Poor Thomas. Poor doubting Thomas. It’s a funny thing, how we look at him. Ten of them gathered in the Upper Room that evening. The evening after it all happened. They had locked the doors, but that didn’t matter.
The text says that “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” It sounds so simple doesn’t it? He ‘simply’ came and stood among them… The resurrected Lord. The one who had been beaten and scorned and crucified and buried….who had been raised from the dead.
Imagine what that experience was like for them. Huddled there in fear, behind locked doors, when Jesus came and invited them even deeper into this new life, this new participation with this in-breaking, death-conquering reality of God.
But Thomas wasn’t with him. I’ve always wondered why. All my life when I read or heard this story, I’ve wondered where Thomas was. Was he on an errand? Did the ten of them send him out for more wine or oil or bread, and he simply missed Jesus’ evening visit? Was he running late, the one who always showed up after things got started? Makes me wonder…
So I can completely understand Thomas. I don’t think that I would have simply taken their word for it either. He insists that he wants to see Jesus, and he amazingly gets that chance, a week later…
There’s this amazing encounter between Thomas and Jesus, with Jesus inviting Thomas to touch the wounds. To reach out and feel them. Jesus tells Thomas, “Do not doubt but believe…”
And that’s where so much of the baggage comes with Thomas. Poor doubting Thomas…like he did something so terrible. He missed the previous dinner and simply wanted to witness Jesus firsthand. And, then he is chastised for his desire to personally share in the experience. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus tells him. Do not doubt. Do not give into such mistrust. It’s complicated, isn’t it?
I struggle with this story, because I identify so much with Thomas. I could easily imagine myself wanting my own experience rather than relying upon that of others. Who couldn’t? Who wouldn’t want that firsthand encounter?
So, what message does this complicated text have for us today, as we enter more deeply into Easter Season? For the next few weeks, we, ourselves, will be invited to share in the resurrected life of Jesus. We, too, will have invitations to lean into this reality of death-conquering life. We, too, will struggle to believe it’s possible. Is it possible? Is this real? How are we to understand this in our day and time?
Maybe this text invites us into a deeper reflection on the complexities of trusting Christ’s Presence in our own lives.
Thomas wanted certainty. And, his criteria for certainty centered on a personal encounter with his Lord, touching the wounds…
What are our criteria for certainty? It seems to me that, while Thomas desired an experience, our criteria for certainty pretty much focuses on facts. We want proof, we poor children of the post-Enlightenment age that seems to have reduced the practice of faith down to this strange, reason-driven, fact-oriented, cognitive exercise.
I was sitting at lunch the other day with Will Carswell’s four kids. We were all around the same age, and we shared stories and life experiences over tacos at Moe’s.
Will and Elizabeth’s daughter Mary London asked me, out of the blue, “What do you love best about being Episcopal?” I sat there for a few seconds, just soaking up the question. I loved it!
I told her that I loved that we sought to participate in the mystery of God, that we knew there was this reality greater than ourselves, and that that reality was somehow embodied in Jesus Christ, but that it was so mysterious. Life is complicated, and we struggle to live into this reality of Jesus’ Presence when all around us life, is, well….life. Busy, messy, greedy, dirty, self-centered… But, yet, there is always this pull…this Something More. “It’s the mystery of it all,” I told her.
Mystery is risky…it is a vulnerable space…
A good case in point is our Nicene Creed. Let’s do a bit of an experiment. Raise your hand if you struggle with some portion of the Creed. Here are a few of the key “problematic points” if you need a prompt:
“By the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary”
“On the third day he rose again…”
“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead..”
“We look for the resurrection of the dead…”
So, raise your hand if you have struggled with the Creed—or if you struggle with it now, if you feel like you have to cross your fingers at certain points…..or if you simply stop talking when we get to certain lines out of what you see as a way to protect your integrity.
My point is this: who doesn’t struggle with it. Or, better put, who shouldn’t struggle with it.
How could we not struggle with the images, with the reality, with the spiritual truths that this Creed points to? We consider ourselves smart people, I would think. Sophisticated. We have a sense of intelligence that maybe makes us question some of what we may consider the old vestiges of the Medieval history of the Church. “People just can’t believe that any more…” we may think. So, we fudge a little and cross our fingers when we say we believe in the Virgin Birth—or in the resurrection from the dead.
Martin Smith, one of my preaching professors, shared a story with my class about how a friend of his sent him a wonderful book of a collection of Emily Browning’s poetry. He said he opened it up to the front to begin reading, and was captivated by the language, by the beauty of the images…
But, as he reached the end of the page, he realized that not a bit of it made any sense at all. The page seemed to be full of disconnected words, and he wondered what meaning might be there.
So, he started back at the top, hoping that the second time around would make more sense. And, that’s when he realized what had happened: he had read the table of contents page, that had the first line of every poem in the collection.
Martin wondered with us if that isn’t how we’re supposed to understand the Creed itself: as a collection of first lines of amazingly complex and mysterious poems. “We believe in one God…” and then spend a lifetime reflecting on the poetic embodiment that comes from that one line.
“by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary…”
“we look for the resurrection of the dead….”
Suddenly, an amazingly rich space of reflection and spiritual growth opens up before us….a space of risk and trust…a space that brings us into contact with the mysterious Presence of Christ….a space where we, too, can reach out and touch the healing wounds of Our Lord.
And maybe we get a glimpse of what Jesus may have meant when he told Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Blessed are those who have experienced the deep truth of the Risen Life….and who have taken refuge in the Presence of God…
Faith is not a cognitive exercise, akin to putting together a puzzle. If that is the case, we must ask ourselves what would be left supposing we reached a day when the puzzle was completed. What would we practice then? Rather, faith is a poetic act of embodiment, of risking and longing and seeking and finding—all the while realizing that there is infinitely more of God to explore.
The Rev. Stuart Craig Higginbotham | Easter II, Year A | John 20:19-31 | April 27, 2014