Sermon: The Second Sunday of Easter Year A*
April 19, 2020
The Rev. Eileen Weglarz
Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
If I were to mention the names of certain disciples and ask you to write down the first word that comes to mind, it is likely that most of you would come up with similar words. For Judas you would likely write down the word betray or betrayer. If I were to mention Peter, some of you would write down the word faith. But, if I mention Thomas, there is no question what most people would write down. It would be doubt or doubter. So closely have we associated Thomas with doubt, that we have coined the phrase “Doubting Thomas” to describe him or others who express doubt about issues of faith.
When Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem the disciples thought that it would be certain death for all of them. Surprisingly, Thomas was the one who said: “Then let us go so that we may die with him.” It was a courageous statement, yet we do not remember this about Thomas.
Also, we probably do not realize that in this story of Thomas’ doubt, exists the one place in all the Gospels where the Divinity of Christ is bluntly and unequivocally stated. Thomas makes an earth shattering confession of faith after Jesus appears to him: “My Lord, and my God.” Not teacher, or rabbi, not even Messiah. But God! This is the only place in the scriptures where Jesus is called God without qualification of any kind. These words are not those of a doubter.
The resurrected Jesus made an appearance to the disciples in a home in Jerusalem. Thomas was not present, and when he heard about the event he refused to believe it. Maybe the news simply sounded too good to be true. Thomas said: “Unless I feel the nail prints in his hands I will not believe.” Thomas had separated himself from the disciples, perhaps due to his grief, and therefore, in his solitude, missed the resurrection appearance.
Perhaps John is suggesting to us that Christ appears most often within the community of faith that we call the church, and when we separate ourselves from the church we take a chance on missing Jesus’ unique presence in all kinds of ways.
But the story does not end here. The second time Jesus made his appearance Thomas was present with the disciples, and this time he too witnessed the event. This time he believed. So, what can we learn from this story about Thomas?
First, Jesus did not blame Thomas for doubting. So often the church’s handling of doubt is to couple it with disbelief and squash it. But Jesus never condemned Thomas. He must have understood that once Thomas worked through his doubts, he would be one of the surest persons in all Christendom.
Sometimes I am dubious of people who say that they have never had any doubts. I would suggest to you that any person who places himself beyond doubt, places himself above Christ himself. On the cross, in his darkest hour, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
At a given time in his journey, even Jesus seemed to have doubts. Authentic faith begins with intellectual honesty, and doubt is the bedrock of honesty. Put another way: Faith is not the absence of doubt; faith is the overcoming of doubt.
I have had doubts. I have stood by the bed of a two-year old child who had just died, her parents in shocked disbelief and horrendous agony of spirit. Their pain was inconsolable, and I struggled silently to myself, as I prayed with them and tried to comfort them. But, I remembered something Alfred Lloyd Tennyson said: “There lives more faith in honest doubt than in half the creeds.” So we find ourselves crying out, as did Thomas: “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”
Secondly, we can learn from the life of Thomas that the most endearing things in life can never be proven. Jesus said: “Thomas, you have believed because you have seen. Blessed are those who have not seen yet still believe.”
Jesus is talking about you and me. We will never see the person Jesus in the flesh in this life running around downtown in jeans and sneakers. I will not have the chance to put my finger into his nail scars. You will not get the chance to touch his pierced side. Forensic science will not be able to prove that Jesus died and was raised from the dead. Jesus understands that it is harder for you and me to believe than for Thomas, and he counts us blessed.
Let me ask you a question: How can you conclusively prove the qualities of love, friendship, or faith? How can you establish, beyond the shadow of doubt, your devotion to your children or your spouse? The cynic can always dismiss acts of love on your part as attempts at self-love, or the need to control others.
Likewise, how can you prove to someone that you love your church? If the goal of your life is for someone to show you a photograph of God, or for you to take a selfie standing next to God, then you will be forever disappointed. Let me share what happens when we live in a purely rationalistic world, one where miracles are removed from our way of thinking.
Thomas Jefferson ranks as one of our nation’s early great intellects, but not many people know that he rejected the notion of miracles. When he approached the scriptures he could not tolerate the passages that dealt with the supernatural in Jesus’ ministry. So what did he do? He wrote his own bible. In the Thomas Jefferson Bible you will find only the moral teachings and historical events of Jesus' life. No virgin birth. No healing of Jairus' daughter. No walking on water. And, no resurrection.
Here is how his bible ends: "There laid they Jesus and rolled a great stone at the mouth of the sepulcher and departed." For this Thomas, the Gospel ends at the foot of a grave.
It is very easy to rewrite history so that faith is not necessary, or to make it match our own limited understanding. Or, to say that something miraculous and life changing did not happen, in order to validate a position. Heaven knows we hear this kind of reasoning everyday from politicians. But the story remains that the disciples were witnesses to these events.
Thomas Jefferson is, in essence, calling the disciples liars, and that they continued throughout the first century, for 70 years, to propagate those lies. Furthermore, Jefferson's Bible has been robbed of its power. The church does not accomplish 2000 years of life inside the walls of a closed dark sepulcher.
There is no power in that dark place; rather, the Church is alive because Jesus has risen from the dead and is alive forevermore. Alleluia!
We had better leave some room for mysticism in our worldview. This notion does not preclude science. It does not preclude reason. What it does mean is that sometimes, the most important things in your life will never be conclusively proven. We live on a daily and even a momentary basis by faith. If someone could in fact come along and scientifically prove the resurrection, you would be living your life by sight and not by faith. But scripture tells us that we live by faith and not by sight.
Even if a loved one who has been dead for years were to come back to life and tell all about the realities of heaven, and God, and resurrection, many would not believe it.
You might recall the parable Jesus tells about the man who is in hell and another man who is in paradise. The man in hell wanted to come back to earth for a few moments to warn his friends and family about the torments of hell in the hopes of scaring them into faith and right living. He hoped he could keep them from suffering the same fate. Jesus said that even if he were to return to warn his loved ones, they would not change their lives. And neither would it change your world in the slightest.
God has called us to be people of faith. What exists in heaven cannot be proven on earth—it must be believed, and then it is real. And so, we learn from the life of Thomas a third lesson: It is all right to doubt, but in our faith journey we need to move beyond doubt, and Jesus will help us get there.
Times come into our lives when we face grief, or disappointment, or pain, or depression, or just plain disgust at what is going on in the world. What we are facing at this time with the Coronavirus, and in the political arena, are beyond anything most of us have experienced in our lifetimes. Sometimes our hold on God falters.
When these moments of deep doubt or despair come, think about the following statement. It was something that was once told to me, and it has gotten me through many dark nights. And if you remember nothing else about the sermon this morning, remember this thought: NEVER DOUBT IN THE DARK, WHAT GOD HAS TOLD YOU OR SHOWN YOU IN THE LIGHT. (repeat)
I say this because it is in moments of spiritual light that God shows us truth, his love, and the realities of the Kingdom of God. These moments of spiritual light are important, because they allow us to get through the dark nights of doubt and despair that come to every one of us at points in our lives.
In moments of light, God has told you that he will never leave you nor forsake you. That God loves you, and then proves it on the Cross. Don’t ever doubt this truth.
In moments of light, God has told you that resurrection is reality. Believe it! And live into the empowerment, comfort, strength, healing, and love of this truth. Amen.
*Adapted from “Thomas,” Brett Blair and Staff, Christian Globe Network; 2003.