A sermon for Evening Prayer, Sunday, April 28, 2019, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Enid, Oklahoma.
A reading from the Gospel according to St. John, 20:19-31
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.”
Now 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 may have life in his name.
Our Gospel reading from today has a clear, and on the surface, simple message. Thomas has doubts — earning him the famous nickname Doubting Thomas — until he sees and believes. But, we can’t touch Jesus’ wounds as Thomas did, so we must believe without seeing — and we’re told “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” So, we are blessed in our belief without seeing.
A simple enough message. And, it’s one that raises all kind of questions about our post-modern need for empirical evidence, for tangible proof, as the prerequisite to belief. But, there is more to this passage than simply believing in the absence of things we can touch and feel to prove the basis of our faith. There is more to this than simply avoiding the temptation to be a “Doubting Thomas.”
First, I think Thomas gets a pretty bad wrap in the way he’s often portrayed in readings of this passage. Each of the narratives of the disciples in the Gospels teaches us something. We’re taught about the disciples’ walk with Jesus to learn about our own walk with Christ.
Just as James and John asked to sit on Jesus’ left and right, so too will we struggle with the thirst for power and prestige. As the disciples fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane, so too do we struggle with the weakness of our will to overcome temptations of the flesh. Just as Peter denied Jesus three times, we also struggle to hold firm in our faith in the face of that great spiritual thief, fear. And yes, just as Judas betrayed Jesus, we all, at times, must ask ourselves how we betray Christ in our hearts.
So, what can we learn from Thomas? To answer that we need to look beyond this one passage, and go back to the episode in John’s 11th chapter, when Jesus decides to set out to Judea to raise from the dead his friend, Lazarus.
“Lazarus is dead,” Jesus tells the disciples, “and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
But, there’s a problem. Just a few chapters earlier in John, the Jewish authorities in Judea tried to stone Jesus for blasphemy. They wanted to kill him. And now he wants to go back there?
Most of the disciples respond with a reasonable question: “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?” But, Thomas responds very differently: “Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Thomas loves Jesus so completely, trusts in his ministry so unreservedly, that he is not only willing to risk death with Jesus — he almost seems to relish the possibility of dying at Jesus’ side. This is not the weakness often depicted when we read of “Doubting Thomas.” This is a man of tremendous faith and courage.
So, why the “doubting” we read of in today’s passage? Well, I think we need to be fair to Thomas. We need to remember, he’s not asking anything all of the other disciples haven’t already asked. In our reading today, we know all the other disciples already have had their turn at seeing Jesus’ wounds. They got to see it all a week earlier. All Thomas is asking, is to see what they each have already seen.
And, this upper room experience isn’t the only passage where the disciples have this moment of clarity where they recognize the real presence of Christ in their midst. When Mary Magdalene first encounters Jesus outside the tomb, she mistakes him for the gardener. Only when he speaks her name does she recognize him. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus walk several miles and have a deep theological discussion with the risen Lord, and do not know him. It’s only when he breaks bread with them that their eyes are opened. They have an epiphany of the risen Lord’s presence in their midst.
I think we each need these epiphany moments — the times when we set doubt aside, and recognize the true and real presence of Christ in our midst. And that, really, is all Thomas is asking for in today’s passage.
Thomas teaches us even the strongest among us will have times of doubt, but we can overcome that doubt when we open our hearts to Christ’s presence. And, sometimes, it is our struggle with that doubt that is the crucible that refines our faith. Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky struggled with atheism and agnosticism for much of his adult life before finding, on the other side of doubt, a deep and abiding faith. “It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ,” Dostoyevsky once said. “My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.”
Like Dostoyevsky, I think we’d all like to have the faith of a child — to believe without seeing. But, that can be a struggle at times. So, what if we could touch Jesus’ wounds, as Thomas did?
Thomas à Kempis, in the Imitation of Christ, speaks of resting – abiding – in Christ’s wounds. “If you can not soar up as high as Christ sitting on his throne, behold him hanging on his cross. Rest in Christ’s Passion and live willingly in his holy wounds . . . Had we but, with Thomas, put our fingers into the print of his nails and thrust our hands into his side! If we had but known ourselves his sufferings in a deep and serious consideration and tasted the astonishing greatness of his love, the joys and miseries of this life would soon become indifferent to us.”
To live in the astonishing greatness of his love. To experience joys and miseries with equal peace, in Christ. I don’t know about you, but I want some of that! In Kempis’ terms, I want to rest in the assurance of Christ’s wounds. But, again, how do we do that?
In my Wednesday sermon I mentioned a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wherein Bonhoeffer tells us Christ’s suffering in and for this world is not a one-time affair. It’s not just a history lesson on Good Friday. It is our risen Lord continuing to walk with and suffer with us as we struggle, and fail, and struggle again to walk His Way.
“God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross,” Bonhoeffer tells us. “He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us . . . The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.”
Where does this long-suffering love of Christ occur? It occurs in every person who suffers, because Scripture tells us Christ is there — in every person we meet. Paul tells us:
“Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you” 2 Corinthians 13:5
“I am crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” Galatians 2:20
“Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Colossians 1:27
As we face Thomas’ question of recognizing Christ, Paul tells us we need look no further than within ourselves, and within our neighbor. And Christ is there. So, where can we touch the wounds of Christ? In the suffering of our neighbor — for where our neighbor suffers, in poverty, hunger, oppression, sexual exploitation or genocide, there are the wounds of Christ.
For us in the Episcopal Church, we come to the Eucharist to celebrate the real presence of Christ. The body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist is our “upper room experience.” But, as St. John Chrysostom tells us, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice.”
If we want to experience the real presence of Christ, if we want to touch his holy wounds, we need only place our hands and our hearts into the suffering of our neighbors. Just as Thomas placed his hands on Jesus’ wounds, we are called to literally get our hands dirty touching, and relieving, the suffering of God’s children on earth.
And when we get our hands into their suffering, and begin to live with and love them with the courage of Thomas, I believe we will begin to see and feel Christ. When we stick our hands into the suffering of this world, I believe we find Christ — we find what we need to proclaim with Thomas: “My Lord and my God!”
Heavenly Father, whose blessed Son came not to be served
but to serve: Bless all who, following in his steps, give
themselves to the service of others; that with wisdom,
patience, and courage, they may minister in his Name to the
suffering, the friendless, and the needy; for the love of him
who laid down his life for us, your Son our Savior Jesus
Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.