It is amazing how far away Easter feels. Just last Sunday we journeyed with Mary and Mary as they trudged to the tomb. In Matthew’s version of the story an earthquake breaks in, an angels swoops down, rolls the massive stone back, and sits on it! Do not be afraid, she says. The women are invited to see the empty tomb, and are told to head back out of town, away from the big, important city, to Galilee. It is THERE they will see him. It was an amazing day, kind of ridiculously wonderful as far as I am concerned: the sanctuary packed to the hilt, the amazing choir and brass leading us, shoulder to shoulder, as we sang. The flowers were beautiful; the ushers did a great job packing people in. It was great. But, meanwhile, parents still wait to see if their teenager’s body will be found off the coast of South Korea. Tensions heighten in Ukraine. We learned this week of a tragic massacre is south Sudan, ethnic cleansing, troops gathering outside a mosque in one village, killing hundreds.1 It’s back to life after public school spring break, back to our routine craziness, back to the world. It is amazing how far away Easter feels. And the questions begin to creep in: What is next? What was all this for? What will we believe?
In today’s text, Thomas is upset. I would have been. They were gathered, fearful, and Jesus appears. "Peace be with you," he says. He moves shows his wounds, and offers peace, again. Here, in a crucial point in John, the blessing becomes a commission. This is John’s Pentecost, condensing Luke and Acts 50 into one resonant day. But then there’s Thomas. He had to go run an errand, was picking up groceries, and he missed Jesus. Unless I see his wounds, he says, unless I see the mark of the nails in his hand and put my finger there, feel it, touch the place the sword pierced his side. Unless I do that, I will not believe. AND THEN A WEEK GOES BY. Imagine that week, that waiting. Wondering if it were true…
In my experience, there are some times it is really hard to believe. That God is good, that any of it makes sense, that this life matters, and is more than the suffering and pain on the news every day. We all fight with this stuff, I think – or everyone who is being honest with themselves. I also don’t think there are 2 camps – those who believe in Jesus, are firm and faithful, and those who think the whole thing is mystical hogwash. I tend to think that all of us are on a continuum, moving back and forth with varying degrees of trust and doubt.
I also want to make clear something I think you know, is that this is a church that honors doubt and honest questions. I love that about this place – the questions I get in bible study, the looks on your faces during the sermon sometimes. You aren’t a people that take things at face value, or are willing to buy whatever I am selling up here each week. You are skeptical, but it is because you are working hard. That’s where doubt is a value, and it becomes more about the courage to voice them, to call out to God for what wisdom may come. We know God can take it. Thomas wasn’t asking for anything the other disciples hadn’t seen already. And this passion is who he is. In John 14, Thomas is the one who speaks up and says, "Lord, we don’t know where you are going; how can we know the way?" setting Jesus up to proclaim that He is the way, the truth, and the life. In chapter 11, Thomas hears Jesus begin to speak of his death. Even when the other disciples don’t seem to understand, Thomas does, urging them towards commitment. "Let us also go, that we may die with him." (11:16).2
But the amazing thing about this passage is not Thomas, but Jesus. A week later, back in that house, Jesus shows up with the same greeting: "Peace be with you." Then he reaches out to Thomas. Jesus didn’t rebuke him for his tone, lecture him on his lack of faith, tell him he needed to sit there and be quiet. He creates a space for him to struggle, and doesn’t judge him for it. He offers Himself. Put your finger here. See my hands. Touch this scab. Do not doubt me, friend. Believe.
John knows, Jesus knows, that this conversation matters. That trusting in any of this stuff, much less that the One we worship, a Jewish peasant carpenter, crucified by the Romans, died a brutal and painful death and, 3 days later, wasn’t dead anymore, but was there, moving, breathing, among them. Jesus’ proof to Thomas isn’t in his hands, smooth and healed, but in his wounds. I think it is amazing that Jesus was alive but his wounds were still there. These wounds shape us, in many ways make us who we are, shape both our trust and our doubt.
And the proof comes in the signs, in what he did, in His life. John tells us in verses 30 and 31 that he wrote his gospel to tell us of these signs and wonders, these miracles, these demonstrations, they are written so that we may believe. PISTIS. Trust. Have confidence in. In some cases this is about a set of theological ideas. But, even more deeply, I think, this is about leaning into this One, this Risen One, and his grace for your life, and allowing that grace to change you.
About 5 and a half years ago our family was in one of its darkest nights, gathered around a bed in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Duke. I remember very clearly one morning looking over at Carrie, pretty darned afraid, and saying, "If this goes the way I fear it will go, it might cause our family some problems." I wasn’t sure that I would still be able to believe. And that would have rather serious implications, since my job is to offer some sort of proclamation, to invite you into this journey of trust, as we listen for God together. I wasn’t sure I would have it in me anymore. I just wasn’t.
But I was sustained; we were sustained, by the power of God working through the larger church, through you. Those are the kind of signs – spirit in community – that John is talking about, I think. And these signs are all around us. I have learned a lot these past few weeks about the work so many of you did in response to Hurricane Katrina, in preparation for Ed Cake and Irene McIntosh’s visit with us on Friday. For those of you who are newer like me, this place raised over $100,000, sent dozens of church members on multiple trips, especially to this one little village of D’Iberville, Mississippi. Everyone was mobilized in gathering supplies, constructing shower stalls, putting together recipes for volunteers to taking, going shopping, set up databases to track info, brought tools by, modified big tents as sleeping quarters for residents and volunteers, so many folks in this place did so many things here and down there.
I have seen those signs in our confirmation class that will meet with the session today. They have asked great questions that I we all have done our best to honor. One of our confirmands was out this past week working with one of their mentors, talking about their faith statement. A gentleman from a nearby table happened to overhear the conversation and came over to say how we hoped his kids would grow up with their thoughtfulness.
I have seen signs in the gifts you give – this extraordinary 50th anniversary gift of $78,000 or so to the Food Bank and Montreat, the Easter offering, the ways you are and will support our youth as they head to Iona, Scotland, on pilgrimage. I have seen them in the ways you care for one another, even as you cared for me.
In a world filled with so many difficult things, so many enormous questions, we need Thomas. But even more than that we need his God, who comes among us, bearing His wounds, meeting our doubt with grace. Might we, too, be a church that asks his good questions?
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. "’Piles and piles’ of bodies in S. Sudan slaughter", WRAL News, April 22, 2014
2. Lose, David J., "Realities Old and New" sermon on John 20:24-31, in Journal for Preachers, Easter 2007, 12-14.