Sunday, April 12, 2015

Thomas Gets a Bad Rap: John 20:19-31, 1 John 1:1-2:2

Good morning and Happy Second Sunday of Easter! This morning's gospel passage is John 20:19-31 and the second reading is from 1 John 1:1-2:2.

Thomas Gets a Bad Rap
Rev. Charissa Clark Howe
Liberty Presbyterian Church

            How would you like to have history peg you with a nickname like “Doubting Thomas?” Of all the legacies to be granted, what a stinker! John gets to be “The Beloved Disciple” even though he and his brother James jockeyed for the prime position seated next to Jesus in heaven. We don’t call him “Brown-Nosing John.” Peter is “St. Peter the great apostle.” Some stories even make him the gatekeeper of heaven, he’s held in such high regard. The Roman Catholic church sees Peter as the very first Pope. The very same guy who sank in the water because he looked away from Jesus, who cut off a servant’s ear on the night of Jesus’ arrest, who denied knowing Jesus not once, but THREE TIMES when stuff got dangerous. But we don’t call him “Sinking Peter” or “Angry Peter” or “Face-Saving Peter.” Poor Thomas. In spite of all the foibles of the other disciples that surely overshadow a little bit of doubt, the only thing Thomas is known for is his doubt.
Jesus has risen! All of these people in the room have seen it. The rest of the disciples have seen Jesus face to face and Thomas is all, “Nope. Not gonna believe it. I wasn’t there.”
It’s not until Thomas has been approached by Jesus and allowed to touch the wounds in his hands and his feet and his side that he is able to say, “Oh my goodness! This is for real! Jesus is risen!” And for the rest of time, he’s been known as “Doubting Thomas.” Not “Converted Thomas” or “Reasonable Thomas” or “Thomas who just needed a little nudge in the right direction.”
Is this story really about Thomas “doubting” Jesus? The word doubt isn’t even anywhere in this story. He just wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to the other disciples. He simply hasn’t been in on the encounter yet. He didn’t see Jesus and say, “Nope.” He just didn’t see Jesus yet.
As we can see all these centuries later, there are certainly those who haven’t seen Jesus in the flesh who have believed, but even now there are some who simply haven’t experienced a conversation with Jesus Christ yet. And we have no way of knowing which are which. Those of us who say we believe do so not because we were convinced by logical arguments or a really great preacher, it’s because something happened that is nothing other than God. It’s not that the others – the Thomases - are stubborn or less intelligent or aren’t good people. It’s not even that they are by nature “doubters.” They haven’t been in the locked room with the other disciples yet.
And even for those of us who might be able to say we know what it feels like to be in the locked upper room having a conversation with Jesus, there are still times in which somehow we miss the full experience, even though all those around us seem to have gotten the point.
This can be especially so this time of year. We have celebrated Easter! It was a good and joyful celebration of new life and the redemption of creation. Everything is different now! Right!? Right?! We spend all this time ramping up for the time when all the muck and desert and sin that we’re longing for freedom from in Lent will be crushed and destroyed at Easter. But then we turn around and go home and before the Easter ham has cooled, an argument breaks out at the dessert table, or we turn on the news to see another tragedy, or we suddenly realize how much work is waiting to greet us on Monday morning. Paul Tillich says in regards to Easter that “year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage”1
            Sometimes it’s difficult to feel like we can really be “in on” the Easter story, even when we’ve heard it and celebrated it. And yet we give the “Doubting Thomases” in life a hard time for not believing, even though they just weren’t in the locked room.
            This gospel reading doesn’t tell us exactly where Thomas was the first time Jesus came to the disciples in the locked room. But it also doesn’t make a judgment about his failure to be there. It’s not a moral statement about Thomas’ character that he wasn’t there the first time. It’s simply a statement of fact. He just wasn’t there.
Maybe he had to work that day or had a family commitment. It’s possible he was so overwhelmed with grief he couldn’t face his friends yet that first night. The good news for our friend Reasonable Thomas is that even though he was out doing something else the night Jesus first showed up in a locked room to the rest of the disciples, Thomas was there the second time. And after one conversation with Jesus – one moment in which he was able to talk with Jesus in exactly the way he needed to assure him that the other disciples weren’t a bunch of kooks – he converted.
