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The Great Faith of Thomas: A Sermon on John 20:19-31

The sermon from Sunday, April 23, 2017 on John 20: 19-31

I don’t know about y’all but I think I’m hardwired to avoid disappointment. Anytime in life I ever took a test, I came out of saying something between – “Oh man, I totally failed that.” and “Well, I guess we’ll see. Maybe that went okay.”

I don’t think I’ve ever walked out going “YES!” Ever – and I’ve taken a lot of tests in my life. More often than not it was actually okay (well, except in high school geometry), but I was afraid to let myself hope.

Any of y’all ever suffered a sorrow in life? This is a real question. Have you been let down by someone? Especially maybe when you were young? Can you still taste that grief, that disappointment?

I know I can.

I believe that many of us are conditioned by our experiences to insulate ourselves from disappointment. We keep our guard up. We know life is painful and difficult and often fails to live up to our hopes and our expectations.

And the experience of life in the broader world – with the forces of racism and patriarchy and homophobia and ableism and economic oppression and all those forces of oppression that we call out on a near weekly basis – because people experience them on a daily basis?

Those crush not only hope and joy, but life.

It can make things seem pretty bleak.

I think that’s what’s going on with Thomas here.

Thomas is like ‘Nawww.’ Can’t be. That’s not how things work. The empire won and we are toast. I don’t dare summon up the hope that what they are saying – what they are all saying – could be true. I could get my heart crushed. I don’t believe it.  

So Jesus has to make a special visit just to him – and Thomas gets stuck with the nickname Doubting Thomas.

Personally I think that’s a bit unfair. Let’s talk a bit about doubt and faith and the life of Thomas.

Y’all remember where we saw Thomas recently? It was a few weeks ago in the 11th chapter of John when Jesus was summoned back the home of Martha and Mary because of Lazarus. The disciples were all like “Yeah. They want to kill you there in Judea. Not a good idea.” What do we hear from Thomas? He’s like C’mon. Let us go that we may also die with him.  

We see there that Thomas is a person of courage and action.

There’s another place we see Thomas in John’s Gospel, in the 14th chapter, verses 4 to 7 –  Jesus says – “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

We see here that Thomas is willing to ask questions, to risk the potential embarrassment of admitting that he doesn’t understand.

Probably at least a good half the room is sitting there confused, but they are afraid to ask the question, the question that draws Jesus out in an explanation that we still rely on today as we read this Gospel.

You know what I’m talking about, when you’re sitting there going “Okay, I don’t get this, but I bet everyone else does, so I’m not going to say anything because I don’t want to look clueless.”

Thomas cares more about understanding, more about making real sense of things in his own heart and mind than about looking cool.

Thomas is willing to admit that he doesn’t get it so that he can better follow the path that Jesus is describing.

After the Resurrection and Jesus’ appearance to him, after the Pentecost when the disciples dispersed near and far to spread the word of Jesus, church custom  and legend tell it that Thomas traveled all the way to southern India.

Either he trekked overland or he hauled himself across the Arabian Peninsula and into a boat and sailed across the Indian Ocean. I looked that up. That’s 3000 miles as the crow flies, as if he could actually travel a straight line. Given the challenges of traveling in the first century that’s highly unlikely.

Thomas heads out on this long, difficult, dangerous journey, lands among a community of Jews in a completely foreign land, and preaches the good news of Jesus. To this day, Thomas is considered the father of the church in India and the patron saint of the small Christian population in that country. Eventually, legend has it – Thomas was martyred there. He was killed for his acts of faith.

These stories may or may not be true, but they speak to the character of Thomas – and the sort of man and sort of disciple he must have been. And yet we know him as Doubting Thomas as if somehow he is lacking in faith because of his questions.

Questions relate to knowledge – to what you know – and to what you think or believe. To doubt is to ask questions; to admit the possibility that there is more to learn; to confess that you don’t have all the answers and you may not be sure that there even is an answer.

To have doubt is to be honest about the state of the world and the state of your heart.

There is no shame in that.

Rather than casting doubt as the opposite of faith, consider it as the opposite of certainty.

If you are so certain that you have nothing else to learn, certain that you know everything there is to know, then you have made a God of yourself.

In my line of work we call that idolatry.

To doubt is to leave yourself open to seeking, to the experience of context and relationship.

It is rejecting rigidity and dogma in favor of a heart of exploration and openness, informed by the moments of genuine relationship and meaning you encounter in the world.

Then If faith is not the opposite of doubt, what then is faith?

Thomas shows us that faith is something you put into practice, not some stack of words we throw around to prove how righteous we are.

Faith is engagement in the life of the Spirit.

Faith is a way of living and a way of knowing.

If you begin with the open-heartedness created by doubt, then you are positioned to go forward in faith,

Faith is showing up and trusting that God is there to be found in midst of that which is good and that which is grievous.

Faith is orienting yourself toward the Spirit of God, toward the way of Jesus.

It is an active process of continually turning yourself toward God’s love, God’s justice, and God’s mercy – and even God’s joy.

When you get knocked off that path, it’s about dusting yourself off, praying yourself up, and opening your arms once again to love and justice and mercy and joy.

That task is not easily done alone. It helps to have community for the journey – and that’s why we show up here together for worship, for learning, for acts of mercy and justice.

Faith is a practice.  We travel this journey in faith. Doubt travels with us.

So how can we learn from its discomforts?

What does doubt teach you?

How does this example of Thomas – not just in his doubts, but in the courage, the questions, and the actions – speak to you about your own journey?

I leave you with those questions as you continue along the path of faithful living this week.

Amen.

 

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