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Thomas and the need of a witness

Acts 2:14,22-32
John 20:19-31

April 12, 2015

Year B Easter 2

Writing near the end of the first century, John addressed people who had never seen or heard Jesus in the flesh. Most of them had been born after he died, so the stories they heard came second-or-third hand. There were still some eyewitnesses around, but even those trusty souls were getting on in years. A child who was six years old on that first Easter morning would have been close to seventy by the time John wrote his gospel.

John’s problem, which is a continuing problem for the church, was how are people encouraged to become a part of this Christian faith community when there is so little proof of anything. But - the story of
Thomas gave him a way to do that. By detailing that reluctant disciple’s doubt, John took the words right out of our mouths and put them in Thomas’ instead, so that each of us has the opportunity to think about how we do, or do not, come to believe.

Thomas was not there the first time Jesus appeared to his disciples. He was the only one of the eleven who was absent, which tells you something about his character. Like Peter, he distinguished himself by saying things no one else would say. When Jesus was bent on going to Lazarus’ home in Bethany - deep in enemy territory - and everyone else was trying to talk him out of it, Thomas said,
“Let us also go, that we may be a presence for him.” When Jesus sat down at the last supper table and told his friends not to be afraid, because they knew the way and where he was going, it was Thomas who said, “But, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” So, Thomas asked the question before it was even relevant.

Thomas was not, in other words, a follower - at least not automatically. He was a brave and literal minded fellow who could be counted on to do the right thing, but only after he had convinced himself as to what that was.You have perhaps known someone like that yourself - someone whose refusal to go along with the crowd has more integrity to it than those who go along easily - even when going along is the right thing to do. As it would have been in this case, presumably.

Those who were there that first Easter evening saw the risen Christ. They were so convinced that it was him that afterward they told Thomas he could take their word for it. Jesus was back, still wounded but very much alive. He had forgiven them. He who had every right to be angry with them, he might have said,
“why did you run away and desert me,” instead he said, “Peace be with you.” He had healed them with those words. In doing that he gave them back their lives, he allowed them to feel they still had integrity. He empowered them to do the work that was ahead of them.

“We have seen Jesus,” they told Thomas, in perfect unison, and by all rights Thomas should have replied, “All ten of you saw him at the same time?’ Well, that’s good enough for me. I believe you! What do we do next?”

But that is not, of course, what he said. What he said was,
“Unless I see…I will not believe,” which makes Thomas a stand-in for all of us who want to see something for ourselves before we decide whether or not some strange story is true.

I, for example, have heard some pretty convincing stories about
UFO’s in my life, having come from the prairie where mysterious circles appear in the grain fields, stories abound, but until I see one for myself I will remain a skeptic. I have also heard about out-of-body travel, and weeping statues of the Virgin Mary, but so far I have not experienced any of those for myself. Until I do, they remain out of the realm of possibility for me. I am not saying they are not true. I am saying I do not know them to be true for myself. Unless I see, I will not believe.

When I was part of a movie group we watched the movie,
“The Notebook” and it was surprisingly a very controversial movie. Throughout the movie there seemed to be no concrete answers to some pretty important questions. At the end of the movie the elderly couple died. It just showed them together, lying side by side, dead. There was no explanation of how they died. Most everyone said that they just willed themselves dead and so their wish was fulfilled and so they died. I was the only one who said that he assisted her in helping her die, and then he took his own life. A euthanasia/suicide. Perhaps, I doubt happy endings. But that’s how it is - right? It’s how we perceive what has happened. Some of us are more like Thomas than others. It doesn’t always have to do with proof but perhaps more with how we see the world. Unless I see I will not believe.

Doubting isn’t a bad thing; I believe it is a very good thing. I’ve read that 20% of the people who sit in church on Sunday morning seriously doubt the existence of God. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have faith. They might have more faith than the firm believer, because perhaps they have thought things out for themselves.

How could the disciples have convinced Thomas that they had seen Jesus? They can’t. He had to see for himself. And you can’t convince me that the people in the movie just laid down together and died. How we see is different for each and every one of us.

Some of us have to see more than others.

It is an understandable attitude. John understood it. Why else would he have told us about Thomas? Even Jesus understood it. In one of his more generous moves, he did not dismiss Thomas from the circle of his friends for failing to trust what the others had told him. On the contrary, Jesus made sure Thomas was included in that circle by coming back and repeating the whole scene a second time for his benefit alone. In the end, no one was there that night that had to take anyone’s word for anything.They all saw for themselves, and believed.

That would seem to leave the rest of us out. - all of us who were not there, all of us who will never lay hands or eyes on the concrete person Jesus. We are outside the circle of this story by thousands of years, and yet Jesus means to include us in it too. Speaking over Thomas’ shoulder to the rest of us, he says,
“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

The New Testament story invites us to participate. The story is told so that we can remember our own stories and integrate our lives into those testimonies. Our faith is built on the past. We still think about what the disciples saw and we think about what Thomas doubted and from that we have built our faith and continue to do so.We can thank God they did not do that by reducing Jesus’ life to five easy-to-remember slogans and pickling them for all eternity.

Instead, they collected all the stories they could remember about him, and it appears, they chose the ones where he was most who he was. They wrote them down with all the power still in them, so that when they were repeated they had meaning and they wanted to keep telling them over and over. They even told and kept the stories that offended and puzzled because they believed that those stories stood the best chance of being kept alive. They would come back to these stories again and again, discovering some fresh new blade of grass each time they did.

If you are a lover of stories, then you know this is true. A good story does not just tell you about something that happened once upon a time. It brings that time back to life so that you can walk around in it and experience it for yourself. You finish an epic like
“Gone With the Wind” and you can feel lonely for days, missing Scarlett, Rhett and Melanie. You read The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and you worry about Mick Kelly for a very long time.

That is the power of the word, and so we gather and we grapple with what it means to have faith - a faith that we have learned from the story.We are free to believe them or not, but one thing this morning’s story tells us is that seeing is not superior to hearing.

One can trust either sense. One can come to believe either way, but where Jesus is concerned, only a precious few saw him in the flesh. either before or after his resurrection. Millions have discovered him not in the flesh but in the stories, which have a way of keeping us involved in the story. Rooted in history, they are more than history. Jesus is still alive in them, with power to make us want to understand what happened then and what happens still. Perhaps that is why they are the living word.

“Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” Can we really do that? No. Can the story make us feel that we can? Maybe. Perhaps. If we open ourselves up to the possibilities then there is room for the Holy Spirit to be present and for us to move in all directions - we can even be doubtful - because that is what is allowed.

The story is already alive, with or without us and we can choose whether or not to be a part of it. When we choose to be a part of it then I believe there is hard work ahead of us. It’s not easy being a Christian. We will doubt, we will argue our point, we will tell our stories, we will meet on Maundy, Thursday and maybe fast on Good Friday and celebrate on Easter Sunday. In these and a thousand other ways, we are a part of Jesus Christ’s risen life on earth - so that the brave, fragile testimony goes on being heard:
“We have seen the risen Christ?” In the flesh? No. In the story? Possibly. In our life together? Absolutely.

This week I invite you to think about doubt. What is it you doubt, what do you need to see?

Sharon Ferguson-Hood
Editor’s note: The references to movies in this sermon are linked to trailers for these movies