“Doubting Thomas” Colchester Federated Church, April 8, 2018, (John 20:19-31) Second Sunday of Easter

Today we’re contemplating Thomas (AKA Doubting Thomas.)  The disciple who misses out on an encounter with the Risen Christ on the evening of Easter.  And he just can’t seem to believe that resurrection is possible without first seeing the Risen Christ with his own eyes.

Let’s be honest, Thomas sometimes gets a bad rap in our Christian tradition.  The “Doubting Thomas” nickname stuck along with contempt.  “Don’t be a Doubting Thomas!” people may say.  Though there’s something so endearing about Thomas.  Thomas has the courage to voice his doubts.  He owns them.  He doesn’t take the word of others at face value without embarking on his own quest for truth.  According to Serene Jones (President of Union Theological Seminary), Thomas “is the incredulous nonbeliever who hides inside every believing Christian—the questioner in us that resists easy answers to hard questions of faith, who always wants a little more proof.”[1]   Thomas persistently searches for God by resisting easy answers to the hard questions of faith.  And we get to see some of his process in the end of John’s Gospel.

What Thomas ends up needing the most to affirm his faith is an experience of the Risen Christ.  This is exactly what he gets.  Jesus says to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt but believe.”[2]   What’s notable is that Jesus doesn’t express impatience with Thomas.  He doesn’t tell Thomas that he shouldn’t be having to prove his Resurrection because Thomas should have believed the words of his fellow Disciples or Jesus’ own teachings.  Jesus says that if you want more than a second-hand encounter with me—touch me, see me, believe in me.  If nothing else, we can take away the negative stigma attached to “Doubting” Thomas. Jesus doesn’t condemn his doubts, why should we?

Now we don’t know if Thomas did touch Jesus, the text actually never says.  Jesus meeting Thomas where he was with this compassionate verbal response might have been more than enough to overcome those doubts.  We see that Jesus offers this personal religious experience of the Resurrection.  This is a story about God coming to us, no matter where we are in our spiritual lives.  And that has major implications for all of us sitting here this morning.  As Serene Jones further writes, “When doubt crowds out hope, we can be confident that Jesus will come to meet us where we are, even if it is out on the far edge of faith that has forgotten how to believe.”[3]   We’re not left alone to fend for ourselves.

A Gospel story like this Thomas and Jesus’ resurrection story can give us hope when times are particularly hard.  Or we find ourselves in a spiritual drought.  Who’s to say that Jesus won’t come to meet us where we are too?  If it happened to Thomas, who’s to say that it can’t happen to us?

There’s a great personal experience that Dr. Lauren Winner (Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Duke Divinity School) tells about her own spiritual drought in Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis.  Dr. Winner was particularly lost and adrift spiritually right around Holy Week.  During the Easter Vigil at her church, she became so restless that she left in the middle of the service to go help in the kitchen for their church’s Champagne Easter Vigil Feast.  Gotta love those Episcopalians!  After returning to the sanctuary and receiving Communion, she wondered if she should at least try to look like she was praying.  As she faced her spiritual restlessness in the pew, she heard: “You can stay here now.”  Dr. Winner writes, “Just five words, and I know that this voice is God and what God means is that there is ground beneath my feet again, that this is the beginning of sanity and steadiness, this is the beginning of a reshaped life.”  God broke through to her and met her right where she was at that Easter Vigil service.[4]

God has a habit of showing up in unexpected places or at unexpected times.  And our lives are never the same.  What’s amazing about Thomas’ religious experience is that Thomas responds to Jesus’ compassionate movement toward him with an affirmation of faith unlike anything else we hear in the Gospels.  Thomas declares: “My Lord and my God!”—the strongest declaration of faith about Jesus in the entire New Testament.[5]

This story ends the Gospel of John on such a hopeful note for the rest of us.  If “Doubting” Thomas can get to profound belief that God’s presence is abiding and that love is victorious over the grave itself, we can too.  If Jesus comes to find Thomas in the midst of his doubt-filled crisis of faith, maybe Jesus can come find us too.  That’s certainly what Dr. Winner describes during her personal crisis of faith.  Sometimes the hardest thing we face on our spiritual journeys is holding out hope that God can reach us when we’ve reached that place of spiritual drought or debilitating doubt.  Though God does seek us out.  And stories like these help us to truly believe that when we fear that it’s just not true.

