Sunday, May 12, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Am I Thomas?"

John 20:24-31

24 Thomas, the one called Didymus,[a] one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!” But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.” 26 After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!” 28 Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.” 30 Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. 31 But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name. (CEB)

Reactions to the Resurrection: Our Biblical Alter Egos, Week Four

Part of being a pastor means you sometimes field some interesting questions.  And by “interesting,” I mean “funny.”  And by “funny,” I mean “sometimes haha-funny and sometimes sad-clown-funny.”  Now, these questions typically include the basics, like, “Are you allowed to drink?” and “Are you allowed to play cards?”  and “Are you allowed to dance?”  (By the way, the answers to all three, in order: yes, yes, and yes, but for the sake of others, I have an abstinence-only policy.  But that category also includes astoundingly-coincidental funny, like when I was once asked on consecutive days, by completely different people, how I felt about the Bible story of Solomon offering to saw a freaking baby in half as a sign of his divine wisdom.  And I guarantee you, every pastor has a story like that.  My favorite comes from Rob Bell:

One time I was asked to speak to a group of atheists and I went and I had a blast.  Afterward they invited me out for drinks and we were laughing and telling stories and having all sorts of interesting conversation when a woman pulled me aside to ask me a question.  She had a concerned look on her face and her brow was slightly furrowed as she looked me in the eyes and said, “You don’t believe in miracles, do you?”

As I listened, I couldn’t help but smile, because not long before that evening I was approached by a churchgoing, highly devout Christian woman, who’d asked me, with the exact same concerned look on her face, complete with furrowed brow, “You believe in miracles, don’t you?”

It’s as if the one woman was concerned that I had lost my mind, while the other woman was concerned that I had lost my faith.  There’s a giant either/or embedded in their questions, an either/or that reflects some of the great questions of our era…(including) can a person believe in things that violate all the laws of reason and logic and then claim to be reasonable and logical?

If you find yourself in that exact same dilemma of needing things like evidence and proof and reason and logic in face of the necessity of faith then guess what?  You’re a little like Thomas!

My intent behind this new sermon series was to recall that traditionally, the church held Easter to be not just a day, but a season—a 50-day long season that culminates in the story of Pentecost, of the coming of the Holy Spirit as depicted in Acts 2.  And so for the remainder of the season of Easter, we will be keeping the story of Easter alive by looking at how different followers of Jesus reacted to the news on the day of the Resurrection, and we began the series with the story of Mary Magdalene and her reaction to the discovery of the empty tomb, as told by Mark.  The following week, we turned to the beginning of a very famous and well-loved story, the appearance of the Resurrected Christ on the road to Emmaus to two followers: Cleopas, and Cleopas’s anonymous companion.  And last week, we explored an equally well-known story: Jesus’ exhortation to Peter, towards the very end of John’s Gospel, to “feed (His) sheep,” which is traditionally taken hand-in-hand with Jesus commissioning Peter as the rock the church is to be built upon.  We conclude this series, then, with another well-known story almost immediately preceding Peter’s commission: the saga of “Doubting Thomas.”

And this is one of those stories where the perspective we have been taught—the company line, so to speak—has probably warped how we read this story today.  Most notably, the adjective used to describe Thomas in this story—apistos, in the Greek of verse 27—does not mean “doubting,” but “unbelieving.”  It’s not that he’s incapable of faith, it’s that he prefers evidence.

And okay, maybe you hear that and think, “Doubt, unbelief, you say potato…”  Except that this matters.  It matters because people have already come to Jesus before, crying to Jesus the exact words, “Help me in my apistos—help me in my unbelief!” (Mark 9)  Thomas is in this exact same mold of saying, “Help me in my unbelieving,” and that should make him relatable.  But what makes him unique is how he demands to be helped in his unbelief—he needs to be able to not only see the Risen Christ, but to touch Him as well, to place his hands in Jesus’ pierced side!

In other words, despite being disciple for three years by Jesus, Thomas is still having the exact same struggles with his belief and unbelief that random passersby did in other Gospels!

Perhaps we’re being a little too hard on Thomas here.  Thomas is one of those characters who clearly is meant to reflect a universal part of ourselves—that part of ourselves that comes by our skepticism honestly, because this world will beat up and break down an idealist in a New York minute.  There’s more to it, and that’s Thomas’ predilection for realism bordering on pessimism.

