April 10 Sermon

“Doubts”

A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower

April 10, 2016                                                Third Sunday of Easter

Based on Rev 1:4-8

Using the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, Revelation 1:4–8 declares God to be Alpha and Omega, encompassing all. These verses are words of greeting to seven churches in Asia, the area that is now Turkey. While salutation sounds much like other New Testament letters, the content of Revelation mysterious, yet hopeful.

AND John 20:19-31

In the time of uncertainty and fear described in John 20:19–31, God is revealed through brokenness. The faith of Thomas and the wounds of Jesus run close together. Gifts of peace and Spirit are given to Thomas and the other disciples, to empower their witness.

I sometimes wish my parents had chosen a different name for me. I think I could have upheld a more distinct name, something like Kermit or Grover, Floyd or maybe Sebastian. I got Tom. All I ever heard when I introduced myself was “Tom-Tom the piper’s son.” I thought I had beat the game: when reminded of swine-stealing poem, I proudly answered, “But my real name is Thomas.” “Oh, so you’re the doubting Thomas.”

Anybody who shares my name meets with that accusation: doubting Thomas. So I’ve become a little protective of the disciple named Thomas. I feel across the past 2,000 years this disciple has been inaccurately portrayed. He is not guilty of doubt as much as he is guilty of absenteeism. When Jesus appeared to the other disciples, Thomas was not there. Look at that again: the disciples have locked themselves up in a room, hiding behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, but Thomas is not with them – which means (A) Thomas is not locked up in a room; (B) Thomas is not hiding; and, we can infer (C) Thomas is not afraid. And being not afraid is more often identified as being courageous. But do we call him “unafraid Thomas?” “courageous Thomas?” “Thomas the Dauntless?” No – we’ve identified him as Doubting Thomas.

So I think it is time to shine a different light on Thomas. Never does Thomas say “I doubt that happened.” What he says is more like “I need evidence to believe what you are telling me.” Philosophically, this is called empiricism. Our entire contemporary understanding of science is based on empiricism: proof is in what can be measured. It is a different kind of belief.

The main point I am making here is that Thomas doesn’t really doubt his friends’ claims, but rather that he desires to share the experience: it’s that he doesn’t want to be over there when something is going on here; Thomas wants to be there with Christ.

We’re quick to remember this single declaration by Thomas after the resurrection that we forget the other scriptures that focus on him. In John Chapter 14, we get two of most quoted Jesus sayings (although we often forget that they are part of the same passage):

1“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

 5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Now, OK, I’ll concede that Thomas’ response could be interpreted as doubt or skepticism: “You say we know the way, but we don’t even know where you are going! We need details: we need a map, precise directions with street names, major landmarks, and mileage.” If we read the text this way, Thomas is resisting any ambiguity, any possibility that he may get lost between here and there. But why is Thomas afraid of getting lost? Is it that he doesn’t trust his sense of direction, or the directions he has been given are too vague, or that he knows this is unfamiliar territory?

Anyone who travels knows these feelings. I know these feelings: every time I drive into downtown Chicago, my GPS stops working and inevitably I turn onto the wrong street and end up on a one-way road going the opposite direction I want to head and there’s no place to turn around while the GPS keeps telling me it is searching for satellites.

But I think there is a different feeling at work in Thomas. I do not think he is primarily fearful but instead acting out of desire. Thomas doesn’t want to be left out. He wants to be sure that he is there with Christ – wherever “there” may be. I think Thomas wants to be in the middle of it – even though I’m not sure he always knows what’s going on.

I say this because of Thomas’ response in a different story in the Gospel of John, the third time when Thomas is placed in the spotlight. This one happens in John 11; Jesus has received a message that his friend Lazarus is severely ill. The disciples are afraid for Jesus safety, so they point out that the authorities in Lazarus’ town are on the lookout for Jesus.

Rather abruptly, Jesus states, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, and I am going there to awaken him.” Jesus is using a euphemism, a nice way to say something unpleasant. By saying Lazarus has fallen asleep, Jesus is not telling them that Lazarus is taking a nap but rather that Lazarus has died. But the disciples misunderstand Jesus’ statement, and they say, “If he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” After all, sleeping when you are ill is usually a good thing.

So Jesus clarifies: “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. So let us go to him.” We’ve heard the story, and we know that by the time Jesus and his disciples arrive at Lazarus’ home, he will have been buried. We also know that Jesus is going to call Lazarus out from the tomb, foreshadowing his own death and resurrection.

But remember, I’m interested in what Thomas does. When Jesus says, “Lazarus is dead; let us go to him,” Thomas replies, “Let us also go so we may die with him.” There’s two ways to read this depending on how you interpret the “him” to whom Thomas is referring. The obvious is that he is referring to Lazarus, and that in his passionate grief Thomas wishes to die rather than live without his friend. The other possibility is that Thomas is referring to Jesus – made all the more plausible because of the disciples questioning the safety risks of Jesus visiting Lazarus’ home. If this is the case, then Thomas is saying, “If Jesus is going to die, then let us die with him.” In either case, Thomas wants to be in the middle of the events.

Then we have this morning’s scripture. It’s a few weeks since the resurrection of Lazarus. The disciples were part of a triumphant parade entering Jerusalem for the Passover celebrations. They shared an emotional meal together, after which Jesus went to a garden and prayed. He was arrested there, taken away by soldiers, given a hasty trial, judged guilty and assigned the verdict of public execution on a cross. The disciples may or may not have seen the crucifixion of Jesus; they may have been part of the nameless and faceless crowds that used the main thoroughfare along which crucifixions took place, or they may have hid because they were afraid of being arrested themselves. Jesus died quicker than expected, and was hastily placed in a tomb in order to not offend the Sabbath. The day after the Sabbath, women followers went to Jesus tomb to respectfully prepare the body for permanent burial. An angel tells them of the resurrection, then Jesus appears to the women, comforts them, and then tells them to gather the disciples together to wait. And so the disciples get together again.

That’s when we get to this story. We’re told they were afraid, so they locked the door, and yet Jesus comes into the room. And irony of ironies, Thomas, the guy who wants to be in the middle of everything, misses it all. The disciples tell Thomas what he missed, and 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.”

I don’t think Thomas is being a skeptic demanding some kind of sensate proof. No, instead, I think he is simply being Thomas: “You can describe it to me until you are out of breath, but until I’m actually part of it I won’t understand and I won’t believe. I have to do this for myself in order for me to comprehend the enormity of what is going on. I need to be there for myself.”

And a week later, Thomas gets his heart’s desire. “Peace be with all of you” Jesus says. “Here, Thomas, put your hand here (hands) and here (side) and believe. Do you believe now that you have seen me – because you have physical proof that I am here?” And then these words that show Jesus understands Thomas’ passions: “Blessed shall be those who have not seen and yet believe – who know I am here and there, who know wherever they go I am there also.” Wherever you go, Thomas, be it here or here or here or there or anywhere, there you may experience the resurrected Christ, and you may believe.

Thomas knew Jesus, a man from Nazareth, who could only be one place at a time. He met the resurrected Christ who is both here and there; who was, and is, and shall be; who has come, came again, and will return again.

So what experiences of the resurrected Christ do you have? In all of our conversations about being a vital congregation, being able to share those experiences is the foundation for a healthy church.

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