April 11, 2021, A Sermon for Doubters, John 20:19-29 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
A link to the audio is at the bottom of the sermon.
What was it like for Jesus’s disciples in the days after his Crucifixion, shut up within those four walls, huddled in their small group, sharing their common sorrow and fear, living in continual uncertainty? Well, our lives over this past year, isolated by the pandemic, have made it, maybe, a little easier to imagine. Here we’ve been, all of us, in locked-up houses of our own. Sorrow and fear and a great deal of uncertainty have surrounded us, day after day. And inside our four walls many of us, maybe most of us, have lived with the same kind of doubt that those early disciples faced. They had heard the rumors about the empty tomb. The women were even telling some crazy story about seeing angels. But could it be, was it even possible, that Jesus was not dead, but alive? What hope did they really have?
Of course, we have an advantage over those disciples. We know how the story turns out. We celebrated the festival of Easter last week – even though some of us still had to celebrate remotely. But together we affirmed our faith in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, in music and Scripture and prayer. And yet, here we are just a week later, and like Thomas, if we are honest, most of us know what it’s like to have doubts. We declare our belief that the tomb stood open and empty on that long-ago Easter morning. We affirm our belief that Jesus ascended, alive and in the flesh, to the presence of the Father. But what real hope does that give us right here and right now, stuck inside our four walls, surrounded on all sides by threats to our lives and our livelihoods, cut off from our family and our friends and the fellowship that we so desperately need? Like the man who brought his son to Jesus to be healed, many of us might truthfully say today, “We believe. Help our unbelief.”
I was ordained to the priesthood on the Feast of St. Thomas, and I have always had a soft spot in my heart for this apostle. Good old Doubting Thomas, you don’t want to be like him. We’re supposed to be people of faith, not doubt, right? But it’s always seemed to me that a lot of people misunderstand this story – a story John recalled in some detail for our benefit, so that our faith in Jesus might be strengthened. Thomas shows up when the others have already been hiding in that house for a whole week. A week before this, on the evening of the first Easter Day, Jesus had shown up in that very room. Luke tells us the disciples that were there on that night were terrified when they first saw Jesus; they were pretty sure they were seeing a ghost, but Jesus comforted and reassured them. He showed them his scars so they would know that he was really Jesus, their Teacher and friend. He let them touch him. “Feel me,” he said to them, “ghosts don’t have flesh and bones, do they?” He even ate a piece of broiled fish, so they could believe that he was there, with them, in the flesh.
And now, a week later, Thomas comes along and finds himself in the same need of reassurance. His friends have sworn up and down that they truly had seen Jesus – seen him and heard him and touched him. But Thomas still can’t find it in himself to believe them. That’s when Jesus shows up again, coming real and solid into that locked room like it’s nothing – which it wasn’t, not for the glorified Jesus. But this time, Jesus has begun to lose patience with these disciples, and he really takes it out on Thomas. After all, it’s been a whole week. “I gave you all the proofs you could possibly need last week, didn’t I?” he cries out in frustration. “Where were you last week anyway, Thomas? Why can’t you just believe the testimony of your friends? What’s wrong with you, anyway? Don’t be such a doubter; God doesn’t like doubters.”
But of course, the story doesn’t go like that at all. Jesus doesn’t condemn Thomas. He doesn’t shame him. Jesus invites Thomas to do everything he needs to do to be reassured. “Put your finger here, this is where the nail pierced my hand. Put your hand here; you can feel where the soldier’s sword pierced my side. It’s really me, your friend and Teacher. Don’t doubt, only believe.”
Jesus responds to Thomas’s doubts with gentleness and love. But he also responds with physical evidence. And yet, don’t we often feel as if our doubts are something we need to repent of. All too often, I think, we feel guilty for having doubts. We admit our doubts to one another as if they were some kind of shameful secret, like an addiction to pornography. We say with an embarrassed shrug, “I guess I’m just a bad Christian.” Many of us tend to feel as if a strong faith is something we really should be able to drum up on our own, if we were any kind of proper Christians.
