I ended last week’s message with the confession that I do not fully understand the resurrection and I never will. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead defies all reason. No matter how hard we try, there is no logical explanation for what happened on that first Easter morning. I also boldly pronounced that you won’t understand it fully either. This is because I know that if we preachers struggle with the veracity of this story, many of you do as well. Of all the fantastic, miraculous stories about Jesus: healing paralytics, walking on water, knowing people He has never met, and so on, the resurrection story is the hardest for us to comprehend. It cannot happen. Period. So most of us here, I imagine, have learned to cling to this story in faith. But, as Professor Clayton Schmit of Fuller Seminary writes “faith is a mystery of the heart that the mind wants to solve.” By this he means that to admit that we take certain things on faith means we are willing, to a degree, for things not to make perfect sense. Still, we want evidence, so that the leap of faith is manageable. And without evidence, this inkling of a doubt begins to emerge.
I imagine this is something we’ve all experienced. It’s nearly impossible to invest any part of ourselves in following God without feeling at least some doubt from time to time. The good news, though, is that we are not alone. Doubt has been a part of the Christian experience all the way back to the time of Jesus and those first disciples themselves! Thomas, in particular, is known for this.
I like this Thomas guy. Think about it: anyone whose common nicknames include both “Saint Thomas” and “Doubting Thomas” has to be interesting, someone difficult to nail down, someone you’d like to sit down with and have a beer, someone we all can relate to. But what do we really know about Thomas?
Church tradition tells us that after Thomas had become convinced of Christ’s resurrection, he headed east, farther than any other apostle, to share the good news in India. To this day, Thomasite churches exist in India, tracing their heritage back to the proclamation of the gospel by Thomas. Earlier in John’s Gospel, as Jesus is talking to His disciples about “waking up” Lazarus, He tells them they are returning to Judea, the very place where the crowds had almost stoned Him on their last visit. While some of the disciples advise caution, Thomas is quoted as saying, “Let us all go, that we might die with Him!” This guy has spunk.
I think Thomas would have a lot in common with many of us today. He was passionate, he wasn’t afraid to travel, he was opinionated, he was skeptical, and he was alone.
This is Holy Humor Sunday and I invite you to consider our Gospel reading in that light. Our text says that the disciples were together in the house where they met when Jesus came to them. Imagine it: The disciples had locked themselves into a room, afraid someone would find them and turn them in as the disciples of Jesus. Here they are hiding – hunkered in a bunker as it were. They’re nervous. Perhaps Peter steps to a window and draws the curtains slightly to peer into the street below. Had anyone followed them?
Suddenly, someone else is in the room! Do you suppose it’s possible that Jesus said “Boo” as He jumped out of the shadows, scaring the living daylights out of His timorous followers? No wonder Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” Peace is exactly what they need, as they are being peeled off the ceiling.
Yet John clarifies that Thomas was not with them. Other than when Judas leaves the Last Supper, this is the only time we see the disciples separated. I wonder where exactly he was. Maybe he was out trying to land a job, now that the Jesus movement had come to a dramatic and horrific end. Maybe he was at the tavern trying to forget the pain and disappointment he was wallowing in. And maybe he was uncomfortable being in a place where every face reminded him of Jesus so he was just out, alone.
At any rate, at some point these convinced disciples run into Thomas. “You’re never going to believe what happened!” they tell him. And they’re right, he doesn’t. You see, Thomas was in the Garden of Gethsemane that night just a few days back when the soldiers dragged Jesus away. He’d seen Christ’s body nailed to the cross and seen Him die. It’s one thing to say “Let’s go die with Jesus” when it’s a vague possibility, but it’s another when things are getting serious – just ask Peter. Thomas’ calling as a disciple, so full of promise not long ago, is over. Now, for some reason he has been left out of a miraculous incident. Thomas hasn’t seen or experienced anything. He is still on the outside, and mere testimony about a supposed resurrection is not going to be enough.
