Doubting Thomas and the Body of Christ
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.
This sermon is sort of a sequel to something I preached about 7 years ago. I went looking for it because of something my dad is up to this weekend. He’s making one of his fairly regular pilgrimages to the Kinross Correctional Facility, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, to visit a friend of his who is a convicted murderer. And he’s guilty, too, of first-degree murder. That’s not always the case, but he makes no bones about it. The crime was one of passion, fueled by drugs and rage and immaturity and ugliness and only God knows what else. He’s about 35 years-old now, and serving two life sentences in something like Siberia, as I imagine it.
Anyway, I always remember that on one of their first visits after he was moved into the prison this guy told my dad that he had read through the New Testament twice, and that he didn’t believe it. At the time, my first thought was to wonder about the last time any of us have sat down and read through the New Testament in its entirety, once, let alone twice. My second thought – and what comes to mind very often when I read about Thomas in John’s Gospel – is how well “Doubting Thomas” might have gotten along with my dad’s friend, and so many of the rest of us for that matter.
I don’t think I’ve ever preached a sermon about Thomas without defending him, first. Christians talk about “Doubting Thomas” so much as though we haven’t… or don’t… or shouldn’t have moments of faithlessness and doubt; as though we wouldn’t have been right there with him in his skepticism or cynicism or reluctance to believe back on that first resurrection day. But the truth is, Thomas doesn’t ask for or get any more or less than all the other disciples got before they “rejoiced” at recognizing Jesus in that house after the resurrection – before they believed in this whole resurrection thing.
As the story goes, Jesus entered the room, showed the disciples his hands and his sides, and then they rejoiced when they saw their Lord. And the same is true for Thomas. He got just what he asked for, in the end, when Jesus showed up a week later and let Thomas touch and see the healing wounds of his crucifixion. And then Thomas rejoiced, just like the others, declaring with such faith and conviction, “My Lord and my God.”
And I always wonder if Thomas wasn’t cynical and doubtful so much of Jesus’ resurrection, as he was skeptical about what his fellow disciples told him they may or may not have witnessed that first night when Jesus appeared. And I don’t blame Thomas one bit for doubting those knuckleheads at this stage of the game.
Because remember, they’d been down this long road of ministry and mission together, and time and time and time again the disciples 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, Judas betrayed him, Peter denied him three times and, along with James and John, fell asleep on Jesus in the garden before his arrest. On top of that, every one of them left Jesus in the dust to be taken away and crucified. Why would anyone believe anything these guys had to say? It might have been crazier had Thomas NOT been skeptical about what they were telling him, if you ask me.
And, so this morning we’re supposed to consider the common ground, I believe that we and others share with Thomas, one week out; one week after Easter’s good news; one week post-eggs, and lilies; bunnies and the big breakfast and all the rest.
What have we seen and believed? What have we heard and told to others? What have we experienced and shared with the world around us about this resurrection that makes or has made any difference – for ourselves, for each other, for the world?
And all of it makes me think about my Dad’s friend behind bars – and so many others like him – not a few of which I call my closest friends: those people, I mean, who don’t believe it; those who don’t buy it; those who can’t be bothered with what we preach, teach and proclaim and try to live by.
And I’m inclined to believe that the common ground they share with Thomas isn’t all about their lack of belief. I’m inclined to believe that – like Thomas – they have good reason to be cynical and skeptical and suspicious about all of this because of what they see so much of the time from Jesus’ followers. So many are disillusioned by the Church; confused and scared by the words and ways of so many “evangelical Christians”; they see so much hypocrisy in and through the actions of believers. They see betrayal as ugly as anything Judas managed; denial as mighty as Peter’s, and apathy as disappointing as James and John, sleeping in the garden.
All of this, if you ask me, is OUR problem – not theirs. I’m under the impression that our lesson for today – the greater challenge in this story of Thomas and his doubts – is more about the other disciples and their faithlessness than it is about Thomas, at all.
And that makes me stop pointing fingers at Thomas – and others like him – and start wondering, instead, what it is about my life and faith – and yours, too – and ours, together – that would inspire or compel belief in the lives of others, whether they’re sitting behind bars, or sitting beside us at school or at work, or sitting beside us at the kitchen table for Easter dinner.
Why would the people in my life believe anything I have to say about this Jesus? Why would the people in your life find anything compelling about the faith you profess? Why would or should anyone look to us, in these days after Easter, and be moved to live differently by anything we have to say or do?
So, over the past seven years my dad has enlisted a cohort of friends and colleagues who correspond with his friend, in that prison. (Not everyone wants a part of this, I have to say. The crime was horrible. And not everybody can stomach such a friendship. I get that.) But those who can send letters and birthday cards; Christmas greetings and, recently, deposits for his prison commissary account. And the goal, for me at least – and for my dad, from what I can tell – isn’t to proselytize; to change his mind; to prove him wrong; or to win his soul for Jesus. I think that’s something God already has designs on and plans for – which is Easter’s good news, after all.
My hope is that all of it – the cards, the letters, the prayers – and my dad’s face to face, hand to hand, one-on-one visits, more than any of it – my hope is that all of it represents for his friend nothing more and nothing less than the body of Christ, showing up behind the locked doors of a scary, lonely, dark, despairing kind of place.
Because that’s what Thomas got when the disciples’ words weren’t enough. He got the body of Jesus – present, pierced, wounded, and on the mend right there in the room with him.
And that’s what each of us is called to be and to look for in the world around us: the body of Christ – the very presence of love, forgiveness, mercy, grace, patience and generosity – so that all of creation, the lost and the found, the saint and the sinner, the bound and the free, might see, might believe, and might have life and hope and peace and joy in his name when we do.