This sermon, offered by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, on April 23, 2017 at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin, is built on the readings assigned for the Second Sunday of Easter, year A in the Revised Common Lectionary.
This sermon was preached without a text form the center aisle. What follow is a transcript of the attached recording.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Please be seated.
I don’t know about you all but I feel a little sorry Thomas. We have a three-year lectionary cycle and so our readings for any given Sunday change every year on a three-year rotating basis, with the exception of just a few, and today being one of them. Every year on the Sunday after Easter, when we celebrate the feast of the resurrection, we trot Thomas out and let him say these difficult words.
Now, I don’t know if we can imagine what it was like for him in that moment but I’ve got an idea for a way that might get us close. So I want to try something, and it’s a little interactive so you’re going to have to participate…
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
But unless I see the mark of the the nails in his hand…
(faintly from the congregation) But unless I see the mark of the nails… (laughter)
Ooooh! See! You guys were right there… You can imagine what that would be like! It would be really hard!
Thomas walks into the room where all of his friends, his companions for these past three years are gathered and they greet him with this joyous news, tell him about an event that he wasn’t a part of, and he doesn’t want to believe them. He asks to see some evidence; “Let me see the body, show me the flesh and blood, show me the wounds, and then I’ll believe what you’re telling me.
It’s really interesting how all of this moves forward. It would seem that Thomas doesn’t believe that this was the same person who hung on the cross, whom his friends have met, and who has been raised from the dead. He wants some factual evidence.
But sometime later when Jesus shows up for a second time, Thomas now present in the room, and Jesus offers him the factual evidence he’s required, Thomas doesn’t say “Oh wow! There are the wounds! It really is you! You’re the one! Wow! My friends were right and you’ve been raised from the dead!”
What he says instead is, My Lord and my God!”
That doesn’t sound like a response to factual evidence to me. It doesn’t sound like some switched has been flipped for him, some Christian apologetic has finally convinced him that this is all true. Something much deeper has happened in this moment. I think that in this moment Thomas has come to trust, to trust.
Ten years ago Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012, wrote this book called Tokens of Trust and here’s how he opens chapter 1.
“A few years ago the British philosopher Onora O’Neill, argued in some broadcast lectures that our society was suffering from a crisis of trust…”
“It isn’t simply that we have become remarkably cynical in many of our attitudes, that we approach people in public life with unusual levels of suspicion, it’s also, more disturbingly, that we don’t feel the great institutions of our society are working for us. This means we are unhappy and mistrustful about our educational system, our healthcare service and police – let alone our representatives in government.” (Tokens of Trust p. 3)
Ten years ago… suffering from a crisis in trust… maybe we can understand what’s going on in Thomas’s mind in this moment.
So we need to talk a little bit about the word “believe.” Thomas says unless I have this evidence I won’t believe. Jesus shows up and says, “See my wounds. Put your hands in them. Do not doubt but believe.” And Thomas says, “My Lord and my God. I trust in you,” and Jesus credits him in that moment with belief.
“Have you believed because you have seen me? Have you trusted because you can see me?”
All throughout John’s Gospel the words believe and belief are relational words. They are verbs that have to do with trusting in… Not so much believing facts, not so much in believing in data and evidence, but coming to trust in someone in some thing.
Shortly after the introduction that I read to you from Rowan Williams’s book he’s talking about the fact that we, as a community, gather every Sunday and we say these words together
“We believe in God the father Almighty…”
And he tweaks that word “believe” the same way that John would have us tweak it. Williams says
“It is the beginning of a series of statements about where I find in the anchorage of my life, where I find solid ground, where I find home.” (Tokens of Trust p. 6)
In a world and a culture where trust is a difficult thing, where we can’t believe, or we need to question the sources of information that we once relied on, where we’re not sure who’s telling us the truth and who is working to forward their own agenda, we need to have something in which we can trust, an Anchorage, solid ground, home.
And so what we do every week is come here together, to this place, and say, “We trust, we find our anchorage, solid ground, home it’s here in this place, and in this person Jesus of Nazareth, and in the God whom he made manifest and describes, whose behavior he exhibited here in this world, that we trust.
Jesus says to the disciples there in that upper room “Just as the father has sent me I now send you” and he breathes the Holy Spirit upon them. And so having been shored up, having been rooted, having been given our ground where we live and move and have our being, Jesus sends us out in the world to invite others to come home, to hold tightly to what it is that we trust, and to share that with others.
Now just in case you started to roll your eyes a little bit in the last few minutes, we need to acknowledge Thomas’s presence in the midst of all this and our ability to relate to him. Because Thomas, and we don’t know how he’s been wounded or how he’s been shaped by his culture and his time, he’s often credited I think with being a scientist and needing some scientific evidence. Maybe that’s what’s going on here, but I think fundamentally what’s happening in him is an inability to trust. Sometimes life comes at us in ways it makes it difficult for us to trust. That’s why I’m so grateful for Thomas’s presence in this story. Jesus could have taken any route, any measure, to help us to find our way to recognize the importance and value of trust. John the gospeler or could have crafted his story differently and moved us to the same point, but if they had excised Thomas from the story then I think we would’ve all left here afraid at the possibility that life would somehow steal away from us, even for a fleeting moment, our ability to trust.
So Thomas stands here in our midst, Thomas with whom we’ve discovered we can in fact identify, and asks for what he needs. “I need Jesus to come back and to show me, to show me! I know you all say you’ve seen him but I need him to show me! And Thomas authorizes, empowers, gives us permission to say those same words.
So I’d like to tell you that in 30 seconds I’ve arranged to have Jesus come through the locked doors here, and stand in our midst, and offer us his wounds. That would be great but I don’t think it’s likely to happen.
What we do have however in this space, gathered together, are the wounds of people we love, people who have been hurt, people who have survived that hurt. We ourselves who bear our scars into this place and dare to stand up every Sunday and say we believe! We believe in a God who loves us beyond measure, who has proven to us that we will never be abandoned and never be alone, a God who has told us that we all have value, and are worthy of dignity and respect; a God who tells us that what God wants for us more than anything is life in his name.
Thomas took a great risk by standing up in the middle of that room and saying I won’t believe unless I get to see this list of things. I think we take a similar risk when we stand up together and say, “We believe, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, despite the pain that I have experienced, despite the pain that people I love are feeling right at this moment. We believe. We trust in the one who came to set us free, to allow us to walk in the light, and to give us life tinged with, suffused with, glowing with eternity.
Thanks be to God for Thomas who helps us to see. Thanks be to God for Jesus who comes back to us again and again. And thanks be to God for this community where we can wrestle and struggle find God in one another.
Williams, Rowan. Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2007. Print.