Acts 2:14a, 22-32
1 Peter 1:3-9
I’ve been reading and hearing the Doubting Thomas story for a long time, but only this week has it occurred to me to ask—Where was Thomas? John says the disciples were meeting in fear. They had used the highest technology of the first century and locked their doors. Jesus appears and breaths his Spirit on them. But Thomas—Thomas was not with them. I’ve always accepted that, but now it occurs to me just to ask: where was he? And why were the disciples so scared?
It’s all a guess. John doesn’t say exactly why he wasn’t there when Jesus came. It could be that John, being the writer of the Gospel according to John, wanted to highlight something about believing, and didn’t really care about whatever Thomas was feeling or thinking. John cares a lot more about how the hearer of his Gospel thinks and feels—and believes. But I like that John has this story about doubt and denial. And I like that it comes now, the week after Easter, when the intensity of Holy Week and the glory of Easter Sunday have gone. We’re back to the regular way of things. Every week from here on out the Christ is risen, he is risen, indeed schtick will get more and more forced. Pretty soon summer will come and we’ll forget all about Easter. It’ll be like it was before—Christ is risen, sure, but there are bills to be paid, debt to accumulate and remit, life goes on.
The problem, it seems to me, is that all of the disciples suffer from the same problem, fundamentally. In Thomas it manifests itself as obduracy or despair or whatever it was that led him away from his friends, and in the other disciples it manifested itself as fear of the authorities. Whatever the symptoms, the disease is the same: and it’s unbelief. It’s doubt. Their problem is that they didn’t believe Mary Magdalene when she told them what she saw. She told them she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken to her and given her instructions. And they didn’t believe her. Not the disciples who met in secret, in fear, not Thomas who was out doing whatever it was he was doing.
And in case we miss the point, John is careful to tell us the same story twice. First, he tells us the story of the disciples meeting as a group. Jesus comes and says, “Peace be with you,” and then, as Mary did, the disciples find their friends and say, “We have seen the Lord.” Each paragraph is a close copy of the last. It’s almost like John is trolling us. And in both instances that statement is met with the wrong reaction. If the disciples believed Mary, they certainly shouldn’t have been scared. They should have run through the streets shouting “He is risen! He really is risen!” at the top of their lungs, just like the shepherds did at Christmas.
But notice what John also does. He moves his focus from the group of the disciples, too many to name, to Thomas, one person. And he ends in a strange way: with a direct address to you. See how skillful he is? He narrows our focus until all we can see is our own heart: Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you might have life in his name. In other words, John is saying to you, to me: we have seen the Lord. Do you believe?
Something strange has happened to me this Lent. I never used to like the Gospel of John. Too much talking, for my taste. But somehow I’ve come around to loving it. It’s almost as if John is fading out now. You can almost see the movie. The dark and locked room; Thomas, reduced into awe; Jesus, standing, bleeding, and more present to us than all the others—My Lord and my God, Thomas says, and the camera pans around slowly as the Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” And now, having settled on Jesus, he grows slowly in the screen as the narrator says, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written this book.” Closer and closer to Jesus’ face, now. “But these are written so that you come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God,” and darkness. Then, in the dark, the voice finishes: “and that through believing you may have life in his name.” Roll credits! Of course, there’s an Easter egg after the credits, but that’s ok, we’ll get to that in a couple of weeks.
But it’s meant to hit us like that. Now, John says to us, now it’s about you. And suddenly, everything takes on a new color: do you really actually think I can believe this? In another book of the New Testament, a writer calls faith “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Jesus says that the people who believe without seeing are blessed. And so we face a challenge: will we believe and be blessed? Or will we simply say, along with Thomas, “Unless…”
We do not live in a world in which the evidence of God overwhelms us. It is there if you look at the beauty of this world, and it’s almost eerie perfection for life in a universe that doesn’t seem disposed towards life. On the other hand, it seems cruel to be so alive and yet waste so much life. What evidence does this world offer for our faith?
Thomas wants evidence, because he does not believe the message. When he gets his evidence, he believes, but I wonder if we do. Do we believe because we read a story about Thomas getting convinced by the risen body of the Lord? No, I think Jesus is right: blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe. Now that we have come to the end of the Gospel, we should know that signs never satisfy. Only faith satisfies. John begins with the Word—we come to believe through the message of salvation offered to us through Jesus Christ. In the end, that’s all God is asking us: do you believe?
Once we believe, then we see. Not the other way around. I had the privilege of attending a lunch at Union Seminary at which the Reverend Dr William Barber spoke. You might have heard of him. He began the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina. One of the things he said is that our country suffers from the language of conflict. He doesn’t want a religious left opposing a religious right, or vice versa; he wants to claim the moral center of our democracy. But he kept talking about faith—the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. And I think he meant to say that he is fighting for those things: for justice, which is hoped for but not seen; for a clean environment, hoped for but seen less and less. But more than that, for the beating heart of goodness, the joy that comes from doing right, the strength we receive from faith in God. Believe in that, then see what you can. Like Thomas, you’ll see more than you dreamed. Amen.
Reverend John Flack