Grace Presbyterian Church
April 8, 2018, Easter 2B
The Revised Common Lectionary is an organization of scripture for preaching and worship that offers the preacher, over a three-year period, a schedule by which one could preach from an extremely generous swath of scripture, Old Testament and New. Not everything is covered, and frankly not everything is necessarily sermon-ready, but a lot of scripture is covered, and a preacher who uses the lectionary will occasionally be goaded into preaching from passages he or she might not otherwise preach.
There are repetitions, though. The lectionary will always take you to Luke for the Nativity story, and Holy Week is largely taken over by the gospel of John, no matter which “year” of the lectionary you’re on. Psalm 23 and John 10 (the “I am the good shepherd” discourse from Jesus) are always paired for the fourth Sunday of Easter. And the second Sunday of Easter always brings us Thomas.
Not the Emmaus Road story (last week’s sermon was actually off-lectionary, in case you wonder if I ever do that). Not Matthew. (Mark doesn’t really offer any post-resurrection story, so he has only himself to blame for being left out). Not John’s other post-resurrection accounts. Always Thomas.
I wonder this every year at this time. What is it about this particular story that was so compelling to the lectionary compilers that we get this story again and again and again? What’s so important?
It’s not as if Thomas is, by most conventional measures, a big deal among the disciples. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all list Thomas among the disciples…and that’s it; he’s not mentioned in those gospels otherwise. Only John mentions him beyond that basic identification, and this gospel mentions him two other times beyond this story:
–in chapter 11, the Lazarus story, it is Thomas who says “Let us also go, that we may die with him” when Jesus says that he is going to Bethany, near Jerusalem, despite the knowledge that the religious authorities there are plotting to bring him down.
–in chapter 14 he’s the one who asks the question, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” that prompts Jesus to answer “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
(Thomas also shows up in chapter 21, but only by name.)
While this is a small sample size, these two accounts do suggest that Thomas has a bit of a smart mouth on him, and is willing to say what the other disciples seem less willing to say. Nowadays we might say Thomas is “that guy”, the one every group seems to have, the one who “goes there” when everybody else is saying “don’t go there.”
We don’t know why Thomas wasn’t in that room with the other disciples when Jesus shows up the first time. To be honest, we don’t really know why the disciples are inthat room themselves. They’ve heard Mary Magdalene’s story; they have her witness that Jesus is not dead, but alive—resurrected from the dead. And yet they’re locked away in a room out of fear. Maybe they could be out looking for Jesus instead, I don’t know. Who knows, maybe that’s where Thomas was? But still, it has to be acknowledged that he did miss out on that experience by not being with the other disciples.
On the other hand, in last week’s scripture the two disciples took off and left town rather than sticking with the group, and Jesus tracked them down and appeared to them.
When the others tell Thomas about this appearance of Jesus, his reaction – the thing that has earned him the nickname “doubting Thomas” across two millennia of Christian history – is something along the lines of “I gotta see this,” or perhaps “I’ll believe thatwhen I see it.” Mary Hinkle Shore, a Lutheran pastor in North Carolina, makes the useful comparison to your possible reaction when friends tell you about, say, the latest big blockbuster movie or Broadway show, saying “you’ve got to see this!” Thomas’s answer is in effect “yes, I am going to have to see this before I can believe you.”
But then you go to see Black Panther or A Wrinkle in Timeor Hamiltonor whatever they’ve told you about, and you end up concluding that their praise was actually an understatement. That’s how Thomas reacts when he does see Jesus. If we’re going to zing him as “doubting Thomas” for his initial hesitance (or for his insistence on receiving what the other disciples received despite evidently doubting Mary Magdalene’s initial report), then we have to give him credit for being the first among the disciples to make the leap, as he does in verse 28, from “my Lord” to “my God!” Whether great act of—finally!—understanding just what Jesus has been about all this time, or overwhelmed response to what he didn’t think possible, Thomas’s profession is a landmark moment in the gospels. If Thomas must be punished for his reticence, he must be lauded for his exclamation of faith.
Still, though, the question lingers: why does this story come back every year, again and again? Is it because of Thomas’s final profession? Or is it because we, the church in this place and in every place, are too liable to react to the news of the resurrection the way the disciples did, not only after Mary Magdalene’s report, but even after seeing the living Jesus themselves – hiding behind closed doors, still in fear? Is there some sense in which we, despite hearing the good news of resurrection every year, we still don’t really believe it?
It might also be that we are fearful of what that exactly means for us. Maybe the part we don’t really want to hear is verse 21 – “as the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Maybe we’re locked up tight as a church because we fear being sent, outside the walls and windows of this place to a community or a world that doesn’t look like us, doesn’t talk like us, doesn’t believe like us, doesn’t vote like us, doesn’t automatically conform to be like us just because we think they should. Maybe that’s it.
And yet, for all of that fear, Jesus not only appeared to the disciples and to Thomas, but he also answered Thomas’s bluntest skepticism with the most tangible sign possible; his own wounded, broken body, scars and all. He practically dares Thomas to follow up on his skepticism – “here they are, my hands, my side” – and then does get in a little dig at the end – “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.” Jesus does not give in to our doubts or fears or suspicions. Jesus insistently comes to us where we are, and presents nothing less than himself to our fearful, faithless minds.
For a relentless Savior, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #245, Christ the Lord is Risen Today!; #251, Christ Has Arisen, Alleluia; #238, Thine Is the Glory; #246, Christ Is Alive!