Thomas ended up as the fall guy here. I saw a cartoon this week with Thomas saying to the other disciples, “I’m just saying, we don’t call Peter ‘Denying Peter’ and we don’t call Mark ‘Ran-away-naked Mark.’ How come I get stuck with this title??”
A question worth considering, particularly in light of the part of this gospel reading that immediately precedes it.
The disciples are locked in the upper room, our text says, “for fear of the Jews.” I do need to make a sidebar point here: “the Jews” is a poor translation; it really should say “the religious authorities.” This is one of the passages that has been used for anti-Semitic purposes over the centuries, including the shooting yesterday in Poway, and modern biblical and linguistic scholarship has provided much needed clarity.
So we can more accurately look at this situation as, the disciples are locked in the upper room because they reasonably fear that what happened to Jesus is likely to happen to them. The religious authorities, who are in a Vichy-like agreement with Rome, could easily come after them next.
Thomas is not with them. We’re not sure why, other than it sets up the doubt story.
At any rate, he misses out on Jesus’ visit and breathing the Holy Spirit on the disciples, so when he hears about it later, he doubts what they’re saying. They are saying the same words THEY doubted when Mary Magdalene said them. Poetic justice, perhaps?
So I wonder if Jesus’ words about who is blessed are directed just as much at all the disciples as they are at Thomas. There isn’t a disciple in the room who hasn’t harbored doubt in the last few days.
And perhaps I might be so bold as to say that there isn’t a disciple in THIS room who hasn’t harbored doubt too at some point in time.
We’ve been told, or at least we’ve gotten the message, that when it comes to faith, doubt is bad. It’s the opposite of faith.
I prefer to take to heart the words of the great 20th-century Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich, who said that doubt is NOT the opposite of faith. Rather, certainty is the opposite of faith.
And that makes sense. The letter to the Hebrews declares that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
But Thomas doubts, just as the disciples did before him. In the other places we see him in the gospel stories, he’s a pretty pragmatic guy. He needs to see Jesus to believe. He wants proof beyond a reasonable doubt, to borrow a phrase from my legal past.
But if resurrection indeed is, like I suggested last week, a way of new living instead a one-time event – how do you “prove” it?
I think Thomas moves in this story from the one-time event to the new way of living. I actually think he is the disciple who first seems to get it. He does see Jesus, bodily standing before him. He is the one whom Jesus invites to touch his wounds, to acknowledge in a very physical way that the Savior of the world, risen from the dead, bears the scars of his crucifixion. They do not magically disappear in resurrection. Thomas is thus transformed by the realization that no matter what his life will be from this point forward, Jesus has been there/done that and will gladly walk alongside him through it again. The wound marks Jesus bear no longer identify him as one of the dead, but as one of the living.
At the same time, the more I thought about this story, the more I could see how it reflects some of how society regards institutionalized religion today. They have a lot of doubts about it, for a lot of reasons. Most of those reasons have to do with not seeing Jesus in the public face of the church.
I’ve engaged with a number of folks in that camp, both friends and strangers. I want to hear what they have to say. It makes for an interesting conversation.
And what I hear them actually saying is that what has turned them off is the church’s arrogant swagger of certainty.
A certainty that results in the church’s inability to admit its wrongdoings and confess its shortcomings.
A certainty by which the church has engaged in reprehensible behaviors and refused to repent for them.
Now, these folks I talk to are still very much interested in the divine. In a place that creates a sense of community. A place that takes Jesus’ call to serve the downtrodden seriously. A place that loves and doesn’t condemn.
But what they have observed as the public face of the church, at the very least, gives them plenty of doubt.
And I wonder if instead of throwing a new program at this sort of thing, if we began with ourselves, how would that look?
An example of this is the work our ELCA Lutheran Church has done, in collaboration with the Lutheran World Federation, on refuting the anti-Semitic writings of Luther and the damage they have caused through the centuries, through official apologies to the Jewish people.
How can I possibly hope to address the doubts others might have about God, if I don’t address the doubts and failings I have myself?
I used the word “address” and not “resolve” on purpose. They have very different meanings. And if you’ll indulge me in some humor for a moment, perhaps I can make my point clear.
In the great comedy series “The Honeymooners” there is an episode called “The Golfer” where Ralph Kramden, angling for a promotion, ends up with a golf date with the manager of the department. Ralph (who doesn’t play golf) and his sidekick Ed Norton check out a book from the library about golf, and Ed demonstrates preparing for the swing: address the ball. And perhaps you recall Ed’s classic line: “Hello, ball!”
This is really what I mean when I say address our doubts. Acknowledge them. Hold a chair out for them. Because that’s how we start to get to know them.
And that’s when they become a part of our faith – when we ask hard questions of God and don’t always get answers, at least not the answers we want or in the time frame we’d prefer. And so instead of certainty – which sounds good on paper, but in practice is useless and ultimately false – we learn how to exist in the uncertainty.
That sounds uncomfortable at first. But I think that it’s what is required for us to be continually open to God’s voice, to the Holy Spirit being breathed upon us by Jesus, for us to be able to hear his words, “as the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Certainty is finite. It says, ok we’re done, that’s a wrap.
Uncertainty says, I wonder what else there is? What else, God?
That’s a variation on that Hebrews quote: faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
There is, however, a certainty in which we are grounded: the certainty of the love of God in Christ Jesus, from which nothing at all can separate us.
Do we really need any OTHER assurance? Any other certain thing in this world?
Is that not the certainty that sets us free from sin?
Is that not even the certainty that gives us the freedom to doubt, to question, to wonder, to rail against God, even, when the days turn dark?
It is the certainty that reminds us that no matter how much we question, how far we wander, how much doubt we harbor – God understands. God is right beside us.
And it is also the certainty that reminds us of those words of Jesus: as the Father has sent me, so I send you.
I send you, he says, to those who are hurting. Those who are lonely. Those who need prayers, even from a distance. To those who need to see that Christ is alive, that Christ’s followers DON’T have all the answers, are plenty uncertain about lots of things, and are just trying to figure it all out, day to day, in a community that does its best to practice resurrection. That our struggles and doubts are part of what defines us as followers of Jesus.
When we hold faith and doubt together, we practice resurrection.
And God’s love in Christ makes that resurrection a reality. Amen.