April 19, 2020
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
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.
When I was growing up my church taught me that doubt was the mortal enemy of the soul. Doubt was an existential threat to our complex system of belief. Each stone of doctrine was built upon the other. And because each stone held up the other, the house of faith was actually very fragile. If you pulled out one brick, the whole thing fell apart.
And that is exactly what happened to me. I began to have doubts about all kinds of things. And when I finally pulled out one of those bricks, my house of faith collapsed. At first, it seemed like a terrible tragedy. But in the end, I came to see that the demolition of that system actually saved my spiritual life. It made Jesus less of a concept and more of a lived experience. And it was blessed doubt that paved the way.
Today is celebrated by many of the world’s Christians as “St. Thomas Sunday.” You may know him better as Doubting Thomas. Doubting Thomas is among the questionable cast of characters that are part of the Holy Week and Easter stories. There was Judas who betrayed him; Peter, who denied him; and Thomas, who wouldn’t believe that Jesus was alive until he had seen it with his own eyes.
John reports that on the evening of Resurrection day, the disciples were hiding behind locked doors, for “fear of the Jews.” A more accurate interpretation of that phrase “for fear of the Jews” would be “for fear of the religious authorities” because that is exactly who is being referenced here. Think about it. The disciples were Jews too. And they were not afraid of their families and friends and neighbors. They were afraid of those religious authorities who had conspired with the Romans to put Jesus to death. I point this out because the Gospel of John has sometimes fueled anti-Semitism, but only when Christians ignore the Jewish-ness of Jesus and his followers.
So, there they were, locked away and fearing for their lives, when Jesus suddenly appeared. And his very first words to them were “Shalom” – “peace be with you.” Notice the striking lack of recrimination. His first words were not “What are you doing behind locked doors?” or “Didn’t you believe I would rise again?” His friends are lost in grief and failure, doubt and denial. And Jesus says to them: “Peace be with you.” I hope you can remember that lack of recrimination the next time you are lost in doubt and denial.
So, Jesus appeared, with peaceful words, and showed them the scars in his hands and feet and side. But Thomas was not there when all this happened. I wonder where he was. Wasn’t he afraid too?
When Thomas returned, the disciples exclaimed: “We have seen the Lord!” But Thomas, an apparent party-pooper, rained on their Easter parade by proclaiming: “Unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
And it this statement that damns Thomas in many people’s eyes. They see his demands for proof as a sign of weakness and lack of faith. Maybe. But I sometimes wonder if something nobler wasn’t going on? Was it just doubt or stubbornness? Or could it be that Thomas simply refused to just take someone else’s word for the truth. He wanted to experience Truth for himself, like his friends had. He wanted to see the Risen Christ with his own eyes.
And if that is the case; of that was his motivation, then Thomas is the spiritual father of any of us who have ever set out on this journey of faith, unwilling to just take someone else’s word for what we’re supposed to believe. Maybe Thomas was the original Congregationalist, insisting on the validity of his own experience of Jesus Christ.
A week later, the disciples were once again closed up in a room. Even though they had seen the Resurrected Jesus just days before, apparently their fear had gotten the better of them again. And quite frankly, isn’t that a relief to know? Even for the disciples, who walked and talked with the Risen Lord, the highs and lows of faith were natural. Like us, they could go from confidence to fear in the blink of an eye.
But Jesus appeared to them again. And this time, Thomas was with them. Once again, the very first words out of Jesus’s mouth were “Shalom” – “peace be with you.” Then Jesus turned to Thomas and said: “Go ahead Thomas, put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Don’t doubt, but believe.”
There is no indication in this story that Thomas actually did such a gruesome thing. Just seeing Jesus for himself was enough, provoking Thomas to make the most profound confession of faith in the entire New Testament. He looked at the Risen Christ and exclaimed: “My Lord and my God.”
Blessed Doubting Thomas showed us that a mature faith is not based on what someone else tells us to think. It is not based on the creeds or confessions of the church, as important as they may be. And faith is certainly not intellectual assent to someone else’s point of view. Faith is about meeting Jesus in the everydayness of our lives. And a good, healthy dose of doubt is very often the way we get there.
Doubt. It comes easy these days. We doubt that life will ever return to normal. We doubt the wisdom of those who lead us. We doubt the resilience of the economy. We doubt our financial futures. We doubt that our family systems can survive such pressures. And we doubt that our faith is strong enough for this test. We are suddenly locked away in a room called fear.
But dark, locked rooms are a specialty of the Risen Christ. He suddenly appears, not because we have such strong faith, but simply because we need him. He shows us his hands and his feet and his side. He invites us to touch him and experience the truth for ourselves. There is never recrimination for our doubts or our fears or our anger or our confusion. Instead, he simple speaks the words we and this whole world so desperately need to hear: “Shalom. Peace be with you.”