Doubter, Questioner, Believing Disciple

[This sermon for the second Sunday of Easter, April 19, 2020, was delivered in an empty, save for five people, sanctuary at the First Presbyterian Church, Pittsford NY. I can also be watched on their YouTube channel. It was also delivered virtually for the Gates Presbyterian Church. The text is John 20:19-31.]

 

“I firmly believe that God is larger than this dreaded virus.” I could have said that. You could have too. I believe that. But it was said just a few weeks ago by Bishop Gerald Glenn, who until eight days ago was pastor of New Deliverance Evangelistic Church in Chesterfield, VA. He said

that he would keep preaching “unless I’m in jail or the hospital.” I guess he didn’t think of the third option: that he would be dead on Easter Sunday. He died from COVID-19. He defied common wisdom and scientific thinking in the name of his faith. It didn’t work out too well.

 

Faith is not stupidity. Faith is not anti-science. Faith is not irrational and unreasonable. Faith is not wishful thinking. Faith is not blind. True faith is rational and reasonable. To believe that the universe, in all its immensity, complexity, and vast, cold glory, is just a random outcome, seems to me unbelievable. Dr. Francis Collins is the 16th Director of the National Institutes of Health, a prestigious role requiring a brilliant, scientific mind. He holds both an M. D. and a Ph.D. In his younger days he was an atheist. Now he is a follower of Jesus. In his 2006 book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Collins wrote that scientific discoveries were an “opportunity to worship.” Faith is not stupidity. Faith is not anti-science. Faith is not irrational, unreasonable, wishful, or blind. But it does require more than empirical evidence, more than scientific methodology.

 

True faith, biblical faith, always demands a leap. It requires believing what we cannot see or prove. Hebrews 12:1-6 describes faith in these words: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible……. And without faith it is impossible to please God….” How does Thomas measure up by that definition?

 

First, we must ask, where is Thomas on Easter day? Jesus appears to the original 12, except Judas is gone, so it is 11. Now Thomas is missing, so it is 10. Where is Thomas? Is he self-quarantining for fear of catching something? Like a virus he can’t understand? We have no clue, but he missed something momentous. Jesus not only appears to the other disciples; he shows them is wounded hands and side. He breathes the holy breath of God, the Holy Spirit, on them. He shares his spiritual authority with them.

 

When the 10 finally catch up with Thomas, they tell him all this—and he will not believe it. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” They have no answer, except maybe, “You shoulda been there, Thomas. Where in the world were you?”

 

A week later, same place, and Thomas is present. The doors are shut tight. Jesus appears again. Does he just waltz through a wall? There he is. He looks right at Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” That last phrase needs some unpacking. Literally, Jesus says, “Stop not believing but believe.” This is not the word for doubt in New Testament Greek. This word means “not believing.” “The Message” paraphrase is the most accurate rendering I have found: “Then he focused his attention on Thomas. ‘Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don’t be unbelieving. Believe.’” What will Thomas do?

 

The lectionary that we use for scripture readings does something unusual this second Sunday of Easter. The lectionary has scriptures for every Sunday on a three-year rotation. On Easter in one year we might read Matthew, in another Mark, in another Luke or John. But for the second Sunday of Easter, this Sunday, it is the same passage every year. It seems the team that produced the lectionary was fixated on not letting us forget Thomas in this moment with the risen Lord. I am glad. With you, I need this passage every year. With you, I need Thomas in my Easter faith, because I, too, sometimes struggle with belief. And not only Thomas, you, and I, but the early disciples struggled to believe this. Listen to these reports from Easter in the four gospel accounts of Easter morning:

  • In Matthew 28:17, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”
  • In Mark 16:8, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
  • In Luke 24:10-11, “…the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” 
  • In John 20:15, Mary Magdalene thinks Jesus is the cemetery gardener.

 

I like Thomas. And my faith needs Thomas. I expect many of you are with me in this admission: I struggle with the ways of the God in whom I place my faith. My faith struggles when I see racism continuing to raise its ugly head in our nation and in our world. My faith struggles when I see people mocking and bullying other people. My faith struggles when fear and hatred seem so strong. My faith struggles when I see friends journeying with catastrophic diseases. My faith in our God is deep and strong—and it has plenty of questions and struggles.

 

In this time of global pandemic, I appreciate what New Testament scholar N. T. Wright wrote in Time magazine last week. He said that we people of faith don’t need to try to explain what we cannot understand. He said we need to reclaim the biblical custom of lamenting the evils we can’t explain. The Psalms are peppered with prayers of lament. A book in the Bible is named Lamentations. Thomas would agree. I agree. I lament COVID-19 and the illness and death it has brought. I lament students stuck at home when they should be in school, in athletic pursuits, and doing spring musicals and concerts. I lament that small businesses, and my favorite local restaurants, are struggling to survive. Thomas would agree.

 

I am often with that father of a desperately sick child that approached Jesus on his child’s behalf and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) “Unbelief” there is the same word Jesus speaks to Thomas. Not doubt, but not yet believing.

 

I like Thomas. He is a flesh-and-blood guy. His spirituality is not other-worldly and ethereal. It is real and earthly. Which means that it is, in the truest sense, heavenly. Isn’t that what Jesus is all about, God among us in flesh and blood? John Updike’s Easter poem, “Seven Stanzas for Easter” opens this way: “Make no mistake: if he rose at all, It was as his body;…”

 

So, when Thomas demands his own scientific expedition, his body of proof, Jesus isn’t the least bit troubled. Jesus never rebukes him. Jesus never chastises him. Jesus never upbraids him. Jesus takes the action right to him. “…Thomas, ‘Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don’t be unbelieving. Believe.’” And Thomas does.

 

Jesus responds to Thomas in a way we often miss, with a question: “Have you believed because you have seen me?” Isn’t it fascinating that Jesus responds to Thomas the questioner with a question? “Have you believed because you have seen me?” That leads to a blessing given us, us modern-day children of St. Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Thomas is a second Sunday of Easter believer. Aren’t we glad that Jesus accepts second Sunday believers, like Thomas—and like so many of us?

 

There is but one more thing to say, precisely what Thomas says to the risen Lord: “My Lord and my God!” Faith in the risen Lord doesn’t mean we get all the answers we want when we want them. Precisely the opposite; it means that we live by faith. Real, honest, willing-to-ask-the-hard questions faith. Our God loves to see such faith. Jesus can handle our struggles with believing. Today, with Thomas, I cry out, “My Lord and my God!” Will you join me right now, wherever you are listening to this. Say it with me right now: “My Lord and my God!” 

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