Of Doubt and Thomas

(A sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Easter    April 11, 2010    John 20:19-31)

Sam at 7  The other day I came home from work and looked at my Facebook page to find a little note from a church member, who wrote: “Saw you on Brighton Avenue accompanied by a fellow with brown hair and distinguished white highlights. You were walking quickly with a full deposit bag.” Of course the fellow was my dog, Sam, and we're used to attention from passersby. We can hardly walk two blocks without someone stopping to ask what kind of dog he is or how much he weighs or other similar questions. (Bernese Mountain Dog, 119 pounds, seven years old and no he doesn’t bite or I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you!) But despite the silly questions, they are happy walks, because why not be happy when you’re out with your dog making the rounds of the neighborhood, checking up on the crocuses and the daffodils and receiving canine compliments? 

Walking with Sam grounds me. It reminds me that it’s good to live in a body, to have the capacity to breathe and stretch my legs and walk around what my husband calls the traffic island, the portion of our neighborhood in Portland you can get around without crossing a major road. Of course, there are complications. We’ve been assaulted by an aggressive Corgi, who I can promise you scared Sam more than Sam scared him. I have to navigate around certain apartment buildings given the propensity of the tenants to smoke outside without cleaning up after themselves and Sam’s desire to police the place.

But the most worrisome thing for me, always, is broken glass. I don’t want him to cut his paws. I feel tender towards them, almost the way I did about my children’s feet when they were small.  I cared for one of his back paws when he had an infected nail bed a few years ago, soaking the big paw in diluted iodine. It’s hard to make a dog understand why he needs to keep his paw in a dish of funny-looking water. Our communication does not extend to such a detailed level. I did the best I could to soothe him, and he did the best he could to explain to me that standing in a dish of water was ridiculous! And so I found another way, soaking towels in the solution, then holding them gently against his paw.

I’m sure he doubted me, if dogs can doubt, and I understand why he did. I also understand why Thomas doubted the story his friends told him, because it made about as much sense as iodine solution in a Tupperware bowl.  “We have seen the Lord,” they told him, a statement Thomas had every reason to question. After all, he knew what had happened. He knew Jesus had been crucified, died on the cross and been buried. He must have heard the story that Mary Magdalene reported to Peter and the disciple we know as “the other” disciple or “the beloved” disciple, how they followed her to the tomb and found it empty, how she stayed and wept and saw a man she understood to be Jesus, not dead at all, but more than simply alive.

He must have heard that story. We don’t know what he thought of it, but we do know what he said when he heard about Jesus wafting through a locked door to be with his friends while only Thomas was away: "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." He wanted to see the hands that washed his feet, the feet that walked the roads with him. 

VirginMaryWithBabyJesusSonofGod Thomas knew Jesus as incarnate. He understood his humanity, his embodiment. He could not easily make the leap to a new condition. It’s easier for us, in some ways, because we hear the story in a different order. The real miracle is God having hands and feet in the first place; the real wonder is God allowing human beings the power to nail those hands and feet to a cross. If we believe that part of the story, the Resurrection is a logical conclusion. We start with the feet of little baby Jesus, with his tender and vulnerable humanity absolutely full of God-ness. Of course God who became human and died would then exist in another form! But Thomas had lived only part of the story.

Thomas makes three major appearances in the gospel of John. First, in Chapter 11, Mary and Martha send word to Jesus to come quickly to Bethany, as their brother Lazarus is dying. Jesus delays, and that’s fine with his disciples because they think it’s dangerous to go there. They fear being arrested. But Thomas is ready to follow, saying, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  Then in Chapter 14, when the disciples are gathered with Jesus on the evening of his arrest, Jesus explains to them that he is going to leave them, but that they should not be troubled, for he is going ahead to prepare a place for them. “And you know the way to the place where I am going,” he says. Thomas asks the question on all our minds, ““Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” He doesn’t think symbolically. He would like to have a literal road map for following Jesus. And in his last appearance, artists have portrayed him with his finger tentatively probing the wound in Jesus’ side.

The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas  Here’s the truth: we all understand things differently. Some of us get faith with our minds and others with our hearts. Thomas had to get there with his senses. He wanted to see and touch, to really know in the way that worked best for him. 

Blessed are those who have faith but have NOT seen. Those are hard words.

I don’t know about you, but there are days I want to see the marks. 

I want to see them.

I wonder what God wants from me and how I can be pleasing to God at times when the way is not clear. 

I want to see the marks. I wish I could see them and know that I’m on the right path.

I suppose I wish I could see his intentions as clearly as they did that night, to hear him speak words of instruction. 

He came right through the locked doors; John’s gospel insists it’s true, all true, and John persists in offering evidence precisely because people—not just Thomas—because people doubted. The story grew stale. Others denied it. Sixty years had gone by
before this gospel appeared. The early church had focused on a return by Jesus, but he had not come back to them, and they needed to find a new way to understand his life and his death and his resurrection. 

"Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

Was Jesus scolding Thomas? Some people think so. So much of how we understand these stories, especially the more famous ones, depends on the tone in which we hear them. But I don’t think Christ is dismissing Thomas, or us, when we want or need to see more. The Good News of the Incarnation is that he’s been like us. He knows both the beauties and the limitations of our human senses. I like to hear it this way, more kindly:

“Better to be one who doesn’t feel the limits. But Thomas, if you need to, put your hand here.”

We don’t perceive on the same level. God must have to be awfully patient with us. Like a happy dog on a spring day we stretch against the leash in an unfavorable direction to get to the smell on that telephone pole, to read the message. Like a sad dog on a winter afternoon we move a paw and knock over the dish of iodine and water, even though we didn’t mean to do it. 

Better to be the one who doesn’t feel the limits. Better to be one of the blessed mystics who catch a glimpse of the wonder of the Risen Christ, a flicker of the presence. But ordinary mortals need not despair, for we worship a God who had a body. We remember that Jesus had feet with wounds, and instead of touching them, we come to church in our bare feet to remember the people in Haiti who will wear our shoes. We remember that Jesus used his hands to heal, and we touch each other to pass Christ’s peace. We remember that Jesus ate bread and drank wine with his friends, and we break the bread and drink the cup and experience community with them.  These are some of the acts that make Christ real among us today. Put your hands here and feel the marks of love. Amen.

6 thoughts on “Of Doubt and Thomas”

  1. thanks for the reminder that it’s ok to want some physical, visible confirmation sometimes.

  2. Beautiful. Yes, there are so many different ways we humans (and canines!) perceive and believe. And I’m one of those who admits to a faith made stronger by all that is tactile. Thank you for your reflection!

  3. Oh Martha. I would love to sit in your church and listen to you each and every Sunday. This is so beautiful, so perfect, so grounded. Thank you, again and again.

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