One of my best friends from high school swears to this day that he was nearly abducted by aliens. He and another guy, who I was never close enough to to get confirmation of this story, were camping out one night and a space craft appeared, they ran, it chased them, tractor beams were shot out and started to pull them, and then like a dog barked or something and scared the aliens off, sparing them from whatever fate awaited them. I know what it sounds like, but he swears by this story. He went so far as to write about that event in a watermark essay for my dad for Senior English. You know a watermark moment is a defining moment in life, something that shaped you and made you who you are, he wrote about this encounter. In a class. For a grade. He was told there was no way he’d pass the paper if he stuck with that story, and to his…credit I guess, he stood firm, he swore up and down that this was real.
I don’t buy it. Absolutely not. But his intensity makes me wonder. Like what incentive does he have to lie? If I think too much about it really starts to mess with my head. And maybe that’s the goal but also…nah, I don’t buy it.
And that wonderful transition brings us back around to the text for this morning. Because what Thomas does and says makes perfect sense in the face of his friends telling him a story that is too ridiculous to believe. The other disciples come to him on Easter Sunday, and I think that is an important thing for us to remember. Because we generally focus our attention on Easter morning on the events of that first Easter morning it is easy to think that these events that come after the resurrection took place over a much longer period of time than they did. We may be a week removed from Holy Week but they were not. It was only the third day since Jesus died. The body was gone. Mary was the only one who was claiming to have seen Jesus before he shows up in the room with the disciples. And grief has a way of making people irrational. We probably all know stories of people who have believed they’ve seen a loved one after they’ve died, people who struggle coming to terms with someone being gone. I don’t want to dismiss any of those experiences, I’m not arrogant enough to claim I know people’s experiences better than they do or have all the answers, but it is true that grief can impact us. In the course of days, literally just a few days, Jesus was arrested, tried, crucified, buried, and then his body disappeared. His followers don’t know whether they’re going to be rounded up and executed as well, they’ve all quite their jobs to follow Jesus and now they’ve got to figure out what the next move is, there’s a lot of stress on them. It’s reasonable for Thomas to be skeptical. Someone needs to be. Someone has to keep a clear head and figure out next moves, someone needs to be thinking clearly to make sure all this ends well. Logically the worst thing they could do is draw attention to themselves by shouting in the streets that Jesus is alive. Thomas, in his mind probably, and, if we look at this without any bias, without knowing the end already, in anyone’s mind, is the only one being rational and thinking things through. History labeled him “doubting” Thomas, but that really seems unfair. Thomas is, I think, the patron saint for the modern era, for all of us who believe in the scientific method and empirical evidence and all those good things.
Of course most of us know how the story ends and therefore don’t cut Thomas a lot of slack. The disciples gather again. Jesus appears again. He seems to know what Thomas said and so he lets him take in the evidence, and Thomas, once he has seen, believes.
There are couple of things I think we can take away from Thomas’ story, especially in terms of being closer to God and closer to each other. The first is about us and God: God is big enough to handle our doubts. Megan has a cousin who is obsessed with Instagram likes. If you don’t know Instagram, it’s a social media app based on pictures that you post and people can like. The last time we were together Meghan’s cousin, who, in her defense, is only 12, berated Meghan over pictures she had not liked, going back months. It was and is incredibly important for her to get those likes. And she’s twelve, but way more of us are like that then we’d admit. We give other people way more power over how we feel about ourselves and our worth than they deserve. Luckily God is not like that. Jesus doesn’t berate Thomas for not believing, Jesus doesn’t throw Thomas out and say “nope, you had your chance, only my real friends are allowed here,” Jesus lets Thomas do what he needs to do to be able to believe. And he does say “blessed are those who believe without seeing,” but that’s not the backhanded compliment we might think because remember, no one in that room believed without seeing. No one up to this point has believed without seeing the resurrected Jesus. Thomas’ doubts are part of his journey to faith and Jesus doesn’t hold that against him. Too often we think God can’t handle our doubt. Too often we keep our questions and fears bottled up because if we admit them then we’ve somehow failed. That’s not a Biblical mindset. That’s not a mindset that recognizes grace, that’s a mindset that is stuck in the way humanity thinks. God is big enough for us to admit and work through our times of doubt. God’s not going to crumble or abandon us if our journey take a little longer or hits a bump in the road.
There’s also a word or two here for how we relate to each other, both a comfort and a challenge I think. The comfort is in this, we cannot make anyone believe something they aren’t ready to believe. It is not the other disciples’ fault Thomas didn’t believe what they told him. Salvation is experiential, it is something we have to experience for it to really take hold in us. Jonathan Edwards, the first great American preacher said this in a sermon “there is a difference between believing that God is holy and gracious and having a new sense on the heart of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace. The difference between believing that God is gracious and tasting that God is gracious is as different as having a rational belief that honey is sweet and having an actual sense of its sweetness.” There’s a difference between knowing in our heads something is true and knowing in our hearts something is true. Someone can tell you they love you a million times, it’s the experiences of that love that are going to make it real to you. We can’t make people believe something they’ve never experienced, faith is inherently personal in that way, someone else’s faith can’t come from us. Which means we can’t take the full blame or claim full credit for someone’s faith or lack of faith. The disciples came and told Thomas what they had seen, his belief or disbelief is entirely a matter between him and Jesus. So that should be a comfort to us, but there’s a challenge for us here as well. The other disciples don’t abandon Thomas in his unbelief. A week later they’re still gathering together. There’s a growing mindset in some groups of Christians that the world is quickly becoming too far gone, that the future of the faith may very well depend on us withdrawing into ourselves, to protect ourselves from falling prey to the doubt that exists. That’s the exact opposite of what we see here. The other disciples stay with Thomas, they keep him as part of their community and because of that he’s with them the next time Jesus appears and is able to see that what they were saying is true, experience it for himself, and fully join in what they’re going to do next. That’s the big difference between how the disciples handle Jesus’ arrest and how they handle his ascension. After the arrest the scatter and hide, after the ascension they stay together, they still interact with their larger community, and they’re present at Pentecost to preach when God moves. And from that the church is birthed. From the presence of the disciples in their community the church comes to life, people are converted, doubts are erased. If God is big enough for our doubts we have to be big enough for each other’s doubts. Thomas would never have had faith if the disciples avoided him after the initial rejection. If we want to see the world change we have to be willing to interact with the world. If we want true community we have to be willing to remain with each other even in the periods of doubt.
Most of y’all know I’ve been reading devotions from the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer this year. He talks about this idea of doubt and community in one of his books, he says “God wants to see you as you are, wants to be gracious to you. You do not have to go on lying to yourself and to other Christians as if you were without sin. You are allowed to be a sinner. Thank God for that…In another Christian’s presence I am permitted to be the sinner that I am, for there alone in all the world the truth and mercy of Jesus Christ rule.” God’s grace was big enough to handle Thomas’ sin and doubt. So was the grace of disciples. They accepted Thomas as he was and walked with him as he got to where he needed to be. God’s grace is big enough for our sins and doubts. The challenge for us as part of a community, both in the church and in our larger community, is if our grace is big enough to add our sins and doubts to those of others and walk this journey together. Maybe we ought to pray about that.