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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

"Eyewitnesses and Doubting Thomas" – John 20:19-31

John 20:19-31

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 and 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.”  And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said, “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.”

Now Thomas (who is called “the Twin”) one of the twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.  So the disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”  But Thomas said, “Unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands and put my fingers in the marks of the nails and my hands in his sides, I will not believe.”

A week later, the disciples were again in the house and Thomas was with them.  Although the doors were shut, Jesus appeared and said to them, “Peace be with you.”  And he said to Thomas, “Put your fingers 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, “Do you believe 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 that 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 might have life in his name.

By now, I suspect we’ve all heard, if we haven’t watched for ourselves too many times, that horrible video of the latest police officer shooting in South Carolina. In so many ways it’s being lifted up as just another sad, horrible, terrifying example of police officers misusing and abusing their power. In other ways it’s being lifted up as yet another example of how differently police officers – particularly white police officers – are inclined to treat people of color. In still other ways, it’s being lifted up as an example of something different, for a change, because the officer who did the shooting was arrested and charged and detained more swiftly than in other cases – and, some would say, the wheels of justice in that regard started spinning before public outcry and public pressure forced the hand of the powers that be. (In other words, it didn’t take a petition or a protest or a riot for the investigations to begin.)

And the reason for all of that, which can’t be disputed, according to some, is the eyewitness, video evidence of the shooting.

I don’t want to get into the particulars of the case and make too many assumptions about something most of us can’t know enough about yet – no matter what the video seems to prove. But what strikes me about all of it is how much hope and credibility and justification was added to the discussion, thanks to that first eyewitness video evidence.

What I mean is, those who have been protesting issues of police abuse and racial inequity in our justice system have put a lot of stock and credibility in this 5 or 6 minute video.

Finally,” they say, “there’s no way to dispute what we have assumed in so many other cases, just like this one over the years.” “Finally,” they say, “we can see – everyone can see – with our own eyes the injustice we’ve been protesting for so long now.” “Without this video,” they say, “this would have been just another black life that didn’t matter.” “Without this eyewitness video evidence, there would be another dead black man and another embellished, falsified police report and another officer, off the hook for bad police work – at the least; and for a racially motivated murder – at the most.”

All hail the eyewitness video evidence!

Until the next video is released, right? Days later, the dash-cam video from the police car was offered up for public consumption, and anyone who was or is inclined to dispute or deny or defend the actions of the officer in the first video has more, different eyewitness, video evidence to muddy the waters and to support another side to the argument. Because in that video we can see the dead man, Walter Scott, running, for reasons I have yet to hear explained, from what should have been a routine traffic stop for a broken tail-light. Now though, plenty of people have plenty of reason to wonder and to guess and to make up plenty of stories and pose plenty of scenarios that might have given the officer reason enough to justify shooting the way he did.

My point is, it seems eyewitness, video evidence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Which is what made me think of today’s Gospel… and that doubting disciple, Thomas… and that first Easter evening so many generations ago. As the story goes, Jesus entered the room on the evening of the resurrection and showed the disciples who were there his hands and his sides, and they rejoiced when they saw their Lord, risen from the dead. But, because none of them had their iPhone 6 handy… because there wasn’t a dash-cam to be found… because “selfie” wasn’t a word, yet… Thomas, who wasn’t in the room, wasn’t buying their story.

And who could blame him, really? (I always feel like Thomas gets a bad rap – forever being labeled, “Doubting Thomas” – and that he deserves a little defense of his own, here.)

These disciples had been down a long road of ministry and mission together, and time and again they had missed the point. They misunderstood Jesus’ teachings. They misinterpreted Jesus’ miracles. They misjudged Jesus’ intentions all along the way when he was talking with sinners, while he was healing the sick or when he was preaching about the Kingdom of God. And just the week before, leading up to his crucifixion and death, one of them betrayed him, another of them denied him three times, others fell asleep on him in the garden before his arrest and every one of them left Jesus in the dust to be taken away and crucified. So it’s no wonder Thomas doubted what these knuckleheads were telling him, really.

And I would say we’re no different.

No matter which side of this story in South Carolina we may find ourselves on, we can create plenty of reasons to doubt what one side or the other might be offering up to persuade us.

Which makes me wonder again about Jesus, who says, “Do you believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.” I think it’s one of the holiest and hardest challenges in all of Scripture. Believe, in spite of what you can’t see. Believe, in spite of what you’ll never witness. Believe – have faith – trust in God’s grace and mercy and power and peace, even though you’ll never have the proof…the video evidence…the hands-on, eyewitness accounting of what you think you want or need or deserve.

But I think what we’re supposed to do is look for and find God – and God’s grace and mercy and power and peace – in ways that don’t always look like the eyewitness, hands-on, video evidence the world tells us we need. And I found some evidence of that this week, connected with this sad, scary story in South Carolina.

Someone interviewed Judy Scott, the dead man’s mother, about how she felt and about how she was responding to the trauma of having lost her son and having had to see it all – and to know that the world was watching it all – on video. Was she glad the officer was arrested? Was she hopeful justice would be served? Did she have an opinion about what that justice would look like? Was she mindful of the public outcry that could result, either way? I can’t imagine what questions she must be wrestling with these days.

But this woman, whose son was shot in the back four times and killed on camera for all the world to see just days before, said something like this: “I’m supposed to be really angry and upset and raging…but because of the love of God in me… I can’t feel like that…I feel forgiveness in my heart, even for the guy who shot and killed my son…”

“…because of the love of God in me…I feel forgiveness in my heart… even for the guy who shot and killed my son.”

“…because of the love of God in me…”

You can’t reach out your hands and touch that… You can’t see it with your eyes…  You can’t put your fingers into the holes of this woman’s broken heart…

But I think the God we’re looking for… the Jesus we seek… the resurrected Christ who seems as illusive to you and me, sometimes, as he was to Thomas, is alive and well in the world around us. This God lives within women like Judy Scott. And the power of this God lives within us, too, when we seek forgiveness; when we work for justice; when we practice mercy; when walk humbly; and when we live with hope in spite of so much evidence and reason not to.

When we do these things, when we live in these ways, we let the God that lives within us – the resurrected Christ – be revealed, in the flesh, working love for the sake of the world.


All Rights Reserved. Background image by Aaron Stamper. © Cross of Grace Lutheran Church.