2 Easter B—4/8/18
1 John 1:1–2:2; John 20:19-31; Mark 16:1-8
Pr. Scott Kramer
Our gospel reading for this second Sunday in Easter picks up where last Sunday’s Easter reading left off. Last Sunday we heard John’s account of the Easter story. But Mark’s account is the gospel that we follow this year. It, too, has an Easter story. (Read Mark 16:1-8)
So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone; for they were afraid. The End.
Mark’s gospel is the very earliest account of the Easter story that we know of, and there is only the empty tomb. No resurrection stories. No appearance of Jesus. Just…terror, amazement, silence and fear. This Easter story is my favorite because it forces us to finish the story with the choices of our own lives. Do we allow debilitating fear to govern the choices and direction of our lives? Or, is there room for Christ to show up, powerfully and unexpectedly bringing to life that which in us is dead?
Mark’s Easter story sets up today’s reading from John very well. (Read John 20:19-31). When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews. Ten out of eleven disciples were huddled behind locked doors, fearing for their safety and maybe their lives.
What’s the opposite of faith? Many of us have been led to believe that the opposite of faith is doubt. But is that really true? Isn’t doubt part of faith in the same way that death is part of life? Isn’t doubt essential for faith? How can our faith grow without questions? According to our scriptures, the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith—or maybe the enemy of faith–is fear. Not fear itself, which we all experience, but the practice of caving into our fears.
Which brings us to Thomas.
Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Poor old Thomas. Thomas the doubter. But think about it. Is that really fair? Ten disciples were behind locked doors. Where was Thomas? Maybe he’d gone down the street to Costco to pick up bread and wine for dinner! We don’t know. The point is, Thomas was out and about, not hiding behind locked doors with the others, and therefore probably risking more than they were.
When Thomas finally does recognize Jesus, Jesus says, “Do not doubt but believe.” And yet, read the story and you will see that not one of Jesus’ friends believed until he showed up among them and showed them his hands and his side. And Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” But who would that be? You? Me? Anyone? No, like those first disciples all of us require some sort of evidence that God is real, that Christ is alive.
But Thomas was different. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
What do we call Thomas? “Doubting Thomas.” But that’s not what the Bible calls him. Our story from John’s gospel gives him a different nickname: Thomas the Twin. What does that mean? Maybe he had a twin. Or, some have suggested that he looked so much like Jesus that the two were often mistaken! But whatever–twins tend to be experts at recognition. Thomas, of all people, would know that appearances can be deceiving. Notice that Thomas doesn’t say, “If he looks like Jesus I’ll believe.” He says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Thomas will not believe that Jesus is alive and present unless he sees the marks of suffering and torture for himself.
At text study this past week I made some comment about Thomas commonly being thought of as the goat in this story (goat=person blamed for a loss or a failure). And one of my pastor friends said, “You know what GOAT stands for, right?” Well, lots of sports fans know: Greatest Of All Time!
If Thomas is the “goat” in this story, maybe he is in the sense closer to this meaning. Thomas may not be a hero but there is much that Christians can learn from Thomas’ example–because Christians, just like everyone else, are often easily deceived. We, just as much as non-religious people, judge according to appearances. We, just like anyone else, are easily led astray by shows of power, wealth, promises of security and self-interest, and above all, we are led astray by our personal, debilitating fears. Remember, Mark’s Easter story ends in fear. This morning’s gospel story from John begins with fear among Jesus’ disciples, whose priority is saving their own skins, locked behind closed doors, as maybe all of us would have done in that situation.
Except Thomas, who wasn’t locked behind closed doors. Thomas, who wouldn’t settle for appearances but demanded nothing less than the gory, fresh signs of suffering and torture.
Yes, we Christians could learn a lot, if we dare, from our brother Thomas. Because not much has changed in 2000 years. The living Christ, the resurrected Christ, is still known by the signs of suffering. In people who are discriminated against, hated or shot for the color of their skin we find the living Christ. In people who are judged for their sexual orientation or gender identity we find the living Christ. In people who are unjustly deported we find the living Christ. Wherever we find human suffering because of injustice and oppression by privileged and powerful people, it is precisely in that suffering that we recognize the living Christ.
To what extent have we individually—and especially those of us in this country who are white—ignored the faith and courage of Thomas, settling instead for religious appearances, such as beliefs, doctrines, denominations, church attendance? To what extent have our fears driven us to build fences and walls? To what extent have we allowed our fears to drive us behind locked doors? To what extent have we missed the power of the resurrected Christ by escaping the pain of our hearts and the world through everything from excessive alcohol to endless entertainment?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot this past week, especially on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Columnist Leonard Pitts this past Thursday wrote about how many white people have fully embraced the lie that racism is a thing of the past which he says is a dangerous myth because it allows the willfully, woefully gullible to believe we have won the battle for social justice when, in truth we have yet to seriously engage it. Maybe the best evidence for the truth of what he claims is the 2016 presidential election–not an accident of history but a deeper and more complete reflection of who we are as a people.
There have been some notable changes in our society over the past 50 years, of course, but make no mistake: fear still grips the hearts and rules the minds of tens of millions of Americans—Christians included. What miracles might happen if people of faith, at least, chose not to judge Thomas but to learn from his example?
Dear friends, Christ is risen. Easter is all around us. Wherever in our personal lives or life together we are locked behind the closed doors of fear, may the risen Christ give us the gift of faith to see him present in our own suffering and especially, in the suffering of our neighbors (read Matthew 25, for example). May we recognize all around us, and hopefully increasingly in ourselves, flesh-and-blood examples of faithful Thomas, courageous Thomas, thinking Thomas…believing Thomas.