Martha M. Shiverick
April 7, 2013 – Doubting Thomas Sunday

Scripture: John 20:19-31

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John Buchanan, the now retired minister of Fourth Presbyterian Church and editor of Christian Century magazine wrote in his editorial this week that he felt that these days and weeks after Easter are the most important in the church year. Sure, we packed the crowds in last Sunday at the 11:00 worship service with an attendance we have not seen since Christmas Eve and last Easter, but these Sundays are really important as you, the people who attend worship this morning, represent the deeply faithful, the steady, loyal heart of our congregation. Buchanan writes that the issues in the days and weeks after Easter are ‘now what?’ and ‘so what?’ and that these are the issues and questions that you all have on your minds.

This morning’s scripture passage begins to deal with these weighty issues. The passage begins where we left off last week. Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw it empty. She ran to Peter and the other disciple and told them and they went, or rather ran, to see what had happened. Indeed the tomb was empty and Peter and the other disciple saw and believed. We don’t know what they believed but they then left. Mary encounters the risen Christ and after speaking with him recognizes him. She knows that Jesus lives.

Here we are a week later and the scripture passage for this week is the same one we deal with year after year on the Sunday after Easter. Some call it ‘Doubting Thomas Sunday” but it is really much more than that. Listen now to God’s word as it is told to us in the Gospel of John verses 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. 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.”

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

This scripture passage is great on so many levels. First, even before we get to the Doubting Thomas part, the first part of story with the other disciples is so rich. Here it is right after Jesus has risen from the dead. No doubt the disciples in this locked room have heard from Peter and the other disciple about the disappearance of Jesus’ body from the tomb. Although the Easter scripture says that they believed, we are not told what they believed so we are not sure it was that knew that Jesus had risen from the grave. However, we do know that Mary Magdalene experienced the risen Christ and knew it was her risen Lord. No doubt all three of them have come and told their stories to the disciples. Perhaps they were even hiding with them in the locked room.

And we don’t know how many disciples were there but we do know they were frightened, had locked themselves into a room out of fear. The passage says their fear was of the Jews but my guess is that their fear grew out of confusion. They man they had left their former lives to follow had just died an ugly and agonizing death. The crowds were blood thirsty. They had buries Jesus who they loved so and went to that room and stayed together much like a family retreats back to their home after a memorial service. They needed to grieve. They needed to lick their own emotional wounds and decide where they went next. Would they return to their former home towns and lives? There was a lot to contemplate. And then Peter and the other disciple came back and told them that Jesus’ body was missing. How awful. And then Mary Magdalene came and told them that their Jesus was not dead at all but was alive and she had spoken with him. Of course the door was locked. If I had been a disciple, all this would be too much to take in. I would have silently gone over and locked the door myself!

Obviously a locked door was not deterrence to the Risen Lord. He comes into the room and states his reason for his appearance. He fills them with the Holy Spirit and then commissions them to do his work. He breathes on them. And they believed. Seeing and being filled with God’s Spirit, and commissioned to do God’s work is all they need to believe that indeed Jesus is the Risen Christ. It is wonderful. Imagine their joy that death was not the final word. Jesus was alive. How wonderful… And after commissioning the group, Jesus departs.

It is all wonderful until poor Thomas comes in and finds out that he is the only one that has not experienced the Risen Lord. I am sure he wants to believe. Look at how joyous they all are. But Thomas must have a scientific mind and although he wants to believe, he needs the empirical data himself. We must assume he heard the previous reports from Peter and Mary, and the other disciple and now everyone else had experienced Jesus alive again. But he just can’t bring himself to take that leap of faith. He wants proof. He wants his own evidence. He wants to see and touch Jesus himself.

And so Jesus makes another trip to see the disciples in order that Thomas might get the data he needs to believe. And this little part in the story is just great. Jesus returns a whole week later after making that first appearance in the room, after commissioning the disciples and filling them with the Holy Spirit. And what have they done. It seems that they are still locked up in that same room unable to begin the ministry to which they have been called. Jesus said that he was sending them out as God had sent him and well they were not super heroes…. They stayed in their room with the door locked! They might even have been a total disappointment.

And Jesus comes back. He allows Thomas to gather all the empirical data he needed to believe, and he does. He touches, he smells, he listens, he sees. Thomas then makes a faith statement stating that Jesus is his Lord and his God. This early Christological statement stating that Christ is God comes from the man who seconds before could not believe. He needed to gather all the data. And Jesus says, blessed are those who do not see, but believe.

Jesus is addressing this to us. We are the people who must believe without seeing. We must gather our faith data as post resurrection people in a new way. One of my very favorite novels is John Irving’s book, “A Prayer for Owen Meany”. I recommend it to anyone who is looking for a good book this spring. In the book, Owen Meany answers his friend’s questions about faith. They are two young boys and the narrator John has a number of conversations with his friend Own about his faith and beliefs. In one instance, Owen illustrates his faith in God by pointing to a gray granite statue of Mary Magdalene in the graveyard as twilight falls. When it has become so dark that the statue is no `longer visible, Own asks John if he knows if the statue is still there. John says that yes, of course the statue is still there. Owen asks him if he is sure even though he can see her and he says yes. And Owen says that that is how his faith is. He can’t see God, but he absolutely knows he is there too.

Some things are just like that. A lot of what we experience at church and through our faith in Christ is really just like that. We can’t see love. But we know when it is there and when it is absent. We can’t see compassion but we can feel when it is there. We can’t touch friendship, but we know when we have it. And we believe absolutely in peace and equality but it is often only defined by what it is not.

And the message for our “Doubting Thomas Sunday” is that we who believe are indeed blessed. We are the ones whose faith allows us to experience God. We are the ones who feel God’s love. We are the ones that know true compassion and forgiveness that comes with the love of God. We are the ones that can see God in the beauty of nature. We are the ones who are religious, are close to God and not just “spiritual”. We are the ones that have found that fellowship within a community of faith, within our community of faith we call Fairmount, brings us a peace and a sense of purpose in our lives. Yes, blessed are we who have faith in our living God.

John Buchanan said in his editorial that these are the weeks that we, the faithful ask the same thing Jesus’ disciples asked: ‘so what?’ and ‘now what?’ The answer is obvious to me. We who Jesus names ‘blessed’ because we know God in our lives also know they joy and comfort our belief and our community of believers brings. And because we have indeed experienced the risen Christ in our lives, we have the same charge and commission that those first disciples had. Just as Christ told them to spread the news, it is indeed our job to share the love we know with others so that they too can hear of Christ’s good news.