“Don’t doubt, only believe,” Jesus tells Thomas, and many of us have been taught to hear that as a command. We priests and pastors who are charged with feeding God’s lambs have sometimes preached this passage as if God were ordering a starving man to go and be satisfied on command. “I command you, go, be warmed and filled.” And shame on us. Because Jesus’s encounter with Thomas is more like this: as if God came to that starving man with a pot of soup and a loaf of home-made bread and said to him, “Don’t be hungry, sit down, eat. Now, be satisfied.” Jesus feeds the hungry, fearful soul of his friend Thomas, and then he says to him, “Now, my friend, don’t doubt any longer, but believe.” And Thomas is overcome with both joy and faith, and he cries out, “My Lord and my God!”
And then we come to the part where Jesus talks about us. “Have you believed because you have seen me?” Jesus asks Thomas. “Have you believed because I showed you all these proofs?” he says. “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.” Jesus means us. He’s talking about all the generations of his people who weren’t there in that locked room, who aren’t able to have the full witness of our senses, sight and touch and hearing, assuring us that Jesus is truly with us. So, what does Jesus mean when he says we are blessed? Does he mean that we are blessed because our faith is somehow more pure and spiritual, because we believe without proof, not like poor Thomas who had to see and touch in order to have proof? Is Jesus saying that our faith is somehow better because we believe without any help?
But we know that is not what Jesus is saying, because immediately after he relates this story, John tells us, “I wrote down the things you are reading so that you will be able to believe that Jesus is the one God sent, the Son of God himself…” The truth is, no matter how spiritual we might be, faith is not something we can work up on our own power. I remember reading once that Shirley Temple had the ability to work herself up into crying real tears whenever she wanted. But faith isn’t that kind of thing. Faith is a gift. Our part is not to develop it on our own by a kind of spiritual weight-lifting program: our part is only to receive it, and to act upon it – like the sick woman who grabbed hold of the hem of Jesus’s robe, like the beggars and lepers who cried out from the side of the road, like Zacchaeus, who climbed a tree and who gave half of his wealth to the poor.
And one of the ways God gives us the gift of faith is through the testimony of his people. In his first letter, John writes: “We are writing to you about the Word of life, which has existed from the very beginning. (He’s talking about Jesus) We have heard it, and we have seen it with our eyes; yes, we have seen it, and our hands have touched it…and what we have seen and heard we announce to you also…” That’s how it works: the apostles and prophets have all given us their witness so that we might believe.
But just like Thomas, we often need more than that. We spent all of Holy Week reading about the Passion and death of Jesus Christ. On Easter we read the joyous account of the women who came to the tomb on Sunday morning, only to find it empty. We read today how Jesus held out his scarred hands to Thomas. That is all in our heads; we know these things. But in the loneliness and isolation of our homes over the past year, as we have watched the news and seen the number of deaths rise into the thousands and tens of thousands, and then into the hundreds of thousands, as we’ve worried about how we’re going to pay the bills, as the danger of this season just seems to grow day by day, do we believe, in our hearts, that the same Jesus who appeared to his disciples in the locked room is really alive and present in our midst?
We should remember, first of all, that God does not despise us in our doubts. He does not condemn us in our fearfulness. When Jesus shook his head, asking his terrified disciples out in the storm-tossed boat, “Why do you doubt, O you little-faiths?” he also gave them the’ sign they needed to believe, calming the wind and the waves by the power of his voice. He is always happy to feed the hungry souls of his children so that our faith is strengthened. He is always willing to help our unbelief.
And the main way Jesus helps us is through the presence of his Holy Spirit, who dwells within everyone who belongs to him. We later generations of his people are blessed in our faith, we are truly blessed, not because we believe out of the thin air of our superior spirituality, but because we have an abiding witness to his presence within us every moment of every day. He is always there to reassure us when we ask.
One week after the first Easter day the disciples were sitting huddled in the house, fearful of the very real dangers that surrounded them: the wrath of the Jewish authorities, the power and cruelty of the Roman occupying forces, the fickleness of the hapless multitude. And suddenly Jesus was with them, among them, the Jesus they knew, there to reassure them, to strengthen their faith, to help their unbelief. Over this past year, we have been surrounded by very real dangers as well. But even though we have been separated from one another, there is nothing that can ever separate us from Jesus, because his Spirit has made his home with us, in us. It is his good will and pleasure to give us what we need; he feeds our hungry souls. Like Thomas, we desire to believe, and the Holy Spirit of Christ is with us, ready and willing to help our unbelief.