If you were going to tell a story you believed could change the world, how would you do it? Wouldn’t you tell it with shouts and spectacle? Grand display and great volume? Instead, Frederick Buechner observes this about the resurrection: “It has always struck me as remarkable that when the writers of the four Gospels come to the most important part of the story they have to tell, they tell it in whispers… no choir of angels to proclaim it… no sudden explosion in the sky… not a single soul around to see it happen… that is not the way the Gospels tell it. They are not trying to describe it as convincingly as they can. They are trying to describe it as truthfully as they can.” (1)
And truthfully, maybe a whisper is the most they can offer. So we have to listen carefully for those whispers. We have to be open-eyed and watchful for the flickers of light and glimpses of new life.
But Thomas needs more than a whisper. It’s a week after Easter, for Thomas as it is for us. “A week later” our passage says “the disciples were in the house and Thomas was with them.” In the span of that week, Thomas has been looking and listening, but he’s seen very little and he’s heard only the fantastic tale from his friends and fellow disciples of Jesus coming back to them on the evening of that resurrection day, saying “Peace be with you” and breathing on them as the wind of the Spirit moved through them all. “But Thomas,” John says, “was not with them when Jesus came.”
He missed it. We don’t know why he’s off by himself on that Easter day as Jesus enters that locked room with those cowering disciples. Some have speculated that the room was feeling confined and heavy. Maybe he needed to get some fresh air or a moment alone. Maybe he’s out buying food for the group — ever the realist, somebody has to take care of things, after all. We don’t know why he missed Easter.
Unless we know precisely why. He’s off by himself because he’s avoiding it all, don’t you think? It’s all too real and painful. For all he knows, his rabbi and leader is dead and buried behind a stone. And rolled behind that stone with Jesus is so much of Thomas’ own life: his vision, his sense of direction, his hope, so much of it entombed, with failure and loss lingering behind. 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 towards the one who had raised their hopes so high, only to leave them. So we’re not surprised that Thomas leaves, isolates himself, and returns wondering if it’s all true.
He’s known as “Doubting Thomas” in Christian tradition. But the gospels never call him that. In fact, twice in John, including in this passage, he’s described as “The Twin” — a more fitting title. Some throughout history have seen him as the twin to Jesus. But I wonder if he doesn’t look a lot like me. I bet you can find a resemblance, too. Church is full of Thomases. We can see ourselves in his doubts, his needs, his tendency to avoid the crowd, his propensity to suppress any hopes for fear of being disappointed again. As the poet Denise Levertov puts it in her poem, “St. Thomas Didymus”: “Thomas called ‘the Twin’ / because he is my twin.”
III. Embracing Thomas as our twin allows us to acknowledge the experience of all of us doubting believers or believing doubters, and to claim his story as our own. We know him well, as we know well what it means for doubts and questions to be essential parts of our faith.
But there are different kinds of doubt — there are at least two kinds that I know, and our passage gives evidence of both. The first kind we might call “intellectual doubt,” focused on claims and propositions that we measure and struggle to rationally grant as true. Claims, for instance, like “Jesus has risen from the dead” or “He came back to us, right through these locked doors, he stood among us and showed us his wounds” or “He breathed on us and gave us his Spirit.”
“Did that really happen?” a person might ask at such claims. This is the kind of doubt represented in Thomas — a doubt that so many of us experience in our own ways, at various points in our lives of faith. And perhaps we forget too easily that this is actually a form of doubt we see all throughout the gospel stories of resurrection.
One of the recurring themes of the gospel accounts is the varied ways people strain to hear the whisper. Even the disciples struggle to perceive and believe and grant that it’s true. Notice, the risen Jesus isn’t recognized by anyone right at first. In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene thinks he looks like the gardener, and later the disciples don’t recognize him on the beach. In Luke, two followers have a lengthy conversation with him on the Emmaus road before realizing who was with them all along. Jesus returns, but even his closest followers need time to hear him, to recognize him, and to believe that he is risen indeed.
My friend and fellow pastor, Scott Dickison, was traveling in Israel some years ago, spending a lot of time in and around Jerusalem, including a stop at a small garden at the foot of the Mt of Olives, traditionally known as the Garden of Gethsemane. There’s a church at the site, known as the Church of All Nations, and outside the church is a terrace where groups gather before entering. As the group assembled on the terrace, Scott noticed an old metal sign on one of the stone pillars at the front of the church, letters worn and faded, but still with the message across the top: “Please: No Explanations Inside the Church.”
