The story of Thomas and his doubts is a difficult passage to preach. Forget for a moment what you may or may not believe about the resurrection. Let’s consider what many preachers are going to ask their congregations to consider this Sunday morning; a resurrected, flesh and blood Jesus can also dematerialize to such an extent that it’s possible for him to walk through locked doors. (He could have used a secret knock.) We’re going to ask grown people, educated people, in the 21st century, to believe a man who rose from the dead can also walk through wood; like a cartoon ghost. Have we not jumped the credibility shark in what we’re willing to present as fact on any given Sunday? I have a hard enough time trying to get volunteers to bring flowers. If I link bringing flowers to belief in a Savior who walks through walls, soon I’ll be sitting in church all alone. I cannot read John 20:19-31 with a straight face.
Our challenge is to talk about the realities of doubt and the integrity of faith without insisting our congregations believe in a first century ghost story. It is possible to believe your sins are forgiven and salvation is a reality while rejecting a supernatural tale written seventy years after Jesus’ death.
John’s first audience would never see Jesus in person. However, it was important for him to tell 1st century Christians that others had seen Jesus. Greek speaking Christians in the first century also believed in ghosts. They were pre-modern, easily spooked, and believed the earth to be the flat, center of the universe. Transparent, wall-walking Jesus made perfect sense to a Greek speaking audience in 1st century Asia Minor. If you’ve been brought up on stories of oracles and Zeus sleeping with cattle, why couldn’t Jesus walk through a wall? The thing is, we live in a different time in place. Those aren’t our stories. We know they’re not only foolish but wrong. John needed to write a story that made sense then but also justified how one could believe in a wall-walking Jesus who you would never see. Thus, Thomas’ story takes shape.
We pull back the layers of supernatural hocus pocus, walking through locked doors, and look at what’s really going on. There are two things happening in this story, both are of vital importance to the future of the early church (and post-modern Christians). The first is this: How do we function in an existential crisis? Secondly: How do we believe in something that you have not yet seen? Once we’ve answered these questions, particularly the second, what makes Thomas’ belief (and our agreement with Thomas) a uniquely religious expression of belief?
Thomas’ post-resurrection story begins before Jesus’ death. The disciples are with Jesus, two days walk from Bethany, debating whether he should return to the deathbed of Lazarus. It will be a dangerous journey for Jesus. If he goes to a place so near Jerusalem, he may be arrested. Thomas does not want him to go alone. In John 11:16, Thomas makes a statement on behalf of all the disciples. Whether they want to or not, they are all going with Jesus. “Let us go too so that we may die with Jesus.” If it is going to come to death, then let it be death for all of us. Do you remember the last lines of the Declaration of Independence? Another Thomas, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” This is what Saint Thomas is saying. We pledge to each other; if Jesus goes, we all go. It’s not in Thomas’ character to be alone, isolated, or hesitant. Thomas believes in Jesus and his message. Thomas has no doubts. This is as great a threat as Jesus and his disciples have ever faced. There are no questions as to where Thomas’ loyalties lie.
When we meet the disciples, hiding in the shuttered upper room, which person is absent? Thomas is nowhere to be found. Why? John doesn’t give us a reason. I don’t need John to tell me. Thomas wasn’t going to hide and wait to be found by the authorities. He was going to find food, ascertain news, and search for hope. Someone needed to go forward and live beyond fear. Judas was dead. The others were too paralyzed with fear and grief. Thomas was motivated to act even within the crisis they all faced. What did they need to know? Thomas would find out. What did they need to survive? Thomas would bring word and food back. Was their hope of surviving another tomorrow? Thomas was connected in ways others did not see. Thomas worked while others hid in fear. To borrow a modern analogy, the First United Methodist Church of Jerusalem didn’t amount to much; shut up behind closed doors, pointing fingers, and one guy doing all the leg work. Thomas was the best thing happening to what we might call the early “church”. Who are we, with two thousand years of warped hindsight to call this man a doubter?
Does his indignation seem so unjustified or unbelievable? Parents, you’ve come home from a hard day at work and seen your teenagers lying on the couch with a kitchen full of dishes. You’re bombarded with grand stories. The stories are great but the dishes aren’t done. This is how Thomas feels.
How do we believe in something we’ve not yet seen? Jesus says this story is about those who believe even though they didn’t see the special effects. Jesus didn’t walk through locked doors. Someone made this up to get our attention. It diverts our focus from the real question: how do you still believe if you’re not in the room with the locked doors and concrete walls; because that’s not and is never going to be us. Yes, Thomas has the privilege of touching Jesus’ wounds. We don’t. Our challenge is to believe where we have not yet seen.
I believe in Abraham Lincoln, though I have never seen or touched his body. Given how the human brain processes time, 1865 might as well be two thousand years ago. I’ve been where he was killed. I’ve seen what people tell me is his picture and I take their word for it. I’ve also seen the massive obelisk under which Thomas Jefferson is buried. I have not seen Thomas Jefferson. Yes, I have been to Monticello. I believe Jefferson lived and wrote the words I quoted to you earlier. I believe in Jefferson without ever seeing him in person. Neither Jefferson nor Lincoln has ever appeared to me, walked through a wall, or a locked door. I do not require this level of proof. I know they were real and I believe in them with all my heart. Through study, observation, listening, hearing, reason, and life I have come to believe by seeing the proof in the world around me.
We believe without seeing by answering this question: what are we looking for? Are we looking for a pre-Easter pep talk or Jesus to bust us out of the Upper Room? Walking through doors sounds impressive but it’s not the story hungry, disenfranchised, Galileans, Judeans, and people all over the Mediterranean need to hear. Faith isn’t built on magic tricks. We don’t become (nor do we stay) Christianity by urging people to believe in the guy who can walk through walls. Christianity takes hold when someone who wasn’t in the upper room, a tenacious man, much like Thomas, who never touched the physical wounds of Christ, decided to tell God’s story from the ground up. Paul believed without seeing. Beginning in literal blindness, he believed. In darkness, he heard and retold God’s story among the earliest believers in Damascus. The story of his blindness became central to Paul’s preaching of the Good News. You can believe without seeing. Paul wrote 13 (maybe) epistles trying to make that point. Our faith became real by telling the story of one man’s struggle with spiritual blindness. What are we blind to today? Are there stories of our own tunnel vision that we need to tell to push us out of hiding?
We’ve been reading about Jesus walking through walls and closed doors for so long that we’re missing the point. Sometimes miracle stories misdirect us from the truth Jesus wants us to find. It is possible to believe without seeing. The real closed doors and walls are in our hearts and about to be built on our southern border. Look around and listen: if Jesus needs to be let in, open the door.