Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.
We’re here to talk about Jesus by talking about Thomas, and I am very excited about that because Thomas is great. And there’s a disclaimer I need to make before we get into it, because centuries of either skipping over it or interpreting it incorrectly is part of how we got to where we are, and we are long overdue for a course correction.
In many places in the Gospel According to John, and in our reading for tonight, you’ll see phrases like “the doors were locked for fear of the Jews.” The word there is Ioudaion, which, in context, means Judeans, which means the governing authorities of the placed called Judea, who were Jewish. It doesn’t mean your classmates who practice Judaism, with whom some of us gathered on the quad this evening. The line from point A to point B on anti-semitism is sometimes that short, and that is so dangerous.
Last Saturday morning in Poway, and six months ago in Pittsburgh, and many many times throughout history, Jewish people have been murdered by white supremacists. Many of those white supremacists have had their understandings of Judaism twisted from the very beginning from seemingly innocuous scripture like this. Fear is very powerful.
It is important to me that you understand this, because you are emerging adults in a world full of fear, and you have more power to counterbalance that fear than you are led to believe.
We worry, as Christians, I think, about fear and about doubt and about whether all of this stuff that we’re practicing is really making the world better. If you leave this building on Wednesday nights with just a little more love for your fellow humans than you came in the door with, and a little more courage to do something you’re afraid of, and a little more emboldened to speak peace into a world of violence, then we’re on the right path.
It breaks my heart to think about any of you being in danger on campus, in your classrooms, in movie theaters, or at restaurants, or wherever you go—to fear for your safety in our sacred places almost too much for me.
But I spoke with a few of you this week—and so many other weeks, when death felt so near—about how we are the Easter people. I say that phrase a lot, and you’ll hear it in other contexts from other Christians and other Lutherans, especially, and I just want to remind you what that means. Being the Easter people doesn’t mean we’re always sunshine and candy and spring flowers. It means that we are always alive, even in death.
I know, I know, impossible. But that’s the thing. Jesus was dead, and Jesus is alive again. Death is real—perhaps the realest thing there is—but death is never the end of the story. God promises us that there is life, and there is death, and there is life again. That sounds too good to be true, and I think that that’s exactly why it makes perfect sense that our dear friend Thomas in tonight’s gospel is not quite ready to accept it as fact, either!
On the week after Easter every year, my fellow clergy and I all write sermons about Thomas. They say the usual things that we say about Thomas: he wasn’t with the other disciples, he doubts that Jesus has risen, he demands to touch Jesus’ wounds, he gets the opportunity to do so, he believes, he proclaims. A great story!
But there’s more to it than that. The disciples are all celebrating, delighted by this unfathomable turn of events, and saying “He is risen! We have seen the Lord! Hallelujah!” but Thomas thinks for a moment and says, “I don’t know, y’all. You saw him? I wish I could see him. I’d like to touch his wounds and hear his voice—as you have done—so that I may say, without a doubt, that he is risen.”
And that’s not really too much to ask, is it? The other disciples have seen and touched and heard, shouldn’t Thomas be afforded the same? And Thomas—like any of us who have grieved a death—may very well still be coming to terms with the idea that all of it even happened. Weren’t they just traveling the Palestinian countryside together, the whole community, a few weeks ago? Weren’t they just riding haphazardly on donkeys in to Jerusalem? Wasn’t Jesus just here?
With all this rattling around in his mind, what does it feel like to hear the other disciples proclaim that Jesus is risen from the dead? Thomas is sure that, last week, they told him Jesus had died. Was that real? Did that happen? Was it not Jesus whose face he’d cradled in a final goodbye? Was it not Jesus nailed to the cross, after all? Was this all some kind of trick? Or, what if the disciples are mistaken? What if it is an impostor claiming to be their Lord? Thomas needs to touch this man who claims to be the risen Christ and touch those wounds.
This is important. Thomas does not ask that Jesus perform a miracle. Thomas does not ask that Jesus break bread with them. Thomas does not ask for Jesus to recount the details of their life together, as some sort of password.
Thomas wants to touch the wounds—Thomas wants to know that the resurrected Jesus continues to be the crucified Jesus. That all of it was real. That Thomas did witness his friend die, and that that friend who really did die is really now raised.
And as he has always done, Jesus appears at just the right time. Jesus knows what Thomas needs. “Put your finger here and see my hands,” Jesus says. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” And so, in touching the familiar hands of his friend, Thomas recognizes the resurrected Jesus—the one whose torture and death he had witnessed just two weeks before. It was true, what his friends had said! He is risen! Thomas recognized him, exclaiming “My Lord and My God!”
Thomas’ understanding of Jesus, of the power of God, of the movement of the Spirit, was not based on his ability to see and interpret and rationalize. Thomas knew that the Christian life was about reaching out a hand, experiencing human brokenness, and believing in that connection.
It’s okay if you’re not convinced that Jesus was dead and is now alive. You didn’t see it happen, either. A good way, I think—and Thomas would probably agree—to investigate, is to reach out. Look around, as you are able, and see the human brokenness all around us.
Reach out. Take a risk. Make a connection with someone you’re unsure about. Open your scared, vulnerable self, so that someone might reach out to you. Connection in our shared fear and uncertainty—like gathering for tonight’s vigil—can help us to see the way forward, together.
I’ve said before and I’ll say again that “Doubting Thomas” is such an unfair nickname given to this man. Remember, just last week, when we heard that the women ran from the empty tomb to tell their friends that Jesus was alive, and they “dismissed it as an idle tale”? Why aren’t those men known as the Doubting Disciples in every theology textbook forever?
Or maybe, if we reframe the role of doubt in our lives of faith, being known as Doubting Thomas isn’t such an insult. We shouldn’t accept everything anyone ever tells us about God—especially when we’re told that we need to meet unreachable standards of perfection in order to be loved by God. We should doubt people who are so certain about their exact image of God being the capital-T-Truth, and hearing no other perspectives.
God is complicated, and we’re complicated. I guess this is confusing, because I hope that you never doubt that you are a beloved child of God, perfect as you are and as you are becoming. But, if you ever do doubt that, you know where to find me to tell you again. And maybe, some time, you’ll be certain, and you’ll reassure a friend in doubt.
Remember, we’re the Body of Christ, together. Broken and made whole. Alive, and dead, and alive again. Thanks be to God!