            The other disciples didn’t do anything special to get Thomas there. We don’t have record of them arguing with Thomas when he said, “I need hard evidence.” We don’t see them getting angry with him for not believing what they were telling him. They simply invite him to dinner again eight days later and this time, he comes. The other disciples, having been in the locked room the first night, trust that Jesus is good on his word and that he will show up. No tricks. No gimmicks. Just trust in Jesus. And Jesus shows up. Doubting Thomas becomes Converted Thomas.
            We also need to remember that Thomas isn’t the only disciple in this story, which means that he’s not the only sinner in the story. What were the other disciples doing when Jesus showed up? You would think they’d be out proclaiming the news of the Risen Lord Jesus to anyone who would lend an ear, but no. They were hiding in a safe, locked room. Hiding. How on earth is the world supposed to know that Jesus is risen if the disciples are locking themselves away? Thomas’ unbelief in the resurrected Jesus who he had not been personally confronted with yet is no worse than the unbelief of the disciples who did not trust God to protect them. It’s no worse than the disciples shutting themselves up rather than proclaiming the light to those living in darkness.
Those of us who have seen Jesus – not as literally as the disciples in the locked room but have seen him nonetheless – have a duty, says the author of 1 John. We have a duty to testify to what we have seen. But it’s not our duty to convince anyone of anything. It is our duty to bear witness to the light, yes, but trusting that Jesus will show up and give those who weren’t in the locked room exactly the experience they need.
This doesn’t mean we remain in our locked rooms and just wait for Thomas to get his act together. The disciples were meeting with the doors locked for fear of what would happen if they fully leapt into the Easter experience. The disciples who had seen, the disciples who had believed, they were locking out the rest of the world. The only reason Thomas had a chance to be in that room with them that second night was because he was familiar to them.
1 John tells us that nobody is perfect. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” is a line we use often in our call to confession – that part in the service where the lay reader invites us to confess our sins together. That same passage talks about walking in the light and remembering not to shut ourselves out from the rest of the world.
We’re certainly supposed to invite in the Thomases in our lives – the people in our comfort zone who haven’t had that up close encounter yet. And we’re supposed to give them some slack because, after all. . . we’re all a mess in some way and we were all a Thomas at some point – even if it was a long time ago. But we’re also not supposed to stay locked up in that “safe” room waiting for a few “safe” people to finish with their errands or their grief or whatever is preventing them from coming. We are to welcome them in and we are to unlock the doors while we’re at it so that the word can spread to those outside of our immediate circle as well!
When we choose not to sit around in our safe places feeling slightly let down about Easter being over – we unlock that door. We live into the resurrection by proclaiming what we’ve seen to others, not so that we’re proven right, but so that in our testifying to others, Jesus can show up. Last week I shared with you my prayer that each person in the sanctuary would, this Eastertide, have an up close encounter with Jesus. I don’t take prayers like that lightly. I mean it. And this week, I ask that each of you would join me in that prayer – for yourselves, for the other people around you, for me. Even if we’ve been walking with Jesus for years, we need to be reminded to unlock the doors of our hearts and our lives. Even if we grew up in a church – even this great church – we need continual moments with our resurrected and living Lord. And in turn, we testify to those moments with Jesus. In turn, we share the light with others so that our joy may be made complete.

3 Greek Ioudaioi probably refers here to Jewish religious leaders, and others under their influence, in that time
[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Jn 20:19–31). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
1 Some manuscripts your
[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (1 Jn 1:1–2:2). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
1 Paul Tillich, “You Are Accepted,” in The Shaking of the Foundations (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948), 161–62.

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