"A Believer's Story"
Sermon Preached by Anne R. Ledbetter
Sunday, April 15, 2012
Scripture - John 20:19-31

That Easter evening so long ago, the disciples received resurrection faith.  Their Lord and Master appeared among them, overcoming locked doors and latched hearts.  The Lord's presence dissolved their stifling fear, and Christ breathed upon them Holy Spirit - a Spirit undefeated by hatred, betrayal, torture, and even death.  Their Savior came imparting peace - that peace beyond human understanding, which can melt away fear and troubling doubts.  No sooner had their risen Lord breathed new life into his disciples, then he was gone.  All the disciples save Thomas witnessed Jesus' appearance, and they rejoiced over this mind-boggling, heart-rattling turn of events.  But upon hearing their joyful news, the absentee adamantly stated, "Unless I see him myself, and touch his wounds, I will not believe."

Yes, that Easter Day seems so far away when those gathered were filled with resurrection faith.  They had walked the Stations of the Cross, meditating on the path of Christ to Gol'gotha.  They had remembered their Lord celebrating Seder with his followers, kneeling before them to wash their feet, modeling love's command.  Some followed him on Friday, praying through the hours of his crucifixion and death.  And on the third day, they rose and gathered for worship to rejoice in the greatest story ever told, the mystery of faith: The tomb is empty!  Christ is risen!"  The walls reverberated with alleluias, shouted and sung.  Trumpets blared, the choir erupted in Handel's chorus, and we, yes we Presbyterians, leapt to our feet in praise and rejoicing.  Indeed, we rode the tidal wave of Easter Sunday like crazed surfers at Waikiki.

A week later the disciples are again gathered in the same place, and doubt lingers in the air, covering a nagging fear that nothing has really changed.  The alleluias are a distant echo, the lilies have disappeared, the brass players are on extended hiatus, and worship attendance is back to normal, or maybe slightly down.  For you see, it's Low Sunday (as in traditional low attendance.)   A week later churches have less hoopla and fewer people.  As one preacher writes: to be in worship on such a day can feel a bit like showing up at a party after most of the guests have left and those who remain report on what a grand time you missed by coming too late.[i] But, of course, we have only known this "after" time, having missed Easter by a mere 2,000 years.  We hear accounts of the resurrection, but we were not there.  We did not see and touch and experience it ourselves.  Like Thomas we wonder what it would take for us to truly believe.

The writer of John's Gospel skillfully uses Thomas to mirror our feelings. We too struggle with doubt, and yearn for tangible proof.  As Greg noted in his sermon last week, like those first disciples we are well-acquainted with fear - fear of financial disaster, of failure or rejection, of personal injury in a violent world, of some health crisis like cancer, MS, dementia, and ultimately, we carry a fear of our own death.  We inhabit a world where our fears are exploited by advertisers, politicians, insurance agents, and others.  Did you notice that even though the other disciples had already encountered the risen Christ, they were still closed up in that house a week later, crippled by fear even though Christ had breathed into them the Holy Breath of Eternal Life?!

We generally label the Thomas the doubter, and pay scant attention to his powerful profession of faith.  But let us take a closer look at the story of this believer and then consider our own.  Thomas, is actually a nickname. Its Aramaic form, Tauma, means 'twin.'  One ancient manuscript suggests his given name may have been Judas, but since two other disciples bore that name, he was called Tauma, the twin.  In John's gospel, Thomas is initially singled out in the eleventh chapter, when Jesus hears of the death of Lazarus and wants to return to Judea.  Incredulous, the disciples ask, "Rabbi, they were just trying to stone you, and now you want to go there again?"  Jesus answers in metaphorical language, ending with, "Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him."

"Well, if Lazarus is asleep," the disciples say, "he'll be okay."  Then Jesus says plainly, "Lazarus is dead.  But let us go to him." Suddenly Thomas steps forward saying, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."  Whether Thomas is speaking of dying with Lazarus or with Jesus, is unclear, but his words nonetheless reveal a disciple ready to dive in and meet life's dangers head on.  Indeed, at first glimpse, we might call him Courageous Thomas.