This is not unlike all of us, really. As we gather on this week after Easter, we come with questions, and fear, and uncertainty, still trying to process what this all means. Lord knows, we’ve missed the resurrection not by a few days, but by a few thousand years! So, much like us, Thomas found it a little hard to simply accept the fact that their crucified leader had somehow come back from the dead. He didn’t want to be taken by his friends; to be the victim of history’s first April Fools joke, and so he told them emphatically that unless he put his hand in Jesus’ wounds, he would not believe. Poor guy. He wasn’t demanding to see anything the disciples hadn’t already seen. And in all honesty, how many of us would accept such outrageous claims as fact without a little proof! Tell me there is one of you listening right now who, in Thomas’ place, would not have said, “Yeah, right. When pigs fly!”
There’s a continuum for belief. The more we’ve lived, the more pain we’ve endured, the more advertisements we’ve heard, the more times we’ve been deceived, the less likely we are to be taken in or titillated by testimony. We are not born doubters; those who are wise learn to doubt, as a matter of discernment.
As you may know, the traditional structure of church in Europe has been dying for the last sixty years. But an exception has been the organic growth of ecumenical gatherings called the “Thomas Mass.” Starting in Helsinki in 1988, ministers, artists, musicians, and civic leaders worked together to create a prayerful service that would again fill their cathedrals, not with departed churchgoers, but with doubters, seekers, searchers, and believers alike.
Recognizing that Europe had become a continent of skeptics, they named the service after Thomas “the Doubter.” it immediately began to spread across Europe, and services are prayerful and participatory rather than passive. People engage with God at prayer stations, painting walls, and creative expressions of the sacraments.
Thomas cannot believe based on others’ testimony. It isn’t going to happen, and this doesn’t seem to bother Jesus. Jesus seemed to understand the skepticism of humanity; the pervasiveness of doubt in our thinking. Jesus seemed to know our need for “proof” when it came to believing miraculous things. And without any cynicism or judgment, Jesus provided proof for His followers, many times over. Without being asked, when Jesus first appeared to the disciples, He showed them His hands and side. And only then, John tells us, did the disciples rejoice. One week later, when Jesus appeared to the disciples again, He did not express impatience with Thomas. Instead, Jesus told Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side.” Jesus might as easily have said to Thomas, “You need something more than a secondhand encounter with me? You want to see for yourself? I do not condemn you. Touch. See. Believe.”
Jesus did not despise Thomas for his doubt. Still though, Jesus did go on to say, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” On the surface, it sounds like Jesus is rebuking Thomas, but I don’t really think that’s what’s going on here. If Jesus felt the need to teach Thomas a lesson, it seems He would have done that before He offered to let Thomas touch his wounds. Instead, I think Jesus is taking this opportunity to address the doubt that He knows so many of His followers will deal with. On that first Easter, only some women and a few of the disciples saw the empty tomb. That was it. In all of history, only a handful of people encountered the resurrected Lord. Since then, billions and billions of others have been compelled to believe this story with secondhand information only, on faith alone. We are among those covered by this blessing from Jesus. We did not go to the empty tomb and see the risen Christ for ourselves. But, as with Thomas, Jesus does not despise our doubt either. Instead, He blesses all those who will believe without ever seeing.
I don’t know about you, but that seems like awfully good news to me. Jesus knows that we will experience doubt, and He actually wants to help us move beyond that doubt and into full faith. Jesus was, and still is, in the business of meeting people where they are. And Jesus is like a good doctor, in that He does not give the same prescription for everyone. We might be hung up on the four different resurrection accounts, or we might be hung up about God’s will, or we might be hung up on why bad things happen to good people. But no matter what, Christ will approach us in the way we need, and ultimately, He will find a way to bless us.
According to John, that is the way Jesus handles doubt. He gives us what we need, a blessing in one form or another. We can wonder if Jesus really walked on water or turned water into wine, but Christ gives us what we need. We can pour over those four resurrection accounts and question the ending of death in new life, but Christ will give us what we need. We may not see or touch, we may not have been there, but Christ will find a way to “show” us. Whether through a story in the gospels or the testimony of a friend, we will hear someone say something, perhaps a small something, that will speak to us, right when we are standing at the precipice between doubt and faith, just when we need it most.
We all wrestle with doubt. And what we need to know this morning is that that is “okay.” Christ wants to change that for you, and for me, and for everyone. So, cynics take heart, and rejoice this Easter Season. God forms community, God forms honest faith from the clay of our doubt. In the words of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, one of the more eloquent doubters of the modern era, “It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.”