Most of us have moments on our faith journeys when we live in those valleys of shadows and doubts.  It can be painful and feel like the dark night of our souls.  It’s also perfectly normal that our faith journeys are not always smooth sailing.  Thomas holds a special place in the heart of many future ministers as we embark upon the Ordination Process.  After all, Seminary has sometimes mockingly been called Cemetery—because it’s where your faith goes to die!  That’s not true for most people.  But when you learn the historical-critical methods of Biblical Studies and the nuances of Christian Theology and Church History and Ethics, it can certainly shake your faith.  What once seemed black and white is now gray.

When I was a Student Minister serving a large congregation in Wellesley, Massachusetts, some of the Ordained Ministers with whom I worked always took the Sunday after Easter off.  Historically speaking, the Sunday after Easter is one of the lowest attended Sundays in the entire church year.  So good job being here this morning!  Clergy are exhausted and often get physically sick after Holy Week.  So this Sunday is sometimes called Seminarian Sunday because Seminarians get tasked with preaching all over the place.  If your congregation has a Student Minister, chances are you’ll hear them preach on Thomas if the church follows the Revised Common Lectionary.  At the time, not many of us appreciated being the low people on the Totem Pole and getting handed the story of “Doubting” Thomas the Sunday after Easter since hardly anyone is in the pews and it’s not the easiest text.  But it’s fitting that as you’re with friends during Seminary who are beside you on that spiritual journey, that this is one of the Bible stories you struggle through together.  Thomas is almost like the Patron Saint of Seminarians who are seeking God so earnestly while struggling with difficult doubts.

At the end of the day what’s so amazing about Thomas is that he matters deeply to people halfway across the world from us too.  Legend has it that after this episode in the Gospel of John, after Thomas admits his doubts and comes to make a profound declaration of faith about Jesus, Thomas arrived in India around 52 CE.  Once there, he founded a Christian community who in time would call themselves St. Thomas Christians.  Supposedly, Thomas helped establish churches and even built a palace for an Indian King while he was living and working among the people.  Thomas is thus the Patron Saint for architects, carpenters, construction workers, and surveyors.[6]

If folks make their way to Mylapore, India they will find San Thome Church.  It’s the summit of Indian Christianity and a structure that would certainly make the Patron Saint of architects mighty proud.  This Roman Catholic Basilica was built over the tomb of Thomas who was martyred in 72 CE.  Of course there’s debate about Thomas’ remains—some Christians claim that his remains were transferred to Syria and then to Italy.  But Indian Christians insist that he is and always has been buried in Mylapore.  The Indian Government is satisfied with this belief so much so that they issued a postage stamp in Thomas’ honor twice!  “Doubting” Thomas is the Father of Indian Christianity and the Patron Saint of India.[7]

What a guy!  And what a broad appeal, right?  Maybe it’s because there’s a little bit of Thomas inside all of us.  Maybe it’s good to identify with his yearning for faith, his doubts, his persistent search for God, his wanting a personal religious experience with the Risen Christ.  Thomas is so relatable!

In the end, Thomas’ story can give us hope in our moments of spiritual doubts and droughts.  God can come to us, wherever we are in our lives.  God can meet us right where we are—whether we are full of faith or our faith is almost hanging by a thread.  When we face those profound and desperate questions in our lives or experience suffering or loss unlike anything we’ve known before—we can rest assured that God is present in the midst of our hardest moments.  We won’t always have our eyes opened right then.  We won’t always hear the still small voice of God in our hearts.  We won’t always be able to reach out and touch Jesus even though that’s what we may long for.  Yet God does seek us out, sometimes in surprising ways.  God is seeking us out.  We need only look to this profound story of Jesus meeting Thomas right where he was to help us believe again.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Serene Jones, Theological Perspective of John 20:19-31 in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 2, 400.
[2] John 20:27, NRSV.
[3] Serene Jones, Theological Perspective of John 20:19-31 in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, 402.
[4] Lauren Winner, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, 149.
[5] John 20:28.
[6] Richard P. McBrien, “Thomas, apostle” in Lives of the Saints, 269.
[7] San Thome Church website, http://thesanthomechurch.com/