Jesus cannot be stopped by our locked doors. Jesus comes to us as he came to the first disciples, right in the midst of our fear, doubt, questions, and confusion, speaking peace and breathing the Holy Spirit.
John 20: 19-25
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Do you remember what it was like in middle school when some kid knew something you didn’t, usually something a twelve-year-old would think of as illicit, like a new swear word or the meaning of a dirty joke? Inevitably, the kid who knew this new tidbit of information would laugh at you and make you feel like a fool because you didn’t know it, even though the kid himself probably only found out about 20 minutes ago. This morning’s Scripture lesson can feel a little bit like that, except that instead of lasting until just the next school day, Thomas’ humiliation has lasted hundreds of years.[i] Although the Bible never calls him “Doubting Thomas,” that’s how we remember him, always and forever.
All the disciples except Thomas were there the first Easter night when Jesus appeared mysteriously, somehow passing through the locked doors and solid walls of the room where they cowered in fear after the crucifixion. Jesus showed them the wounds on his hands and side. We don’t know where Thomas was, but when he finally shows up at disciple headquarters, he tells the other disciples that he’s not buying their crazy story about Jesus’ rising from the dead until he sees it for himself. Just like they did, by the way. Once he’s seen Jesus, he doesn’t merely believe but also makes the chief confession in John’s gospel, calling Jesus not only “My Lord,” but also “my God.” Jesus takes the opportunity to bless all the disciples who believe without seeing – it is a blessing for future disciples, for the ones who read this passage – for us.
You might be thinking, “Huh. Maybe I don’t deserve this blessing because I’m not sure what I believe.” “Believing” is an major theme in John’s gospel, but this is important: John didn’t mean what we usually mean when we say we “believe” something. The Greek word for “believe” might better be translated as “trust,” or “to give one’s heart to.” Again and again in John’s gospel, when Jesus says, “believe,” he means rely on, trust in, live as though your life depends on it. Presbyterian author Frederick Buechner captures the difference by distinguishing between “believing IN” and “believing.” “Believing in God,” writes Buechner, “is an intellectual position. It need have no more effect on your life than believing in Freud’s method of interpreting dreams or the theory that Sir Francis Bacon wrote Romeo and Juliet. … Believing God is something else again. It is less a position than a journey, less a realization than a relationship. It doesn’t leave you cold like believing the world is round. It stirs your blood like believing the world is a miracle. It affects who you are and what you do with your life like believing your house is on fire or somebody loves you.”[ii]
Believing is less a position than a journey. It affects who you are and what you do with your life like believing your house is on fire or somebody loves you.
So when Jesus says, “Believe in me,” he’s not asking whether you can recite the Apostle’s Creed or any creed without crossing your fingers. He’s asking whether you will trust that God so loves the whole world that more than anything God wants us to love each other the way God loves us. Jesus is asking whether you will trust that not even death can stop God’s love, so that you never again need to fear death, which means that you never again need to fear the forces of death, whether that means Caesar or greed or hatred or oppression or any of the other ways people try to deny life and justice to God’s beloved people. Jesus is asking whether it affects who you are and what you do with your life. In her book, A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L’Engle writes, “A winter ago I had an after-school seminar for high-school students and in one of the early sessions Una, a brilliant fifteen-year-old, a born writer … asked me, …
‘Mrs. Franklin, do you really and truly believe in God with no doubts at all?’ ‘Oh, Una,’” she answered. “’I really and truly believe in God with all kinds of doubts. But I base my life on this belief.’”
Jesus isn’t condemning Thomas for his doubts. He’s inviting the rest of us on the journey of trusting, of basing our lives on our belief with all our doubts. So, please: Can we let Thomas off the hook, and all of the rest of us, as well? Besides, it wasn’t just Thomas who was plagued with doubts, fear, and pain. One week after Jesus appeared to his disciples, they were gathered once again behind locked doors, suggesting that Thomas wasn’t the only one still needing reassurance that Jesus had in fact conquered death.