In “Holy Land tour” parlance, “explanations” are the comments provided by tour guides. So literally speaking, the sign is saying that they would like you to keep the noise down inside the church. “No explanations,” meaning don’t huddle around for commentary from your tour guide inside the church.
But of course that sign could be posted across the entirety of the story that follows from Gethsemane. It could be posted on the pillars of First Baptist Greensboro and so many others: “Please, no explanations inside the church.” Rational explanation does not prompt belief. Facts and arguments don’t change lives. It’s only encounter and experience. (2)
That’s what Thomas needed, no less than any other disciple. The theologian Karl Barth said that any attempt to understand God — and certainly a resurrection — should begin with astonishment and wonder. (3) And astonishment is a mix of belief and doubt, both. Thomas is in many ways a representative of all of their doubts strewn throughout the story, and all of our doubts and questions, too, which extend beyond explanation and need the evidence that comes when we meet the risen Christ in ways personal and intimate.
And perhaps the most striking and powerful thing about this story is not that Thomas doubts, but the fact that his doubts are public, that he voices them, and that he finds space for them in that room. Thomas was “with them” John says. He has returned to his community, this tiny band of followers, all of them uncertain of just what was next. And in that room, to that community, he is able to express his doubts without shame or guilt, without any stereotype or title applied to him. And I’d like to think that many of them see something of themselves in his questions, “Are you sure he came back? What did he look like? Did you touch him? How can you be certain?”
And if the safety of that community isn’t enough to reassure all of us in our doubts and questions, in those moments of uncertainty Jesus enters and receives him just as he is. Some of you have seen the famous Baroque-era painting by Caravaggio, “The Incredulity of Thomas,” in which Jesus appears to Thomas who is looking intently at Jesus’ wounds. But Jesus is not viewing Thomas accusingly, “Are you satisfied, Doubting Thomas?” Instead, Jesus is looking down at Thomas with love and understanding and guiding Thomas’ hand toward his wounded side. (4) Which is what Christ does for all of us with our intellectual doubts, our rational questions, our fixation on explanation. “Put your hand here,” he says, “Encounter me. Experience me. Find how it changes you.”
Because there is another kind of doubt that is not intellectual or based in rational thought. Over against “intellectual doubt” is doubt based entirely in our behavior. “Practical doubt,” we might call it. It’s clear in a life that bears no evidence that Christ has been raised, or when a person lives as though they are no different because of their professed belief. Because there are different forms of belief, too.
Often we equate belief in God, or in the truth of a risen Messiah and new life in Christ, with an assent to a certain set of principles or intellectual propositions. “I believe…” we might recite or rehearse with generations before us. But, then, what difference does that belief make? Does it change you? Does it cause you to love more elegantly, to live more gracefully, to embrace more openly, to speak more boldly?
Let’s not forget the hatred and bigotry that can come from mouths that have confessed “Christ is risen indeed.” Let’s not move past the amount of violence that has been perpetrated by those who call themselves Christian or recite a creed.
Just yesterday, in San Diego, the horrible act of violence at the Chabad Synagogue on the eighth day of Passover was committed by one who identifies not only as nationalist, not only as extremist, but who identifies also as Christian. In rambling, hysterical writing he has blamed Jews for the death of Jesus, and cited this as a motivator for his terror. This, one of history’s “longest lies” as some have called it, has fueled racism and hatred and unspeakable acts throughout history. Even in this passage in John’s gospel we read, “The doors were locked for fear of the Jews” — a disturbing image of how even disciples can hold as “other” those with whom we disagree. The Gospel of John, written years after Jesus’ death, is in part trying to differentiate Christian from Jew in its ancient world. It freely uses the general phrase “the Jews” when meaning the elite religious authorities, those that colluded with Rome. Rome, to be clear, was the only force that could erect a Roman cross. So to correct history’s lie, it was the power of the Roman Empire that ultimately took Jesus’ life.
Still, we are left to reckon with our history. We have to reckon with those disciples fearing those on the other side of the door. We have to reckon with so many distortions of the message of Jesus and abuses in the name of Jesus in centuries since. As we condemn horrific violence, we also have to identify in ourselves any propensity for locked doors, for fear, for distance from the other that can contribute to mania and hysteria. For any time we are locked in place, our lives fail to give evidence that we believe in the resurrection at all. We are practically doubting, in fact.
