Persistence: John 20:19-31

doubting-thomas

A sermon for Easter 2 from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs

“Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.” 

It was a common practice of the Gospel writers to, as they say in theater circles, pierce “the fourth wall”; that is, to speak directly to the audience as an aside to the action on the stage. John’s Gospel is a good example of piercing the fourth wall, only it doesn’t so much pierce it as take a sledgehammer to it. John’s narrative frequently airs the feelings of rejection of the community for having been expelled from the synagogue late in the first century by projecting it back to the events of Jesus’ life and ministry. This is something we’ve been discussing throughout Lent, so it should be no surprise that in today’s story we find another pejorative reference to “the Jews.” We have learned that we need to read John’s Gospel with special care in order to keep from falling into the trap of unintended interpretive consequences, like anti-Semitism. But here today we have another unintended consequence, of a different kind.

“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

You know how, when you’re talking with someone, it is the one critical thing that focuses your attention, no matter how many nice things they say? This is one of those cases. A lot of energy has been spent on parsing these parting words of Jesus to Thomas. The word, ‘chastise’ comes up in a number of the commentaries I’ve read this week. We are drawn to wonder: What is Jesus telling Thomas about his faith? Is Thomas now eternally in the doghouse because he was skeptical about the Resurrection? And then by extension, what can I extrapolate about MY faith? What does this say about my winding and bumpy spiritual journey– my questions and doubts? Am I not a good enough Christian because of them? Who IS a good enough Christian if an unquestioning belief is a criterion for being one?

So many questions about doubts. So this statement has been a stumbling block for a lot of people; no surprise then that this is known as the story of Doubting Thomas. We have come to think it’s a story exclusively about him and his supposed lack of faith, and by extension, we tend to think it is a commentary on how we should believe, and what should be the nature of ‘good faith’ and sufficient belief.

But actually, the whole thing is a red herring. We have become completely distracted from the main point.

Rather than being a commentary on faith vs. doubt, this is actually another example of John’s breaking of the fourth wall. But this time he isn’t lamenting the expulsion from the synagogue. This statement has to do with time. John’s Gospel was written almost a generation after the Resurrection, therefore there was no one around who had had direct contact with Jesus or his ministry. So John poked his head through the fourth wall in order to reassure those who had not personally experienced Jesus that their faith in him was not in vain.

So this exchange about doubt and belief has had an unintended consequence of focusing us ultimately on ourselves and what or how WE believe. It doesn’t just miss the point; it turns it totally inside out. We’ve been thinking about what WE do rather than what GOD is doing.

So let’s ask a different question. Were you ready for Easter this year?

Not everyone is. It is such a wondrous time of hope, joy and promise—a celebration of Jesus’ triumph over death, showing us that nothing, no nothing can come between us and the love of God. It’s a powerful message. So powerful, sometimes, that it is difficult to take it in. Our fragile humanity just doesn’t feel up to the task of comprehending something that momentous.

I know someone whose mother died on Easter Sunday a few years ago. That particular day was pretty much a fog for her, but a year later, after a months’-long grief journey, when Easter came around again, it was a very difficult time. She looked at me sadly and said, “Easter just came too early. I’m not ready for it.”

This was a rawly honest statement—arguably theologically questionable for a seminary student, but that was her truth in that moment.

So what was Thomas’s truth on that first Easter? We can only speculate as to why Thomas was not in the house with his friends on that day. We do know that he greeted the disciples’ news with skepticism—a skepticism likely born of the trauma and grief of the preceding days. The news of resurrection was too much. He wasn’t ready for Easter. Perhaps he didn’t want to be disappointed yet again. And so his absence is a stand-in for anyone who carries a wound or burden that distances them from Easter joy: health issues, grief at the loss of a loved one, disillusionment with the church, alienation from a community, fear for the future. Sometimes we can’t see Easter right in front of us. Sometimes we don’t dare look. It is possible to be locked-out in more ways than one.

But here’s the point: Whether locked out like Thomas or locked in like the disciples, Jesus came anyway. Right through the door. Twice. Historically we have focused on Thomas’ refusal to believe unless he touched Jesus’ wounds, but note that he wasn’t the only Doubting Thomas of the group. Even the rest of the disciples in the house hadn’t believed the reports of the women disciples. Instead,   they had gone into hiding, and when Jesus came through the door—literally through the door–they didn’t recognize him until they had seen the marks in his hands and side. (“THEN the disciples rejoiced…”)

Did he chastise them for locking the door? No.Did he chastise them for their fear? No.

He just said, “Peace be with you,” and in a Pentecost, moment breathed the Holy Spirit upon them. And then sent them out– made them Apostles.

That’s the point.  This is about what Jesus did, not about what fear, denial, depression, or doubt did. Here he came. Ready or not. And he did it twice.

And yet, having seen and rejoiced at seeing Jesus the first time—what did they do? These newly-inspirited Apostles shut the door again. And again it didn’t matter. Jesus came bringing words of peace. No chastisement. Just grace. It’s not about what they did (or didn’t do.) It was about what Jesus did. He persisted. He persisted through betrayal, death and the tomb. He persisted through the locked doors and locked hearts of his fearful friends. He never gave up on them.

And so he offered his wounds to Thomas. Here, he says, touch. I am really here. And I’m not going anywhere.

Thomas’s declaration of faith was instantaneous. He had said that he would not believe unless he put his hand in Jesus’ side and touched his hands and feet, but as it turns out Jesus’ presence was all that he needed.

“My Lord and my God.”

Thomas saw Jesus’ wounds. The disciples recognized Jesus when they recognized his wounds.

Wait a minute.

Jesus was resurrected with his wounds. The risen Lord is not complete without them. He is not complete without brokenness, because brokenness is part of this world—a world Jesus loved to the end and loves still. He loves it—and us– completely and persistently. All of us. All of us who at some time or another are locked out or locked in. Ready or not, God’s love is always ready to be present for us. Ready to help us bear our own wounds, and to help us bear the wounds of others.

My friend who struggled that Easter a few years ago found comfort in her community. Jesus showed up in the friends who offered their listening and prayerful presence. For those friends, her questions and doubts were secondary to the grief that had her locked in. And Jesus showed up.

Jesus’ persistence challenges us to see and seek him in places we don’t expect, in people we might not recognize at first, and even at times when we think we least desire it.

We are people of the Resurrection. Jesus calls us to be apostles—sends us out to proclaim the Good News, using words if necessary.

And he’s ready when we are.


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