At the close of our Gospel reading this morning, the author explains that while he had many stories, signs, and wonders to select from for his book, he chose the particular ones he did for a single, all-important reason: “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.”
Just a week ago, we were singing our alleluias, we were proclaiming once again the joy of the resurrection. It was a good day to proclaim our faith in Jesus, the risen son. But now today, we take a step back into reality, as the gospel writer includes the account of “Doubting Thomas” because by including his story, John invites us to face our doubts, speak our fears, and perhaps our yearning for more: a deeper faith, a closer intimacy, a more personal experience of the living Christ. Because maybe we are more like Thomas than we’d like to admit.
Thanks to the story of Thomas, we’re invited to admit the “heretical” thing we might very well feel as we descend from the mountaintop of Easter euphoria: “Unless I see him for myself, I won’t really believe.” That’s a pretty in-your-face response to the possibility of resurrection! Yet, I know may who have said, “I need to become a witness in my own right. I need my own experience of radical encounter. I want Jesus’s resurrection to become real for me. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
In fact, it invites the question: how many of us go our entire lives without ever yearning as boldly as Thomas did? Because what if Thomas isn’t actually doubting, but rather, asking for more? To get as much as the other disciples got before he showed up?
If we choose to walk in the footsteps of the doubting disciple, we’re invited to voice our desires and raise our hopes. We’re given permission to feel hungry, cautious, and (dare we admit it?) envious. Envious of those who find faith easier to sustain than we do. Envious of those who have experienced Jesus more dramatically than we have. Envious of those who, for whatever reason, don’t feel the cognitive dissonance between the truth of the resurrection, and the ongoing reality of death in the world.
In John’s gospel, Thomas reassures us that our glorious Easter hymns notwithstanding, the weeks after the resurrection have always been confusing and complicated. We’re not the first human beings to struggle with it, and we won’t be the last. Struggle is intrinsic to post-Easter life. We have the good news, but we don’t always know what to do with it.
When I was growing up, Thomas always got a bad rap in sermons and Sunday School lessons. I was taught quite explicitly to not be like him. He was deemed the cynic, the holdout. His reluctance to accept the testimony of his fellow disciples, his insistence on physical proof, his late arrival to the joyous belief of his peers— these were held up as spiritual flaws. As signs of stubbornness, or of a weak faith.
But maybe Thomas’ reaction was not actually that of weakness. Rather, Thomas was a man who desired a holy and beautiful thing — a living encounter with Jesus. A man who wouldn’t settle for someone else’s experience of resurrection, but stuck around in the hope of having his own. A man who dared to confess uncertainty in the midst of those who were certain. A man who recognized his Lord in scars, not wonders.
According to John’s Gospel, Thomas had to wait in suspense and uncertainty for a whole week after his friends first told him they’d seen Jesus. What, I wonder, did that week feel like for that disciple who missed Jesus the first time around? Did he fear (as I so often do) that he’d missed the memo, missed the boat, missed the glory? That he was destined only ever to know God secondhand?
What strikes me most about Thomas’s story is not that he doubted, but that he did so publicly, without shame or guilt, and that his faith community allowed him to do so. And what I love about Jesus’s response is that he met Thomas right where he was, freely offering the disciple the testimony of his own scars, his own pain. After such an encounter, I can only imagine the tenderness and urgency with which Thomas was able to repeat Christ’s words to other doubters: “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.” Because isn’t this all of us, on the Sunday after Easter? Don’t we all wrestle with hidden doubts, hidden fears? Don’t we all wonder sometimes if the miracle of resurrection will hold in ordinary times?
Thomas’s story reminds me that resurrection isn’t easy. It was hard from the get-go, and it’s still hard now. Hard to accept, hard to internalize, and hard to apply to our lives — especially when our lives are marked by pain, loss, uncertainty, and death. And if not for you, then it might be for someone else you might know. We all come to faith through different routes. For some of us, it is the continuation of our childhood upbringing. For others of us, it has been a battle of wills, ours against God’s. But if nothing else, Thomas reassures me that faith doesn’t have to be straightforward; the business of accepting the resurrection, of living it out, of sharing it with the world, isn’t easy. It’s okay to waver. It’s okay to take our time. It’s okay to hope for more.
John’s desire for his readers was that they would come to believe. That they would consent to the process. The implication is that belief is not instantaneous. I know I’ve hardly ever experienced sudden transformation; my experiences have been that the changes that have mattered most have always come sideways and in fits and starts, often without my conscious understanding or effort. Anyone who has battled an addiction, or stuck it out in a challenging relationship, or lived with a chronic illness, will testify that genuine conversion is lifelong. Maybe this is why the earliest Christians referred to their new faith as “The Way.” A “way” is not a destination. It’s a road to walk. It’s an invitation to journey.
John chose an encounter between doubts and scars to help us come to belief, and this year — maybe more than ever — I have to appreciate his choice. This past year has been a communal struggle of epic proportions – with the experience of Covid, social isolation, racial injustice, gun violence, and political strife. While we are a resurrection people, we are also a people in pain. The world around us is still wounded, and the scars we’re carrying from this past year will likely last a long time.
In these circumstances, Jesus’s scarred body resonates for us in so many ways. We recognize his scars in the people suffering the debilitating symptoms of “long Covid.” We see them in the faces of those who have lost loved ones to the disease. We see the damage they’ve caused in the divisive ugliness of our politics. Therefore, this year in particular, Thomas moving his fingers across Jesus’s scars to experience a birthing of faith is searing. If we reflect on it long enough, it may bring us to our knees. Jesus and his scars are everywhere.
I don’t know if you’re finding, deep down, the joy of Easter difficult to access right now due to circumstances in your life. If so, rest in the fact that Thomas took his time. Lean into the amazing truth that Jesus allowed him to do so. Hang onto the fact that Jesus opened a way for Thomas through the marks of his own suffering and trauma, sharing his broken body so that Thomas could find his way to wholeness. Might we be a faith community that opens our space and our hearts for the wary and the skeptical? I challenge you this week to contemplate the wonderful story of a determined doubter who gradually found his way to faith, who came to see the Wounded One as Lord and God in his own time.
The story that comes after Easter is a story of scars and doubts. Yet this story is a tremendous gift; and I ask that you ponder it. “So that you may come to believe.” Amen.
This sermon was adapted from a sermon written by Debi Thomas and published on the internet on 4/4/21