NRSV JOHN 20:19-31
19 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.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 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.”
26 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.” 27 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.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 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.”
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 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 may have life in his name.
Today is, of course, the Sunday after Easter. It is traditionally called “Low Sunday,” and believe it or not it is not called that because the turnout is expected to head in that direction after the crowds of the highest, holiest day of the year.
It’s a title that has been in effect since the days of St. Augustine, so that would be about the fifth century, CE. In those days it was designated that because when you compare this Sunday, or any Sunday for that matter, with Easter, what else can you call it? It’s like the way the ancient Israelite pilgrims treated Jerusalem; since it was on a hill, wherever you went you had to go up to get there. Hence the Psalms of Ascents. Same way with Easter. Hence, Low Sunday. After Easter it’s all downhill.
But when you come down from that lofty place to that low place, you find that you have plenty of company. For that is where most of us live. And that’s what these passages of scripture are all about this morning. They are not about lofty theological concepts, or those great spiritual giants who put us to shame, or about other-worldly experiences far beyond our comprehension.
This is about the reality of life with Jesus resurrected but not around. This is about what it means to be the church of those who put their faith in him and who seek to follow his commandments, but have to do so without his physical presence. This is about touching our doubts, and in that touch and in that moment feeling the embrace of our savior.
Of course, another reason why this is Low Sunday for me personally is that I have to preach on Doubting Thomas … again. I’ve done it before, good heavens have I preached on this one before. I can remember while still in Seminary wowing – or thought I was wowing – my then girlfriend with a sermon on Doubting Thomas. That was back when I thought I knew what I was doing; back in the days before I entered the land of knowing I didn’t know what I was doing. Preaching every week to people who know the Bible better than you do will do that to you.
It seems that every year, on the Sunday after Easter, the Gospel lesson turns to this story. And it’s a good one. After all, we have all been there, right? Except for those who think that only people with the name of Thomas are Doubting Thomases. Not likely, that.
It seems to come up every year at this time, and there is a perfectly good reason why: Thomas touches his doubts one week after the resurrection. But the story doesn’t start there; it starts off with “When it was evening on that day…” The same day that Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty. The same day Peter and the disciple Jesus loved ran to the tomb. The same day Mary wept before the angels. The same day Mary heard her name, saw her beloved, and believed.
Also – the same day Mary came to them all and said, “I have seen the Lord.” She obeyed his command. She was sent, and she did her job. She told them all the things that had happened, and the things the resurrected Christ said to her.
And what was their response? What deep demonstration of their faith did they exhibit? They locked the doors in fear of the Jews.
In Luke’s account, it says that the disciples dismissed the words of Mary Magdalene and two other women, “as an idle tale.” Though John doesn’t use those words here, you get the idea that the sentiment was pretty much the same. They heard the glorious news of the resurrection, of Mary’s conversation with Jesus. But rather than opening up the door and going out and proclaiming what they had heard, they locked the doors because they were afraid.
Now read in its historical context, you can get why. John is writing to a group of fellow Christians who have just been kicked out of their synagogues for their belief in Jesus as the Messiah. They were a community of the fearful. They had felt their lives transformed in the act of following this good, faithful, fellow Jew as the Anointed One of God. But for that belief they were sent away from their base of faith. Who wants to be kicked out of your spiritual home? They were all in fear, just as the disciples were, so they could connect with them.
And sometimes – let’s fess up here now – we are right there with them. The late David Bartlett, longtime professor at Columbia Seminary, once noted that “We sing ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God,’ but we really mean that, ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our Church.’” We have in many respects enfortressed ourselves behind the walls of the church. We have been taught through the years that in this place we have this particular code of conduct, we say these kinds of things, and in this place we are a different kind of people than we are out there.
Now don’t get me wrong. I received that same lesson. I love this place and I love every church that bears witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and I treat every place like this with the highest of respect. But as great as the church is it is not the centerpiece of our faith. We do not worship the church; we come here to gain what we need so that we might follow the One the church points to.