Gathered behind closed doors – that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Here we are, literally hiding behind closed doors because of COVID-19. Much of the tragedy of the virus is going on behind closed doors, as well. We see the statistics, but not the reality of it. We’re all behind closed doors with our own anxieties and fears; fears that could keep us from trusting Jesus in ways that transform our lives. It’s only natural, isn’t it, when we’re feeling anxious or threatened to hunker down and lock the doors, to become focused on our own security rather than the risky mission to which we are called? The promise of this passage is that Jesus cannot be stopped by our locked doors. Jesus comes to us as he came to the first disciples, right in the midst of our fear, pain, doubt, and confusion. He comes speaking peace, breathing into our anxious lives the breath of the Holy Spirit.
What’s more, he keeps showing up. As he came back a week later for Thomas, Jesus keeps coming back for us. He comes into those lonely hospital rooms in the quiet ministrations of the medical professionals. He comes week after week among his gathered disciples – in the word, the water, the bread, and the wine; in the gathered community. Right now, we, the gathered community, must stay home to keep ourselves and others safe, and to keep our healthcare system from being overwhelmed. This past week, Session, the governing board of this congregation, affirmed the staff’s hunch that it’s safer for us to lead worship from our homes instead of from this sanctuary, and my friends, Jesus will still come. He will come in our Zoom worship or whatever we try. He will come, because it will still be you, the community; it will still be your staff; and it will still be authentically Calvary. We’ll even be able to include more of you as readers and musicians, not to mention technicians. And yes; please contact any of the pastors if you’re tech savvy and would like to help out with worship online.
Jesus still comes, as well, in the midst of the ministries that we, the Church, the Body of Christ, are able to keep going. The Calvary Living Sanctuary team has been working hard even while sheltering-in-place to try to fill in some of the gaps for immigrants, those faced with greater challenges by the pandemic because they don’t qualify for social services. We’ve connected immigrant families with food pantries, found pro-bono attorneys for folks, and assisted with asylum applications. Our Faith in Action Team is providing small emergency grants for rent, food, and other critical needs caused by the COVID-19 crisis. Our Deacons and other volunteers are checking in on senior adults and running errands for folks. Our children and youth staff is actively keeping youth gatherings, confirmation class, and other activities going online, which is a huge help to parents with bored kids at home. Several Bible studies continue to meet online, and Calvary Young Adults are staying connected through technology. We’re planning an online adult ed. series, and as the weeks of shelter-in-place drag on, we’ll look for more ways to reach out, to touch wounds, to speak peace and breathe the Holy Spirit.
Jesus still comes. He comes when we welcome everyone, whoever you are, wherever you are on your spiritual journey. Joanna Adams tells a story I could have told, and I suspect many of you could tell, as well. She writes, “There was a time in my early 20s when I was a full card-carrying member in the circle of Doubting Thomases. My doubt simply got the best of my faith, and I left the church completely, thinking it was for good. I had such a difficult time making sense of it all. I stayed away until my longing for God became too much for me. I sought the council of a minister at a Presbyterian church near our home. I walked into his office and sat down, saying, ‘I’m not exactly sure why I’m here. I don’t know what I believe about the virgin birth, the resurrection, the lordship of Christ.’
“The minister answered, ‘I accept that. I wonder if you would like to try to figure these things out with people who are on a similar journey.’
“’O yes,’ I said, ‘I would like that very much.’
“And he answered, ‘Well then, you are welcome here.’
Adams writes, “Those words, ‘Well then, you are welcome here,’ have been the pivot on which my entire life has turned. I was welcomed in love and invited to grow in my knowledge and understanding of the revelation of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.’”[iii]
“Well then, you are welcome here.” You are welcome. You are welcome with all of your doubts. You are welcome with all of your questions. You are welcome if you find joy and wonder in the Easter message, and you are welcome if you just hope you will, someday. You are welcome to join us in learning together how to live as Easter people, to live as though God’s promises are true: God’s promises of new life, and grace; and that nothing – nothing we’ve done or that has been done to us – can separate us from the love of God. Not life. Not death. Not COVID-19. Not closed or locked doors.
For centuries, the Sunday after Easter has been observed with what’s called “the Easter laugh,” because God had the last laugh.[iv] I invite you to imagine that when Jesus spoke to Thomas, he was laughing – not mocking like that seventh grader who knows more than you do, but chuckling with humor and tenderness. “Oh, Thomas, thank God you’re here at last! You have some serious catching up to do. And bless all those, all the coming generations of my disciples who will doubt, and question, but whose trust in me will nevertheless change who they are, and what they do with their lives.”
May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2020 all rights reserved.