“Seeing & Believing” Colchester Federated Church, April 16, 2023, (John 20:19-31) Second Sunday of Easter

Today is the Second Sunday of Easter.  We remember that Easter Sunday ushers in a season called Eastertide.  Eastertide lasts for 50 days and ends on Pentecost (May 28th this year).  UCC Minister Rev. Vince Amlin wrote a lovely reflection about Eastertide in a UCC Daily Devotional, sharing: “Easter, like Lent, is supposed to be a season: 50 days stretching to Pentecost; 7 weeks of celebration, resurrection, and joy.  It’s called Eastertide.  Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know. No one does.  Many of us observe 40 days of solemn introspection at Lent.  We give things up.  We take things on.  We remember we are dust.  We bury our hallelujahs.  Then, for one glorious morning, it’s lilies, and trumpets, and candy-filled plastic eggs: 40 parts Lent to 1 part Easter.  That’s the wrong recipe.  The original calls for 50x as much!  50x as many rolled away stones!  50x as many empty tombs! 50x as much death-defeating love!”[1]

On this Second Sunday of Easter, we still contemplate the mystery of resurrection.  We continue to give thanks for new life and that God keeps God’s promises.  We keep on celebrating that death didn’t get the last word on Easter Sunday.  We’re engaging with these Gospel stories that require us to make journeys from our heads to our hearts to better understand their meanings for our own lives.  Our congregation’s origami butterflies suspended in flight will remain in our sanctuary to bring us joy until Pentecost.  Because we are still celebrating death-defying love.  Hallelujah! 

The Easter story continues.  That’s the good news of these 50 days of Eastertide.  Easter Sunday is not the end of the journey, but only the beginning in a new and extraordinary way.  We move from Mary Magdalene and the other Mary at the tomb encountering the angel, the earthquake, and the stunned soldiers from Matthew’s Gospel to the disciples terrified and locked away behind closed doors in John’s Gospel.  John tells us that on the evening of Easter Sunday Jesus comes and stands among the frightened disciples behind those closed doors, saying, “Peace be with you.”[2]  Jesus shows them his hands and side and breathes on them, commanding them to receive the Holy Spirit.  Jesus tells the disciples that he is sending them out.  That if they forgive anyone’s sins, they are truly forgiven.  And if they don’t, their sins won’t be forgiven. 

To summarize this encounter with the Risen Christ—Jesus proclaims peace, desires to send his followers out from hiding, breathes on the disciples to receive the Holy Spirit, and encourages them to forgive peoples’ sins.  We can understand that this is a remarkable mystical moment occurring that evening behind closed doors.  Jesus meets the disciples as they are hidden away and filled with fear, offering peace and giving them courage.  The only remaining disciple who is not present during this encounter is Thomas. 

When the disciples tell Thomas what happened, Thomas relates that he won’t believe a word of their testimonies unless he sees for himself.  Thomas goes even further, saying that he needs to put his fingers in the wounds left by the nails in Jesus’ hands and his hand in Jesus’ side that had been pierced by a spear.  Unless that happens, Thomas will not believe.  Perhaps a better way to explain Thomas’ reaction is to realize that unless Thomas can see and touch Jesus himself, Thomas cannot believe that love ultimately won.  Maybe Thomas wanted to believe, but he simply can’t go there yet.  Let’s keep in mind that Jesus had just died.  Folks were grieving, and perhaps this news that Jesus had risen seemed too good to be true.

Thomas gets his chance to experience the mystery of resurrection a mere eight days later—the mystery we witnessed with the Marys on that first Easter Sunday and the mystery we continue to contemplate in Eastertide.  Because Jesus shows up among the disciples once again saying, “peace be with you.”[3]  Even though the doors of the house where the disciples were staying were locked, Jesus enters the house and stands among them.  In our Gospel story Jesus invites Thomas to do exactly what he asked for, “Put your finger here.  Look at my hands.  Put your hand into my side.  No more disbelief.  Believe!”[4] 

Thomas has gone down in history as “Doubting Thomas” because of this Gospel story found only in the Gospel according to John.  Sometimes this story gets discussed and preached about with an edge.  We modern believers may want to be a little self-righteous and question how Thomas could be so dense after having spent time with Jesus.  Jesus performed many miracles.  Jesus predicted his own death and resurrection.  Thomas should have known better.  But let’s cut Thomas some slack.  Because Thomas serves as an amazing example of authentic faith, and the authentic faith that can come about because of one’s doubts.  Not despite our doubts, but because of our doubts. 

It was the theologian Frederick Buechner who once wrote, “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep.  Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.  They keep it awake and moving.”[5]  Doubts keep our faith awake and moving. 

It is not a coincidence that Thomas has one of the most amazing declarations of faith in the entire New Testament after wrestling with his doubts and seeking an authentic encounter with the Risen Christ.  Thomas’ story can be compared to the Old Testament story of Jacob wrestling all night long with an angel.  Just when it looks like their wrestling match has come to a draw and Jacob’s thigh is hurt and the dawn is breaking, Jacob tells the angel, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”[6]  Jacob held on to the angel for the blessing that came out of the struggle.  It is an incredible story.

Thomas responds to Jesus’ compassion by declaring, “My Lord and my God!”[7]  Thomas comes to understand Jesus to be God-with-us after naming and claiming the depths of his doubts.  He comes to faith in the Risen Christ after admitting that he needed an authentic encounter in order to believe.  In his own way, Thomas hung on for a blessing.  Jesus showed up in that space with compassion.  Not judgment.  Compassionate understanding and even offering for Thomas to touch him to see the truth of Jesus’ journey from death to resurrection.  The text never says that Thomas does touch Jesus.  The offer alone is enough to make Thomas respond with, “My Lord and my God!” 

Sometimes we encounter moments where the future is uncertain, the path forward is unclear, the next part of the journey is scary or intimidating, or simply beyond our ability to comprehend.  Sometimes we are built up by our faith and other times we are emptied by our doubt.  Let us remember Thomas’ story of seeing and believing.  Let us remember that doubts keep our faith awake and moving.  And out of our struggles can even come a blessing.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Vince Amlin, “Hallelujah is Forever,” UCC Daily Devotional, April 10, 2023, https://www.ucc.org/daily-devotional/daily-devotional-for-small-group-discussion-hallelujah-is-forever-2/
[2] John 20:19, CEB.
[3] John 20:26, CEB.
[4] John 20:27, CEB.
[5] Frederick Buechner, “Doubt” from Frederick Buechner Quote of the Day, October 26, 2016, https://www.frederickbuechner.com/quote-of-the-day/2016/10/26/doubt
[6] Genesis 32:26, CEB.
[7] John 20:28, CEB.

Photo by Matt on Unsplash