The following is the sermon I gave today. I uploaded it by request, but some formatting got a little jammed, so disregard any weird indentation. The scripture I went off of is John 20:19-31 NRSV
When I first felt my call to ministry, my first reaction – if you can imagine with me for a moment - was almost like that of being in a crowded room and thinking that someone had just said your name. You kind of look around, not really sure if you heard something or if your mind was playing tricks on you.
And then you realize that someone did say your name but it was the person who just pulled out the karaoke machine and desperately wants you to sing the first duet with them in front of a group of total strangers. But you don’t like singing in public, so you just try your very best to pretend not to hear them or understand them.
My call was kind of like that, except the public karaoke was professional ministry. And instead of the person saying my name, it was God calling me in a direction. So I pretended to ignore it, but eventually it became too loud and incessant to ignore. At which point I changed my tactics and simply refused to believe what I was hearing.
I treated it as if it were a false alarm, or as if God had made a mistake. I remember thinking, “Yeah. Right. Me as a pastor? Good one, God. Real funny. I’ll believe that pigs fly.” Well, pigs don’t fly but apparently God doesn’t make mistakes either, because here I am standing behind a pulpit, two years into seminary. So you can imagine how that interaction worked out.
Which brings me to today’s gospel story of Jesus and Thomas. Here we have an, almost iconic interaction with Jesus. And the first part of this interaction takes place on the very evening of Jesus’ resurrection.
Only that morning, according to John, did Mary Magdalene find the empty tomb. Only earlier did the two angels appear to Mary and say: “Woman, why are you weeping?” And only earlier that day did Jesus show himself to Mary and call her by name.
And now it’s the evening of that first day, and Jesus shows himself to all of the disciples but one: Thomas. And when Thomas is later told that Jesus himself has returned from the dead, he refuses to believe it. He says, “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.” Essentially ‘I’ll believe it when pigs fly.”
And over all, Thomas, kind of gets a bad rep for this reaction. I mean, the term “Doubting Thomas” literally comes from this story. But can you blame the guy?
I mean put yourself in his shoes: You friend, your rabbi, your teacher, was just executed by the government in such a brutal way that’s usually only reserved for criminals. And then his corpse is shut up in a tomb, sealed within stone. Then a few days later some of your friends try and tell you that last night that very same man came in through locked doors and stood among them, flesh and blood, wounds and all just hanging out there? I don’t know about you, but I most certainly would be like, “Yeah, yeah, you know what? When I can stick my own hand into the hole in his side, then I’ll believe he’s back.”
But then, just what Thomas never expected to happen, happens. A week later Jesus shows himself to Thomas and says, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe”. Almost like a challenge. Like “You wanted to touch my gaping wounds? Here, touch my gaping wounds!”
And Thomas finally believes, only to have Jesus ask him: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Now when I first remember reading this I thought, wow, what a response! Thomas finally believes and Jesus responds with “well, you believe because you saw. It’s better if you had just believed without needing the proof.” Which is essentially what he is saying, but I think a lot of us read this response and we insert something into the space between the lines.
Sometimes I think we read the words “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” but in our minds we hear the words, “Cursed are those who don’t believe right away. Cursed are those who have doubt in their hearts!”
Suddenly that very understandable response from Thomas is seen as something of a cautionary tale. And that you are somehow to be ashamed if you identify with “Doubting Thomas” in the least. But the thing is, I do identify with Thomas! My entire journey of my call to ministry has been a kind of giant leap of faith. But that’s not to say that it hasn’t also been riddled with times when I’ve turned to God and said, “Yeah? I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Putting our trust, and or faith, and our belief in God is something we are continually called to do because it brings us into a closer relationship with God. But putting all of our trust, and faith, and belief in God is also really hard. Because we do have doubts; and you know what? Those doubts are normal. And when I read this scripture I see Jesus saying exactly that: Blessed are those who believe, but doubt is normal and that’s okay, because I’m bigger than doubt.”
A great example is of Jesus’ wounds. We give Thomas a hard time for needing to see Jesus’s wounds before believing. But the thing is, Jesus shows the other disciples his wounds from the outset as proof of his resurrection, without them even asking!
When Jesus first appears to the rest of the disciples on that first night, in verses 19-20 it says “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ And after he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”
Jesus didn’t just save the showing of his wounds for Thomas, he was showing everyone so that they would know exactly who he was. It’s as if he was saying, “Indeed, blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe, however, I’m betting you guys are gonna need to see my wounds before you truly see me as the Lord.” Jesus’ response to Thomas’ doubt seems far less harsh when you imagine it being directed at all of the disciples. It seems like Jesus expected doubt, and wanted to address it.
And what’s also interesting: on both occasions Jesus appeared in a room that was locked. When he first appeared to the disciples, the doors had been locked and yet Jesus still came and stood among them. And a week later, when Thomas was present, the doors were notably locked as well and yet Jesus disregarded this and still came in and stood among them.
On both occasions the doors were locked for security reasons. The disciples were afraid of the outside world. But on both occasions these doors, which were closed due to fear and apprehension, were bypassed by Jesus without a word.
I think sometimes we put up these walls of protection, sometimes on purpose and sometimes without knowing it. Walls made up of our doubts, excuses, and arguments. Some walls are bigger than others, but they all share one common substance: fear. We put up these walls, for one reason or another, but mostly to protect ourselves because we’re afraid. We’re afraid of being hurt, of being lied to, of being embarrassed; there are a million different reasons we have the walls that we do, just as there’s a million different reasons each of us have the doubts that we have.
And at a first glance of our story today, we might think that these walls work and in working they separate us from God. But I disagree. Just as locked doors could not hold Jesus back from standing among his disciples, our walls cannot hold God back from standing with us. Just as those locked doors could not keep Jesus from showing them his wounds, our walls of doubt cannot stop those wounds from mattering to us as well. Just as those locked doors could not stop Jesus from breathing the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, our walls of doubt cannot keep us from receiving the Holy Spirit as well.
Do not, for an instant, think that our doubts are enough to keep God at bay in our lives. God is bigger than our doubts. God is simply bigger than anything we can create. And as this story shows, God doesn’t just transcend our doubts, but God responds to our doubts. John even says, “these things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.” We have these stories to help with our doubts. Because God doesn’t just respond to our doubts, but God responds to our doubts with grace. When Thomas needed to see and touch the wounds, Jesus said, “Peace be with you,” and offered his wounds up to Thomas. He said, “Here, touch!” God responds to our doubts with grace and patience, and most importantly love.
And so as Christians, if we receive the Holy Spirit that has been bestowed upon us this Sunday morning, and we love and serve our God in return, how can those doubts possibly do anything but strengthen our belief? Because we know that our faith is not blind or naïve, but is instead made up of something that no walls can contain. So don’t be afraid or ashamed of doubt. But while we struggle with those doubts, believe. Believe in the gracious, patient, and loving God that is bigger than any wall we might construct. Believe in that. Amen.