Believing Thomas

Homily for the Second Sunday of Easter, Year A
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

Virtual Liturgy during COVID-19 Pandemic
Richmond, VA

Whenever the liturgical calendar flips to the 2nd Sunday of Easter, I feel like I need to come to the defense of one of my patron saints, Thomas the Apostle. A lot of my formative years as an adult Episcopalian were spent in a parish named for the central character of today’s Gospel lesson. And every year, I feel a renewed conviction that Thomas the Apostle is the source of a lot of undeserved criticism. We get called a “Doubting Thomas” when we ask questions about something we’re supposed to just take at face value. Even at our best, we tend to think of St. Thomas as a sort of early church, “show me” guy, or as the patron saint of doubt. But I am here this Sunday to assert that I think we’ve been the ones giving Thomas a bad reputation. In fact, I happen to think we’ve been getting this story entirely wrong.

If I’m being entirely honest, I think perhaps we’re quick to label Thomas because it feels good to scapegoat doubt as something “out there” that those other people have. Maybe the “faithful disciples” and scribes were doing a bit of that, too. Let’s be real: for most of us, Thomas’ response in the Gospel according to John is like a mirror showing us the inner dialogue of our own lives. A lot of the reflections I’ve read on this week’s Gospel text start with titles like, “Doubt Not!” But I’m not so sure that doubt and believe are all that separate from each other. And doubt isn’t really the central theme of this story.
Maybe this year…behind our own locked doors, filled with questions and doubts of our own…we can hear this Gospel lesson for what it offers us on a different and deeper level. There are gifts within this challenging time of physical distancing: having to change our routines gives us new insight into even the most familiar things.

So, let’s step into this scene with fresh eyes. This story begins on Easter evening. Grief and wonder were fresh, bewildering and overwhelming for the disciples who had watched their friend Jesus die an excruciating and painful death just three days earlier. In the midst of their profound grief and fear, there was this morning’s news of their friend’s body missing…some saying he had risen from the dead. Some had seen the empty tomb; some were simply bewildered. Mary Magdalene, after her personal encounter with the risen Christ, had come to the house of the grieving disciples to announce and proclaim Jesus’ resurrection.

Now, one might think there would have been great rejoicing and ecstatic relief in that household when they heard that news. But, what we’re presented with isn’t a scene of Easter joy. Instead John’s Gospel draws us into this Easter evening scene where the gathered disciples…some having themselves been to the tomb, and others having just heard Mary’s proclamation…were gathered together behind closed, locked doors in fear for their lives. Into their midst, Jesus appears. Seeing the fearful, locked-in disciples, Jesus greets them with reassurance, “Peace be with you” and shows them his hands and his side. Then, John tells us, they rejoiced and believed. Jesus again offers peace, sends them forth in his name and breathes the Holy Spirit upon them, exhorting them to forgive the sins of others.

As it happens, Thomas, wasn’t with that group of gathered disciples that Easter evening. His friends found him, though, and told the story of what they themselves had seen and experienced first hand. Thomas has what I believe is the most human reaction of all: he wants to have that personal experience of joy and belief that the other disciples have had! Seeing his friends rejoice at having themselves seen the risen Lord, I’m think that what Thomas expresses is probably not doubt at all, but perhaps deep disappointment at having missed out. How can I experience the same joy you’re having unless I get to experience it, too?

Let me pause there. I think most of us have a version of this story in our minds where Thomas expresses doubt in the face of Jesus. That’s influenced more by some famous artists than what we read in the Gospel text. I think it might be more accurate to say that Thomas is reacting to his friends. His retort to his friends is that he wants to believe, and he wants what they have already been given: unless I see and touch, I will not believe.
Let’s think about that in our own lives. How often do we want and crave the experience of Christ that we hear other people are having? When it seems others have joy…and instead, we are feeling confused, bewildered, and sad…we feel out of place. We begin to think something is wrong with us, or that we are missing out. We might even wonder…like we hear in so many of the Psalms…why God has abandoned us while being present for others. I’m going to readily admit that I can relate to prayers that begin, “why them and not me, God?”

