Sermon for Second Sunday of Easter, Sunday, April 19 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
I have a great affinity for Thomas, and a good deal of nonsense gets talked about him—I remember to this day the preacher whose main point was that if Thomas had only stayed where he was supposed to be, i.e., cowering in the upper room with the other disciples, he wouldn’t have had so many problems, and the moral of the story was that we should go to church more often. I suppose, if I tried hard enough, I could turn it into a shelter-in-place parable, a strategy which would drain most of the real meaning out of it. So I think it’s important, at the beginning, to clarify some of the things which Thomas, that famous doubter, is not.
First of all, he is not some kind of first century anti-vaxxer; he does not represent that particular kind of paranoid skepticism which rejects any fact because it is delivered by someone with expertise, and embraces any mad theory put about by those who share an ideology. He is closer to genuine scientific skepticism, the intelligent carefulness which says, “Until I see multiple peer-reviewed studies, I will not believe.” But, though I value and esteem that kind of caution, it is not what the story of Thomas is centrally about. That moment of transformation at the end of the story is not about being freed from critical analysis.
There are hints in the gospel at Thomas’s character, hints that he was a person of fierce and grim commitment. When Jesus sets out for Jerusalem, to the grave of Lazarus, only Thomas seems fully to understand the consequences. “Let us go and die with him,” he says, apparently the only disciple who, at that stage, sees the shape of the road ahead. 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. 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 go out and 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.
And yet he returns to find that, precisely because of this, or at least so it seems, he has been excluded; that there has been a great restoration, and he has not been made part of it. The other disciples have, against all expectation, been given presence, forgiveness, love, the breath of the Spirit; and he, Thomas, is offered just exactly what he has probably had all along, the chance to persevere out of determination only, without any personal consolation or recognition.
And what’s more, he does just that; he does persevere. Whatever went on in that week between the first appearance and the next, whatever halting steps at building something new, some gathered church, Thomas was there. Lonely as he may have been, isolated in the middle of his own community, 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. Through that hard week, he held on.
And it was all redeemed, in the end. Thomas is not the one left out, not 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.
We are all, I think, stuck somehow in the middle of this story. Cloistered in a single room, or out on the dangerous streets trying to survive, sticking it out in a desert time, maybe very much alone, maybe without much sense of meaning or comfort. Hanging in. Some, perhaps, have had at least moments of recognizing the presence of the risen life in the midst of this fear, have experienced the breath of the wind of God upon us. But many are hanging in merely, struggling for hope, for faith, for a moment of knowledge. Longing for the physical reality, the body and blood, the bread and wine, withheld for some time we cannot see ending soon.
And of course we doubt. It is not only hard to believe in resurrection, in this strange spring—it is very close to impossible. Even here, in a country apparently spared the worst, we are at the best of times suspended, walking a tightrope over a valley of uncertainty, not knowing what it means now for life to begin again. Yet it is in this moment we have been called to live, and we must find ways to live in it fully, to live graciously, generously, and prophetically. We must find ways to know that even now, Christ comes through locked doors and every barrier we can build, breathes upon us all, offers the wounds of love, lifts us out of our despair.
Our moments may be brief, as these appearances to Thomas and the other disciples were brief—strange, fugitive, and beyond control. But we breathe from the breath of those moments. We are sent, as they were sent, even when our sending cannot take us out of our doors. Have courage. In the lonely hours, know that you are not alone. In the fearful streets, know that you are seen, and known. And in such strength and endurance as you can find, live into the world as it should become. Live justice as you can—share resources or time, name the wrongs, imagine the greater right. Create community with whatever tools you have, a phone or a computer or a hand raised in recognition. Create beauty. Plant a garden in the city. Support independent businesses and low-wage workers. Use whatever voice you have to remind the world that every life matters, and that finally we are all frail, all somehow disabled, all subject to age and weakness, that none of us can be separated out or set aside. And pray for the world, because all the world is lonely, and longs to be held in light.
You will face doubt, you will face struggle. We are here in the cloud of unknowing, every one of us now, saying the words because that is all we can do, and some days, perhaps many days, there will be no faith to hold onto, nothing but the determination to go on with a choice once made. It may last an hour, or a week; sometimes, it is much longer. And we do not, because we cannot, by ourselves unlock the door. And yet the moment comes when the door does not matter, and there is only mercy. And we stumble into that presence, hardly knowing what we think or how it feels, but only knowing that the body must kneel and adore. Even here, even now, even our own small difficult souls.