Sermon for Low Sunday – Easter II from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs
In no way will I believe.
you wonder where Thomas was on the first Easter evening, when his friends had locked themselves away in fear? Was he simply the last to arrive by coincidence? Had he gone out to get some food for his grieving friends? Regardless, when he arrived and heard that Jesus had come and gone in his absence, his reaction was not tepid. In fact, the original Greek has been watered down in translation. He doesn’t just say, “…I will not believe,” he says, In no way will I believe. It’s as though he said it in underlined boldface italics.
What is the writer of John’s Gospel trying to tell us here? The conventional wisdom over the millennia is that Thomas doubts the Resurrection until he can see the proof in Jesus’ body. And people have staked out their territory on either side of the argument about whether or not Thomas got a bad rap for being a doubter. And it’s a good topic for pondering and exploration—the value, or risk, of doubt and question in a life of faith.
But perhaps something else is going on here; something hinted at by the emphatic quality of Thomas’s response to his friends’ news of the Resurrection. In no way will I believe.
The Gospel of John was the latest of the four canonical gospels to be written; in the late 1st- and early 2nd centuries. It was probably written and edited over time not just by someone named John, who may have been John the disciple, but by others of his community; which is why we sometimes hear of the “Johannine School”—(that’s your new phrase for the day.)
The Johannine project was all about identity; specifically two forms of identity. The first was the identity of the Christ. This gospel is where we find the first evidence of the theology of Jesus and God as the same and coeternal, that is, Jesus and God existed from the beginning and together, Father and Son. We hear this in Jesus’ farewell discourses at the Last Supper, where he says, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me…” In the same passage Jesus also speaks of sending of the Holy Spirit, just as in today’s story where he breathes on the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” So it is John’s Gospel where we see major stirrings of the identity of Christ as part of the Trinity. This is the theology that we see codified in our creeds. So it was very important that the hearers of this Gospel understand Who Jesus Was: The Word. The Christ. The Son of God, with God and in God; human and divine.
The second priority for John’s Gospel is the identity of the community, and that’s our main focus today. Jesus’ Great Commandment was to love one another. This was a signature point behind the washing of the disciples’ feet and the mandate to wash the feet of others; and in Jesus’ last words to his mother and the Beloved Disciple as he hung on the cross; “Behold your mother—behold your son.” Jesus gave them to each other as family, indicating that family extends beyond blood ties. Our love of Christ bonds us in Beloved Community. Those ties are important—vital to the spread of the Good News and the realization of God’s Dream.
And what does all of this have to do with our friend Thomas?
Consider what has happened within his circle of friends. One of their number turned Jesus in to the authorities for trial and crucifixion. The heartbreak and despair of Jesus’ death was compounded by the knowledge that it was brought on by betrayal. Betrayal of Jesus. Betrayal of trust. Is it any wonder that Thomas, who wasn’t fortunate enough to see the resurrected Jesus, disbelieved the testimony of the others that he was alive? His trust, and that of the disciples, had been broken by Judas, and the wound was raw. Why in the world should he trust his friends with such a crazy story, of a risen Jesus who comes through locked doors and offers his wounds as proof? Seriously?
In no way will I believe! Does he shout it? Pound his fist on the table?
The issue here isn’t Thomas’s faith in Jesus—it’s Thomas’s trust in his friends. When Jesus comes a second time to the locked room and invites Thomas to touch his hands and side, Thomas doesn’t do it. He doesn’t need to. He instantly registers Jesus’ presence and identity with a simple declaration, “My Lord and my God,” no further argument. But. The damage in the community of disciples has been done; first by Judas, who violated trust, and then by Thomas, who, once burned, refused to believe the word of his friends. This is a cycle of broken trust that threatens the Beloved Community. And this is the lesson that John offers us when Jesus says, “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet come to believe.” It is not just an admonition to the post-Resurrection Christians who were not around to see the Risen Jesus; although of course that’s part of it. But it is also a warning to the community that the Great Commandment to Love One Another is woven throughout with the importance of trust; to be trustworthy and to trust one another. A community that lacks this vital ingredient is wounded from the start.
People and institutions violate our trust. This is a tragic fact of human nature. I’ll wager that everyone here can name a time when we have felt betrayed, or have violated someone’s trust in us. It hurts a relationship, and healing is often a tremendous challenge. Sadly it is also in our nature to attribute human qualities to God. Hence, if humans and institutions can fail us, then God can too, right? Well, no… But. Admit it; at least for some of us there does seem to be a disconnect between faith in God, and trust in God. Even though they are defined almost exactly the same, even to the point of using the word trust to define faith and faith to define trust. It may seem to be a distinction without a difference, but to me it does seem possible to have complete faith in God’s overarching power and presence while at the same time not trusting that God is still at work with us and within us. Especially in instances when we feel that our trust has been violated.
This may have to do with the concept of time. Our chronological time demands that things happen how we want and when we want them, while God’s time is broader, more fluid, and the ways in which God does work just don’t conform to our expectations of how and when things should turn out. (I like to say that God doesn’t follow instructions well.)
And so our trust falters. When we are called to be patient–to wait and trust that God is still at work in our lives, we can become disillusioned. Because we’ve been burned before by our fellow humans—by our community–somewhere deep down we feel that God will burn us too.
Thomas’s story is a cautionary tale. His outburst of mistrust was rooted in the tomb, in the darkness of fear and disillusionment. John points us to Thomas, not so we can impugn his faith in God, but so we can let him teach us. Let Thomas’s story teach us that our encounters with darkness and betrayal need not define us or those around us. Let it teach us that our faith and our trust in God can be one, as Jesus and the Father are one. Let it teach us that our calling—our identity– as people of the Resurrection is one rooted firmly in the light of the Risen Christ.
Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.