Prayer of Illumination: Risen Lord, who never runs out of Easters, you constantly walk through locked doors and meet us where we are at. You reassure us when we need to see for ourselves your work in the world. You enter all rooms and breathe your peace into our hearts. By your Holy Spirit you put stories on all our hearts and send us out to share them. Open our ears and guide our feet this day and always, amen.
Friends, we’ve all got stories. Today we will begin Eastertide season by taking a closer look at just part of Thomas’ story as well as just part of the early church of Acts’ story.
32 The community of believers was one in heart and mind. None of them would say, “This is mine!” about any of their possessions, but held everything in common. 33 The apostles continued to bear powerful witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and an abundance of grace was at work among them all. 34 There were no needy persons among them. Those who owned properties or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds from the sales, 35 and place them in the care and under the authority of the apostles. Then it was distributed to anyone who was in need.
19 It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
Jesus appears to Thomas and the disciples
24 Thomas, the one called Didymus,[a] one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”
But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”
26 After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”
28 Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
30 Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. 31 But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name
Raise your hand if you have ever been given a nickname. Some nicknames may not bother you as much as others. For example, when I was working as a sonic car-hop, my boss gave me the nickname “stretch” because my height…this didn’t bother me that much because I cannot deny my height. Sometimes nicknames are more bothersome. It seems when someone gives you a nickname, the name sticks to you like glue and follows you through your life– even when you outgrow it.
Biblical characters also tend to be ascribed nicknames. Today in our first scripture lesson, we take a closer look at the gospel of John’s account of Jesus appearing to the disciples and then appearing to Thomas the Twin, who is often referred to as “Doubting Thomas”, a nickname he would probably dislike.
Joshua Harris, a comic strip artist, released a simple comic strip in 2010 that accurately captures part of Thomas’ plight. In the comic strip, Thomas, labelled “Doubting Thomas” is drawn distraughtly speaking to the other disciples explaining, “All I’m saying is we don’t call Peter; ‘denying Peter’ or Mark; ran away from the garden naked Mark. Why should I always get saddled with this title?” (Joshua Harris, 2010.) Harris’ comic strip offers insight because after all, is curiosity and questioning such a bad thing in regards to our faith?
Poor Thomas. Usually when he is mentioned in church, he is referred to as doubting Thomas and it’s all because of this passage. Why does he get this label? There’s so many people in the Bible who doubt. I actually think it is harder to find someone who didn’t.
We have many examples: Sarah and Abraham, two of the pillars in our tradition, doubted that God would bring them a son. They both laughed at God. Moses doubted that God could use him to free the Israelites from slavery. Gideon doubted in God’s ability to help him win the war against the Midianites so he prayed for God to give him proof. Many of the disciples doubted throughout their journey with Jesus, just think about Peter.
Despite his nickname, earlier in the gospel of John, Thomas the twin, makes a bold, courageous statement which he is not often remembered for. Jesus and the disciples learned that Lazarus had fallen ill to the point of being on his death bed. Jesus began to prepare to make the trip to Judea to be with Lazarus and his sisters. As plans were being made, the disciples remember Jesus’ last trip to Judea…the people in Judea thought Jesus was completely crazy and wanted to stone Him. Clearly Jesus’ disciples thought it would be wise for their group to stay away. However, Jesus is not one who is afraid of conflict. Yet, when it becomes clear that Jesus is set on going to Judea, Thomas, the twin states, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” (John 11:16) But Thomas is not remembered for his brave claim of loyalty.
So why is it that Thomas is labeled as the Doubter of the Bible? Before I continue…I do want to say that there is nothing wrong with doubting. I believe that doubt is a critical part of our faith journey. Usually it is when we are unsure that we seek deeper questions…. and often when we give voice to the lack of faith that we experience that we’re able to find Jesus in new ways. Never be ashamed of your doubt; we always welcome ones questions and struggles. Doubt can play a part in our faith stories. And Jesus meets us wherever we are at along the way.
I appreciate our text from John, perhaps because it is relatable. Perhaps today, even with scripture and the Holy Spirit, sometimes we too, long to “see” Jesus with our own eyes and touch Jesus with our hands. Thankfully, Jesus continues to meet us where we are and be present with us, even though we can’t see Him…..He is present in our times of unbelief. Thomas reassures us that our glorious Easter hymns are not always withstanding. Thomas reminds us the week after the resurrection has always been murky, messy, and complicated. We’re not the first human beings to struggle with it, and we won’t be the last. Struggle is intrinsic to post-Easter life—but the story doesn’t end there.
Pastor Jill Duffield states, “Jesus does not condemn our struggles to believe in God’s power and God’s goodness when all we’d imagined or planned gets upended…Friends, God in Christ makes his way to us, wherever we are, to reassure us of the trustworthiness of God’s creative, living word. He allows us to see him, touch him, stare at him in awe filled wonder, and study him, recognizing our fragility and shock….as we huddle anxiously in secluded places, how have we seen and heard, touched and felt, experienced without question our Lord and God, Jesus Christ?”
Jesus enters and says, “Peace be with you.” The Spirit shows up and is given to each Jesus’ early followers and to us in order to help guide us and to help us live into God’s love and grace.
Which brings us to our scripture from Acts. The book of Acts chronicles the beginning of the church. The book is heavily Holy Spirit driven. We are told at the beginning of Acts 4 that the community of believers has grown to about five thousand members. Then, after a confrontation between Jesus’ disciples and religious leaders we are told, “When the followers of Jesus had prayed….they were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:31.) With boldness they spoke and told their stories of Jesus. The Holy Spirit is the source of authority which apostles have bestowed upon their preaching and witness. The Spirit’s power births the church, a new movement, seeks to bring order to chaos and defines the church’s mission. Not only to proclaim the resurrection gospel but also to embody its redemptive truth by caring for others and sharing stories of how God meets us in our lives. However, as you might imagine the early followers had moments of fear.
A fear well described by Walter Brueggemann: all people fall into two categories, those who fear the world they treasured is crumbling all around them, and those who fear the world they dream of will never come to be. I have found in declaring this that people, even if only for a moment, find some common ground. There is no fear near Jesus – but this doesn’t mean you can relax.
Elie Wiesel famously said, “If an angel ever says, ‘Be not afraid,’ you’d better watch out: a big assignment is on the way.” Jesus comforts with one hand and then sends his early followers out into hard labor and challenges them to share His resurrection message with others. These disciples, and us today, have work to do. Work which requires courage and some peace. How lovely and fitting that Jesus doesn’t criticize or judge them for their fears and doubts. He loves. He reassures, turning their confusion into friendship, their fear into trust. Calling all of His early followers and us today, to rise up with the Holy Spirit.
May you allow it, to help mend, to help weave together the torn pieces with in you. May we allow this Good News to help weave together our community. Now friends let us not allow such news, peace, and presence of spirit to stay here. We cannot keep all this Good News to ourselves. Instead may it strengthen us, and encourage us, to be the people who meet others where they are, meet them in their shock, in their grief, in their struggle, pulling them in, and reminding them of the love and peace that God offers to all of creation.
May we all be encouraged—like the early followers of Christ—to tell our faith stories and how God meets us where we are. Stories that show we are all connected, and that “the church is a group of people caught up in the same story, with Jesus at the center”- as Rachel Held Evans states.
In this post-Easter season, perhaps our efforts are best spent directing people to help people see concrete glimpses into the power of God’s transforming presence in the world- within each of our own stories. Perhaps we can allow the Spirit to help us- see it. Share it. Live into it. May it be so. Amen.