Sunday, April 16, 2023
Second Sunday of Easter
Doubts — Rev. Brent Gundlah

    One day during my freshman year of college, I had an experience that still gives me nightmares. I was sitting in a class (I don’t remember the name of it) when the professor directed a question my way (I don’t remember what it was).

What I do remember, though, is the answer to that question, which was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — the dissident Russian author who won the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature.

I know that now (because I went and looked it up), but I didn’t know it then — and this was the problem. As my face turned fifteen shades of red and my palms began to sweat profusely, I blurted out some incorrect answer (I don’t remember what it was either), to which the professor responded by shaking his head in disdain at my ignorance.

All that was bad enough, but what really stuck with me was the reaction of my classmates. You see, following the professor’s lead, they responded by shaking their heads in disdain at my ignorance too.

What I’ve come to realize with the passage of time, though, is that many, if not most, if not all, of my fellow students probably didn’t know the answer either. I just happened to be the one who got singled-out, the unlucky soul who had to stand in there and take one for the team. I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. I can’t help but wonder whether the apostle Thomas might have felt the same way.

Today we’re looking at one of the Bible’s most familiar passages — from the twentieth chapter of John’s Gospel which, of course, tells the story of the disciple we’ve come to know as Doubting Thomas.

This is the reading on the second Sunday of Easter every single year, which isn’t a big surprise. John describes four of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances — the first one to Mary Magdalene on Easter morning earlier in this chapter, the last one to the disciples beside the sea in the next chapter, and two of them in the eleven verses you just heard.

As the scene begins, it’s Easter evening. Earlier that day Mary Magdalene told the disciples about all that she’d witnessed near Jesus’s empty tomb. Now the disciples are hiding inside the house trying to figure out what to do next. They’ve locked the doors for fear that they too will be taken away and executed by the authorities — after seeing what Jesus just experienced, they are absolutely (and justifiably) terrified.

And then Jesus shows up.

This had to be a lot for these disciples to process. Jesus was dead, but now he’s standing right there in front of them. We’re left to wonder what was running through their minds and what they were talking about among themselves in the hours between that morning when Mary Magdalene showed up to share her good news, and that evening when Jesus showed up to share his. Did they  believe her? Did they believe him? Did they believe anything? And, since John says that all of the doors to the disciples’ house were locked, how did Jesus manage to get in? So many questions!

Then Jesus talks to them; he shows them his wounds. They rejoice when they realize that it’s actually him. As the bewildered disciples celebrate Jesus’s return, he says to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He then breathes upon them and says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And while this is a great blessing, it reads a bit differently in our post-COVID world than it might have, say, ten years ago — doesn’t it?

Jesus then just seems to disappear (even though John doesn’t explicitly tell us that). Thomas, who was one of the twelve, but was not fortunate enough to have been there with the others when Jesus arrived, comes back to the house (though John doesn’t tell us where he was or why he was absent). Who knows: maybe, Thomas was out spreading the gospel and healing the sick and caring for the poor — you know, like Jesus said he should.

Anyway, the disciples tell Thomas about all that’s just happened and he utters his well-known response, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” So, a week later, Jesus appears again, granting Thomas his wish. And the rest, as they say, is history.

But poor Thomas has been criticized for over two thousand years for his apparent unwillingness to accept what the other disciples had told him about Jesus at face value. As a result, he’s rarely spoken of as just plain “Thomas;” he’s always “Doubting Thomas.” And this is unfair for a couple of reasons.

First of all, the other disciples were far from perfect, but none of them got tagged with unfortunate nicknames that have stuck to them like glue (well, except for Judas maybe). We never hear about “Denying Peter,” do we? No, Peter just gets to be Peter (or sometimes Simon Peter). And besides that, name-calling is just mean.

Second, is that Thomas only wants what the other disciples have already received — a personal encounter with the newly-returned Jesus. Let’s be fair: Would anyone, presented with the same situation that Thomas found himself in, have wanted anything different? Would you want anything different?

For centuries, though, Thomas’s detractors have latched onto the idea that he doubts the appearance of the resurrected Christ; and this often seen as evidence of his lack of faith. 

But what if the source of Thomas’s doubt is something else entirely? What if he doesn’t doubt in Christ but rather in his fellow disciples? I mean one could argue that Thomas has good reason to doubt them.

Just a few chapter’s earlier, when Jesus prays for his disciples, he says this: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth. I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”

Jesus is praying that his disciples, with God’s support, will do his work in the world after he’s gone — spreading the good news to people far and wide.

What Jesus finds when he first arrives in our reading for today, however, is this bunch of disciples hiding inside a locked room because they’re too afraid to go out and do what Jesus called them to do.

But Jesus seems inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt — they have, after all, been through a lot over the past few days. And so Jesus doesn’t chastise them here; he simply repeats for them the abridged version of what he had prayed on their behalf earlier: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Said slightly differently, “Look, I know you’re scared but it’s time for you to go out there and get back to work.”

And so when Thomas arrives at the house some point after Jesus had first showed up and left, I understand his skepticism, because these disciples who claim to have seen and spoken with Jesus seem remarkably unaffected by the experience.

I can only imagine what Thomas might have been thinking: “Wait, so you’re telling me that Jesus appeared to you, that he actually said, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you,’” and you’re still sitting here? How do you expect me to believe when you don’t even seem to believe? I mean if you really did believe that Jesus came here and said that to you, then you’d actually be out there doing what he told you to do instead of hiding out in the house.”

And what are these very same disciples doing seven days later when Jesus appears to them again? That’s right — they’re still sitting around inside the house.

Thomas gets the personal encounter with the Risen Christ that he missed the first time; he sees and believes, referring to Jesus as, “My Lord and my God!” In response, Jesus becomes the skeptic, asking Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” And you have to believe that he’s speaking to us here too.

This statement by Jesus and this whole story by John, explain what it means to truly bear witness to the Risen Christ. It is not merely about observing him with our own eyes; it’s about actually living the kind of lives that he calls us to live.

It is not about sitting around in the safety of our houses and talking about Jesus; it’s about getting out there in this compete mess of a world and working to make peace and love and equality and justice a reality for all people — even when it’s scary, even when it’s difficult, even when it’s dangerous to do that.

It’s not just about what we see and say; it’s about what we do.

You believe in me? You remember me? You follow me?


Get out there and prove it by serving them, ministering to them, loving them – all of them.