by Kathryn Buffum
I bring you greetings this morning on behalf of your good friend Bishop Kirby Unti, and your friends in Christ in the 105 congregations and 20 mission starts of the NW WA Synod. One of the gifts of serving as Assistant to the Bishop is being able to get to know some of these congregations. I was here last November for Pastor Scott’s ordination anniversary, so I’ve had a chance to see that you at Lakeridge bring real heart to your worship. You’ve kept the best of what is Lutheran, but incorporate new talent and energy. Thank you for being willing to experiment; you do the whole church a service when you point the way forward. When we say Christ is risen, what we really mean is that Christ is alive now, doing something new. Thank you, people of Lakeridge, for being a part of what Christ is doing.
Well, last week was our celebration of the greatest news we’ve ever had. Christ is Risen! (He is risen indeed!) And one of the greatest gifts of the faith that’s been handed on to us is found here in the gospel of John, in today’s story. Christ is risen, and the disciples shout Alleluia, right? No. The disciples, after hearing Mary’s story, retreat. And “Thomas (who was called the Twin) . . . was not with them when Jesus came.” Thomas, after hearing their story, doubted.
This is how I imagine it happened. It was evening on that day, the third day after Jesus’ death, when a small band of followers were huddled together. The door was bolted against those who had seized Jesus, those who might still come after his friends. Yet for some reason, Thomas was on the other side of that bolted door. We don’t know why; maybe he was their scout. Maybe he needed some time alone. Maybe they sent him out for the first century equivalent of pizza. All we know is that when he got back, they couldn’t contain themselves, they were so excited. And whatever it was that had happened, he’d missed it.
Yet from Thomas’s perspective, what they were saying couldn’t possibly be true. When Mary reported the tomb was empty, he could write that off easily enough. Somebody might have moved the body. Now if the government had moved the body, they could be in trouble – moving a body was a capital offence. It would be just like the Romans to cook this up as an excuse to come after the disciples. But to hear them say Jesus was alive, had come to them, had given them new spirit – what kind of delusion was this? Could it be that their grief had gotten out of control, a sort of a mass hallucination?
If you had been Thomas, would you have thought any differently that first Easter? Would you have taken the word of your friends? I have to suspect that at even two thousand years ago, mothers used to ask their children the ageless question, “if your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?” Thomas had enough life experience to know that you’re better off being a little skeptical, asking a few questions. So instead of believing his friends in this most unlikely scenario, he asks for facts. “Let me see the mark of the nails . . . let me put my hand in his side.” Don’t ask me to turn off my brain.
At least that’s the way I imagine it. That last statement, “don’t ask me to turn off my brain,” was actually mine, back when I was in high school. I was part of a church that discouraged us from asking questions about things like creation and evolution. We didn’t dare talk to the pastor about our doubts. But we, those of us in high school, had a Sunday School class that was led by an incredibly brave man. It wasn’t that he encouraged us to ask questions; he didn’t. We just couldn’t help ourselves, and what this man did that was so great was he kept showing up. Every week, when we’d ask questions about war, government, parental authority – he’d show up. And if he chose to teach something from the Bible, well – we’d question that too. Somewhere along the line he had been taught that doubt was a slippery slope. So each week he’d arrive prepared to do battle with our wayward minds.
It was only fair then, only payback, when my son got to the same age, he too began to ask questions. There I was, a new pastor in a church that said it welcomed doubters. And my son’s questions kept getting harder and harder. Doesn’t evolution challenge the Bible? Why are Christians so judgmental? How can God allow evil in the world? How do we really know Christ is risen? I never knew what a saint my Sunday School teacher had been, until I had to deal with my son!
But by this point I had also learned what you all know, that doubt is a part of our human condition. There’s a Persian proverb that recognizes the value of our questions; “doubt is the key to knowledge.” Or expressed more colorfully in Fred Buechner’s language, “doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
Doubt is what keeps our faith awake, what keeps us questioning and seeking. It is also what drove Thomas. So instead of writing off these friends who are claiming that a dead man walks, he sticks around. Instead of turning off his brain, denying everything he’d experienced, he continues to question. And one week later when Jesus returns, Thomas is there.
This time Thomas hears his voice. This time he sees Jesus extend his hand, offer his side. But then, as Thomas prepares to reach out, to reevaluate, something happens. He recognizes the one who is right in front of him in a way nobody else in John’s gospel has. “My Lord and my God.”
To try to get a sense of what’s happening here one writer, Rachel Held Evans, has suggested the image you find on a slip of paper in your bulletins today above the words Easter Blessings. When you first look at it, you will probably see an animal.
The writer happened to see a duck. Take a look – do you see the duck? For years and years, Evans said, all she could see was the duck. But then one day for no apparent reason, she could see a rabbit.
Our faith is a little like that too. We may start out with a faith that is passed on to us by our parents, and for years it looks like what it’s always looked like, a duck. But then one day we see the rabbit. And even though we can still see the duck, we can’t not see the rabbit. Our faith is stretched and changed by what we see.
And so it was for Thomas. He had been looking for evidence, searching for facts about this man who he had seen to be good, and holy, and loving, and absolutely dead. To believe him alive, Thomas was going to need proof. But just as the proof was offered, he suddenly recognized what had been true all along. My Lord and my God.
I suspect you’ve had a similar experience. Your eyes can tell you that this building is a certain size and shape, that it’s located on this particular corner. But it takes different eyes to see what it means when you’ve had a child baptized here, or a wedding celebrated here, or a spouse laid to rest from this place.
You can see a young child with dark curly hair, and dirt on her face, and the stain she’s gotten on her clean white dress. But it takes different eyes to see that this is a child you’d give your life for were it necessary.
Maybe most weeks, when you look at the bread and wine that are served from this table, it pretty much looks like what you’d see at home. But every once in a while, through different eyes, you see God’s love poured out in such a way that it fills you to overflowing. You can see both duck and rabbit, because they’re both present and have been all along.
Paul, in Ephesians, prays that with the eyes of ours heart enlightened, we may know the hope to which we have been called. It was with those enlightened eyes that Thomas was able to see Jesus, and recognize him, and spend the rest of his life doing his best to go and live and love and serve, even though he could no longer see Jesus any more than we can.
But the best moment of the story, in my opinion, happens next, when Jesus looks up over Thomas’s shoulder and sees his twin. When he sees all of us who have our own doubts, and who show up in church the week after Easter as if we need another reassurance that it’s true. When Jesus sees us, people who probably wouldn’t believe even if our good friends and neighbors claimed to be eyewitnesses. When Jesus sees us, the ones who live in a time when hope is hard to come by, and resurrection assumed to be myth. When Jesus sees us, he blesses us.
“Have you believed because you have seen me?” he asks Thomas. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Let us pray. Gracious God, you know the questions we have, the despair that pursues us, the doubts that haunt our days. You know the causes for our blindness of spirit and we do not. We ask this day that you would let us see as Thomas has seen, with the eyes of the heart enlightened. Teach us to turn to you in our doubt, to listen for your blessing, and find the peace that we have been given in Jesus, our Lord and our God. Amen.