This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/24/22, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was: John 20:19-31. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
We call him “doubting Thomas.” This disciple who walked with Jesus for three years before his crucifixion and resurrection. We call him “doubting Thomas,” because he refused to believe the story that the other disciples were telling him: about how they saw Jesus show up in his new body – apparently walking through walls, appearing in the midst of them, even though the doors of the house were locked tight.
We call him “doubting Thomas.” Even though it doesn’t sound like he was really different from any of the other disciples. All of the Twelve, the women disciples like Mary Magdalene, and even that Johnny-come-lately, the apostle Paul, saw Jesus, alive in his resurrection. What made Thomas different? What made him a doubter?
Though John doesn’t say it directly, it’s clear that the other disciples didn’t believe the good news of the resurrection when it was proclaimed to them, either. In the passage just before our reading this morning, Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Lord in the garden, and John says that she went and announced to the disciples: “I have seen the Lord.”
But later that evening, when Jesus appears again, what are the disciples doing? They’re huddling in fear, inside a locked house. Whatever they may have said to Mary, they didn’t really believe her. They were afraid of the religious authorities, afraid of getting the same treatment as Jesus. This isn’t the kind of fear you would associate with living faith in the resurrection.
We call him “doubting Thomas.” But it’s not clear that Thomas was any more of a doubter than his brothers among the Twelve. We call him “doubting Thomas.” Why?
Maybe it’s because Thomas had the guts to say what everybody was thinking. He said aloud what all the other disciples thought when Mary announced the good news to them. He said what any reasonable person would feel when hearing such news. He said, “I’m not believing something so totally outside of my experience, so unbelievable, without seeing some evidence for myself.”
Thomas wasn’t a paragon of doubt; he just had common sense – and was honest about it.
What makes Thomas a friend of Jesus isn’t his belief or disbelief when he first hears the good news, second hand, from others. Thomas shows himself a friend of Jesus in how he responds when Jesus appears to Thomas. When Jesus shows him the wounds in his hands and in his side, Thomas cries out, “My Lord and my God!”
Thomas knows who Jesus is when he sees him. He recognizes his relationship to his friend and teacher in a way he never quite grasped before. He sees the image of the invisible God, the firstborn from all creation standing in front of him, holding out his hands in love.
Now Jesus does say, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” There’s a blessing for those who believe based on the testimony of others. There’s a blessing for those who receive the evidence of the resurrection in their hearts, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, without depending on visions or ecstatic encounters. We are blessed when we grab hold of the resurrection life based on the witness of those who have seen and testify to us: The gospel writers. The apostles. Those who, even today, have seen the Lord with their own eyes.
But for those of us who are like the first disciples. For those of us who, like the apostle Paul, need to be knocked off of our horses, to hear Jesus’ voice. For those of us who, like Thomas, need to see Jesus with our own eyes, to see the wounds in his hands and side, to hear his words of comfort and challenge with our own ears. For all of us who call on the name of Jesus, he is available to us. He has promised to be present with us, sending the Holy Spirit to draw us to him. So that we can know, not only through the testimony of others, but also through our own experience, that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Our Lord and our God.
As John explains in our gospel reading this morning, this is the purpose of the scriptures: These texts were written so that “[we] may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing [we] may have life in his name.” These words, these stories, this written testimony is a witness to us that the resurrection is real, that we should keep our eyes out for Jesus. Because those who seek him will find him. And when we do meet him along the road, or in the field, or inside a locked room – when we experience the resurrection for ourselves, in whatever form that takes – we will remember the words of Mary Magdalene, the words of the apostles. And we will say together with Thomas: “My Lord and my God.”
Jesus Christ is alive. He is risen from the grave. He has passed into the realm of the dead. He has conquered death and the devil, and stands triumphant in our midst. He is alive, and because he lives, we can live in him.
Do you still need evidence? Ask. You’ll find what you are looking for. Seek, and you’ll find it. Jesus has promised us this.
But for all of us – those of us who have seen and touched and tasted, and those who still aren’t sure – we are blessed when we trust the testimony of the saints who have come before us: The voices of Mary and the Twelve, and Paul, and the early Quakers. We are blessed when we allow the witness of the community to carry us in our doubts. We are blessed when we make space for the Holy Spirit to move in the words of scripture.
Because when we ask, we will receive. When we seek, we will find. And – like Thomas – when we call out to Jesus, he will give us the assurance we need to trust and follow him.
He is risen indeed.