A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 3, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 20:19-29 and Psalm 133
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

There’s an urban legend[1] that seems appropriate for today.

There was a Yugoslavian judge, or so the story goes, who was electrocuted when he reached up to turn on the light while standing in the bathtub.  This guy’s poor wife found his body sprawled on the bathroom floor.  He was pretty clear he was dead, so they took his body to the preparation room by the crypt in the town cemetery to be held for burial.

In the middle of the night, the judge came to.  The judge looked around and realized where he was.  So he got up and alerted the attendant.  The poor attendant was freaked out and ran off.

The judge’s next thought was to phone his wife and reassure her that he really wasn’t dead.  Unfortunately, he got no farther than, “Honey, it’s me,” when she screamed and fainted.

So, he decided that the best course of action was to enlist some friends.  He went to the houses of several friends; but because they all had heard the news from his distraught wife, they all doubted that he was really alive.  They were all convinced he was a ghost.

Finally, in a last desperate effort, he phoned a friend in another city who hadn’t heard about his death.  That friend was able to convince his family and nearby friends that the judge really was alive.
The one thing that Thomas is most remembered for is that he told the other disciples that he wouldn’t believe that they had really seen the resurrected Christ unless I could see and touch him for himself.  It makes sense that he wouldn’t believe them.  The two most logical explanations are that either Jesus didn’t really die (show me the wounds) or it’s a collective hallucination.  No wonder he said, I gotta see if for myself.  We could remember him as Level-headed Thomas, but we remember him as Doubting Thomas.

Back in Chapter 11, Jesus decides to go to Judea to Lazarus, who has died.  His disciples warn him against it because some people want to stone him, but Jesus insists on going.  It’s Thomas who boldly declares to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him”[2]  We could remember him as Daring Thomas, but we remember him as Doubting Thomas.

When Jesus does show himself to Thomas, Thomas makes the most profound statement of faith in the gospels.  He says to Jesus, “My Lord and my God.”  We could remember him as Profound Thomas, but we remember him as Doubting Thomas.

One way to look at the story is to focus on the question of the validity of the claims that Jesus was resurrected.  Like the rest of us and like the second century Christians John was writing for, Thomas wasn’t there to witness the resurrection that first day.  So he has his doubts – perfectly logical and reasonable doubts.  And then he gets his own personal show and he comes to believe.  John closes the scene with a line of encouragement for his community and for us, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”[3]

That’s one way to look at the story, but not the way I want to look at it today.

John tells us that the disciples have locked themselves away, entombed themselves in a room, because of their fear.  Suddenly, Jesus walks amid them, walks amid their fear, giving them the first gift of the resurrection:  Peace.  “Peace be with you,” he says.  “Then, with the breath of the Spirit, Jesus also gives the disciples the power to create community:  ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’ (John 20:22-23).”[4]

Michaela Bruzzese notes that “his actions [breathing on them] recall both God’s first, life-giving breath to Adam and Eve and God’s restoration of the dry bones in Ezekiel.”[5]  But it is her insight that this power to forgive sins is the power to create community that intrigues me.

A master storyteller, John brings in Thomas in the next scene.  He wasn’t there to begin with.  Will they forgive his incredulity?  Will they let him be part of the community?  Or will they say his unbelief is beyond the pale and he can’t be part of them?  Jesus has given them the power to create (or withhold) community.

John doesn’t tell us how the disciples reacted to “Thomas’ initial skepticism.  Maybe they were scandalized.  Or maybe they sympathized.”[6]  Regardless of their reaction, Jesus returns the next week and gives them an example of how it works.  He stands before Thomas and does not chastise him for doubting, nor for wanting proof.  Jesus makes room for Thomas’ doubts.  “Go ahead.  Touch,” Jesus says.  “Go ahead.  Touch.”

“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1601-02

As Nancy Sehested points out, “Jesus knew exactly what Thomas needed.  Jesus never offered one prescription or formula for bringing people to faith.  He did not hand out a tract on the four spiritual laws to every person he met.  Jesus did not chide Thomas for his doubts or questions.  Thomas’ doubts were his avenue to a deepened discipleship.  He did not run away from community with his doubts.”[7]  And whether they accepted him with his doubts or not, Jesus certainly did, and I think they got the picture.

