“Rebecca Sermon by: The Rev. Rebecca Tankersley
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
April 28, 2019
Second Sunday of Easter

Texts:

Call Me Thomas

Unless I see … and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Thomas has gotten a bad rap: Thomas the Skeptic, Thomas-of-Little-Faith, Doubting Thomas.

These nicknames narrow our reading of today’s text, lasering our attention to the conversation between Jesus and Thomas. With this focus, we read that conversation without reference to the rest of the passage. With this focus, we miss not only what John wants us to know about the risen Lord’s appearance to his disciples; we miss the conclusion of his Gospel as a whole.[1]

Here’s what we get from our laser-like focus. Thomas is a doubter and Jesus knows it. It’s there in Jesus’ reprimand: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Uh-oh: that’s not Thomas. I’m pretty sure he’s not blessed. This interpretation, together with our often over-amped Protestant theology of salvation by faith alone, leaves a reader wondering whether or not she is blessed. After all, I have not seen. I occasionally doubt. Is Jesus just rebuking Thomas or is he rebuking me?

If this is sounding a little personal at this point, it is. This’s been my interpretation of today’s passage, which we read every year on the second Sunday of Easter, for most of my life. Which means that – for me at least – the joy of proclaiming “the Lord is Risen” has been quickly overshadowed by fear of being called Thomas.

This can’t be what our Lectionary editors are up to in calling us to read the end of John’s Gospel on the second Sunday of Easter. It isn’t what John’s about here at the end of his Gospel either. So let’s set aside our lasers and widen our reading.

When it was evening … and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear … Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

In the face of fear, Jesus speaks peace. See what I mean about that laser-in understand that’s replaced Easter joy with fear?

After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.

Why? If the standard for being blessed by the risen Lord is believing without seeing, why does Jesus show the gathered disciples his hands and side? Are they all excluded by this action from the promise of resurrected life? Of course not. Jesus simply understands that seeing is believing. John understands this as well. Listen to the opening of his Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … All things came into being through him.

Jesus, who was with God at creation, knows exactly how we’re made. Why? Because we’ve scientists, created in such a way that we experience the world around us by smelling, tasting, hearing, touching, and seeing. Of these, Jesus knows, most of us rely most heavily on sight. John’s opening continues:

No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son … who has made him known.

“No one has ever seen God.” And it’s hard to know, hard to obey, hard to love a disembodied God. I get the sense John sees the Incarnation as solution to the problem that no one had ever seen God. You know the first thing John recalls Jesus saying? Seeing two men coming toward him, Jesus asks “What are you looking for?” They ask where he’s staying and Jesus replies: “Come and see.”

“Come and see” serves as a refrain in John’s Gospel. Finding Jesus, Philip says to Nathaniel, “Come and see.” The woman at the well calls her community to “come and see” he who told her everything she’d ever done. Jesus enquires where Lazarus is buried and the mourners respond, “Come and see.”[2] Throughout the Gospel, people experience Jesus by seeing him – by touching, hearing, smelling, and tasting too. And so the risen Lord standing before his disciples wordlessly bids them to “come and see.” And, John tells us, “when they saw” the disciples rejoiced.

Far from condemning those who rely on their God-given senses to interpret their world, Jesus meets them where they are and gives them what they need. Only then does he state his purpose: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” In this moment, the disciples (which means followers) become apostles (which means sent ones). To be sent “as the Father has sent me” is to be sent into the world to love. “For,” as John has already told us, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Their job is to lead others to believe in Jesus so that “all might have life and have it abundantly.”

That’s a tall order for these newly-commissioned apostles. While Jesus walked the earth, “faith came in the face of Jesus’ physical presence.”[3] How many were able to come face to face with Jesus and to experience God’s love such that they believed? Several hundred? Maybe a few thousand. Now Jesus is about ascend to sit at God’s right hand and the apostles are commissioned to reveal God’s love to the rest of the world such that they will believe. In a world of people for whom seeing is believing, the apostles will need the power of Spirit Jesus imparts to them.

Through the power of the Spirit, the apostles shift the way in which God’s love is received. Now, rather than people coming to believe through seeing the Word who “became flesh and lived among us”, we come to believe through hearing the Word. John shows how he made the shift with the conclusion of today’s text – his conclusion to the Gospel:

Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Jesus’ exchange with Thomas is nestled between Jesus’ sending the apostles “as the Father has sent me” and John’s disclosure of the purpose of his Gospel “so that you may come to believe and … have life in his name.” Now, let’s look again at the exchange between Jesus and Thomas.

If Thomas had been in the room when Jesus first appeared, he would have seen just what the other apostles saw: Jesus’ hands and side. As it is, he was not. So the apostles do what they’ve been commissioned to do: they share the good news of Christ’s resurrection. “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas stands in the room as our representative, speaking words we dare not say – giving voice to what each of us has felt at one point or another. Hearing isn’t enough! “Unless I see … I will not believe.” The enormity of Jesus’ mission for the apostles emerges.

A week later, Thomas gets an opportunity we don’t get. Jesus returns saying, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” We don’t know if Thomas did reach out and touch. We only know his response: “My Lord and my God!”

Thomas believes because he has seen. Jesus knows the rest of us won’t have that opportunity. We’ll have his apostles who have received his Spirit. They’ll commit the rest of their lives to sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with the world who no longer has the ability to see him for ourselves. Jesus’ words to Thomas are words for all of us. They are words of blessing, not rebuke: Do not doubt, but believe. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

I’m reading Malcolm Guite’s poetry these days. I know I just read one to you, but I’m going to read another – this one in praise of Thomas.

“We do not know… how can we know the way?”

Courageous master of the awkward question,

You spoke the words the others dared not say

And cut through their evasion and abstraction.

Oh doubting Thomas, father of my faith,

You put your finger on the nub of things

We cannot love some disembodied wraith,

But flesh and blood must be our king of kings.

Your teaching is to touch, embrace, anoint,

Feel after Him and find Him in the flesh.

Because He loved your awkward counter-point

The Word has heard and granted you your wish.

Oh place my hands with yours, help me divine

The wounded God whose wounds are healing mine.[4]

As for me, you can call me Thomas.

 

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[1] It is generally accepted among Johannine scholars that Chapter 21 is an appendix to John’s Gospel written after John concluded his text.

[2] The word “blind” is used 25 times in John’s Gospel.

[3] Martin E. Marty, “Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide.

[4] Malcolm Guite, “St. Thomas the Apostle” from Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year.