Friday, May 03, 2013

Faithful Thomas

"The Incredulity of Saint Thomas"

(from a sermon preached to my Luther Seminary preaching lab on 5/2/13.  It was delivered without notes, the following manuscript was my pre-work)

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the name, “Thomas?” 
(This is not a rhetorical question!)  The answer that I immediately received was, "doubting Thomas"

Thomas has a bad reputation in most Christian preaching.  At one time or another we have probably all heard a sermon in which we were exhorted not to be like “doubting Thomas.”  Unquestioning belief is held up over and against honest doubt as a virtue.  Solid belief is good and any doubt at all is bad. 

The beautitude that Jesus speaks, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” is read not as a promise of faith but a contingency for it.

And the other disciples are held up as models of faith and Thomas serves as an example of “what not to do”

However, I think Thomas has gotten an undue bad reputation.  He is not asking for anything different than that which the other disciples already received.  Thomas just was not in that same upper room with the disciples when Jesus appeared to them. 

These disciples, including Thomas, had just watched Jesus brutally executed and watched him being laid into a tomb.  They had witnessed this same tomb as empty, yet failed to grasp what Jesus had been telling them all along, that he would rise from the dead.  And in the midst of all of this they were being persecuted, chased, and hunted by the authorities. 

The other disciples were gathered in a locked house because they were afraid and Jesus came to them and said, “peace be with you.”  He showed them the wounds in his hand and in his side.  Jesus breathes his spirit into them and says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.  If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  And having seen all this, the disciples decide to share it with Thomas.  Thomas honestly says, “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.”  If any of us were in that situation, I think that we would probably do the exact same thing.  

I believe that we want to take Jesus’ command, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” and run with it, but if we actually look at our selves and our lives, we are essentially…Thomas.  Yet we wish more than anything that we were not. 

This week I asked two questions of my friends on facebook in preparation for this sermon, and I want to ask them again of you now: 

What is certainty?

What is faith?

Some of the responses I received were:
“Certainty is not a thing, faith is being able to thank God at my best times and rage against her at my worst”

“Certainty is a lie, faith is honest”

“Certainty is that the rent is due on the first of the month, faith is the laughter of children” 

“If you are certain of something, it is of you…if you have faith in something, it is of God”

“Certainty is being without doubt…faith is having hope in that doubt” 

“Certainty means that you don’t have a clue, and faith means you are willing to give it a shot” 

The general consensus (and your responses also indicate this) is that certainty is not possible, nor is it desirable.  Then why do we expect this from ourselves and from others?  

I did a google search for images for this text.  What came up over and over again was Thomas putting his fingers into the wound in Jesus’ side.  But if we read the text closely, we see that Thomas never actually does this.  Jesus invites him to do so, but there is no proof that it actually happens.  Thomas does not TOUCH Jesus…he HEARS him. 

Thomas is not asking for anything special or anything that the other disciples hadn’t already received by being able to see Jesus.  Thomas was one of Jesus’ closest friends. They spent years together, sharing meals and conversation.  But the ludicrous idea that his FRIEND, Jesus of Nazareth, could be raised from the dead, well, that is just a little bit unbelievable.  If someone this close to the situation needed to ask questions of Jesus in order to believe, wouldn’t we be even more invited in to that same questioning? 

And most importantly, out of all this questioning, Thomas confesses Jesus to be God.  There is promise in doubt. 

I want to tell you a story.  Quite a number of years ago, when I was still a teenager, I experienced a crisis of faith.  The faith of my upbringing did not make sense any longer. Believing in God felt hollow and way too difficult.  Through a haze of tears I confided these fears to a friend.  She told me that doubt was bad and that to be a good Christian, I needed to have strong faith.  I took in her words and vowed to never outwardly struggle again.  Doubt was bad.  Certainty was good.   I can’t help but remember this story every time that I hear about Thomas. 

But I also think of another story when I hear about Thomas.  About six years ago, when I had been out of College for a few years, I experienced another crisis of faith. No religion could help me make sense of the chaos that was invading my world.  One bad thing after another piled into my life for a couple years.  I was left adrift with no anchor whatsoever in my world.  God seemed absent.  But this time, the story was different.  A friend said that my doubt was just as holy as my faith.  And faith didn’t come from my own efforts anyway.  Faith was something that was given to me by the Holy Spirit.  And that is liberating. 

Remember a time in which God seemed absent from your life and doubt came more easily than faith.  Maybe you or someone you love was ill.  Perhaps someone died who was close to you.  Maybe you struggled financially or experienced the painful breakup of a relationship.  Maybe it was 10 years ago. Maybe it was this morning. 

So, brothers and sisters, if no one has said this to you, please let me be the first.  Your doubt is holy.  Your questions do not make the story any less real.  Your doubt will not cause God to leave you.  Faith does not happen as a result of your own efforts.  It is a gift.  Thanks be to God. 

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