St. John’s Lutheran Church
16 April 2023 + Easter 2a
Rev. Josh Evans
Unbelievable. A word which, by definition, implies something too improbable to be believed, something extraordinary, outside the bounds of what we expect to be true.
It can be exclaimed in complete and utter amazement after witnessing something truly spectacular … Unbelievable!
Or in complete and utter disdain after witnessing something truly horrifying … Unbelievable!
Or, in the case of Thomas, it might just be a statement of fact, born out of life experience that has led one to believe something as hopeful and joyful as the resurrection could never actually happen: Simply unbelievable.
“I will not believe … I cannot believe.”
Thomas’s reputation is so synonymous with disbelief that it’s become a part of his name: “Doubting Thomas.” And every Second Sunday of Easter, after the women’s proclamation and the alleluias of the resurrection just the week before, the church observes what has come to be informally dubbed “Doubting Thomas Sunday.”
It hardly seems fair that this is how we remember Thomas – as a doubter – but I also don’t think it’s very accurate.
Thomas’s appearances in the gospel of John are few, but significant.
After Jesus has learned that his dear friend Lazarus has died, it is Thomas who boldly insists the disciples join their teacher on his journey to visit the bereaved family … a journey that would also begin Jesus’s path to Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week: “Let us also go, that we may die with him,” Thomas declares.
A few chapters later, at the beginning of Jesus’s farewell discourse to his disciples, it is Thomas who first speaks up: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Thomas’s deep concern and anguish over the events that were about to unfold are clear. And they give voice to what the other disciples were also surely feeling but were too timid to name: What’s going to happen to Jesus? What’s going to happen to us?
Finally, in today’s gospel, after Jesus has been raised from the dead, it is not with Easter lilies, trumpets, and shouts of “Alleluia!” that we find the disciples. Instead, they’re huddled together, in a locked room, and deeply afraid after everything that had just happened. If they came for Jesus, surely they were next.
Except, of course, Thomas wasn’t with the others in that first scene. Where was he?
Thomas had been so bold in his faith and his willingness to follow Jesus – even to death.
Thomas had been so committed to the movement Jesus was building – and rightfully nervous about the prospect of losing their leader and teacher to an unknown place.
Thomas, all the evidence tells us, was an exemplar of faith and discipleship …
… until everything he had put his faith into seemingly came crashing down around him.
His teacher and friend had just been arrested, tortured, and killed at the hands of a powerful empire, like so many others who dared to question the empire’s authority before him. Execution, period, was the ending to be expected.
Nothing about Thomas’s experience would have ever led him to think any good news could possibly come from this.
It was over. Time to pick up the pieces and move on.
Resurrection was unbelievable.
But here’s the thing: Thomas’s disbelief doesn’t negate his faith. His present feelings of doubt don’t erase his past acts of faithfulness.
By contrast to his “Doubting” nickname, Thomas actually shows us a fuller, more honest example of faith – a faith which includes doubts and questions and fear, a faith which is by no means “perfect.”
This doubting, questioning, fearful disciple, it turns out, has a great deal to teach us about the life of faith.
Christian writer Anne Lamott has famously written, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.”
To take that one step further, I would assert that as soon as we think we are “certain” about our beliefs, faith is dead. Instead, questions and doubts along the way are not only expected but welcomed. No life of faith is lived in a linear fashion, and I would be deeply skeptical of anyone who claims otherwise.
This is why I think Thomas is such a perfect example of a faithful disciple, not in spite of but because of his doubts and questions and fears.
And because of Thomas’s example, we are given permission to not always have it all together either.
It is to this doubting, questioning, and fearful disciple that the risen Christ appears, just as fully as he appeared to the women at the tomb and the other disciples the week before.
It is to this doubting, questioning, and fearful disciple that the risen Christ appears – not with a reprimand for not believing unflinchingly in the resurrection – but with words of promise and comfort: Peace be with you.
I also do not for one second think that Thomas was the only doubting, questioning, and fearful disciple in that locked room. He’s just the only one bold enough to give voice to what they’re all feeling.
Would that all our churches today were safe places to express the kind of doubts, questions, and fears that Thomas names, without shame or judgment!
“Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thomas once asked Jesus, out of his uncertainty and fear of what the future held for them.
“I am the way…” Jesus responded.
No shame, no judgment, just promise – and a reminder: Because the disciples knew Jesus, they could know God and experience God’s unfailing presence.
Because the disciples knew Jesus, theirs was a deep, abiding peace, even when it didn’t feel that way.
The risen Jesus meets Thomas in the midst of his doubts and questions and fears, and into those doubts and questions and fears, the risen Jesus speaks a word of peace and promise.
The risen Jesus meets us too in the midst of our doubts and questions and fears: in the waters of baptism, in the Word of God proclaimed in speech and song, in the grape and grain of the eucharist, in this very community whenever and wherever we gather.
The promise of the risen Jesus in our midst really is unbelievable.
It defies all logic and probability. It is extraordinary. It surpasses the limits of what we have come to expect is possible.
It is unbelievable … but that doesn’t make it any less true.
This promise and this hope is unbelievable … which is precisely why we shout this day with unbridled joy:
Alleluia! Christ is risen!