Second Time Around: A sermon on Doubting Thomas for April 7, 2013

Doubting_Thomas_smLast Sunday most of you were here for Easter. We had an uplifting service celebrating faith in Christ and in the resurrection. We read together the story of how Christ rose again, and appeared to those he love, and how the message that God’s love still lived began to spread. It’s hard to leave church on Easter morning and not feel some sense of joy, and some sense of faith. I leave Easter services, like Christmas services, on a sort of “faith high”.

But we sometimes forget that the first disciples experienced that first Easter a little differently. There were no colored eggs or Easter dinners that year. What there was was a lot of confusion, and a lot of rumors. No one knew exactly what was going on, but they heard from Mary that Jesus was back, and she had seen him. And on that first Easter they probably weren’t sure what to believe.

The story we read today starts on that first Easter Sunday. After Jesus has appeared to Mary in the garden, he goes to the room where the rest of his disciples are holed up. And they’re afraid. And suddenly Jesus appears, despite the locked doors, and they can see the wounds in his hands and his side. And he says “peace be with you”. And they believe.

But one disciple was missing. And this would probably be me. Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus came back. Maybe he was at the store. Maybe he was running late after work. Maybe he was stuck in traffic. For whatever reason, Thomas wasn’t there.

But that week the disciples tell him what they saw. I’ll bet they even said to him something like, “Thomas, you won’t believe this!” And he doesn’t. Thomas tells them, “Unless I see it for myself, and can touch his wounds, I won’t believe.”

Have you ever wondered how Thomas must have felt right then? Were the disciples pranksters, maybe, and he thought they were playing a joke on him? Or were they telling the truth, and if so, why hadn’t Jesus stayed around for him to see him too? All he knew was that the other ten remaining disciples were in on something, and he wasn’t.

Part of me wonders if the real reason Thomas wasn’t there is that he had given up. He had seen the man he had left everything behind to follow end up dead on a cross. Maybe he thought he had thrown away his life and chased after an impossible dream. And maybe on that first Easter Sunday, before he even heard that Jesus had come back, he had already started to doubt. Maybe that’s why Thomas wasn’t there that day.

But the next week, for whatever reason, he’s there. And all of a sudden the same thing happens. Jesus appears and tells Thomas to put his hands on his, and feel the wounds from the nails.  And he does. And he believes. Jesus asks him, “Do you believe because you have seen me?” And he tells him, “Blessed are those who do not see yet believe.”

I’ve always felt bad for Thomas. He was asking to do what the other disciples didn’t have to do. He had to believe sight unseen. Probably any of the others would have had the same struggle. And yet, we all know Thomas as “doubting Thomas”. I wonder how long after this happened did it take for the other disciples to call him that. “Oh, that’s doubting Thomas. Jesus had to come and let him touch his hands before he believed.”

I’d hate to be remembered only my greatest moment of doubt. Because I’ve had them. And I could be, “doubting Emily” pretty easily. And I guess a lot of us could be something similar. But as much as Thomas sort of gets this label as the disciple who didn’t believe, he’s always been my favorite. Because of all of them he’s the one I think most of us can relate to. Because most of us understand what it is to live between faith and doubt.

We think of faith and doubt as opposites. But that’s not really true. Faith and apathy are more opposite than faith and doubt. But doubt is often a key part of the journey of faith. It’s a stop along the way that most of us make more than once. And when we find ourselves there, it’s not an indication of us being bad Christians or disbelievers. It’s a sign that we are taking our relationship with God seriously enough that we are letting ourselves be honest, and we are letting ourselves start a journey without knowing exactly sure where we are going.

Thomas was like that. As much as he is “doubting Thomas”, he’s also known to millions as Saint Thomas. Christian tradition holds that he set sail for India and was the first to spread the Christian faith there. In the end his doubt, his desire to know Jesus for himself, was what brought him faith. And that faith gave him the strength to bring that message to so many others. And if you go to India today, St. Thomas is the one who didn’t just doubt, but who believed, and who helped others to do so as well.

But he was lucky, right? I mean, he got to see Jesus, to touch Jesus, to know Jesus, in a way you and I don’t. Doubting Thomas may have become a saint, but what hope is there for me, or for you?

I was reading a story recently about a woman in her 30’s who one day had this overwhelming spiritual experience. She knew God was present, and she felt God calling her to do something new, and scary, and hard. But she felt God so clearly that day, that she couldn’t deny it. It’s the sort of spiritual experience most of us want. The moment of clarity. The clear marching orders. It’s like Thomas getting to touch Jesus’ hand.

The young woman did go out, and for the next 50 years she did amazing things. But inside she doubted. She wrestled with faith. She had what Christian writers for centuries have called a “dark night of the soul”. Sometimes she even questioned the existence of God. Her lack of faith bothered her.

The other disciples may have called her, “Doubting Theresa”. But you and I know her as Mother Theresa, the woman whose life many call saint-like. I used to see pictures of her and think, she must be so holy. So full of faith. She must be so certain of what she is doing. But in the last few years, we’ve learned that wasn’t the case. She was like us. And she was like Thomas.

We Protestants don’t canonize saints anymore, but our Catholic brothers and sisters do. And Mother Theresa is very close to becoming a saint. She’s already been beatified. Even with her doubts, she was found worthy of this title.

Or, maybe, because of her doubts. Because we all doubt. At least all of us who see faith as a journey, and not a one time stop. Our faith gets shaken, we question it, we wonder why Jesus doesn’t appear to us when everyone around us seems to have seen him. We may even feel ashamed of our doubt.

I wonder if Thomas did that first week. Why couldn’t he just accept what the others said? Why did he have to see for himself? I wonder if the next Sunday he thought about not going back. He wasn’t “one of them” anymore. He was the doubter. The one who hadn’t seen.

And yet, he went back. And maybe he went back because he had loved Jesus so much that he needed to hear them talk about him, even if he wasn’t so convinced it was true yet. Maybe he went back because it was easier than being alone. Maybe he went back because he thought maybe, just maybe, Jesus would come again. For whatever reason, we went back to that community in his hour of greatest doubt, just like many of you come here every week, and that day Jesus showed up and he believed.

Doubt can be the thing that propels us to faith. It can be what shakes us up. It can be what pushes us out of the doors of our once comfortable places and into a new, and better, world. Doubt can be the ticket that starts our journey to new life. It can be a sign not of the absence of God, but of God working in us to do something new.

I’ll close with this. Because there’s another side to this story too. And that’s that Jesus came back for Thomas the next week. I like that, because as much as anything in this story, that gives me hope. It wasn’t a one shot deal with Jesus. It wasn’t “you weren’t here and so you missed it”. It wasn’t, “too bad…you’re just going to have to trust the others”. It was God incarnate giving Thomas another chance to see and to believe.

Whether we realize it or not, I think we get those second chances too. I think Jesus comes to us again and again, showing himself to us. And I think that eventually, when we are ready, when we have somehow opened our hearts up to possibility, we see. And we come to believe. Until then, God never stops coming back. And that’s good news for us all. Amen.

One thought on “Second Time Around: A sermon on Doubting Thomas for April 7, 2013

  1. You spoke a powerful message that reached me. I, too, had a spiritual experience that literally saved my life, and yet… there are times when I doubt. [sidethought: Thomas really was the most “scientific,” it seems to me.] Thank you for reminding me that “where there are only one set of footprints in the sand, those were the times when I carried you.” Hugs from Asia, Silvia Wilson

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