Doubting Thomas, Revisited

The Rev. Amy Spagna

Easter 2C – April 3, 2016

John 20:19-31

 

            In some parts of the Church, this second Sunday of Easter is known as “Holy Humor Sunday,” where the telling of jokes and funny stories is highly encouraged. As the logic goes, since God pulled the biggest practical joke of all time in raising Jesus from the dead, it’s only fitting that we ought to take advantage of the opportunity to laugh, a lot. In that spirit, I have this to offer:

Jesus is playing a round of golf with Moses in Heaven and they come upon a water trap.

Jesus turns to Moses and asks, “Didn’t you do something with water once?” and Moses says yeah, and proceeds to do the trick where he parts the waters.

Jesus is impressed, and Moses in turn asks, “Didn’t you also do something with water?”

Jesus says, “Yeah watch this” and proceeds to step out onto the water, but he sinks almost immediately to his knees. He gets out, gets a running start, and tries again, this time sinking to his waist. He comes out confused and embarrassed and Moses asks, “What was it you were trying to do?”

“I used to be able to walk on water,” Jesus replies.

“The last time you tried it,” Moses asks, “Did you have those holes in your feet?”[1]

            While holes in his feet might stop him from walking on water, they don’t keep him from walking into a room through a locked door. How he gets into that room, where the disciples have gathered and are hiding, we aren’t told. What he finds there is a group of people who are still very afraid of what’s going on outside. The city hasn’t calmed down much after the upheaval of the past few days. While it wasn’t all that unusual for public executions to take place there, they didn’t normally involve outspoken Jewish prophets who claimed to be the Son of God.  The disciples had scattered on Friday afternoon out of an abundance of fear for their own lives. It was a small comfort that nobody had tried to track them down – at least, not yet. But once they see Jesus, standing there among them, everything changes. Rejoicing replaces fear. Even Thomas, blessed Thomas, who demands to see the proof for himself before he’ll believe it, cannot help but confess Jesus to be both his Lord and his God once he finally does. And everyone lives happily ever after.

Yes, the sarcasm is deliberate. For many preachers, interpreting or retelling the story of Thomas is risky business. One of the challenges comes in trying to avoid beating a proverbial dead horse – which in this case, is the theme of “to see is to believe.” While that theme is crucial to John’s understanding of the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection, if you’re like me, you have probably heard this part of the story so many times that it has become a cliché. Leaving the story at that is also somewhat less than satisfying. So I found myself asking the question of, “what if?” in the process of wrestling with the text this week. What if we look at it from a different angle? What if Thomas actually does understand what has happened? And, what if he were to tell the story himself?

With apologies to the real Thomas, here is an attempt to answer those what-if questions.

“Blessed are those who have not yet seen, and yet have come to believe.”

I’ve been pondering this phrase for years, ever since the night he said it to all of us. We all saw him, and we all believed that not only had he been raised from the dead, but that everything he’d told us was absolutely true. I’m not sure how much of it we really understood at first, though. It took having to go through the awful thing of watching him die and be raised before we finally did get it. To hear from Mary Magdalene that he was alive was almost as big of a shock as losing him was. When she came running up to us, out of breath, the look on her face told me all I needed to know about our lives once again were about to change in unimaginable ways.

I didn’t NEED solid proof of that. What I did need to know, in no uncertain terms, was that there were actual signs of the change Mary told us about. That’s why I told everyone else that I HAD to see the physical evidence that it really was him. Somehow the idea of going and dying with him no longer meant standing up with him and running the risk of falling victim to the anger of the crowds. It had this whole other dimension to it, too. Part of the point of it was as he’d shown us through his teaching and his actions. His work glorified God, so that those who witnessed it, whether in person or not, would believe in him. Of course, it’s not “belief” of the sort that would, say, demand you go to sacrifice a cow to appease a God who doesn’t care one way or the other about your long-term welfare. It means taking on a whole new sort of life, one that participates in Christ’s work and where death is not the last word. As I later heard a fellow by the name of Paul had told some people in Rome, if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his, and that new life that we live in and with him is a life lived to God (Romans 6:5-11, NRSV).

Of course, there is more to this new life than simply glorifying God. What we experienced firsthand in Christ’s death and resurrection is where the hope for our own futures lies. While it’s hard to be sure exactly how that will unfold, even with some of the visions floating around out there, the one certainty we do have is that somehow, God has done something new through him. It is that new thing in which we, in turn, are called to participate. Jesus’ giving the Holy Spirit was intended to help us get to that place. Just as the Father breathed life into creation at the very beginning, the Son is doing the same thing for us right here and right now. That’s right, it’s not something that you have to wait for until his return, or even necessarily until you celebrate Pentecost. It is a gift, given freely and for the taking, if you’re willing to make the leap and simply believe in him.

It’s the immediacy of it – this offer of a new kind of life – that shocked me the most, I think. We all had problems with the idea at some level, even before Jesus was crucified. Let’s face it: when someone is talking about being the Bread of Life, offering living water to drink, and saying that the wine on our Seder table is in fact his blood that has been poured out for everyone, it’s easy to think that he’s totally nuts, or that he doesn’t understand what he really means. It also makes one wonder whether he even completely believes what he’s saying. Convincing other people that you’re telling the truth, even if you aren’t, is not all that difficult. But, when I saw Jesus walk into that room, I was certain that I understood all of it. Jesus had been insisting at least since he raised Lazarus that what he called eternal life was indeed on offer. Of course, he didn’t mean that those who came to believe in him could avoid the physical necessity of dying. However, what he did say – and what his own example points to – is that seeing his glory here, on earth, will let us see it again when we join him in the Father’s presence.[2]  It was this that I got a glimpse of in Mary’s eyes on Easter morning, and saw in its fullness when I saw Jesus in person the next week. It was all I could do to get the words out to tell him that yes, I know who he is. 

            The story doesn’t end with my confession, or with the breakfast on the beach a few days later, or even when the Holy Spirit blew through Jerusalem on Pentecost. As my old friend Peter reminded everyone that day, we are all witnesses, along with the Spirit, to what God did through Jesus. And, we can continue to reap the rewards of that as long as we act in light of it. Even those who didn’t see those things directly, and yet have come to believe, are blessed by their having taken place. As Barbara Brown Taylor, one of the more famous preachers of this generation notes, we may not literally be able to take Jesus up on his invitation to reach out and touch his scars. However, if we open ourselves up to the fact that it is possible, the story makes us feel as if we can. If we believe, because believing is all the Holy Spirit needs to bring it to life. Or to put it more precisely, believing is all the Holy Spirit needs to bring us to life, breathing on us the same way Jesus breathed on his disciples.[3]

 

           

 

[1] “Funny Easter Jokes for Adults.” http://laffgaff.com/funny-easter-jokes-for-adults/

[2] Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the Gospel of John (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 240.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Believing in the Word.” Home By Another Way (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999), 117.