Many of you know that I am a lectionary preacher. The lectionary is a prescribed set of readings that run throughout the liturgical calendar on a three year repeating cycle. During the year, the readings change and the gospel that is focused on changes. But one day never changes. No matter what year it is in the cycle, the Sunday after Easter is always the same. It is always the gospel of John, and it is always this story of “doubting Thomas”. All year round and year after year the texts turn and shift and change position, but always, always, always, the Sunday after Easter is Thomas.
When I was considering Thomas and the other disciples this week, I started thinking that it makes sense to look at him every year. This is traditionally a low Sunday in the church, a Sunday where there is less going on. Attendance won’t be as high as last week, we don’t have as much special music, and everyone knows that the busyness of Easter and Holy Week has relaxed.
The disciples too are in a low space. In our reading for this morning, it is still that same Easter day. The women have been to the tomb, and Mary Magdalene has come to the disciples and reported her encounter with the risen Lord. But to the disciples, it must seem like a story. A good story, a hopeful story, but never-the-less just a story. As much as they want to believe Mary, they do not really believe, and so they are hidden away in a locked room. Hiding in fear that what happened to Jesus might also happen to them.
I think we always read this text after Easter because that is the response for many of us as well. We came to church last week, we heard the story of the empty tomb and the promise of resurrection and new life, and we really wanted to believe. In our heart of hearts, we wanted the story of Jesus’ conquering death to be true. But yet, there is something that holds us back. It could be our brain’s in-ability to accept such fantasy as truth, it could be our distrust of the whole institution of the church, or it could simply be that we haven’t yet seen that risen Lord. Like the disciples, we are spending today much in the way we have spent every day. We have heard the story of the risen Lord, we just have a really hard time believing it.
In our gospel reading, Jesus intervenes. He enters into the space, beyond the locked doors, and he brings a message of peace. He assuages doubt in the mind and heart by showing his wounds to the disciples. Seeing his hands and side, they can begin to comprehend, that though he really did die, now he really does stand among them. He offers them peace, not judgment, and then he sends them out to take his message of peace to the greater world.
Thomas was not there of course, and so when the disciples go out and tell him that they too have seen the Lord, he acts much as they originally did. The disciples didn’t really believe the story Mary told, and so it is no surprise that Thomas doesn’t really believe the story that the disciples tell. It is not that he doesn’t want to believe, it’s not even that he doubts, it is simply that he has not had his own experience of the risen Lord, and so he cannot come to the place of faith that the others are in yet.
I have always hated that we call him doubting Thomas. I want to re-name him as “wondering Thomas”. Thomas is a deep thinker, a wonderer, a person who wants to know more and to touch and experience his world. When Jesus hears that Lazarus is ill and tells the disciples that Lazarus is really dead, Thomas is eager to experience more. “Let us also go, that we may die with him” Thomas says. He wants the same experience of faith that Lazarus has. When Jesus is speaking about his impending death Thomas wonders “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thomas shows that he wants to follow Jesus, he wants to experience Jesus, he wants to see and touch the world to know his faith more deeply. Is it any wonder then that we find him declaring “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.” Thomas is a wonderer, and he is always desiring a new faith experience.
Jesus doesn’t judge Thomas the way the other disciples might, or the way we might be tempted to. A week later, Jesus again returns to the disciples in the locked room. Again he offers them his peace. Not condemnation for not believing the faith stories of others, not judgment, but peace. Jesus approaches Thomas and offers him the chance to reach out and touch. He offers him the chance to have a tangible faith experience so that he too can come to believe, and then go out and share that good news with others.
The final line of this section is the declaration of “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.” Many scholars believe that this is the original ending of the gospel of John. It appears that these are meant to be the final words of the gospel, written to spur later generations on to faith. We, the readers, are called to be those who have not seen and yet come to believe.
The question I have today, is can we really do that? Can we come to believe if we haven’t seen? I am not sure that we can. Go with me here . . . Think of your own life of faith, when did you come to believe. Some of you may have grown up in the church so a moment of belief may be more nebulous and harder to pin down. Others of you may be like me, and did not come to genuine faith until later in life. And I am sure there are also folks here this morning who in their heart of hearts aren’t sure that they really do believe, and that’s ok.
If we follow the story of the resurrected Lord in the gospel of John, we find that people don’t come to faith because of second hand encounters. People don’t hear someone else talking about Jesus and then decide that they too are going to follow Jesus and believe all the stories about him. That just doesn’t happen.
Look at the text. Mary sees the risen Lord, tells the disciples about it, and they don’t believe. The disciples see the risen Lord, tell Thomas about it, and he doesn’t believe. Only after everyone has had a personal encounter with the divine, do they come to an actual faith. Why would we expect it to be any different for us?
On top of that, why would we expect anyone else to believe in Christ, simply based on the stories we tell them of our own faith encounters? Have you ever tried to convince someone to believe in Jesus, or to convince someone about the goodness and validity of the church? I’ll be honest with you, I have tried, and I have failed every time. I cannot bring someone else to faith. I can talk about my faith, I can tell them about why I go to church, but I cannot convince anyone to believe what I believe. I just can’t seem to do it. What I can do is invite them to church, and I can introduce them to a group of people who help me see God. But I can’t convince them to believe using only my personal stories.
I think the reason I can’t, that we can’t, is because everyone needs to have their own experience of the resurrected Lord. Whatever this looks like in our day and age, everyone needs to have something happen, to experience a movement in their heart, to have their own personal encounter that eventually moves them to faith. Some folks have that experience after they are invited to church and are embraced by a faith community, but others don’t.
It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t share our stories. I think sharing our stories is the seed that will later bear the fruit of faith. Mary shared her story with the disciples before their faith could grow, and the disciples shared their story with Thomas before his faith could grow. Sharing our stories is laying the ground work. We just shouldn’t be surprised when people don’t believe our stories. Our personal stories of encounters with God will not be enough to convince someone else of the validity of our belief. If it didn’t work for the disciples in the gospels it won’t work for us. God, the Holy Spirit, the presence of Jesus, needs to move in people’s lives for them to come to faith. It seems to be the only way.
I think we always read this story of wondering Thomas on the Sunday after Easter because I think this is the day that we always need to hear it most. Some of us are here because we are still high on Easter, and we have been sharing the good news with others, and we are frustrated at their lack of belief. We can’t figure out why people don’t understand what we are talking about when we talk about how we love the church. We need to remember that we are simply called to share our stories; and that only God has the power to give people the gift of a personal encounter with the risen Lord that will lead to faith.
And some of us are here thinking that we don’t really have that faith at all. We need to hear the story of Thomas and know that there is a space of grace for our wondering and doubting. There is nothing wrong with hearing the Easter story and saying in our heart “Is that really true? Did that really happen?” There is nothing wrong with seeking out a different encounter with God, nothing wrong about asking after more information. Last week we heard the Easter story and this week we are back to see if we can find out more. We are searching after our own personal encounter with the risen Lord.
And so, every Spring we celebrate Easter, and every Sunday after Easter we find ourselves wondering with Thomas. We wonder why we have been given an encounter with the risen Lord that leads to faith, and we wonder why others have not. Like the disciples, we are still figuring things out a bit. But like the disciples, Jesus has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit and sent us out to tell our stories anyway. May we, like Thomas, continue to wonder and search for more answers. And may we, like Mary and the disciples continue to tell the stories of our encounters with the risen Lord. Amen.