Expectant Thomas

Sermon for Second Sunday of Easter, Year A – I Peter 1:3-9 ; John 20:19-31

As some of you may know, it was my privilege yesterday afternoon to join a couple in holy matrimony, something both Scott and I will be doing a lot of this summer.  A moment that stood out for me during the marriage preparation for this couple was a theological one.  As I walked the couple through the service, I got to the point where the rubrics in our Prayer Book call for the couple to kneel and receive a blessing.

Now, the bride in this couple is Greek Orthodox.  She interrupted me quite readily saying, “But, we don’t kneel, right?  It’s Easter!”  Of course, I told her that she was right, because she’s the bride!  But I also told her that in Episcopal tradition, such things as kneeling versus standing are matters of personal choice, what we call a personal customary.  VERY few matters of customary are considered mandatory in our worship.  Some worshippers reverence the cross as it passes.  Some always kneel during the confession or the Eucharistic prayer. Others never kneel, even during Lent.  It’s a sign, I suppose of our more protestant orientation and perhaps some American individualism thrown in.

In a tradition like the Eastern Orthodox churches, however, there is much higher level of expectation of what you will and will not do.  If the priest says, “Kneel!” you kneel.  Every parishioner is expected to fast, even from water, before you receive Eucharist.  My point is that these are not arbitrary instructions.  There is, in fact, deep theological meaning behind each point of customary, even if they seem contradictory!

The Season of Easter is a time when Christians celebrate Christ’s victory over sin and death.  That reality is represented, by some, in a change of customary by not kneeling.  Kneeling is often seen as humble, penitential, while Easter is a season of victory and feasting.  There are churches that don’t even say the confession during the Easter season for similar reasons.  There is a very marked contrast between what Lent looks like and what Easter looks like, even more so than in our parish.

Many Christians, Orthodox and otherwise often greet each other during the season with the simple phrase, “Christ is Risen!”  And the reply is, “The Lord is risen indeed!”

If you recall, this is how Scott greeted you this morning as our worship began, and we replied from the same custom.  But many Christians will greet each other this way on the street.

Another hallmark of the Easter season, for us, is our lectionary cycle.  Rather than a lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures, during Easter our first lesson is taken from the Acts of the Apostles and their witness to the resurrection of Christ. And then also Gospel lessons follow the same post-Easter pattern from year to year.

This being the second Sunday of Easter, the first Sunday after Easter Day itself, we hear the story of Thomas, often called “doubting Thomas Sunday.”  In coming weeks we will hear the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, another of Jesus’ resurrection appearances.  The fourth Sunday of Easter is always Good Shepherd Sunday.  This is a regular and predictable cycle.

So today we are once again greeted by Thomas and this story from John’s gospel.  Thomas, called the Twin, has become defined by this moment in his life. What child doesn’t learn in Sunday School not to be a “Doubting Thomas”?  For most Thomas is as “stuck” in this one moment, just as Judas Iscariot will always be seen as an evil betrayer, forgetting that Jesus loved Judas as much as the other disciples.

Thomas’ problem, for me, is one of timing, not his deep seated skeptical nature or an over-developed rationalistic quirk.  We have no reason to believe that Thomas’ life was plagued by doubt the rest of the time.  Doubting is not Thomas’ profession, nor is it his pastime.  From another account in John’s gospel, we do know that Thomas was very courageous in the face of growing opposition to Jesus. He speaks up when the other disciples are afraid to follow Jesus to Bethany where they all know he might be arrested and his disciples with him.  It is Thomas who says, “Let us go with him also, that we might die with him.”  That doesn’t sound like a fretting doubter to me.

