Well, another Easter has come and gone. What a day! As tired as I felt by the end of that morning, it was hard to see the day end. After forty days of Lent and all the services of Holy Week, I wish Easter, like Christmas, could last just a little longer. But if I think about it, it’s not too hard to recreate in my mind, all the sights and sounds of last Sunday: the music and the people, the Readings and hymns, the breakfast; all of the things which touch every sense, and make Easter so festive.
But it’s over. The other shoe has dropped. To put it simply: it’s time to get back to normal. Easter is a nice break from normal, a nice change of pace, but now it’s time to get back to reality. And reality can be hard.
Thomas was not there in that first Easter gathering. Considering the events of that weekend, it is not surprising that Thomas is absent. When tragedy strikes, even one not so great as the death of Jesus, folks react in a variety ways. Judas went out and hanged himself. The other Ten, plus the nameless men and women, gathered together in their grief. But Thomas had drawn apart.
Jesus appears in the upper room to the Ten, and to the others who are gathered there. The resurrection is true. He is risen! Alleluia! He speaks peace. He gives them His Holy Spirit. And He commissions the disciples to be apostles, sending them out as He was sent to deal with human sin through the discipline of grace.
It’s great stuff! Incredible stuff! Life-altering, mind-blowing stuff! They find Thomas. They tell him all about it! Ah…but as the Ten were slow to believe what the women had said, (and the women were slow to take in what the angels had said), so they all find Thomas slow to believe them. “Unless I see…unless I put my finger…unless I put in my hand…I will not believe it.”
Now the figure of Thomas has undergone something of a metamorphosis in recent years. In fact, the changes in Thomas’ reputation reflect the same sort of changes in the Christian faith itself! At least in this country.
Used to be that we would drag out Thomas after Easter as the whipping boy of unbelief. Doubting Thomas. Bad Thomas! Don’t be like Thomas! Don’t doubt! Nowadays, you’re likely to hear an “attaboy” for Thomas. Honest Thomas. Realistic Thomas! Doubt is a good thing! Faith needs doubt. Yea Thomas! You da man!
And what happens to Thomas in our 21st Century hands happens to the Christian faith itself. We’re either busy stoning sinners or we’re busy re-writing the Bible so that sin is no longer sin. We jump all over some sins, and those people who succumb to them—bad, bad, bad!—while we ignore the sinners who indulge the more acceptable, even popular, sins. Or…we flat out announce that some things just aren’t sin anymore.
But nothing is more cruel than the misguided leniency which abandons a person to his sin! It’s a dreadful thing to be alone in your sin when no one has the courage anymore to call it sin! But equally cruel is the pious fellowship which permits no one even to be a sinner! In such a fellowship everybody must lie, hiding his sin from himself and certainly from the fellowship! So we remain alone in our sin. Alone in our doubts.
Now Thomas was hardly alone when it came to having doubts. In fact the whole lot of them doubted! The writers don’t hide that fact! The women couldn’t believe the angels. The men couldn’t believe the women. And here in our Reading, with Jesus appearing right in front of them all, they still can’t quite believe it! Thomas was hardly unique. They’re all sinners!
And yet…nowhere in the Gospels does anyone ever say that this doubt is a good thing! None of the disciples call it good. Jesus certainly doesn’t! Doubt is not a good thing…but it’s still gonna be there. Where there is faith, there is also doubt…because we are sinner/saints. This side of eternity, there will always be doubt. But when it comes to doubt, no one is helped by commanding it away: Stop doubting! But neither are they helped by re-inventing doubt as some sort of virtue. The same can be said of all sin! Where there are Christians, there is sin! And neither commands nor redefinitions are gonna change that!
It is highly significant that when Jesus appears to His disciples, His disciples are gathered together, the whole sinful lot of them. Oh sure, Jesus could have appeared to any of them individually, anywhere. He could have appeared to Thomas wherever Thomas had gotten himself to. But He didn’t. He appeared to Thomas when Thomas was there in the fellowship. Thomas was not left alone in his doubts.
And there in that fellowship, neither had the Ten changed the game. There’s no pretending that they have been faithful all along. And Jesus doesn’t do anything to make it easier for Thomas or for any of them to believe. He doesn’t create a more casual atmosphere or suddenly take to wearing khakis and knit shirts to make things easier for this bunch. “Yo, Thomas, why don’t you stop by the Upper Room; we’ve got a great band playing this weekend!” The Thomases of the world may or may not ever believe the resurrection of Jesus…but they certainly aren’t going to, if you start changing the game on them.
If doubters are to become believers, that’s in God’s hands, something which happens in His good time. But if it is to happen, and if such a new faith is to mature, it will be within the fellowship where the faith is really the faith: where sin is sin but grace is always greater. There the Thomases and any of the disciples, from first to last, can meet the real Jesus in the midst of their doubts…in the midst of a fellowship who all have their doubts!
This is the fellowship of faith. The gifts of the resurrection are given out within the fellowship. Here is where Jesus breathes His Holy Spirit on us, by the Gospel which enters our ears, by the Sacrament which enters our mouths. Here, what no amount of debate and arm twisting and commanding and redefining can ever do, here in the fellowship of believers, faith is born and it lives and grows as God acts by His Spirit through Jesus Christ.
So will everyone brought into this or any fellowship become a believer? Will every sinner recognize his or her own sin? Will all seize upon Christ as the beginning and the end of their life? Thomas did…others do not. Some believe right away…some take a while…and some not ever. The outcome is in the hands of God, just as Jesus’ own resurrection was in the hands of God. So then our life and own glorious future, or anyone else’s, is in His hands.
After all, when sin and doubt burden a fellowship, like Thomas with the Ten, like any of us with anyone else, isn’t the sinning brother still a brother? Do we not all stand under the same Word of Christ, both His judgment and His pardon? The disillusionment we may have with a fellow Christian over their sin or their doubt becomes, in fact, the very occasion for faith, because it so thoroughly teaches us that no one can ever live by his own words and deeds. If we live, we live only by the Word and Deeds of the Christ, who binds us together with Him in one fellowship. And here in John 20, Christ is at the center of everything!
Such faith doesn’t seek to move others by force, or by a dominating interference in someone else’s life. Nor does it take any pleasure in pious facades of religious fervor. Such faith lives simply within the fellowship of Christ and simply meets the other person—with their doubts, with their sin—meets the other person in the Word of Christ, and is quite ready to let that person dwell with that Word of Christ, even if they wander for a long time, in order that Christ, by His Spirit, may deal with that person, working repentance from sin or a new birth from the depths of doubt or whatever new creation Christ intends for that brother or sister.; just as He works in each one of us.
It is a faith which respects the line which sin or doubt has drawn and yet finds fellowship through Christ across that line, because it is the Christ who binds us together; all of us with our own doubts, and each of us with our own sin. It is the Christ who creates the fellowship, and makes the fellowship one with Him. And here in this fellowship…where His Gospel is heard…where His bread is broken and His cup is lifted up…here, we Thomases, with all our doubts and sin, here we cry out together, “My Lord and my God!”