Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘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.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
Yes, Christ is Risen. But, now what? That’s what I think of when I read Thomas’ story. Christ is risen. Mary Magdalene had preached a testimony of what she had seen. Jesus the Christ had risen and he had appeared to her at the empty tomb. Now what? What comes next? This reading, the one that usually comes a couple Sundays after Easter, shows us what can happen once we move from the empty tomb back into the world. Do we follow the directions we received from the Divine? Do we even tell anybody? Mary did what Jesus asked. She told the disciples. What will the rest of the disciples do?
Thomas is often remembered as the Doubter. After how horrible his last week had been, why wouldn't he have questions? Thomas was not being hard-headed. He was being realistic, especially after everything that had happened. A little doubt makes sense in times such as these. In fact, all the disciples seem to be doubting a bit. Mary had told them that she had encountered a resurrected Jesus. And, yet, scripture tells us that their response was to remain in hiding. This might also being reasonable. The Roman state had just murdered Jesus. They didn’t know if they would be next. All of their plans had fallen apart. Hiding seemed like the best option for the moment, even though Mary’s testimony could have given them a little hope, had they actually trusted her. As they huddled together, not knowing what their next steps should be, the Gospel of John tell us that Jesus would slide in past all the barriers they created to keep themselves safe and offer them peace.
Now, if you are someone who doesn't think people of faith should need physical proof of the resurrection, Jesus’ first action might surprise you. He doesn't fuss at his followers for not believing Mary. Instead, he holds out his torn hands and offers his scarred side as proof of who he is. This is a great kindness on his part... showing them what he knows they will need to believe. And, just like Mary before them, when the disciples see Jesus and his wounds, they believe. He then offers them a second great gift. He commissions them to bring about the Reign of God. Mirroring the lovely imagery of the creation story in Genesis 2, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on them, enlivening their frightened hearts. Surely, this, too is a bit of resurrection for those petrified people.
Thomas, though, missed the whole thing. He was apparently the only one brave enough to leave the house. Despite of how we often think of him, until this point, Thomas has been portrayed as a brave and faithful disciple. Back when Lazarus died, it was Thomas who said they should follow Jesus and travel to help him, even if it was dangerous. When those who have been so afraid report that they have seen Jesus, he simply asks for the same kind of proof they have received. He states, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hands in his side, I will not believe.” With these few words, Thomas became known as a doubter and a counter-example of faith of generations of Christians. I would argue, not for the first time, to characterize him as anything other than faithful, simply because he wanted the same proof everyone else got, seems unfair. Not one other person in the whole story believed without seeing. Why does Thomas get called a doubter? Why should he be expected to need any less confirmation than anybody else? He, like the disciples before him, needed a little more assurance than the excited words that his compatriots could offer. He needed some evidence that his hope wasn't unfounded. There was too much at stake to go without it.
It would take a week for him to receive the evidence he needed. That scene in this reading is truly a scene of grace. Once again, we read that Jesus slides past all their defenses and enters the room. Were they still locked up in fear or was this just where they lived now? It must not matter. What does matter is that once again, Jesus offers the ones who love him a reason to trust that they can go on without him. And, this time, he gives Thomas proof. He offers up his wounds, saying, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand put it in my side." Many translations of this passage have Jesus telling Thomas "Do not doubt." I have learned from scholars who know Greek better than I do that a better translation could be "Do not be empty of faith." Jesus’ ministry has always been marked by abundance. More wine when the wine is gone. More food when there seems only a little bit. More life when there is death. Of course, he would refill faith. In Christ and with Christ, there is enough... more than enough, in fact. If proof is what Thomas needs to renew his abundant faith, then, proof is what Jesus will provide. Once again, we see a new bit of Resurrection.
Jesus’ next few words to Thomas are often considered a rebuke. He said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This is such an interesting response. Up to this point, everyone in the story that we know believes in the Resurrection has actually seen it. First Mary Magdalene, then the 10 disciples, then Thomas. Seeing seems to be a prerequisite to believing. I think these words about believing without seeing are better understood as a challenge. After all, Mary, Thomas, and the 10, had Jesus' risen body to help them believe. That is very solid proof that that which they believe is real. But, no one who believes after them would have that same level of evidence. What are the rest of the believers to do when they need proof... when they need their faith refilled? If you can't see Christ's body and feel Christ's wounds, how can you believe? As the disciples go on to preach about the Resurrection, they are going to have to wrestle with these very questions. They have to start making a plan.
The beginning of this plan is in the peace that Jesus carried into the room with the fearful disciples. Remember the part when Jesus first slid in through the locked door and found the disciples? The second thing he did when he saw them was breathe the Holy Spirit onto them. This breathing life into things is an important part of scripture. Scholars remind us that this is a very similar scene to the first descriptions of creation in the book of Genesis where God took a lump of mud and loved it and breathed life into it, creating humanity. How would this story change for us if we took it not as a critique of doubt but as a reminder of the act of creation? People will need to see something to prove to them that resurrection is possible. What if Jesus created the proof the disciples would need in that act of breathing peace?
What if Thomas' story is best understood not as a critique of doubt but as the creation of a new body of proof...the Body of Christ... the church and all those who seek to follow Jesus can see when they need help believing in the resurrection. Just as God once breathed life into clay, Jesus breathed new life into his disciples. When he revived them, they went forth and found new followers of Christ. Had these 11 not been willing to leave their homes and continue Christ's work, we would not be here. What this story teaches us is that while we may not have Jesus’ own body here in front of us, we most certainly have the Body of Christ and we are still blessed by the proof that their faith offered.
If we are the on-going Body of Christ in the world, we are being called to offer up evidence of the resurrection. We can offer our bodies and ourselves, our wounds and our great joys, as proof of the Resurrection. You can see the Resurrection all over the place in this church, even as we are spread out across several towns and states. It is in the grief that you are so willing to offer up and share with one another during prayer. It is in the grace that you show visitors and those in need who call looking for help. It is in your willingness to share your stories of how you came to faith and came to this faith community. It is even in our church council meetings where everyone is working together to discern just how we will be church in this era of COVID-19. I suspect that even though we don’t have Jesus’ actual body right here with us, we can feel the Body of Christ right here, right now. Jesus' breathed new life into his disciples and we have inherited that new life from them. We can continue to carry that new life with us into whatever comes next. Seeing is believing in this text. I pray that you can see Christ here, as we worship over the internet, and feel Christ with us, as we learn, once again, how to live a new life.
Resources consulted when writing this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.