It makes me wonder: just who are the doubters and who are the believers in this scene? I mean in the practical, functional, lived sense. Who are the doubters and who are the believers? Sure, the disciples confess they have seen the risen Lord, but what evidence do we see? When Jesus enters the first time at the start of the passage, the doors are locked. Then they see him, they touch him, they experience the intimacy of his presence with them, then his Spirit breathes on them. They tell their absent brother, Thomas, all about it. And then what do we see a week later? “The doors were shut” once again, John says.
It’s a week since they’ve seen him, a week since they claimed it to Thomas, and yet they are still locked there in place. They are still hiding out and hunkering down. They are, for all practical purposes, displaying their doubts that it happened at all. They are failing to demonstrate their lived belief that Christ is risen indeed. So, what if the problem isn’t that Thomas can’t see Jesus, but that he can’t see in his fellow disciples any evidence that Jesus has been raised?
“You say he breathed on you?” Thomas must have asked. “Then why aren’t you moving with the Spirit to all the places it would lead you, move you, propel you?”
“You say he greeted you with peace, even after you ran and hid and denied and fell asleep? Well if that were true, then you would be acting like that peace was yours to pass around to others outside these doors.”
“The evidence of Easter,” Peter Gomes once said, “is a reconfigured Easter people, people who are no longer afraid of the dark, people who dare to live by their affections and not by their fears.” (5)
Or, as Clarence Jordan once said, “The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, it is not a rolled-away stone; it is a carried away church.” (6)
“You say you’ve seen the risen Lord?” Thomas must have asked, “Then what are you doing here? Why are you cowering, hunkered down, behind these doors?”
Will Willimon was at a clergy conference some years ago. The theme of the conference was “Born Again” and what it means to have new life in Christ. A young woman — a Methodist pastor in Florida — said, “You know, churches can be born again just like people. Take mine.”
The pastor described how the bishop appointed her to a church in a big city of Florida that had been in decline for decades. Around the church, a lot of people lived outside — homeless and poor. Years before, the church, worried about break-ins, had installed the latest security system, at that time state of the art. Then one night somebody kicked in a door, got into the church, took some things from an office, damaged some things. So in response, the church called a board meeting with the expressed purpose of updating security.
Then one board member — one of the church’s oldest members — spoke up and said, “You know, for as long as I’ve been here we’ve tried do get people to come to this church, join this church, grow this church. Turns out there are some people so dying to get into this church that they’ll kick the doors in! You know, rather than paying for security on this church that’s dwindling out of existence, I say we just unlock the doors and see what happens.”
The pastor started to respond when one of this woman’s buddies sitting next to her said, “I second the motion.” And then before they could table or stop anything, that board said, “All right, unlock the doors and let’s see what happens.”
The pastor said, “We unlocked the doors. And something did happen. The first night 15 people slept on the pews in our sanctuary. The next night, the number was up to 30. Well,” she said, “you can’t have that number of people without getting organized. So we did. We decided to fix a simple meal at night. At that meal, we talked to people. We asked if they’d see the sanctuary as theirs, too. If they’d help us take care of our building when they slept here, and they did. Then we found out a lot of people had health problems, so we asked a couple of our retired nurses to set up a little clinic one night a week. And then we got some others to volunteer to be hosts each evening.”
And the pastor said, “In six months, our Sunday morning attendance has doubled. It think it’s because when we unlocked those doors and let those people come in, you know who else got in?” (7)
You know who got in. The same one who walks through every door we can lock in our lives to proclaim his unending love. The same one who has made it through all the walls we can construct to remind us of his relentless mercy. He’s never demanded that we understand everything about him fully, but always offered the truth that he understands us. And regardless of our fear, or doubt, or nagging questions he has never stopped looking for us, spends our whole lives pursuing us, comes and stands among us as the living Christ and says, ever so lightly for those listening, “Believe… Believe…”
When that happens, all that’s left is for us to say with Thomas, maybe just at a whisper: “My Lord and my God.”
- From “The Secret in the Dark” in Longing for Home, p. 143
- “No Explanations Needed Inside the Church,” Baptist News Global(March 29, 2016)
- “If anyone should not find [themselves] astonished and filled with wonder when [they] become involved in one way or another with theology, [they] would be well advised to consider once more, from a certain remoteness and without prejudice, what is involved in this undertaking.” — Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology
- Observation of Rev. Dr. Katherine Hinman in “The Faith of the Doubter” on Day1(May 1, 2011)
- From “What We Forgot to Tell You” in What We Forgot to Tell You, p. 256
- The Substance of Faith & Other Cotton Patch Sermons, p. 26
- “B20: Second Sunday of Easter, Year B” on A Sermon for Every Sunday(April 5, 2015)