We next notice Thomas in the narrative of the last supper.  Judas Iscariot has left to betray his master, and the writer of John's gospel essentially presents Jesus' "Last Lecture" to his disciples.  In the 14th chapter, Jesus tries to tell them where he is going, "In my Father's house there are many dwelling places...and I will go to prepare a place for you.  And you know the way to the place where I am going."  Any disciple would scratch her head as those mysterious words.  But it is Thomas, who speaks for us, "Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?"  Maybe we should refer to the Twin as the Forceful Disciple.

And finally Thomas takes the stage in today's passage from the 20th chapter of John, a text so significant and meaningful to the church that it appears EVERY YEAR, in our three-year lectionary cycle.  In other words, Thomas, the holdout, visits us annually, this Sunday after Easter.  The one who was not present that first Easter evening when the Risen Christ stood among them, gives voice to the doubts and disbelief rumbling in our own hearts and in those of every other hearer of the gospel through the ages.  Thomas claims he needs to see the master and touch his wounds before he can believe.  A week later, Jesus appears again and invites Thomas to do just that.  But instead of reaching out to touch the wounds, Thomas immediately exclaims "My Lord and my God!"  Our twin Thomas - the courageous, forceful, doubting, demanding disciple - comes to belief in seeing his teacher.  But his story does not end there.

Tradition claims that Thomas was the only disciple to preach the gospel beyond the Roman Empire, traveling to Syria and then to India in 52 A.D. where he started 7½ churches.  By the way, does anyone know what ½ a church is?  Maybe it was halfway built or something.  Like so many of the disciples, Thomas was eventually martyred for his faith.  We are left with a fairly impressive biography for an erstwhile doubter, don't you think?

As doubting Thomas transforms into believing disciple in our text today, he occasions a blessing for the rest of us, those who missed Easter.  Christ says, "Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

Jesus is speaking to us, the other 2 billion Christians in the world today, and all those who have come to believe without benefit of seeing the Risen Christ.  John gives us glimpses of Thomas' journey of faith.  But what about our stories?  What has led each of us to that hour we first believed?

Maybe you cannot remember a time without faith.  Your belief developed gradually, as a seed planted by the prayer of a parent or grandparent, carefully tended by family, friends, and church, nurtured by worship, Bible study, doubts, debates, and discussion.   Or perhaps you grew up believing primarily in yourself, until you faced failure in a marriage, or contracted a serious illness, until you suffered the loss of your livelihood or awoke one day wondering what your life was all about.  You may have been withering away in grief or imprisoned by an addiction, when God's amazing grace came flooding into your life.  For most of us, and I suspect even for Thomas and the other disciples, the life of faith is not simply an upward slope, but more of a jagged or twisted line, indicating times of doubt and turmoil, growth and enlightenment, detours and discovery.

How will little Clare come to believe?  Will she participate in Vacation Bible School?  In a confirmation class?  Will she one day be one of the millions of college dropouts - you know, a young baptized believer who takes a leave of absence from church for several years?  Will we play a part in Clare's journey of faith?  We've promised to walk with her and her family, fanning the flames of the Spirit in her life.

We may wonder what brought Carol to this day of baptism and public profession of faith?  Behind every member of the church there is a believer's story.  Each unique, yet bearing frequent and common themes of doubt and fear, grace and gratitude, confusion and clarity, peaks and valleys, twists and turns.

In John's Gospel, belief is never static.  A person is always in the process of 'believing,' that is, leaning into belief within a broken world.  Easter faith is not about certainty[ii], but about pursuing a relationship with the Living God who forever meets us where we are, even if it is out on the far edge of faith where we have forgotten how to believe.  Thankfully friends, Christ still refuses to let fearful hearts, locked doors or residual doubt, hinder his eternal breath of grace and peace.

[i] John Buchanan, p. 394, Feasting on the Word, Year A edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: WJK Press, 2010)

[ii] Lisa Hickman, Thomas > Doubt, On Scripture, Odyssey Networks 2012.


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