John 20:19-31 (online here)
[As one might infer, this is a sermon preached in my own Episcopal Church.]
We always hear about Thomas the Twin and his doubts on the second Sunday in Easter. That, John tells us, is when it happened—the second Sunday in Easter. I don’t think anybody had come up with a Church Calendar just yet, so they might have forgotten to wear the appropriate vestments.
Every time I encounter this reading I find myself identifying with Thomas, and so, I suspect, do you. Today’s Episcopal Church is full of Thomases. I can’t keep track of how many Episcopal parish websites quote the phrase, “The opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty.” I can’t track down who first said that, either. Writers always say they heard it from somebody else, and that’s a good thing—it means the idea now has a life of its own. And it certainly has a life among Episcopalians. Our church is full of Thomases. We caution against too much certainty. We embrace doubt. Faith needs doubt.
It’s always important to point out that the lesson doesn’t condemn Thomas for his doubts and questions. John’s Gospel portrays Thomas as one of the most loyal, faithful disciples of all. He’s just more honest than others. He’s more like Abraham and Jacob and Moses. They didn’t hesitate to challenge God to God’s face, and sometimes they won their arguments. All Thomas’s questions show is that he’s not willing to let others do his believing for him. He has to believe honestly, and the only way to believe honestly is to be convinced. None of us should settle for anything less.
And like Jacob wrestling God to a stalemate, Thomas wins his argument. Jacob got his blessing, Thomas gets his demand. Jesus shows up and says, “Go ahead Thomas, perform all the tests you want.” There’s not even a hint of chiding in Jesus’ voice, unless we supply it ourselves from people who warned us not to be like Thomas. Jesus wants Thomas to believe, and he wants him to ask whatever questions he needs to ask, to test whatever he can test. He wants him to believe honestly, not just because others told him he should.
And here’s where we may miss the most important part of this lesson. It’s what didn’t happen, so it’s easy to miss. Thomas has his chance now. So how many tests does he perform? How many crucial experiments? None. Zero. When he finally gets the chance he asked for, he forgets to take it. He’s overwhelmed. The best he can do is exclaim, “My Lord and my God!” Instead of investigating, Thomas worships. That’s the most important thing to notice.
Thomas realizes that he’s not in the presence of a reanimated corpse. Instead he’s in the presence of God. He realizes that what drew him to Jesus in the first place was the fleshed-out presence of the God who comes too close to be observed or escaped, the God who can’t be driven away by rejection or even by execution.
Jesus had told him as much before. At the last supper he said that whoever saw him saw God, that he lived in God and that God lived in him. Thomas was there; he heard that. But a devastating execution drove it out of his head. Only now does he begin to awaken again to that life that God and Jesus began to live in each other. Only now does he realize that not even an execution can end that shared life.
If all you’re talking about is whether your executed friend suddenly got up and started walking around, then of course there are all kinds of tests you could and should perform to see if that story was true. And if you’re satisfied, you can call The National Inquirer for fifteen minutes of dubious fame. But when your executed friend is still sharing the very life of God, not just showing up but animating even your life with God’s life, what sort of test could possibly tell you whether that was true or not? How do you test for the uncontainable presence of God’s life?
Actually, you can’t. You can have moments when you’re overwhelmed by the presence of God. And our Church is full of people who’ve had moments like that. Or you can have less dramatic moments when you’re not totally overwhelmed, but still aware that life itself, and your life in particular, is surrounded and filled with mystery and wonder that can’t be pinned down by a bunch of detached observations. And our Church is filled with even more people who know all about that. Moments like that are why most of us are here.
But none of this will convince anybody else, not unless they’ve had moments like that too. You can’t prove that those moments are any more than a feeling you manufactured yourself, or that your body manufactured. Maybe you’re reacting to too much sugar, or to some other product you’d rather not mention.
You either trust those moments or you don’t. There are no final tests that would satisfy everybody. Even you’re not satisfied, because faith has nothing to do with being satisfied. Those moments awaken you to an endless quest for wonder and mystery, for fleeting times when you touch and taste a life that nothing contains. Nothing is settled, least of all you. If anything, your questions start multiplying faster than rabbits. But you’re never more alive than when you’re on this quest.
Jesus looks over Thomas’s shoulder at us and says, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.” Blessed are those of us who have nothing more to go on than lives surrounded and filled with mystery and wonder, and yet manage to keep going.
That’s where we all are right now. So much of what sustains our life together as the body of Christ has suddenly been taken away. We can’t gather. We can’t share our sacred meal. We can’t visit those who are sick. If we are sick, nobody can visit us. Those of us who have lost someone dear to us can’t be comforted in person. Nobody has any firm idea of how long this will last. So much of what we have counted on has been taken away.
And yet we have managed to keep going. We are trying all sorts of unfamiliar ways to be there for one another. It’s OK if you don’t particularly like virtual gatherings. You’re putting up with them. You’re refusing to give up. And Jesus says you are blessed. We are blessed.
The mystery that surrounds and fills our lives remains, and when we can’t count on familiar ways to participate in it, we can open ourselves to unfamiliar ways.
Like Thomas, we worship today, not because of what we’ve seen, but because of what we can’t escape—the mystery that surrounds and fills our lives when everything familiar vanishes, the very life that God and Jesus and Thomas shared, starting to animate our lives.
Come, let us worship. Amen.