Thomas makes one other notable appearance in John’s Gospel—in chapter 11, at the outset of the story of the raising of Lazarus.  Jesus tells His posse that Lazarus has bit the big one, but that it’s okay, because Jesus is going to raise Him from the dead in order to demonstrate the glory of God, and the disciples don’t want Jesus to do this because they’re safely back in Galilee, and Jesus is a wanted man in Judea.  And Thomas says, “Let us go so that we may die with Him.”

What a ray of freaking sunshine.

If the disciples were Winnie the Pooh characters, Thomas would be Eeyore.  If the disciples were Sesame Street characters, Thomas would be Oscar the Grouch.  If the disciples were Barney characters, there would be no Thomas because he’d get kicked off the show after refusing to sing along to the “I love you, you love me” jingle.  You get the idea.  Thomas is a bit of a crank.

And that’s how unbelief different from simply having doubts.  It’s different by a country mile.  Doubt is like iron from the Biblical proverb—iron sharpens iron, and doubt can sharpen faith.   Pastor John talked about this very theme when I was away last month—doubt can mature a belief, lead it to new levels, and cause us to mature as Christians. But unbelief…that can bring us way, way down if we let it.  Unbelief is what discourages us and gets us to give up on our quests, on our goals, or even on living out our faith.  Unbelief, if profound enough, can break a person.

And the point of this story of “Doubting” Thomas is that this sort of unbelief that is destructive and hurtful and broken is also very much reversible.  Even if it takes something as miraculous as a bodily appearance by the Risen Christ Himself, Thomas is not so set in his cynicism and his Eeyore-ness that he is unmovable.  He is not the Rock, the Petros, the Peter of last week.  Thomas is movable.  Thomas can be reached, even if only by extraordinary means.

But once he IS reached, the transformation is palpable.  Thomas sees Jesus, and Jesus repeats Thomas’s words right back to him, down to the letter, and the narrative doesn’t actually say that Thomas put his hand in Jesus’ side, only that Jesus invited him to, and that alone is enough for Thomas to exclaim with recognition, “My Lord and my God!”

There’s a lot in those five words.  For twenty whole chapters now, people have been assigned different titles to Jesus—the Word, the Lamb of God, a prophet—and Jesus Himself has been assigning different titles—the Bread of Life, the Good Shepherd, the True Vine—so His resume of job titles is already several pages long.  And yet, it is appropriate that all these titles culminate in this one title: my Lord and my God.

For it is no coincidence that Thomas utters these words.  They are plucked straight out of Psalms 35, where the Psalmist exclaims, “My God and my Lord,” which Thomas is mirroring here.  And it is a common theme throughout the Psalms, this refrain of “My Lord and my God,” and it sometimes takes on slightly different vocabulary depending on the Psalm in question.  But my favorite version comes from Psalm 42, which ends simply with these words: “Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him, my help and my God.”

I love it because it is what the Resurrection has promised us—a chance to AGAIN praise Him.  It’s the again part that gets me, it isn’t enough to have hope just once, or to experience God only once, or to praise Him only once, no, hoping in God means we get to do so again and again and again.  Being able to reach for hope means more than just refusing to indulge in unbelief, it means that we are being given that AGAIN—that chance to once more live in God.

Am I Thomas?  Well, he is also called Didymus—the Twin.  So, somewhere out there, Thomas has a doppelganger.  Presumably, a physical lookalike.  But Thomas has many a spiritual twin as well, people like you and me who find unbelief easier than belief because unbelief cannot ever disappoint us.  If we are right, then we get to revel in being right, and if we are wrong, we get to revel in our meager expectations being exceeded.  It’s a win-win on a micro level.

But on a macro level, it can be very hurtful.  Enough people decide to quit on believing in something better than ourselves, and that something cannot force its way in.  Jesus does not bludgeon or coerce Thomas into belief, He invites Thomas into belief, just as He does for all those who were not there to see His Risen self.  It’s why John ends His chapter the way He does—in some ways, it acts as an end to the Gospel, with chapter 21 as a sort of epilogue.

“But these are written so that you may believe,” John says.

“Help me in my unbelief,” we might cry in return.

And so John tells us a story of one of our own, and of what is truly possible, if only we believe.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 12, 2013

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