"What Does It Take To Believe?"
Jason W. Crosby, preaching
Click arrow to listen
Thomas has become the face of post-resurrection fear and doubt. He had a decent excuse, however. John’s gospel reports that he was not with the other disciples when Jesus appeared to them earlier. The disciples were a blue-collar bunch. And, like any group of average guys, I imagine that from time to time they gave one another a rough time. Maybe Thomas thought this was one of those instances. Maybe Thomas heard something in the other disciples’ voices that led him to believe they were joking. Maybe Thomas responded to the disciples telling him that they had seen the Lord in the way he did because he’d been burned before. Not this time guys. I am not going to believe you until I see the marks on his hands and feet, until I touch his pierced side. Whatever its source may be, most readers are drawn to Thomas and focus on him because of his doubt. Typically, Thomas is the primary character in a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of doubting the resurrection. Blessed are those who believe without needing physical evidence, who believe without feeling that it is necessary to see where the nails penetrated Jesus’ hands and feet and touch Jesus’ scars. This is one lesson to take away from today’s reading.
However, this passage is not really about Thomas. Like many of the other characters in John’s gospel we have come across in recent weeks – like Nicodemus, like the Greeks looking for Jesus after he arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover festival – Thomas is a minor character in this grand story through which we come to learn more about Jesus. This passage is really one that sheds more light on how Jesus operates in our world post-resurrection, and how all followers of Christ, then and now, are to live.
It’s not as if the other disciples had much to be proud of. Upon hearing the news that Christ had risen, the disciples do not flock to the tomb looking for Jesus with eyes of belief. They don’t take to the highways and byways in search of him. They don’t go beating the bushes. Instead, they lock the doors, turn off the lights, huddle in a dark corner, and hide. Jesus may have walked out of a tomb, but the disciples were looking to crawl into one. They didn’t just go into hiding for a day or two or three. A full week later the disciples are still living underground. They hid because they were scared. They were scared because they thought that if those with power learned of their association with the resurrected Lord that they would be killed. So, they try to dodge not only those in power, but the Risen Christ as well.
If you’re looking to sever a relationship, one of the best ways to do it is to avoid someone. It’s not a healthy way of dealing with someone else, but it is very effective at ensuring that a relationship will die. There may be no better way to kill a relationship than not returning a phone call, responding to an email, or defriending someone on Facebook. Ignoring someone usually sends the signal that you want a relationship to come to a close. This same principle also applies to the natural world. I do not have much of a green thumb. Don’t get me wrong, I love cutting grass, working in the yard, and pulling weeds. But, when it comes to those plants and flowers that require sustained attention to grow and flourish, it’s probably best that I not get involved. Every time I bring home a new plant that needs more attention than grass Kate just smiles. She knows that even though I will try my best to tend to it and give it what it needs, it’s only a matter of time before she’s the one caring for the plant. I’ll put the plant in a place where it doesn’t get enough sunlight. I’ll either overwater it or underwater it. I’ll neglect it and forget about it until it’s too late. Whether one intentionally or accidently ignores or neglects something typically the result is that something withers up and dies.
Our Risen Savior is far from typical, however. Christ just keeps coming. The disciples hide. Christ finds them. The disciples lock doors. Christ walks through them. The disciples are paralyzed by fear. Christ says to them, “Peace be with you.” Thomas’ doubt causes him to not believe. Christ gives Thomas what he needs in order to believe. We may ignore, doubt, or defriend Jesus. Yet, Christ continues to dwell with us. The resurrected Christ does not play by the rules of the natural world. Whereas avoidance or neglect may cause something to wither and die in the world we know, the one who overcame death, will not just roll over and give up that easily. What we find here is a tenacious Jesus. Christ’s love is one that will find us no matter we hide and no matter what barriers we construct. Lauren Winner in her memoir, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis writes, “Some days I’m not sure if my faith is riddled with doubt or whether, graciously, my doubt is riddled with faith. And yet…I keep living in a world that I know to be enchanted; and not left alone. I doubt; I am uncertain, I am restless, prone to wander. And yet glimmers of holy keep interrupting my gaze.”[i]
In the days following Easter celebrations, ministers often talk about suffering from post-Easter celebration fatigue. Last week, with the ringing of bells, shouts of alleluias, and proclamations that Christ the Lord is Risen, we blew the doors off what entombs, both Christ and us, so that we could see the Risen Savior in our midst. I suspect all those who experienced the energy and excitement of Easter, one the highest and holiest days of the year, may be feeling a little deflated these days. I must confess that I felt a little groggy and sluggish this week. Since last Sunday, the shadow of death of has crept back into our world and lives. Threatening missiles were launched, more grenades were lobbed at political opponents, the Trayvon Martin tragedy continued to unfold. Perhaps you’ve felt the stone covering your tomb rolling back and the light is less abundant in your midst now.
Whoever decided that the on the Christian calendar Easter is not just a day, but a season that runs from the day when we celebrate the resurrection of Christ to Pentecost was wise. For Christ calls us to be people who believe in resurrection not just for a day, but every day. It’s not terribly challenging to believe for a fleeting moment that Christ the Lord is risen, that death will not have the last word, that love and life will win in the end. It’s more challenging to believe in the resurrection day after day, after the pageantry of Easter Sunday worship fades and real life sets back in. What we are told here, in this exchange between Jesus and Thomas and the other disciples, however, is that the risen Savior just keeps coming at us, well beyond the pomp and circumstances of Easter Sunday worship, in the midst of our mundane day to day lives where death starts to get the better of us. Christ’s unwavering determination is what gives us reason to doubt our doubts. Christ keeps giving us just what it takes for us to continue to believe – a glimmer of holy, a dash of hope, a ray of light, a sense of peace, a touch of love.
There’s more here, however. Yes, we discover a tenacious God who will not let us go here, but we also find a directive. Not only will Jesus lovingly keep coming at us giving us what we need to believe in a resurrected Savior day after day, we are to go forth and give others a reason to believe as well. Not only are we to believe in resurrection, we are to practice it. Before Jesus and Thomas’ discussion, Jesus appeared to the disciples. John reports that Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Those who believe have also been called - called to partner with Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit to go forth into the world to help others see that death will not prevail when all is said and done. Jesus asks those who have experienced resurrection, not to go back from whence they came, but to live differently, to challenge and unravel those systems and structures and ways of being that perpetuate death. Not surprisingly, Wendell Berry paints a beautiful and accurate picture of what this kind of life looks like.
“Every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Listen to carrion - put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Jesus will keep coming at us, giving us what it takes for us to believe. Jesus simply asks us, if we believe it, to show it, to practice it, to be as tenaciously lovingly contrarian as we are able, so that others may catch a glimpse of what it takes to believe.
[i] Lauen Winner. Still: Notes of a Mid-Faith Crisis. New York: HarperCollins, 2012.
[ii] Wendell Berry. “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” The Mad Farmer Poems. Counterpoint Press, 2008.