We know well the causes of death. We can run the list with its categories like heart disease, cancer, accidents and chronic illness. More than data points on a list, these are people, stories, our own experiences and fears. We know what causes death. But what about the causes of life?
“I want you to have life, and life abundant,” God says to us through Jesus. More than existence or survival, what causes life? This is the question taken up by Dr. Gary Gunderson, who is head of the Spiritual Care Services at Wake Forest Baptist Health. In a book on the subject, Dr. Gunderson and his coauthor, Larry Pray, seek to turn our imaginations toward life. (1) If death and its fears define our efforts, then death wins and death will start to govern our lives and our world.
Instead, we should become aware of the things that cause life: beauty, abundance, blessing, clarity, action, community and more. We’re going to run that list this Easter season, including today by centering on hope. Some of us know this well: Hope is a cause of life.
“Hope is a dangerous thing in a place like this,” says Morgan Freeman’s Otis Red Redding from within the walls of prison in the great film, The Shawshank Redemption. I can almost hear the disciples saying the same thing. Hope was dangerous in that upper room, where they found themselves. Mary had just announced the resurrection — “I have seen the Lord.” We might imagine them rushing out into the streets with all the hope of a new creation, but instead they’re still huddled together, in the same place where they last gathered with him. “The doors were locked” John describes, “out of fear.”
Dostoesvsky once wrote that fear can always be traced back to a lie. And in this case it’s a lie they have so long believed to be true: that Rome was in control, that Pilate governed life, that God in Christ was bound to the limits of this world. There was so much evidence to cause them to believe the ultimate lie that death was final. They could run the list of its causes in their day: poverty, oppression, hunger, disease… crucifixion… and on it went, all of it holding them in place, locks double bolted, chair braced against the door, taking turns rising from the corner to keep watch at the window for what might come down the road.
That’s where Jesus comes to find them. He promises to find any of his disciples there. To breathe on us. To show us that he knows what it is to be wounded. To invite us to find that in resurrection, the wounds remain, but they don’t hurt like they once did, so much that we can put our hands right in and see and to find even in places dangerous and fearful the hope that gives us life once again. “We have seen the Lord,” they say.
But not Thomas. Thomas missed it. He’s off by himself that Easter day. We don’t know why. Some have speculated the locked room was feeling heavy or thick with worry. Maybe he needed to get some fresh air, be off by himself. Maybe he was stir crazy. Anybody relate?
In any case, he returns to this room with all its restored belief, and he immediately feels like he missed it.
He’s not the only one, of course. Nikos Katzantzakis once wrote, “God forgive me… this year… I have not felt Christ rise.” You know what that’s like. Arriving late, as though the best parts have already taken place and can’t be recreated. Or missing it altogether, and wondering what all the fuss is about. It can almost make you more ingrained in your resistance, hunkered down in your own fears or frustrations. So Thomas goes back to the corner with all the rest of us who missed it. “Unless I see for myself, I will not believe it.”
Because of his insistence, 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 caution lest he be disappointed again. As the poet Denise Levertov puts it in her poem, “St. Thomas Didymus”: “Thomas called ‘the Twin’ / because he is my twin.”
After all, hope doesn’t presume an absence of doubt. Christian hope is informed, not naive. Hope is aware of the realities of this world, not avoidant of them. Hope is not wispy optimism, or false positivity. It doesn’t avoid reality nor resist the discouraging facts.
Consider the story of the 16th century Reformation-era peasants who were seeking to overthrow the coalition of princes who were stunting the more radical movements of the Reformation. The princes were particularly concerned with all these new priestly believers knowing how much of the Bible advocated for the poor. They wanted the Magnificat of Mary, for instance, left in Latin lest someone get some ideas about reversal and the powerful being brought down from their thrones. A pragmatic Martin Luther agreed with them. But this peasant army gathered for resistance. On the morning of battle, amidst all of their fears, a rainbow arched over the field, which they took as a sure sign of victory. Of course, while they had a rainbow the princes had an army, so they marched under that rainbow, with something they considered hope, to a predictable and sound defeat. (2)
Thomas was not about to do the same. “Unless I see for myself, I’m not staking my life on some rainbow promise you saw.” And for this he’s been so roundly critiqued. But then who’s to say that such care — such doubt even — is not an essential part of Christian hope? The wonderful novel, Life of Pi, says it this way: “Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. Just what is your problem with hard to believe?”
What is our problem with hard to believe? Well, sometimes we mistake it for an absence of hope. In fact, Thomas might be the most hopeful person in this scene. At the start, he’s not hunkered down. I think he’s out looking for it. He’s walking around, exposed and undeterred, looking for something, anything, that might give him reason to move forward in belief of what Mary proclaimed to them that Easter day.
Then when he comes back he’s willing to admit it out loud. He’s got nothing to hide. He expresses his doubts without shame or guilt, without any stereotype or title applied to him: “Are you sure he came back? What did he look like? Did you touch him? What did he do?”
And if the safety of that community isn’t enough to reassure all of us in our doubts and questions, in those moments of hopeful uncertainty Jesus enters and receives him just as he is. And he finds him not as one who is cowering or confused, but as perhaps the most hopeful in the scene.
After all, the evidence of our hope is not in our profession, or our intellectual ascent to belief, or in our rational explanation for our faith. It’s in what’s governing our lives, provoking our movements through the world. What difference does this hope 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?
It makes me wonder: just who are the doubters and who are the hopers in this scene? I mean in the practical, lived sense. 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.
They are, for all practical purposes, displaying their doubts that it happened at all. They are failing to demonstrate their lived hope 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? 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 hopes) and not by their fears.” (3)
“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 tells the story of a church that was locking its doors, or at least updating its security system after recent break-ins, when 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.”
It turned out to be the beginning of a ministry that renewed that church, and renewed all of those disciples, too. It led to a community meal, a health clinic, a shelter for people who needed it. Even worship attendance started to increase. The pastor said, “I think it’s because when we unlocked those doors and let those people come in, you know who else got in?” (4)
You know who got in. The same one who came to Thomas. The one who walks through every door we can lock in our lives to proclaim unending love. The one who finds all of us hopeful and questing and trying to survive, and calls us to life abundant. He has never stopped looking for us, spends our whole lives pursuing us, comes and stands among us as the living Christ and says for those listening, and especially for any who might have missed it the first time, “Believe… Believe…”
And when that happens, all that’s left is for us to say with all the hope of Thomas our twin: “My Lord and my God.”
- Gary Gunderson and Larry Pray, Leading Causes of Life (Abingdon Press, 2009).
- Ibid., 132-133.
- From “What We Forgot to Tell You” in What We Forgot to Tell You, p. 256
- “B20: Second Sunday of Easter, Year B” on A Sermon for Every Sunday (April 5, 2015)