This is the text of a sermon for the second Sunday of Easter, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scripture it is based on is John 20:19-31.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” That’s what Thomas said when the other disciples said they had seen the risen Lord. It was, I think, strange of him to say; Thomas was with Jesus and the others when Lazarus was raised. He already knew, from personal experience, that raising from the dead was a possibility; so if it was a reality for Lazarus, why hesitate at accepting it for Jesus?
Perhaps he was by nature a pessimist (as someone who has also been accused of pessimism, I might prefer to call it realism). On the occasion of the raising of Lazarus, when Jesus announced that he was going to Bethany, it was Thomas who encouraged the disciples to accompany Jesus; “that we may die with him.” Was he the sort of person who protected himself from disappointment by imagining the worst possible outcome in a given situation?
What I find interesting is that despite Jesus’ invitation, the text does not say that Thomas actually touched the risen Jesus. In the end, when he saw Jesus and heard him respond to his struggles, that was enough for Thomas to say, “My Lord and my God!”
I’d suggest that the sharing of this little exchange between Jesus and Thomas is designed to throw a light back on the experience of ordinary believers who would hear and read this gospel. All through the story up until now, Thomas has been following Jesus faithfully, if not fully understanding what is happening; here he sees clearly for the first time.
So what does that have to say to us? Faith is not, in this way of narrating it, something static but rather dynamic, having the potential for growth and change. There is faith based on signs and faith that needs none; faith which is shallow and faith which is deep, faith faltering and faith growing. Faith is not, in this gospel, only a decision made once for a lifetime, but a commitment made anew in every decision.
Faith is, then, a process. But to be really Christian faith it must be a process – however haphazard – towards a truer understanding of Christ, and of God’s grace. It’s not enough just to be on a journey; one must eventually arrive at the proper destination, and be able to echo Thomas in saying, “my Lord and my God.”
What Thomas is being invited to believe in – at the risk of stating the obvious – is the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, and Jesus’ renewed relationship with his friends. Thomas’ failure is not in misunderstanding the nature of resurrection but in requiring a special, individual assurance of it: he wants a proof other than the testimony of the group of believers. But beyond the first moments of encounter, lost in history, it is through the Church that the world comes to belief, not by an ongoing series of special events.
This all suggests to me that faith needs ongoing input. We need one another in this process; because if we forsake one another, it is possible to miss out on the presence of Christ and the blessings that go with him. We cannot tell in advance what light will break forth from God during a particular conversation or worship encounter. We cannot know when a friend will offer a word of wisdom; when the preacher will say something particularly helpful; when the music will be more uplifting than we expected; when the Eucharist will be celebrated in a way in which we finally find healing and forgiveness for some sin or sorrow that has been plaguing us for ages.
When Jesus said “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” he was not encouraging blind faith. He offers himself up to us for scrutiny; not physically as he did for Thomas, but through the Scriptures and the liturgy and through the lives of believers. This part of the gospel puts forward the idea that a persuasive presentation of the story of Jesus can change people’s lives for the better, even provide them with eternal life if they accept the truth in the story. John does not call us to an unreflective faith, but rather one that is led to worship after a good hard look at the life and works of Jesus, and after one has actually encountered this risen Lord.
This gospel bids us to put Jesus to the test, to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” It is a call that many have heeded, and it helped them immeasurably. Jesus Christ is our total foundation, for he is our Lord and our God, whether we recognize him as such or not.
Of course, Jesus also said “As the father has sent me, so I send you.” He calls us to be a people sent out as agents just as he was, and sent to perform the same kind of ministry, offering forgiveness of sin and eternal life through Jesus the way. In the ordination service, priests are exhorted to take up this calling with joy and dedication; but I feel that it’s a very great pity that we don’t put the same words into the service of baptism, because that calling belongs to us all, as a community of the whole, not only to particular people within it.
We all – each of us – receive the Holy Spirit, just as the early disciples did when Jesus breathed on them. This is what makes it possible for us to be the body of Christ, a community of those who take up the work that is still not yet complete. The crucial task for us is conveying – in all the ways available to us, in word, in sacrament, in music and art, in quiet care for one another – the heart of the good news about the risen Jesus, about forgiveness of sins and eternal life. And so I encourage you, my brothers and sisters, this Easter season, to take up this calling with joy and dedication.
The Lord be with you.