Every year, on this second Sunday of the Easter season, we have this Gospel reading. And virtually every year, I speak a word on behalf of Thomas. Because of this passage, we remember him as Doubting Thomas. And it is easy to criticize him. Thomas refuses to believe that Christ has risen without first seeing Christ and, just to make sure, actually touching Christ’s wounds.
Jesus himself implies that Thomas asked too much. Jesus says “those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” are “blessed.” By implication, Thomas receives a lesser blessing since he had to see in order to believe.
We could even go one step farther. We have not seen Christ, at least not in bodily form the way the apostles did. And yet we believe. In our Gospel reading, Jesus blesses people like us. Maybe we are justified in criticizing Thomas. We can read this story as highlighting our own superiority to the one who doubts, the one who has to see in order to believe.
But that cannot be right. Jesus is quite clear that we are beloved children of God. But Jesus was not in the habit of stroking people’s egos. Over and over again, Jesus had to tell his disciples that they should not be comparing themselves with each other, evaluating each other, asserting their own superiority to their brothers and sisters in Christ.
God knows we often need that message too. No, we can be sure this story is NOT about how much better we are than Thomas. Something else is going on.
So what does this passage mean? What good news does it proclaim? What is the lesson for us here?
Let’s go back to that first Easter morning. Mary Magdalene and the other women went to Jesus’ tomb so they could grieve and so they could properly care for Jesus’ corpse. These women, courageous and loyal though they were, did not yet believe in the resurrection. As we know, the risen Lord appeared to them. And still, Mary could not see Christ for who he was. Only when Jesus called her name was Mary able to see. And only after seeing was Mary able to believe. That was our reading for last Sunday.
Today we keep going. Mary and her companions returned to the apostles to announce the good news of great joy that Christ was risen. And, Luke tells us, “these words seemed to [the apostles] an idle tale, and they did not believe [the women]” (24:11).
Peter and John raced to the tomb to check Mary’s story and found it empty, just as Mary had said. But Peter and John didn’t see Christ that morning, and Peter and John did not yet believe. So they returned to their hiding place and locked the doors behind them for fear of what might happen next.
Hours go by. That evening, “Jesus came and stood among [his disciples] and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” Jesus showed them his wounds. And, at last they believed. John tells us, “they rejoiced [now that] they saw the Lord.”
But poor Thomas wasn’t there. And Thomas didn’t believe the resurrection because, like every other disciple in this story, Thomas needed to see the risen Christ in order to believe.
Thomas was no more a doubter than every other follower of Jesus in the days immediately after Christ’s resurrection. Thomas needed what they all needed. Thomas needed a personal encounter with the risen Lord.
But where does that leave us? We can’t see Jesus standing right in front of us. We can’t touch Jesus’ wounds. We can’t eat with Jesus, or do any of the other things that the disciples did with Jesus while he was bodily present in the weeks between his resurrection and his ascension.
We have the reports of the apostles. But Mary’s report was not enough to convince the other disciples. The apostles’ report was not enough to convince Thomas. Their testimony wasn’t good enough for each other. And the fact is, their testimony isn’t good enough for us either. Fortunately for them, they could see Jesus physically present. We can’t. So what helps us believe, even without seeing?
Our reading gives us the answer, and this is really good news that we need to hear over and over again. After greeting the disciples, “[Jesus] breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
In that moment, the disciples received some spiritual gifts which were unique to them. But every Christian, from that first Easter straight through to today, has also received the Holy Spirit.
We can receive the Spirit in lots of ways. But the Spirit is promised to us in baptism.
Here’s the language we use at every baptism. Harvey, or Carrie, or Benjamin, or Nicholas, or whoever, “you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
Two thousand years after Christ ascended to heaven, we can’t see Christ bodily present except in rare acts of extraordinary grace. But for two thousand years, the Holy Spirit has empowered Christians, who have not seen Christ in that way, still to believe.
If we were perfect saints, that might be enough. We have been redeemed by Christ and touched by the Holy Spirit. What more do we need?
But life is considerably more complicated than that. We struggle with faith sometimes, of course. Doubt is part of the journey of faith for most of us, as it was for Thomas and all the other disciples all those centuries ago.
Thankfully, the Holy Spirit persists. The Holy Spirit nudges us along. And the Holy Spirit brings us together as the household of God.
And an amazing thing happens. We gather, in Christ’s name, and Christ is with us. We share the Eucharist. And in some mysterious way, Christ is present in the sacrament of his body and blood. We do see Christ after all.
And the Holy Spirit swirls around. And even as we struggle, our lives are changed, and we become a little more the people that God created us to be. We experience the move we see Thomas make, the move from doubt through sight to adoration.
At least, that is how it normally works. But not now.
Now we can’t gather, at least not physically. Now we can’t experience the fullness of sacramental grace. Now we can’t experience ourselves as the body of Christ, at worship or in mission, at least not as we normally do. I long to gather in worship, to feel a part of the body of Christ, to share Eucharist face to face, to see Christ in the sacrament and in the community. Eventually I will. But right now, I can’t.
We do our best. We are gathered now, in a virtual way. We have heard God’s word. We will share a virtual Eucharist. We are praying. But it is not the same.
And this brings us to the real good news of our Gospel reading for this moment, good news we have never so needed to hear as now. These are my words. But this is Christ’s message.
Blessed are those who cannot see me right now, those who cannot gather, those cannot share Eucharist in the normal way. Blessed are they because, even in this time, the Holy Spirit continues to work on them, individually and collectively. Blessed are they because I am with them. Blessed are they because their faith endures.
And to that I say, thanks be to God. In Christ’s name. Amen. Alleluia!
 BCP, 308.
4/20/2020 09:25:16 am
Do you suppose that God purposely had the apostles experience the doubt about the resurrection in order to make them realize just how difficult it would be to convince others once they started preaching?
4/20/2020 11:04:54 am
I have just been talking to a friend about the strange benefit of times of trial, struggle, and doubt. I think the disciples' experience of doubt must surely have helped them as they presented the gospel to others. Such times can also serve as a reminder that God is in charge, not us, and that, however gifted we may be, humility remains an essential part of the Christian life.
4/21/2020 03:10:04 pm
Interesting question, Mary. I also wonder if doubting, in a counterintuitive way helps to strengthen our faith. We doubt, we question, then we emerge with a stronger, deeper faith. Sometimes this deeper faith seems to happen not because we have received answers to our questions, but because we are humbled by how unanswerable these questions can be.
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Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan