Author and entrepreneur Patrick McGinnis was a student at Harvard Business School in 2004, when he sought to understand what he believed to be a growing dynamic in social life at his school. There was a persistent anxiety that pervaded relationships and social constellations. He tried to capture it in an article in the school magazine, this Fear of Missing Out, or “F-O-M-O” he called it. Today it’s known fairly widely as “FOMO.”
FOMO is such a relatable theme, that it’s now a classifiable dictionary term, describing the social pressure that some feel more than others to stay connected to what others are doing, to be in the mix at all times. It’s exacerbated, of course, by social media and smart phones, and the constant awareness of who’s doing what when. I’ve often wondered how I ever would have endured this as a teenager, but it can be hard on all ages. That’s why FOMO is now tied to psychological health, to marketing strategy, to counseling practices, because there is a widespread ever-growing fear of feeling disconnected, making the wrong choice or being in the wrong place. A fear of missing out… and Thomas might be one of history’s gravest cases.
As John tells us, “Thomas, one of the twelve, was not there when Jesus came.” He missed it.
At the start of our passage, it’s evening on that first day of the week – the same day of Jesus’ appearance to Mary and her stunning proclamation to all these disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” But for most of them, it all still seems too improbable. That proclamation in the early morning hadn’t changed much. By evening they’re still cowering, huddled together in fear and confusion. And I suppose that’s where they’d still be. They would have missed out, too, if not for what John tells us: “Jesus came and stood among them.” It wasn’t the empty tomb that caused them to believe. It wasn’t just Mary’s compelling sermon. It was because the living Christ came among them.
But Thomas missed it. He’s not the only one, of course. A lot of us missed Easter. So many of us are like the Nikos Kazantzakis character who exclaimed, “God forgive me… this year… I have not felt Christ rise.” Partly, that’s because of what Frederick Buechner once observed in an Easter sermon, “The Secret in the Dark.” Buechner points out how subdued the resurrection stories in our scriptures tend to be. Here they are at the “most important part of the story,” he writes, and “[the gospel writers] tell it in whispers.” No shouts. No spectacle. No blinding light. No ripped open sky and booming voice from above. No God we can always see and hear. Instead, it’s “Mary.” It’s “Peace be with you” in an airy voice. Instead of grand display, it’s the Jesus who quietly, unassumingly stands among them. It’s easy to miss, which means Thomas is not the only one left saying, “Unless I see for myself, I will not believe.”
The preacher Tom Long tells of driving across town one day and pushing the scan button hoping for a traffic report, when the radio paused on a Christian radio show. Long couldn’t resist listening. The host was taking calls, and a woman named Barbara called in. And Barbara was saying she had problems. A lot of problems: work, stress in her marriage, conflict with her teenage children, experiencing depression. As she unfolded her problems, the host interrupted her. “Barbara, let me ask you something. Are you a believer? If you’re not, you’ll never solve these problems. Are you a believer?”
“Uhh. I don’t know.”
“Now Barbara if you were you would know it. You either are or you’re not. Now Barbara, are you?”
“I’d like to be… I think. I guess I’m just more of an agnostic at this point.”
Well Long says you could almost see the host come to the edge of his seat to seize that moment, “Now Barbara, there’s a book I’ve written that I’d like to send you. And in this book I have indisputable, irrefutable proof that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and he is who he says he is. Now if I send you this, will you become a believer?”
After a few rounds of badgering, “If I send you this, will you become a believer?” Barbara said, “Yeah, I guess so. If you send it to me. Yeah.” (1)
Now it may sound strange coming from a Christian pulpit, where we proclaim the risen Christ, but I’m sort of sorry to hear Barbara gave up so quickly. I hope she’ll become a believer. And I believe that the Christian faith changes lives. But does that happen from proof? Does it happen from a case file?
All we can really “prove” is that a man named Jesus of Nazareth was crucified on a Friday, that his body was not in the tomb on Sunday, and that nobody – nobody – was expecting a resurrection. Everybody’s immediate conclusion was that somebody, for whatever reason, had moved the body elsewhere. When they are told what happened, they respond as we would. They don’t believe it. They think he’s still dead. They stay cowering. They refuse to believe without seeing it and experiencing it. They wonder, “Could it have been a grave-robber? Some sort of staged stunt? Could it have been Rome’s final sucker punch? One more act of cruel revenge?” But no one seemed to wonder, “Could he have actually come back like he said he would?” Those are the facts.In no case, do any of the gospel writers tell us what happened behind that stone. It’s as if it happens outside of our sight and our knowing, left amidst the mystery of God.
So it’s not proof that cause any of them to believe. It’s not a fact that changes their lives. It’s an encounter. It’s a name. It’s a voice lightly whispered then slowly recognized. It’s the one who comes and stands among them. That’s what changes them. And that’s what changes us.
But Thomas missed it. We don’t know why he’s by himself on that day. Some have speculated the locked room was feeling heavy and oppressive. Maybe he needed to get some fresh air or just be off by himself. Maybe he’s out grocery shopping. Maybe it’s a Spring Break jaunt. We don’t know why.
Unless we know precisely why. He’s off by himself because he’s avoiding it all. It’s all too real and painful. His rabbi and leader is dead and buried behind a stone. And rolled behind that stone with Jesus is so much of Thomas’ life: his vision, his sense of direction, his hope, so much of it entombed with failure and loss lingering. With it maybe there’s shame that he had deserted Jesus. Perhaps disappointment in himself. Definitely some disillusionment and possibly even a bit of resentment of the one who had raised their hopes so high, only to leave them. So we’re not surprised that Thomas leaves and isolates himself, just as we’re not surprised he misses it. Because he’s not the only one.
Some of us missed Easter. And don’t misunderstand, I’m not talking about Spring Break travel or visiting family and friends. Some of us were right here in this room, as everyone around us seemed to soar with the power of resurrection, and we missed it. The joy was around us, but not within us, and we feel we missed it. Perhaps bells rang out around you, but nothing resounded in your heart, and you feel like you missed out.
Monday and Tuesday Jenny and I and our kids were with dear friends who are in the last days of a mother’s life. Their prayer, and ours with them, was that they would make it to Easter together. But even Easter was spent in a hospital room, with prayer and ritual and letting go. And they commented how it reminded them how miserable holidays and festivals can be for so many. The louder some of us shout, the more others of us weep. So some of you know what it is to feel that Jesus seemingly breathed on everyone gathered, but not you. You’re on the other side of the wall from wherever Jesus is, locked out then locked in. Gordon Lathrop, the Lutheran liturgical scholar, once said, “You don’t have to knock very hard on any door in your church to find some sort of pain behind that door.” (2) People locked in suffering, sickness. People locked in abuse. People locked in low self-esteem. People locked in financial crisis. People locked in broken relationships. Locked for fear.
And you have known that. You’ve felt like whatever God is doing in the world that is true and meaningful, it must have happened at some point in the past. It happened a week ago, without you. You’re at least seven days removed from whatever God is doing. You’re on the edges of God’s meaningful activity in the world.
Yes, many of us know Thomas. Maybe intimately. Twice John calls him the Twin. Some throughout history have seen him as the twin to Jesus. But I wonder if he doesn’t look a lot like me. And, unless my eyes betray me, I’m sure you’d find a resemblance, too. Church is full of Thomases. We can see ourselves in Thomas – his doubts, his needs, his tendency to avoid the crowd, his propensity to suppress any hopes for fear of being disappointed again, his inability to see or even give the energy to continue looking at all, his attempts to wall himself off. As the poet Denise Levertov puts it in her poem, “St. Thomas Didymus”: “Thomas called ‘the Twin’ / because he is my twin.” We know him all too well.
Matt Marston is a pastor friend and peer of mine. He’s a gifted pastor of the Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Georgia. Matt and is family have been especially on my heart and in my prayers of late, as last year he and his wife, Elizabeth, received the unbearable news that their 4 year old daughter, Lena, has a rare and serious childhood cancer. Since then they’ve been driving across the state of Georgia, spending days at a time in hospitals. They’re about 8 months into her 10 month treatment. They’re surrounded by friends and a loving church family, and they feel hopeful about her recovery and promise of longterm health.
Another pastor friend pointed out a note last week from the blog Matt writes to keep friends and family up to date on Lena’s treatments and their family’s journey. Matt shared an exchange he and his daughter had about a week ago. Lena crawled in his lap and looked up at him and out of the blue she said to him, “Daddy, I know more than you think I know.”
“I’m not sure what she meant,” Matt said, “but I’m not surprised.” (3)
I guess none of us need be surprised. For we all know too much of this world. This world of childhood cancer, and empty tombs, of grave robbers and dream snatchers. This world of hospital rooms and last words, of upper rooms and locked doors. This world of the cruel sucker punches of Empire; of the whispers of new life that others seem to hear, while we can’t; of the peace that is seemingly breathed on everyone else, but not us, not this time; of the personal fear and grief that so often isolates us, walls us off, locks us in. We know more than we ever wanted to know. And Thomas did, too – a week late, walled off, always seeming to miss out.
But in case you missed it, too, don’t miss the great truth of the gospel this morning: Jesus comes back for Thomas, which is to say, Jesus comes back for the ones who missed it.
Jesus knows who was missing when he breathed on those disciples. Jesus always knows who’s missing. So he does what he always does: he returns and appears before Thomas, right in the middle of his fears and disappointments, in the middle of his doubts. “Peace be with you,” he says once again to them all, and then to Thomas standing there rubbing his eyes, “Put your finger here and feel my hands…here, bring your hand and put it in my side.”
We don’t know if Thomas touches as he said he would. He doesn’t have to. Because Thomas doesn’t believe because of rational argument or clear evidence, or anything he would feel with his hands and register with his mind. He believes because Jesus comes looking for him, and proclaims in doing so his refusal to stop loving even those who have deserted him, those who have denied him, those who have doubted him.
See, the Good News of the gospel is that whatever it is that you’re looking for, Christ is looking for you.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve come to the point in my life of faith that I’ve had to admit to myself that I missed it. I’m not sure where I was, but I wasn’t in the room. I never felt him breathe on me. I have never seen the risen Christ. You know, I’ve never really been able to come up with a better rational argument than those who don’t believe at all. But somewhere along the way, even when I stopped looking for the miracle, Jesus came looking for me.
And so I’ve said with Thomas, “My Lord, and my God.” It’s a profession that happens not when we reach for his hands or his side, but when we reach the understanding that someone has come to find us. He’s walked through every door we can lock in our lives to proclaim his unending love. He’s made it through all the walls we can construct to remind us of his relentless mercy. He’s never demanded that we understand him, but always offered the truth that he understands us. And regardless of our fear, or doubt, or attempts to walk away, he has never stopped looking for us, spends our whole lives pursuing us, comes and stands among us as the living Christ and breathes peace.
He does it for all, yes. But he does it today especially for those who missed it.
- Tom Long, “Easter Sermon” (May 11, 2011)
- Qtd by Alyce MacKenzie, “Jesus Can’t be Locked Out”
- With thanks to dear friend, Scott Dickison, whose Easter Sermon at FBC of Christ in Macon includes this story (“Why are you Weeping?” on April 1, 2018)