Sermon for Second Sunday of Easter, Sunday, April 28 2019, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31
Thomas gets a bit of a rough ride from preachers. There is a tendency to hold him up as an example of flawed faith, “doubting Thomas” who needed to be taught a lesson; someone who had to be fixed. Often, he’s seen as some kind of scientific rationalist, a sort of Richard Dawkins of his day, only interested in things which can be touched and measured. Once, I even heard a sermon in which the preacher suggested that if Thomas had only been where he was supposed to be, locked in the upper room with the other disciples, he wouldn’t have had all these problems, and the moral of this was supposed to be that you should go to church more regularly.
But critical analysis, a refusal to accept whatever exciting tale the group tells you, a determination to know your own truth, these are valuable, and often sadly rare, character traits. And if the incarnation is about anything, it is about the importance of what can be touched, of the physical encounter. And doubt is not, after all, such a bad thing as some preachers seem to think.
Doubt, in fact, is part of the inevitable dynamic of faith; it is, in its way, a mode of faith. We will never have—any philosopher or mystic will tell you—full certainty. We cannot possess the truth about God, because God cannot be a thing among things; and if we think that we fully understand God, all that means is that we’ve created a God who’s the exact same size as our selves. We need to question, and even to reject, much of what is said about God. We need to approach our own faith experience with a hermeneutic of suspicion, knowing that what we grasp with our limited intellectual and emotional tools is mostly ourselves, that the life we believe we have in God is more deep and strange than we can think or feel, and that it will be experienced most deeply as uncertainty, as unknowing, as darkness.
It isn’t easy, that process by which our understandings are stripped away, and we walk into that bright darkness . But it is what we do. It is about making a commitment of your life in the absence of certain knowledge. You commit your life to truth and love, to hope. When there seems to be no reason for hope. When you don’t feel like it, don’t want to. When you even aren’t sure you believe it. But you choose it anyway, you choose to love God and love your neighbour, because it is better to live as if. To make that absolute commitment in the face of uncertainty is probably one of the deepest forms of faith we can have.
To think about Thomas is to think about that commitment, and the shapes it may take. Recall the one other time when Thomas is prominent in John’s Gospel; it’s just before Jesus and his disciples set off for Jerusalem for the last time, and Thomas seems to be the only one who really understands what this means. “Let us go and die with him,” he says, apparently the only disciple who, at this stage, gets it, that Jesus is setting out on the road to arrest and torture and execution, that the disciples will have crosses of their own to take up. I’m not sure he understands the fuller implications. He doesn’t seem, at this stage, to have any sense that there is more on the horizon than death. But he has understood that they are not looking at the victorious Messiah scenario the disciples seem to have expected.
Of course, Thomas did not die with Jesus, and it appears that, in the moment of crisis, he lost his nerve and scattered along with the rest of them. But he didn’t go and hide in a locked room afterwards—and by the way, the fact that they are locked in that room suggests that every one of them had refused to believe Mary Magdalene’s account, so they are no different from Thomas in that. But in any case, I can’t help but speculate about why he, alone, went out – was he searching for that death he had not had the courage to face the day before, wandering the streets of Jerusalem as an obvious target for the authorities, hoping for martyrdom? Or had he simply made the practical decision that someone needed to buy some food, and he might as well be the one to take the risk? Either way, it is in some way consistent with that earlier Thomas, the one who first suspected the extent of the danger and tried, at least, to face it.
Thomas, I think, was not surprised by the crucifixion, and on some level he knew why it had to happen. But when he got back to the room where the other disciples were hiding, they had news he could not believe. News of resurrection. News that was simply too good to be true.
And Thomas’s resistance to this has a certain kind of nobility and wisdom. I think what he was hearing from the other disciples, in their excitement, was a story in which everything was magically okay, and all the pain and suffering was never real. And Thomas knew that isn’t true. You can’t just wipe out the cross. You can’t just forget about the road that brought us to this moment. Thomas needs to see the wounds. He needs to see that the resurrection body is not a denial of the human body of Jesus and the human suffering of that body. There has been, there is, too much pain, too undeniable. Thomas needs to know that the story includes the pain, remembers it, honours it, transforms it. That it is not a story of cheap victory, or a story in which anything is forgotten.
It must have been a difficult week for Thomas. The one left out. The one who hadn’t been there, who seemed so inexplicably resistant to the joy the other disciples were feeling. The one who kept insisting that it was more complicated than that, that the answers were not easy, that as much as he wanted to share in their happiness, he could not. He would have been, I think, very lonely, isolated in the middle of his own community. And yet he did stay. He accepted that this was the community to which he had pledged his life, in which he had decided to live out his truth, the people alongside whom he had pledged to struggle. He chose to make that commitment, even if he did not believe, even if it didn’t feel like anything.
And it was redeemed, finally. Thomas is not the one left out, not the excluded. Jesus comes, is present to him, to Thomas specifically with his probably difficult temperament, his particular needs. Jesus stands face to face with him and shows him the wounds, tells him that nothing is erased or denied, the suffering is all real and all transformed in love. Nothing is forgotten. Nothing is left outside the story, and no one, not even—perhaps especially not—difficult critical Thomas, is left outside God’s love.
There is nothing in the story that says that Thomas actually touched the wounds. Perhaps, after all, he didn’t need to. For it was not, it was never, about proof, about evidence, about certain knowledge. Perhaps it was enough, the mysterious presence only, scarred and resurrected and entirely loving, entirely offering. The need was only to return the love, to acknowledge in adoration. “My Lord and my God.”
And so we stumble into that presence, hardly knowing what we are doing, hardly sure how it feels or what we think, but only that the body must kneel and adore.