Sunday, April 27, 2014

Trusting Thomas

In some circles this Sunday after the crowds have come and gone on Easter morning is known as "Low Sunday." But my Bishop prefers to call it Momentum Sunday - reminding us that Easter is not a day but a fifty-day season that culminates at Pentecost. (You can see his Easter Momentum challenge here). 

So on the day formerly known as Low Sunday, I find myself at Trinity Church in Shrewsbury. Last Sunday was their rector's last Sunday with them. While their spirits are no doubt pretty low at the moment, with the future unclear, it seems to me that this puts them in precisely the right place to hear the good news of this day, and to begin to find the courage and strength and hope to begin again, and to trust the momentum of God's Holy Spirit to guide and lead them in the weeks to come. In truth, wherever we are in our journey, this is all we ever have; one day at a time.

The star of most homilies on this Second Sunday of Easter is good old “doubting” Thomas, at least in congregations that use the lectionary, which is to say most mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics. In some of the homilies preached across our diocese today, Thomas will be scolded by the preacher for being such a doubter. (Although notice that he is not scolded by Jesus). The message to the congregation is clear: Thomas doubted, don’t be like him!  For others (and I think this is far more likely to be the storyline in most Episcopal congregations)—Thomas will be raised up as the “patron saint” of doubters everywhere. This version of the story suggests that doubt and questions are good and when expressed can lead us to faith. So here, too, the message to the congregation is clear: Thomas doubted, do be like him!

This works (on both sides) because we tend to associate faith with belief. We tend to think that what we think about our faith—our belief system—is the same as faith. That idea grows directly out of the Enlightenment, which means it’s been around for a while, longer than most of us who are here today. But the Church is way older than the Enlightenment and we need to go further back than the eighteenth century if we want to make sense of Thomas.

Personally, I think the Church as a whole got confused along the way. Fundamentalists, and the liberal theologians who call themselves the Jesus Seminar (as well as those atheists who are certain God doesn’t exist because we’ve been to space and heaven clearly wasn’t “up there”) are all in their own ways still stuck in the eighteenth century. They continue to fight old battles about why Jesus died, or whether or not his body was literally raised or about the right way to read the Bible or about who can get married—and then think that their beliefs are what make them Christians. (And those who disagree, of course, not Christians but heretics.)  

But that approach keeps us stuck. As we remembered again just ten days ago, on the night before he died for the sins of the whole world, Jesus took a towel and washed the feet of his disciples, telling them (and us) that the world would know we are Christians by our love and by our willingness to be servants in a world bent on the misuse and abuse of power. You will know Christians not by their words so much as their actions, by their practices, by how they treat each other and especially by how they treat the poor. It does not say anywhere that I can find in the Bible that “you will know they are Christians by their doctrine.” St. Paul told those first-century Christians in Corinth that in the end our doctrinal certitudes and orthodox beliefs are nothing more than clanging cymbals if we don’t have faith, hope and love. But especially love.

So what does all this have to do with our friend, Thomas? As the story is told by John, a week has passed since the Spirit first came to the disciples last Sunday night, Easter Sunday. Thomas wasn’t with them, so this is round two.  I want to teach you just one Greek vocabulary word today, which is the language of the New Testament. It is the word pistis, which refers not to the content of faith—to what we think we know, but to something far more primal. Pistis is not about doctrine or a belief system, but is really best translated as “trust.”  And trust is a much better synonym for faith than belief is.

I think that the key to understanding Thomas is about whether or not he can bring himself to trust Jesus again, the one on whom he had previously staked his life, but then who went and got himself killed. Thomas is not struggling with his doctrine of the resurrection. Nor is he asking (so far as I can tell) whether or not God exists. He’s wondering whether he can still trust God after all that has happened. He’s trying to figure out what is really real.

Remember that we’ve heard from Thomas on two previous occasions in John’s Gospel. In the eleventh chapter, when Jesus decides to go back to Judea to raise Lazarus (even though it is clear at that point that the authorities are out to get him) it is Thomas who says to the other disciples: “let us go with him that we may also die with him.” (John 11:16) So he is willing to follow Jesus to death; to stand in solidarity and to become a martyr if necessary. That is very brave. But the Easter question before him and us today is an even harder one: is he willing to risk the new life Christ brings? Is he willing to live for Christ? That will require buckets of trust.

And then in the fourteenth chapter of John’s Gospel we get one of my favorite Thomas moments, almost as awesome as the one before us today. Jesus is talking about his impending death. He is telling the disciples not to let their hearts be troubled. But their hearts are troubled. He tells them that it’s going to be alright, because he is going to prepare a place for them and that in God’s house there are many dwelling places. And then Jesus says, “and you know the way where I am going.”

Do you remember? That is when good old Thomas pipes up and asks the question that all the disciples are dying to ask but are too scared to ask. It’s like men and directions: Jesus is saying “you know the way” and everyone is nodding, oh yeah, we know how to get there, we don’t need no stinkin’ GPS! But it is Thomas who says, “excuse me, Lord but no…actually we don’t have a clue where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5) That’s when Jesus tells his disciples: keep your eyes on the prize…keep your eyes on me! Don’t lose me, I’ll get you there. I promise. “I am the way, the truth, the life.” Those words are not a threat to unbelievers; but a promise to those who put their trust in Jesus. So Thomas the twin, as he is remembered in the fourth gospel, is the one who is not afraid to ask the hard questions. He’s not afraid to die. And he clearly loves Jesus. I don’t think he is looking for proof today so much as the fact that his sense of trust has been shaken. His world has been rocked and he is wondering as anyone would wonder: is Jesus still the way, still the truth, still the life, or just another dead martyr?  

