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'North moasaic 01 - Resurrection Chapel - National Cathedral - DC' photo (c) 2011, Tim - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/Here is the sermon I wrote for the second Sunday of Easter in 2012.

Making Room for Thomas
A Sermon on John 20:19-31

Ever since that Sunday night, Thomas has been stuck with a label, a negative label, an epithet: doubting Thomas.  Don’t be a doubting Thomas.  You don’t want to be like him.

This week I saw a cartoon that shows Thomas with his arms raised and his eyes wide open exclaiming, “All I’m saying is we don’t call Peter ‘Denying Peter!’ Why should I be saddled with this title?”

Why indeed?  Nobody in the story calls him that.  Nobody in the scripture lesson scolds Thomas.  Not the disciples.  Not Jesus.  No, not even Jesus.

Look closely. In this passage and in all the Easter stories, all the disciples had doubts and fears at one time or another.  All were struggling.  All needed help to recognize the living Christ.  It’s not fair to criticize Thomas for wanting what the others had received on the previous Sunday night.  None of them had recognized the risen Lord until he showed them his hands and side.  That’s what it says in verse 20.  He showed them, then they recognized him.

What’s more, in Luke’s version of the first Sunday evening encounter with the risen Christ, he INSISTS that they all look and that they all touch him.  Their reaction is a messy mix of joy and disbelieving and wondering.  In the Matthew 28, when the eleven see Jesus, they worship him, but some are still struggling with doubt even as they look and worship.

It’s not fair to make a negative example out of Thomas.  I think that view of Thomas comes out of reading a negative tone into Jesus’ voice that’s not really there.  Imagining that kind of tone, some artists’ paintings of this scene show Thomas in a very unflattering light.  They make him look hard-headed.  No, you sure don’t want to be like him!

One reason we read a negative tone into Jesus’ voice is that it is very difficult to translate the Greek text into English there.  “Stop doubting” is not a good translation of the Greek.  The Greek actually reads like this, “Don’t be apistos, but pistos.”  Pistos is an adjective that means having faith or believing.  Apistos means not having faith, disbelieving or unbelieving.  A more accurate translation is, “Don’t be unbelieving but believing.”  Jesus is inviting Thomas to move from not trusting towards trusting.  The tone is gracious and inviting.

Jesus doesn’t say, “What’s wrong with you?  Why didn’t you take the others’ word for it?”  Jesus came, spoke the word of peace to them all, including Thomas, and invited Thomas to look and to touch, which, remember, is what he invites everybody to do in the story in Luke.

Jesus is not saying, “Stop doubting this minute, and don’t ever doubt again.  Never, ever question again, and something’s wrong with you if you do.”

If that were the case, we would have to either ignore huge sections of scripture, many of Psalms, for example, where people are in pain and filled with struggle and questions and wondering where God is.  We either have to ignore those scriptures, or else write all those voices in scripture off as doubting Thomas voices, too.

That mix of faith and unfaith, trust and lack of trust, belief and unbelief is often how it is for the people of God.  The desperate, grieving father in the Gospel of Mark is a kindred spirit to Thomas when he cries out to Jesus, “I believe!  Help my unbelief!”  It’s not either or, either you’ve got your spiritual act together, or you don’t.  It’s both and.  It’s a continuum, it’s a spectrum between unfaith and faith, sometimes we’re closer to one end or the other.  Jesus invites us towards faith, and he doesn’t scold when we struggle in the middle.

As I looked at a number of paintings of the scene between Jesus and Thomas, I saw several that do a better job of interpreting the story.  They show Jesus with his arms out open, inviting.  He looks warm and welcoming. They look warm and welcoming.  And one artist even shows Jesus wrapping Thomas in his arms.  Jesus’ wounded hands are resting on Thomas.

Jesus is gracious and reassuring to Thomas and his kindred, but sometimes Christians are not.  They are less than gracious when they or someone else is having a struggle of the soul.  (more…)

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