The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams – April 23, 2017 – Easter 2, Year C: John 20:19-31
Usually when I hear this gospel story, I allow it to connect with my inner Thomas, or my at times, not so inner Thomas. In this story there is permission granted for doubts and questions and being “that one” who just isn’t sure about various proclamations of faith that surround them. And I need that. Maybe you do too.
I’ve told you before that I consider Thomas one of the patron saints of the Episcopal Church, because I know that many of us found our way here, or stayed here in this church because there’s room for us to question and to continue searching even as we adopt a budding and a changing, evolving faith. We make room in this place for doubt, for questions and we actually believe that such things strengthen faith rather than threaten it. And so today, and any time here at Grace I invite you to let your inner Thomas flow. Share your doubts, your fears, your wonderings, your questions – and know that you’re not alone.
Now I also have to add that even given my love of a good search, I do think that that last bit might be the heart of this gospel story. Thomas wasn’t just “the one who had his doubts put to ease.” He was the one who was alone and then he wasn’t. That’s the good news here. Like the prodigal Son, or lost sheep, or like Nicodemus, or the Samaritan woman whom we met in this gospel of John a few weeks ago, Thomas had experienced something that had separated him from his people. Remember that when this story opened, Thomas was the one who had been “away.”
Now the story doesn’t say where Thomas had been when Jesus appeared to them the first time. In all likelihood Thomas was just off doing something else. Maybe he was working, or running errands, or maybe Thomas was off by himself grieving the loss of the one whom we had come to hope was the Messiah. The one who had become his friend and his hope. Regardless, it’s safe to say that Thomas probably wasn’t off trying to conjure up a good heavy dose of doubt in order to exclude himself from the faith of the community. Thomas’ questions hadn’t separated him, life had.
And so Jesus came back again. That’s what’s so amazing about this story. No judgement, No punishment. No questions asked of Thomas, initially anyway. Jesus simply appeared again and invited Thomas to place his hands in his side. It was a simple moment, really. “Be here,” Thomas the invitation said. “Connect with us, Thomas. Place your hand. Touch and heal and rise, with us Thomas.”
And so the healing offered in this story wasn’t really about “questions answered.” This was person received, person forgiven, person embraced, person loved.
And that all starts to sound a little mushy for us sophisticated types. It’s easier, safer in many ways to talk about the cool edginess of questions and doubt, to be pushing and learning and growing all the time. In fact I think it can ironically be safer to immerse ourselves in the doubts we carry than it can be to risk being forgiven, embraced, and loved through them. It can be safer to immerse ourselves in our doubts and our questions than it can be to belong to a people. There’s a vulnerability to Thomas’ story – that moment when he lets go and places his hand in Jesus side changes his life forever. Not because his doubts were eased, but because he was received and he was among. Peace was offered Thomas too.
And so the gospel has a bit of holy mush to it, it has a lot of love to it, and as a people who honor our doubts we should let the love sink in too. Deep down, I think that’s the real reason why many of us are here. We come here to think, and to wrestle, and to push the envelope at times. We come here to stretch ourselves and our faith, to give it the work out that is a healthy, ongoing and lifelong exploration around the edges. But that’s not all that it’s about for us, for any of us.
Remember that Jesus opened this gospel with a question. I find that so very wonderful as today’s story at the end of the same gospel offers a beautiful, grace-filled echo. The first time Jesus met those who would be disciples he opened the encounter with a question of them, “What are you looking for?” he asked. And he and they spent the entire gospel allowing that question to shape them and the ways in which they interacted with Christ and all who came their way.
One of our core human answers to “What is it you’re looking for?” is “to be received, to be forgiven, to be embraced, to be loved.” And I think receiving those gifts is how conversion happens, over and over again. And I think that’s what the gospel is all about. A little mushier perhaps than a traditionally catechetical approach to faith (not that I’m against it) but I do think that a simple, loving reception is the most important gift we have to give one another, our neighbors, and the people of this world.
Because odds are good (that is if Thomas really is a good Patron Saint for Episcopalians) that he had some more questions a few days after that moment with Jesus, perhaps a few hours after. What exactly did you mean by Body and Blood? Will I be risen? When? You told me to love my neighbor and my enemy, are you really sure about that? How come we fight so much? What should I think and believe about other faiths? Why don’t dogs live longer than they do? How about people? Will there ever be a cure for cancer? How did God think to make birds sing? What should I do with my life? How can I protect my kids? How can I help this world heal, Jesus? And what exactly is transubstantiation? And so on… for Thomas and for us.
But maybe Thomas’ questions weren’t the point. Neither was his doubt. Place your hands here, Thomas. Connect here, Thomas. Touch and heal and rise with us, Thomas. Jesus received Thomas just like Jesus had received everyone who had come to him – by night, by day, at the well, at the cross, in the garden, by the sea. And in through those embraces came the healing Thomas and others needed, a healing that went far beyond what answers could ever provide.
And so maybe our calling is this – to be those who aren’t afraid to doubt, who are energized by questions and even more importantly, to be those who aren’t afraid to receive, who aren’t afraid to belong.