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Do You Feel Left Out At Church? So Did The Apostle Thomas

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/11/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). 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.)

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It was night time on the day that Jesus rose from the dead. Mary Magdalene had seen Jesus – at first she had thought he was a gardener, but it was Jesus. Mary had told the other disciples what she had seen. She told the Twelve, “I have seen the Lord!”

John doesn’t say whether the other disciples believed Mary, but there are some clues that they still had doubts. It says that they were gathered together in a locked house. They were afraid that the same people who arrested Jesus and turned him over to be killed might be coming for them next.

The disciples didn’t want to get in trouble. They didn’t want to suffer and die the way they had seen Jesus die just a few days before. The disciples knew that the priests and scribes and leaders of the people were out for blood. If they could do that to Jesus, imagine what they could do to Jesus’ disciples!

You can understand that, right? A couple of your friends – Peter and John – saw an empty tomb where Jesus’ body was supposed to be; that’s pretty strange. And then Mary says that she saw Jesus alive. It’s hard to believe. You’d want to believe, wouldn’t you? You’d want to believe that somehow, your friend and teacher wasn’t really dead. But you saw it happen. You saw him get nailed to a cross. They killed Jesus, and you might be next.

So, you might be cautious. You say, “Peter, John – tell us that story again. You say the tomb was empty? Did it look like there had been a robbery? How did the tomb robbers move that huge stone?”

You say, “Mary, I know you think you saw Jesus. We all see Jesus. On the cross! We can’t get that image out of our vision. It’s like we’re seeing him every hour, every moment. We understand, Mary. This is all just too much for you. You need to rest, Mary. Go lay down.”

The good news can be hard to believe, because bad news seems so much more plausible.

But Mary keeps insisting, “I have seen the Lord!” Behind the locked doors, despite all the fear, there’s a spark of hope. You aren’t sure what to believe. Could it be? Could Mary have really seen the Lord Jesus, raised from the dead?

And then, suddenly, everybody sees him. The doors are locked, but Jesus is there. He’s standing right there in the middle of the room, saying “peace be with you” and breathing on you. He’s breathing the Holy Spirit on you and giving you power to forgive others. He’s taking away your fear and filling you with hope. Jesus is alive! 

But poor Thomas, one of the disciples is out picking up pizza. He was gone while Jesus appeared to everybody else. And when he gets back, you’re all going crazy, saying, “Thomas! Thomas! You won’t believe it! We have seen the Lord!”

And here’s Thomas, holding a stack of pizzas in his arms. “You’re right. I won’t believe it. There’s no way Jesus is alive. There’s no way that he just showed up here while I was gone. Even if that were possible, there’s no way he left me out like that.” 

Thomas is angry. He says, “I won’t believe this crazy story of yours unless I see him for myself. I want to touch him. I want to touch the places where they nailed his hands to the cross. I want to put my hand into his side, where they pierced him. Then I’ll believe you.”

Have you ever felt like that? Has it ever felt like the church is a place full of people who believe crazy things that you just can’t? Have you ever felt left out, like Thomas did? Like everyone else has had this amazing experience of God and Jesus, but you just haven’t had that same experience?

The disciples loved Mary, but it doesn’t seem like they could quite bring themselves to fully trust the good news of the resurrection. Not just because she said so.

And even when all the others had seen the risen Jesus, Thomas still couldn’t believe. This was just too much to take on faith. He needed to see it for himself.

We know from John’s story that Jesus came back. He didn’t leave Thomas out. He didn’t make Thomas take the other disciples’ word for it. Jesus loved Thomas and wanted to see him. He wanted to be with Thomas. He wanted Thomas to know and believe that he had risen from the dead. Jesus was happy to make himself visible to Thomas, to give him the gift of his presence.

Jesus says, “Touch my wounds, Thomas. Put your hand in my side. I will give you what you need so that you can believe.”

Thomas is overwhelmed by emotion. He cries out, “My Lord and my God!”

And I know that Jesus is so happy to see Thomas, and to be seen by him. He’s so happy that Thomas can now feel on the inside of the story. He’s joyous that Thomas can believe. But he also reminds Thomas and the others: It would have been nice if you had trusted Mary from the beginning. Oh ye of little faith, why didn’t you believe her when she came bearing the good news? Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

And this has been the line of most of the church for the last 2000 years: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Or, put another way, “Take our word for it. We have seen, and you can trust us.” The church, with its Bible and tradition and collective memory, proclaims the good news to us. Like Mary. Like the apostles. They testify to the good news, and ask us to accept it as a gift.

That’s hard for a lot of us. It’s hard for me. I am very much a Thomas-style Christian. I need to see. I need to touch. I need to hear. I need to experience the risen presence of Jesus for myself. It’s not enough to hear the stories, even from people who are trustworthy. I want to believe, but it’s so hard when he has appeared to others, but not to me.

The good news in our reading this morning is that both of these things can be true. We really are blessed when we believe without seeing. We are blessed when we trust Mary Magdalene who brings us the good news of the resurrection. We are blessed when we trust the great cloud of witnesses – the apostles, the saints, and the church through the ages. We are blessed when we trust them, even when we can’t see clearly.

But the good news is also that Jesus Christ is here to teach his people himself. That’s the emphasis of the Quaker movement. That’s the special value that we bring to the wider church – a church that often says “trust us, trust us, trust us”, but is sometimes skeptical that Jesus is really here for us like he was for his first disciples.

The good news that Quakerism lifts up is that God does not condemn us if we are like Thomas and the twelve apostles. If we need to see Jesus for ourselves, he will show up. Jesus will be present with us. This isn’t a burden for him; Jesus loves to do this for us. Jesus is available to guide us and teach us. We are blessed if we believe without seeing, but he will be present when we need him.

Have you seen the Lord yourself? Or are you a blessed person who has come to believe without seeing? 

Do you feel left out sometimes? Do you feel like you are missing something? Do you wonder if anyone else feels like you?

I have. I do. We have. We do. You are not alone.

Just like those first disciples, we are gathered together waiting on the Lord. Waiting to see what will happen next. To see how he will guide us. Learning how to trust one another as we trust him. Learning to say, “We are blessed, because we have come to believe without seeing.” And also learning to say, “We have seen the Lord!”