We do not serve that gospel well when we keep the message inside. The movement of the church in recent years has been a missional movement, a movement outside of the walls of the church. It started not because somebody wrote a book or had a brainstorm that we should do this; it started when the resurrected Christ breathed on his disciples, the “Johannine Pentecost” as it has been called. He gave them all the Holy Spirit, the Holy Breath, and the Greek word means the same thing. He breathed on them and said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
The church of Jesus Christ is not a group of people who come to a building one day a week. It is not a people who think they are better than everybody else. It is not a people who do one thing out there and something different in here. It is a people who have been sent to share, to live, to be the good news that God has broken the power of everything that can hurt, divide or destroy us. It is to be the same people out there that we are in here, a people who love and are merciful with each other and everyone else with the same energy and intentionality as we breathe. It is to be a people who recognize that even in our world where people may give you a strange look when you say that you go to church, that this is also a world that needs to hear the good news of a loving God who still cares about the whole world, and not just a select few.
So the first part of this text is about what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ; to be a sent out people, to be an apostolic community. The second part is what happens when we do that; what happens when we exhibit all of our good traits and our bad traits to the world just like we do in here.
In other words, when we are more like Doubting Thomas than we would like to admit.
Perhaps we didn’t have to crack open the Bibles this morning. It may not be the 23rd Psalm or John 3:16, but we know the story of Thomas; of how they all saw the resurrected Christ and received his breath, all but Thomas, out doing heaven knows what. We have heard from him in John before. Back in the raising of Lazarus story, he advises they all go back to the place of danger, to Judea, so that they might all die with Jesus. In the 14th chapter, when Jesus in his farewell talk with them tells them that they know the way, Thomas is the only one who says, “No, I don’t. I don’t know the way. How can we know the way?”
He’s a non-nonsense guy, this Thomas. He doesn’t pull punches. He says what comes to his mind, whether it is faithfully correct or not. You may not share his name like I do, but we are all Doubting Thomases. We all have our moments of great faith and our moments of saying, “Now, wait a minute. Do we really know what is going on here? Who thought this was a good idea?” We all have our doubts about Jesus, about resurrection, about what it means to be a follower of Jesus, about the movement of the Holy Spirit, about a lot of things that pertain to the church.
We all have our doubts, and we need to remember that Jesus, when he confronted Thomas with his doubts, did not condemn him for them. He told him to believe, and not doubt, but before that Jesus invited Thomas to touch his wounds. In doing that he invited Thomas to touch his – that is, Thomas’ – doubts. So Jesus does with us. I guess these words leave us with the thought that doubts are the opposite of faith. But that has not served us well. How many people have left the church because they were brave enough to express their doubts and some well-meaning but not very helpful church attender said, “Oh, you can’t do that. No doubting here.”
I’ve always liked Frederick Buechner’s line that, “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. It keeps it awake and moving.” Doubt is not the opposite of faith; that would be a non-caring, unemotional, blasé state of indifference. Doubting is about pursuing faith. Doubting is being honest. Doubting is wanting to be wrong but feeling like you need to get your wonders out there anyway.
Jesus didn’t let Thomas get away with his doubts, but he didn’t condemn him – or any of us – for them. And yet there is something very important our Lord told all of his doubting friends. He says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Faith is not a one-shot deal. Faith is a procession. It is something that moves. It is not stagnant. It is not a case of ‘once you’ve got it, that’s it, no more moving around.’ Faith is always moving. Doubts are one way that it keeps moving. Doubts allow us to ask questions, and sometimes it is more important to ask questions than to have answers. A meme on the internet last week said, “I would rather have questions that cannot be answered, than to have answers that cannot be questioned.”
Jesus knows we all have doubts. Jesus comes to help us touch our doubts, to touch our fears, to touch everything that rises up and keeps us awake at night. But Jesus does more than that. Jesus invites us to let our doubts lead us into deeper and deeper faith, into deeper and deeper engagement with him, into deeper and deeper love with him and with each other.
Doubts keep us awake and moving, so we do not serve ourselves well if we neglect them. They can often be the best means by which our risen Lord beckons us forward. By the power of the breath of Jesus blown upon us, giving us the Spirit of God, may we let our doubts lead us into deeper faith, and deeper love. Amen.