In the same way, this church, this community, this fellowship is open to, is welcoming of doubts and questions and ponderings.  In fact, “I think that if we don’t have any doubts we’re probably not taking the story seriously enough.  I mean, really – think about what we confess when we come together on Sundays:  that the Creator of the vast cosmos not only knows we exist but cares deeply and passionately about our ups and downs, our hopes and dreams, and all the rest.  This confession is, quite literally, in-credible (that is, not believable).  And yet we come together and in hearing the Word and partaking of the Sacraments and by being joined to those around us through prayer and song, we come to believe.”[8]

And it’s not just our doubts that are welcome.  Remember the condition of the disciples when Jesus first comes to them in this story.  They are scared.  They are scared of the principalities and powers.  Jesus offers them peace in the midst of their fears, and maybe that peace gives them enough courage to overcome their fears.  Maybe.  But a week later, they are in the house together again.  John tells us that the doors were again shut.  He doesn’t use the word “locked” this time, but one has to wonder if their fear was gone.  The scared are welcome right alongside the doubters.

Remember, too, the test Thomas thought would prove that it really was Jesus.  He needed to see the wounds.  The wounds reveal Jesus.  Interesting.  “You can’t see the Risen One unless you can see the Crucified.”[9]  That says something about being the body of Christ today.  If we don’t include the wounded, the scarred, how can we include the Risen One?

Three of the four times Thomas is mentioned in John’s gospel (he’s only mentioned in lists of disciples in the other gospels), he is referred to as “the twin.”  The twin of whom, I keep wondering.  Perhaps he is the twin of you and me.

We have a term for what the disciples began to experience that night:  fellowship.  “Fellowship is a kind of belong that isn’t based on status, achievement, or gender, [or orientation, or race, or ethnicity, any of the other ways people divide themselves,] but instead is based on a deeper belief that everyone matters, everyone is welcome, and everyone is loved, no conditions, no exceptions.  It’s not the kind of belonging you find at the top of the ladder among those who think they are the best, but at the bottom among all the rest, with all the other failures and losers who have either climbed the ladder and fallen, or [who] never [got] up enough gumption [or never had the resources] to climb in the first place.”[10]

Whatever else the uprising that began on that first Easter would become, from that night on it has been an uprising of fellowship, a community where anyone who wants to be part of the community of Jesus followers will be welcome.  Jesus showed his scars, and we are realizing we don’t have to hide ours.

“So [this] fellowship is for scarred people, and for scared people, and for people who want to believe but aren’t sure what or how to believe.  When we come together just as we are, we begin to rise again, to believe again, to hope again, to live again.  Through fellowship, a little locked room becomes the biggest space in the world.  In the space of fellowship, the Holy Spirit fills us like a deep breath of fresh air.”[11]

As we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to consider one of these questions.

  • What one thought or idea from today’s scripture or sermon especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped, or surprised you?
  • When in your life have you experienced true fellowship?
  • How do you respond to the idea that Christian fellowship is for scarred and scared people—without regard to gender, status, or achievement?
  • Imagine you are Thomas at the moment Jesus shows his scarred hands, feet, and side.  How does Thomas’ experience from that night resonate with your life today?

[1] This telling of the legend is slightly modified from the telling shared in an email from sermons.com dated 29 March 2016.

[2] John 11:16 (NRSV).

[3] John 20:29 (NRSV).

[4] Michaela Bruzzes, “Do Not Doubt,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/do-not-doubt (accessed 28 March 2016).

[5] Ibid.

[6] David Lose, “Easter 2 C: Blessed Doubt,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2016/03/easter-2-c-blessed-doubt/ (posted 29 March 2016; accessed 30 March 2016).

[7] Nancy Hasting Sehested, “A Shelter for Doubt,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/shelter-doubt (accessed 28 March 2016).

[8] Lose, op. cit.

[9] Bill Wylie-Kellermann, “Touching the Word,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/touching-word (accessed 28 March 2016).

[10] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), 175.

[11] Ibid.