Thomas’ problem was timing.  He had heard the rumors of Jesus’ resurrection, they all had.  First there was the testimony of Mary Magdalene who said that Jesus appeared to her in the garden, and Peter and John confirmed her story that the tomb indeed was empty. And now all the other disciples were saying that Jesus had actually appeared to them. Jesus had entered the locked room where they were hiding, almost a reverse of his bursting out of the tomb. He wasn’t ghost. He was flesh and blood. He had risen. Good news indeed! But had Thomas missed it. The Gospel writer simply states, “But Thomas wasn’t with them.”

At this point, I find Thomas here to be a much more sympathetic figure.  I resonate with Thomas, and you know what, I think many of you do too.

Let’s consider his so-called doubt.  We do not hear the story of a stubborn man comfortable with his doubt, or a rationalistic man hamstrung by the logic of their reports.  Rather, Thomas is wrestling with the story he has heard and the fact that it was an experience he did not share with his friends.  His doubt is not an excuse for unbelief.  He doesn’t announce, “Well, you say you saw Jesus, but since I didn’t see him, I choose not to believe you.”

Thomas’ doubt is full of expectation. Thomas wants to see Jesus. He doesn’t simply roll over in bed and sigh, “Oh well, I guess I’m just a skeptic at heart.” Thomas has missed out on being with Jesus and he is the worse for it. Their word is not enough. He’s not accusing them of lying, rather he wants to share in their experience. After all, Jesus showed them his wounds.

I hear in this account the story of a man who wants the same chance.  His doubt is not a way of life, and he says so.  The Greek could also be translated this way, “Until I see the mark of the nails in his hands. Until I put my hand in his side.  Until I do these things, Thomas says, I will not believe. Thomas’ doubt is not one of “never,” it is one of “not yet.”  Thomas wants to experience the risen Jesus.

Thomas dares to demand more of the Lord than just the rumor of his resurrection. He is a man of unrealized faith.  Thomas doesn’t want a second-hand faith.  If faith is based in relationship, I hear in Thomas’ doubt the cry of one who has found himself isolated, left out.  He was one of the twelve, this group of men with such an intimate relationship with Jesus.  He had seen the miracles.  Thomas had been at the Last Supper.  Jesus has washed his feet. Because of that relationship and those experiences, Thomas is demanding more.

Thomas’ demand is not hopeless, it is full of expectation.  Thomas has not shut his eyes to the truth.  Instead, Thomas is in the dark with his eyes wide open.

Then we hear of this encounter with Jesus.  The Gospel reports, “Thomas was with them.”  I bet he was!  He wasn’t going to miss another chance to experience the risen Lord.  Jesus wishes them all peace, but to Thomas he says, “Touch me.”

Now, just last week we heard something different from Jesus’ lips.  He said to Mary Magdalene outside the tomb, “Don’t touch me.”  But to Thomas, whose heart longed for this encounter, Jesus offered his body as tangible proof.  I’m real Thomas!  I’m alive!

Then Jesus speaks to us.  Well, not us, per se, but that original audience who heard John’s accounts of the risen Christ.  “Blessed are you who have not seen and yet believe.”

It is in that moment that we who identify with Thomas, we who so long to experience the risen Lord as tangibly as the disciples had, it is there that we findour place in the story.  Jesus has not appeared to us or offered us hands-on proof, and yet our hunger for that experience drives us not to doubt but to faith.

Yesterday we celebrated the life of Sally Mackie.  Her life was clearly one of faith, the kind of faith described in this reading from I Peter.  Though she had not seen her savior, she loved him.  And her faith moved her feet!

We all live in this paradoxical moment of the now and not yet, living by faith, not sight, and yet hoping for the day when we will see our savior, and with Thomas, hear those words we so long for from him, “Touch me!”

All we have are the rumors, “The Lord is Risen!”  Our parents and those communities of believers that raised us have told us since our earliest days, “Jesus is not dead.  He’s alive.”  The question is left open for us — will we who have not seen yet believe?  Let us live our lives then, with Thomas as our model, not in stubborn doubt, but in hopeful expectation, in hungry anticipation of meeting the risen Lord.  Amen.

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