So literally, the Greek should be translated like this: when Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds, what Jesus says in response is this—do not lack trust; trust. I submit to you that these words are good news on this second Sunday of Easter around the globe and across this diocese, from Williamstown to Westborough. But they are especially important words here, today, in this place. Because that one word points the way to the work that lies ahead for all of you. Trust. Trust God. Trust each other.

Do not lack trust. Trust. Trust is the way forward when we are stuck and our faith goes nowhere until we figure that out. Some people will struggle with trust issues their whole lives. But we cannot mature in faith, personally or as a congregation, until we work through those issues. And that is what is going on in today’s gospel. Nothing else can really happen in the spiritual life until we begin to learn to let go and let God.  Thomas shows us what “an inquiring and discerning heart” looks like. Do not lack trust…trust.

Now that is my standard Thomas sermon. If it is not obvious to you, I love the guy. His questions lead him to deeper faith and I think it can be the same for us. And I hope that you hear some good news in these words. But now I want to shift our attention just a bit, because I think we can become over-focused on Thomas, whose role is like all the saints, is to point us this risen but scarred Jesus who shows us the living God. So let’s step back and check out the whole room before we call it quits on this sermon.  Let’s go back one week to last Sunday night when Jesus first appears in that room to meet the other ten disciples.

And as we heard today, Thomas wasn’t there. (He’d gone out to Dunkin Donuts or something because as everyone knows, grieving people drink a lot of coffee.) What I want you to notice is about the other ten disciples is this: the doors are still shut one week later. The Spirit came, and breathed on them, and the risen Christ came through doors that were locked, but they were still afraid. So we have spent a lot of time thinking about Thomas today but here’s a question I want to ask: why are those doors still shut? I think the answer is that the remaining ten disciples are the ones who don’t yet get it. They had the experience, but they missed the meaning. Fear is still keeping them from trust. Good old Thomas gets it, bless his heart, the first time around. And he is the one, again with the questions, who helps the others to finally see.

When Jesus walks into that room, he is there to transform fear into trust. It is always that way and you know it’s the Holy Spirit at work when fear is cast out and trust replaces it. John says the Spirit helps us to loose sins; that is to forgive. Forgiveness is a huge part of navigating trust: because we have to let go and forgive in order to move on. If we don’t do that, then we are doomed to keep repeating the past. We stay stuck. We let people take up residence in our head rent-free. The Spirit helps us with that work, casting out fear in order to make room for faith, hope, and love.  The Spirit comes to empower and equip us for mission. But all of that begins with trust. And none of it is possible without it.

How many churches keep their work focused on what happens behind closed doors? And maybe here that has been a little bit true here in the midst of mistrust and uncertainty—a circling of the wagons, a looking inward. And yet while that is understandable from a human perspective, it is not the way forward. The point of Easter is that we are called to “go and tell.” We are called to open the doors, and are sent into the world where Christ has already gone ahead of us. God has a mission and is already at work in the world. So the Spirit comes into that room and into this room today so that we will open the doors not only so others can come in but so that we can go out. Easter is about flinging the doors wide open—about rolling away all of the stones that keep us entombed.  And then making sure that those doors stay wide open. We are sent out of this place to do the work God has given us to do, not to hide out here in fear.

We get a glimpse of what that looked like for First Parish, Jerusalem in the readings that we’ll continue to hear throughout these fifty days from the Acts of the Apostles.  We see a people on the move, a people clear about their mission. The work of ministry only becomes possible, however, when God’s people trust the resurrected Jesus enough to head back to the streets. That is where we begin to gain momentum.

I love Thomas. But the good news here is that Easter lasts for a season, not just one day. And that gives us time to breathe in the Spirit as we uncover the true meaning of Easter. That is the work that God has given you all to do here at Trinity, Shrewsbury. It’s not work that can be delegated to the bishop or to his canons, or to a departed rector or parish administrator or wardens or the vestry. It is the work of God’s Easter people: to overcome your fears and trust God and in so doing to find your voices. It’s about flinging the doors wide open. Do not lack trust; trust!


  1. Thank you for this,Rich. I have long felt that the "doubting" label was wrong. He wasn't there, as you point out, when Jesus first visited. Jesus showed those who were there, the scars so they already knew or at least had the information to know who was among them. Thomas wanted to see the scars too. Why should he believe his fellow disciples anyway. I too am a Thomas fan, almost as much as a Peter fan. By the way, do we know anything about Thomas' twin? Happy Easter, Rich
    Bev Heath

  2. Thanks Bev. Your question reminds me that you are, I think, a twin yourself. Is that right? I have never seen anything about Thomas' twin - but it would make a great midrash to tell the Jesus' story from that long lost brother's (or sister's?) perspective, wouldn't it?