Maybe some of you can relate to that, too.

It’s part of our humanness to crave and to yearn for experiences of God’s presence. It’s part of our humanness to want to participate in the wonderful experiences that we see others having. It’s part of our humanness to react to that longing with a bit of jealousy or resentment. And so, in that spirit, perhaps we hear our friend Thomas telling his excited and rejoicing friends, essentially, “well, I’m not going to believe until I get to have the experience you had.”

If Thomas has a failing here, it isn’t doubt. Maybe in our current vernacular, we’d call it FoMo: Fear of Missing Out. It’s his human desire for that personal 1:1 with Jesus that his friends have already experienced. It’s completely understandable…I venture to say, we can all relate. But it also means that he isn’t able to see Christ reflected in the face of his friends.

I don’t know what Thomas’ spiritual life was like during that post-Easter week. I imagine there were lots of thoughts going through his mind. Maybe some of the psalms and prayers of his faith expressed his frustration, and maybe familiar beliefs and practices sustained him. But what I do know is that the following week, on the first day of the next week, he was gathered with the other disciples together in the house, again with the doors shut.

And what happens next is the heart of this story: On that Sunday after Easter, Jesus meets Thomas exactly where he is.

Jesus appears and reassuringly greets all the disciples again, “Peace be with you.” And then, John’s Gospel tells us, he speaks directly to Thomas in his own place of human longing. Jesus says to Thomas, without any hesitation, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’

And Thomas responds, “My Lord, and my God.”

What this Gospel lesson gives us is yet another reminder of the profound, intimate, loving presence of Christ entering into the most human places of our lives. The Good News of this Gospel lesson rests in the knowledge that the conditions we impose on ourselves in our humanness are no match for the boundless love of God, expressed in Jesus Christ. Jesus knows us, and comes to us, and invites us into belief.

Jesus the teacher then offers a lesson for Thomas, for the gathered disciples and by extension for all of us, a teachable moment in the midst of our collective fear and doubt: ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

This portion of John’s account of Good News changes perspective at this point, from recounting the story in what we might call a “3rd person omniscient” voice, to narrating directly to the reader, in the second person, in the way that teachers instruct: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

Blessings abound not only for those who see with their eyes, but those who believe in their hearts.

Yes, blessed are we. Like Thomas, we are met by this Gospel text right where we are. We don’t all have a direct and physical encounter with Jesus. But we are blessed, continually, by Christ’s presence. We have the experience of seeing the workings of Jesus Christ in the faces of those who believe. We have the Holy Spirit working in and among us to make us the hands and heart of Christ in this world. Blessed are we when someone calls to say that they are praying for us at a time when we are feeling alone. Blessed are we when someone shows up with exactly what we need, or when we show up to worship even if we don’t feel like it, and we hear exactly what we need to hear. Blessed are we when we volunteer to help our neighbors and someone sees Christ in our actions of outreach and love. And blessed are we when we see Christ in our neighbors. Blessed are we in the quiet moments of prayer when we suddenly knew, even in the midst of our human doubts and fears and loneliness, that we are not alone; that we are seen, and loved, and held even in our darkest hours. We are met and blessed continually with Christ’s presence in the faces of our community. This is what it means to be the Body of Christ, the Church.

The Good News, my friends, is that the Risen Christ loves us, and meets us exactly where we are, exactly as we are. Even…and perhaps especially…now in this time of our bewilderment and uncertainty. We are blessed by love that shows up at unexpected moments, in unexpected ways. We are loved, and seen, behind our closed doors, in the midst of our fears and in whatever human experiences make us yearn to see and know Christ. And, like Thomas, we are met by a loving Jesus, holding out His hands of love and breathing the power of the Holy Spirit into His Church so that we can see and know the presence of Christ.

When that happens may we, like Thomas the believer, be bold to say: “My Lord, and my God.”

St. Thomas Apostle

About harasprice

Professor of Social Work and Priest in The Episcopal Church, parent, teacher, learner, writer, advocate, and grateful traveller along this journey through life
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