Sermon preached April 3, 2016 at St. Peter and St. Mary
Usually when we look at the gospels, we primarily focus on the words and actions attributed to Jesus, and rightly so. But I think the disciples are also worthy of our attention. In the midst of these relatively formal narratives about what Jesus did and what Jesus said, the disciples impart a sense of humanity and reality to the story. They don’t always understand Jesus, and they are often unsure of him and themselves. They disagree with each other. They exasperate Jesus. They complain that some of his teachings are difficult. They are indisputably human.
And one of their very human traits is doubt and seeking confirmation. Earlier, in John 14, they demand of Jesus, “Lord, what signs are you going to show us?” and then after that, in John 16, they are uncertain until Jesus tells them he has come from the Father and is going to the Father, and then they say, in effect, well, now that you’ve explained it more plainly, without a parable, that’s our proof; we believe.
In today’s Gospel, we reach the point in the narrative where Jesus has died, been buried, and rose again. Some of the disciples have seen him, but Thomas was not there, and wants evidence that this happened. I think that we tend to cast aspersions, unconsciously or not, on Thomas for demanding proof, but not only was he not alone in wanting proof, as we see from those previous chapters of John, but think of it; these disciples are making a claim of an absolutely extraordinary event—a man died and is now alive! This is an incredible thing to claim, and of course Thomas wants proof, because he is human. If I were to say to you that I saw Rebecca levitating last week, I’m pretty sure you would want some sort of evidence before you believed me, because that is an astonishing claim to make. Likewise, the disciples who had seen Jesus were making an astounding claim. Not many people, then or now, would simply accept that someone dead had returned to life. They would need proof before they could be sure.
Nowadays, it would be fairly easy to get some kind of proof. We could take out our phones, document it, and post it to YouTube. The disciples, of course, didn’t have that resource. They either had hearsay or direct experience of an event. And the first group of disciples had that direct experience. Thomas did not, he was only receiving the hearsay. So I feel it’s a bit unfair to Thomas to cast him as this cynical skeptic. He was simply asking for what the others had already experienced.
Thomas wants this direct experience, and expresses himself rather vividly, saying “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my hand in his side, I will not believe.” The image of sticking a hand in someone’s wound is, at best, unhygienic, and also a little gory. But in no uncertain terms, Thomas was saying that he needed to have that direct experience; he needed to use his senses and his direct observation before he could know for sure.
There are two things going on here. One is the need to use the physical senses by using his eyes and his hands, by having his own direct, unfiltered experience of the risen Jesus. Instead of just listening to others, Thomas wants to see and feel it in person before he can know for sure that this thing has come to pass.
And that is the other thing going on here, this knowing or not knowing. In this passage, Jesus tells Thomas, “Do not doubt but believe.” But doubt doesn’t mean unbelief. It means to waver, to be uncertain, to not know for sure. And it’s not necessarily a benign thing. Doubt can be pure agony. Not being sure if someone is guilty or innocent of a crime. Not being certain that your significant other loves you. Not being sure you did the right thing in a difficult situation—these can be absolute anguish. Let’s consider doubt as not knowing and existing in a sort of limbo or even a purgatory of uncertainty, and let’s look at Thomas again. He doesn’t know for sure. He only knows what the other disciples have told him. And until he has a direct experience, he won’t be able to say for sure whether he believes or not. I imagine his mind going back and forth between the possibilities and the different sets of hopes and fears each would bring.
So when he sees Jesus, and Jesus tells him, “Do not doubt but believe,” I’m not sure Jesus was implying that Thomas was wrong or lesser for having had doubt; maybe Jesus was saying, “Look, I’m here now. Really. It’s really, truly me. You needed to see me in order to know. And now I’m here.”
And Thomas immediately believes. He no longer wonders. He knows. And he knows in his heart, because he knows in his senses. And that is an incredibly human thing, to use our senses and have a direct experience of the world, or God, or love, which are all the same thing. It’s not enough to read about it or to hear about it from others. We need to use our senses so we can translate abstract knowledge, an idea, a concept, to understanding in the heart, and integrate that truth into our soul.
We just finished Lent. Lent is a very contemplative season, given to reflection and thinking, and yes, action, but mostly to figuring out how we can best grow this year’s spiritual garden. It’s sort of the idea incubator. And now we are in Easter. The ideas we contemplated and germinated in Lent are becoming reality. Easter is very much a season of senses, of coming to life. Literally, Jesus comes to life again. That is very much a sensate experience.
But in the midst of this wonder, Thomas is here to remind us that it is perfectly all right to desire a direct experience of resurrection. That we are not wrong to yearn to see, to feel, to know for certain the presence of life in that which we thought was dead. If we need more than the words of the disciples to convince us, then we can go outside, and we can feel it in the crocuses and daffodils. They were buried in the tomb of the earth, in the dark and cold, seemingly dead, and now they are emerging, beautiful and rich with color and texture. When we see them, when we touch our fingers to their fragile petals, then we no longer doubt. We know for sure that God has risen and is present again in the world.