St Andrew’s, Edwardsville—John 20:19–31
Whenever we gather for a baptism or for confirmation, everyone present is invited to affirm—along with those being baptized or confirmed—we are all invited to affirm something called the Baptismal Covenant. One of the promises of the Baptismal Covenant is to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” I have to say, if there’s one spot where most people are tempted to cross their fingers as they respond, “I will, with God’s help,” this is probably the place. Most of us feel constitutionally incapable of proclaiming by word and example the good news of God in Christ … at least the “word” part; a lot of us might feel like we have it within us to live as good examples of the gospel, but get immediately tongue-tied at the mere thought of saying anything about it. Our inability to give voice to our faith is grounded mostly in fear, I think. We’re afraid of being ridiculed by people for whom faith in general and Christian faith in particular is just … ridiculous. We’re afraid of inadequacy, that we will somehow mess up in the way we explain things and that we’ll end up doing more harm than good. And, in a diverse society like ours, we’re afraid that we might be perceived as somehow “imposing” our beliefs on others against their will. I was raised in a church subculture where “witnessing,” which was the jargon we used for taking to people about Christ in a way intended to lead someone to faith in him—witnessing was a universal expectation of all Christians of all ages. Over the years of my growing up, I had a fair amount of very concrete training in doing it, though, never, I should say, with very impressive results. Yet, I’m here to tell you, even people from such an environment as I was raised in find the prospect of talking about our faith, casually, informally, over a cup of coffee—we find this prospect frightening and paralyzing. Fear, at every level, severely compromises our ability to proclaim the good news of God in Christ.
But, even apart from any covenantal mandate to bear witness to Christ, we have other fears and doubts that paralyze us, even in our own personal faith. The secular culture in which we find ourselves has long since stopped supporting us in our efforts to be believing disciples. Quite the opposite, our society now makes it overtly difficult for us to do so. The ancient Christian virtues of humility, patience, and self-control are now washed away by the 21st century values of competitiveness, demands, the assertion of rights, political outrage, and self-indulgence. It takes great strength of faith not to surrender.
It is difficult not to become exclusively inwardly focused, consumed by our own fears and doubts. In that, we share much in common with the followers of Jesus on the third day following his crucifixion. Their world had been unexpectedly turned upside down by the sudden death of their leader and lord—not an accidental death, mind you, but public shaming and execution at the hands of those whose power the disciples had expected Jesus to upend. So they locked themselves into a room, John’s gospel tells us; they locked themselves into a room … out of fear. They felt alone and vulnerable, veritably abandoned by God.
But, here’s the interesting thing: Even in their fear, even when the person who was the “glue” of their relationship with one another was missing in action, they stuck with one another. They hung out. And it is precisely in the context of their hanging out that most amazing thing happens: the risen Christ shows up. He appears in the room with them, without taking the trouble to use the locked door. Their feelings of abandonment turn to consolation. Their paralyzing fear becomes joyful courage.
Of course, as we learn, one of the leaders of the band, Thomas, is out getting his shoes shined or his oil changed or posting on Twitter when this happens. He’s not there. So he doesn’t see Jesus. And when he talks to his friends later and they tell him they’ve seen the Lord, Thomas expresses grave doubts. “Unless I see the holes in his hands, and put my hand in the hole in his side, I’m not going to believe.” But, here’s the same interesting thing at another level: Thomas continues to hang out with his fellow disciples. He’s dubious that Jesus is, in fact, alive, but he hangs out anyway. And so, a week after the incident that he missed, Thomas is there this time, and Jesus shows up again.
Now, Thomas has gotten a bad rap throughout the history of the Church, as “doubting Thomas.” The church in California where I served as rector for 13 years has a stained-glass window depicting the Apostle Thomas with his hand on his chin in a classic “I don’t know about that” position. But I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Sure, Thomas wanted to see proof, but he didn’t ask for anything that the other disciples had not already gotten from Jesus the first time he appeared to them. They weren’t more virtuous than Thomas. He just wanted what they’d already had—a straight-on look at the risen Christ to make sure he was the same Jesus they had followed around Galilee and into Judea.
This is what Thomas wanted, this is what Thomas needed, in order to act on the faith that was already within him, and Jesus, with exquisite compassion, gives Thomas exactly that. “Here, Thomas. Put your hands in my hands, and your hand in my side. Don’t doubt, have faith.” Now, it’s easy to overlook this detail—or, I should say, lack of a detail—but John’s gospel says nothing about Thomas actually taking Jesus up on that offer. Just the offer itself carried enough amazing grace to enable Thomas to believe.
My friends, the good news that it is my joyful duty to announce to you on this Second Sunday of Easter is that Jesus offers to give us precisely what we need to be able to trust in him. Woody Allen is reputed to have said that 90% of life is just showing up, and, in that, he agrees with Jesus, and confirms the experience of Thomas. The key to receiving the grace and gift of faith, is to show up where the disciples of Jesus hang out, to gather where the followers of the risen Christ gather. When we just “show up” and habitually keep company with other followers of Jesus, eventually we receive whatever it is we need to have life-giving, life-sustaining faith.
When Thomas received this gift from the compassionate words of Jesus to him, his immediate response was the most robust confession of faith that could be imagined: My Lord and my God. Thomas was acknowledging his utter dependence—as a creature is dependent on a creator—his utter dependence on Jesus. And he is promising to serve and obey Jesus with his whole being. And this is where we find the solution to the difficulty we have in bearing verbal witness to the gospel. It’s not a deficit of courage or ability that prevents us from doing so, nor is it an excess of politeness. It’s more likely, rather, to be a deficit of faith stemming from not having made ourselves available, not being around when Jesus shows up. The takeaway is to persist in hanging out here, where the disciples of Jesus hang out. Keep at it. Keep coming back until you can look at Jesus and say, with Thomas, “my Lord and my God.” Alleluia, and Amen.