John 20: 19-31
For sure this is the first Sunday after Easter, because ministers who are organized are taking the Sunday off (and the fact I’m here this morning says much about me). More importantly, on the first Sunday after Easter, the lectionary always brings back the story of Thomas, the one who is known to have doubted the resurrection of Christ. Much has been said across the years on this text. Countless sermons and reflections have reminded people that doubting is not necessarily a sin. In fact, doubts are a healthy part of the life of a believer and frequently lead to a deeper faith and renewed spirituality. Christians should be too harsh on our poor Doubting Thomas.
However, something changed in the last few months. We have learned new expressions like fake news and alternative facts. We have discovered the existence of people paid to create and spread conspiracy theories on social media and cable shows. Politicians are not even hiding the fact that they are taking some bad news and spin them into something good for our society. These days, our problem is not that we are doubting, but not doubting enough. We have moved beyond the ‘Just believe me’ used by con artists. In many cases, it is very difficult to discern the difference between truth and falsehood. Skepticism has become an important skill to cultivate in order to protect ourselves from major deception. In this context, only a few days after Easter, there might be a small voice inside of us wondering if the resurrection really happened or is it good story made up by the first disciples to support their claim and agenda. Maybe after all Thomas was not such a bad guy for doubting.
If Thomas is mentioned in the four Gospels, it is in the one according to John that his personality is revealed. In the story of the resuscitation of Lazarus, Thomas is the Debbie Downer of the group when he claims after Jesus’ decision to return in Judea, “Let us also go, that we may die with him!” Later, when Jesus speaks of his impending death and ascension to heaven, he essentially replies, “I have no clue what you’re talking about”, probably speaking out loud what others were scared or embarrassed to say. Thomas is a practical and no-nonsense guy. He just calls it as he sees it.
Try to be in Thomas’ shoes… or sandals. One day, some of his very good friends show up and claim they have seen their old master; they have seen the Lord. A few days after Jesus’ crucifixion, they declared, many disciples were all gathered in a house, all the doors were locked, and Jesus came and stood among them. It was him for sure because they saw the marks on his body. Honestly, very honestly, what would you have said in Thomas’ place? ‘Yes, I totally believe you. Of course, Jesus’ corpse can walk through walls and doors and talk to people. There is nothing strange in all of this.’ Or would you rather believe that if something sounds too good to be true, it is almost certainly untrue? Would you demand more proofs, assurances or evidences to validate the accuracy of this claim? Would you ask to see or experience it for yourself, as they all did?
Thomas is expected to believe without having seen. However, for an average human being, seeing plays a very important part in believing. After a tragedy, like the crash of a commercial airplane for example, the grieving family members and loved ones often feel this urge to go on the site of the accident. They hope they can be shown debris or anything else that can bring them closure, that would help them move on with life. They want to see. Thomas is not closed to the news of Christ’s resurrection; he just needs a little more in order to believe. He wants to see for himself the marks of the nails and touch them as well as his side. He just requires tangible proofs. A few days later, his wish materialized. The Risen Christ appeared once again, this time in Thomas’ presence, and the disciple came to believe.
One of the reasons of Thomas’ struggle may be his difficulty to grasp the meaning of resurrection. Last week, I preached about Mary who believed on the first Easter morning that she could resume her life with Jesus as if nothing happen, as if nothing changed. She eventually understood the difference between Jesus of Nazareth and the Risen Christ. Somehow Thomas follows the same pattern. For many months, he walked alongside Jesus of Nazareth and he was expecting that the Risen Christ would have exactly the same body and physical attributes than before his burial. Nothing would have changed. However, like I said last Sunday, resurrection implies profound transformation. The Risen Christ is not a human being like you and me. It is a new reality that can be experienced everywhere, at any time, by everyone. Through Christ’s resurrection, we are invited to address the world from a different perspective. We are called to believe in something bigger than what our minds can conceive.
Maybe this is why we struggle so much with understanding the concept of the Risen Christ. It is much easier to get our head around the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He was a man who lived in the Middle East approximately 2,000 years ago. He was a great teacher. He was wise. He was compassionate. He invited people to love one another. Everyone, believers or not, can accept this. However, when it comes to the Risen Christ, we are unsure about what we can affirm. We are told in the New Testament that the Risen Christ was Jesus… but not quite Jesus… but still Jesus. Make up your mind! We were told by ministers and Sunday School teachers that what happened in the tomb is a complete mystery. Well, it does not help us much to explain it today to our children and grandchildren. Trust me, it will come soon enough. “You ought to believe this because some dead dude said so” is a claim is hard to swallow these days. Most often, our lack of words and explanations concerning the Risen Christ makes us feel inadequate. We say that if we cannot explain the corner stone of our faith, what kind of Christian are we? We come to believe that our interrogations and desire for more proofs and evidences make us unworthy to be called a believer.
The good news for all of us who struggle with the idea of the resurrection is that the Risen Christ is in the business of finding people where they are. In the Gospel according to John, on Easter morning the beloved disciples walked inside the tomb, saw that it was empty and believed. Mary Magdalene met the Risen Christ in the garden, desired to cling to him and eventually came to believe by letting him go. Thomas missed Christ’s first appearance to the disciples, demanded more evidence and believed when he received them. Christ was able to meet different individuals in different ways and none of them were criticized, chastised or denigrated.
Each and every one of us are different and we all assimilate knowledge and information in our own ways. For some of us, reading the stories of the Bible is enough to accept the promises of God’s unconditional love and life beyond death. For others, faith and spirituality are grounded in one profound and transformative experience. There are some who discover the existence of the Risen Christ in the radical and unbounded inclusiveness of a group or congregation that welcome us when we needed the most. None of our individual journey is better or holier than another. Our personal experience is always true and valid.
The story of Thomas is the story of all of us who did not witness with our own eyes all the things the Gospel describes. On some days we struggle because there is no one-size-fit-all faith, spirituality or explanation for the resurrection. We are not sure whom we should trust. We have doubts. And yet, we are here this morning. We have come to trust that this unbelievable news proclaimed by Jesus’ disciples is life-giving. For our own personal reasons, we are saying yes to the Risen Christ who reaches out to us. Amen.