A sermon based on John 20:19-31
Preached on the 2nd Sunday of Easter, April 7, 2013
A Texas rancher bought 10 ranches and merged them together to form one giant spread. His friend asked him the name of his new mega-ranch. He replied: It’s called the Circle Q Rambling Brook Double Bar Broken Circle Crooked Creek Golden Horseshoe Lazy B Bent Arrow Sleep T Triple O Ranch.
“Wow!” said his friend. “You must have a heck of a lot of cattle.”
“Not really,” explained the rancher. “Not many have survived the branding.”
Reading this post-Easter passage again makes me realize that Thomas is one of those people in the Bible who hasn’t really survived his own branding. Forever and always, he has been known as one thing: The Doubter.
It’s not that he’s shoved off to the side or ignored in the preaching and teaching of the church through the ages. But what has happened is that he has been seen as someone who needs to be fixed. He is problematic – him and his need to see, to touch, to experience the Risen Christ. We lift up the faith of the women who go to the tomb. We praise Abraham and Moses who seemingly walked obediently into whatever mess God asked them to go. But poor Thomas – he is eternally linked to doubt – and by association – to unfaith.
It doesn’t seem fair that the one person who actually expresses what’s on his heart get’s a historic smack-down. Too bad the authors of scripture don’t give us such an intimate look into the psyche of Peter or James or John. You know: Peter – the one who thought he knew better than Jesus – Peter, the Denier? And James and John – you remember them – the ones who argued over who got to sit at the prestigious left and right hands of Jesus – James the Grabber of Power, John the Glory-Seeker. And let’s not even mention that time in the garden – the lack of focus, the sleeping, the running away, and the abandonment of their friend in his hour of need… Really! When did doubting trump rejection an abandonment as the worst possible thing a person can do to another?
It’s no wonder we get a little or a lot anxious when it comes to expressing our doubts about our faith. Because Thomas doubted, all doubters, in all time and all places have shared his stigma – that somehow because of their doubt their faith is somehow defective – that it must be fixed.
But what if Thomas is really no more doubtful than the other disciples? No more doubtful than any other biblical hero for that matter? What if Abraham’s excuses and Sarah’s laughter were just their way of covering their doubt? And what about Job, that paragon of faith – the one we’re supposed to use as our example of faith in the mist of suffering? He rants and raves – getting downright hostile toward God when he doesn’t get the answers he seeks. Though he never says he doubts God, you don’t have to read very closely to see the doubts creeping in.
And as for the disciples – there’s really only one thing that gives them a bit of an edge over Thomas anyway and it has nothing to do with any kind of extreme faith. When Jesus appears and Thomas asks to see his wounds, those other disciples have had the benefit of an earlier meeting. Jesus had already come to them once before. And as long as we’re talking about faith and doubt, let’s not forget the circumstances of that first meeting: Jesus found them behind locked doors, hidden away. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t their great faith that drove them to hide away in fear!
So what are we to say about these men and women? Does their doubt, their hostility, their ridicule of God’s work mean they are somehow deficient in faith? Absolutely not. Even though they had their doubts, even though they couldn’t believe or even comprehend the fullness of God’s will, they stuck with it. Job, who had every reason to curse Go and die did not turn his back on God. Even Sarah with her doubting laughter never said “NO!” And Moses, though he kept making mistakes and kept trying to ditch his responsibilities even Moses kept on leading even after he was denied entry into the promised land. And as for Thomas, even though he didn’t get to see the empty tomb or hear the women’s testimonies, even though he didn’t get to see Jesus that first day, he is still hanging in there. He is still determined to meet the Lord. He is committed to this project of sharing the good news. It seems to me this is something to celebrate!
I want to give thanks for Thomas’ doubt. Because his insistence on touching the wounds isn’t a sign of unbelief, it’s really an example of the kind of faith we should all strive for – a kind of ideal affirmation of faith. For Thomas to ask to see Jesus wounds means he has fully connected to the reality of Jesus’ death. Resurrection can’t be real unless there are wounds that kill. It’s easy to forget that. It’s easy to put Jesus on a pedestal and worship his miraculous deeds, his blessed teaching and expect that somehow these things will find their way into our lives because we believe in them. But what happens when the miraculous seems hard to come by? Or when the beautiful teachings seem to remain unfulfilled in our lives?
When the road of discipleship gets rough, when faith is hard to come by, that’s when we should give thanks for Thomas who says: “I need to see the wounds.” These are not words of doubt, but an affirmation that Jesus lived and loved and suffered and died just like we do. Jesus knows what our suffering is all about. He understands that sometimes suffering is unavoidable. For Thomas and for us, the wounds are a clear reminder that Jesus is with us in body and soul when we suffer. And when Thomas finally sees the risen Christ, he realizes this as good news and cries out those faith-filled words that resound through the ages: “My Lord and My God!”
Though this confession rose from deep grief, it stands as a sign to us that doubt does not have to mean lack of belief but rather doubt goes hand in hand with a deep and abiding faith that drives us to our knees to worship the one who has walked the same path as we have walked. Seeing the wounds in the hands and side of the resurrected Christ reminds us that even when we doubt, the Son of the Living God is with us. If, in the midst of our pain and suffering, we say nothing else but this: “My Lord and My God” that is enough.
(Inspired by: Lee, Dorothy A., “Partnership in Easter Faith: The Role of Mary Magdalene and Thomas in John 20,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 1995.)