by the Reverend Nancy Emmel Gunn
Deacon Nancy delivered this sermon on April 11, 2021.
This is a tough day to show up for church. The first Sunday after Easter, Easter being the biggest day of our Christian year. I expect there are remnants of Easter in and around our St. John’s courtyard from that glorious day last Sunday. Evidence of a celebration, like plastic cups left on every surface after a party or Christmas wrapping strewn all over the floor after the presents are all opened. Perhaps we left behind a plastic Easter egg or two, or maybe the “He is Risen” banners still hang in the windows of the newly redecorated Rector’s office in the Wainwright building. Evidence that we celebrated Jesus’ resurrection but the big party is over.
Today, the first Sunday after the celebration, we hear the story of Thomas. You don’t need to be a Christian to know about Thomas. He must be the only disciple whose name gets thrown around regularly in secular conversation. People say, “She’s a Doubting Thomas.” Its not used as a compliment, like “She is evidence based” or “She requires a basis on which to form her opinions.” No, to be a Doubting Thomas is to be a kill-joy, someone who is stubborn, untrusting, who refuses to go along with the reasoned opinions of others.
Our state of Missouri is called the Show Me State. We brag about this, because we find this somehow flattering. We will not accept the word of others. We want to be shown. We could call ourselves the Doubting Thomas state, but I suspect that would not read well on our license plates.
Thomas gets a bad rap in how we interpret this passage. Ironically this bad rap is without basis. The Gospel passage opens describing that this was the evening on the first day of the week after Jesus’ death. The disciples were locked in a house, fearful and despairing. Jesus suddenly stood among them offering words of comfort: “Peace be with you.” He showed them his hands and feet. Then he does this amazing and bizarre thing- he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit…” Christ shows up with his friends, reveals his wounds, and breathes onto them the very breath of life. Thomas wasn’t there so he missed the whole thing.
The disciples were thrilled and when Thomas rejoined them, they told Thomas they had seen Jesus. The others had been in the house, had seen Jesus’ wounds, felt his breath upon them. They had the experience of the risen Christ so of course they believed. Thomas is no different than the rest of his friends. Thomas did not believe because he had not seen. The disciples didn’t believe Mary when, in our Gospel last week, she reported she had seen Christ alive at the tomb. Rather, Peter and the one who Jesus loved ran to see Jesus for themselves. Thomas like the other disciples wants to see the evidence. He was not satisfied with hearsay.
When Jesus comes back the next week and offers Thomas his proof, Jesus immediately directs Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” And then Thomas believes.
We really are like Thomas. In our heads perhaps too much. Not wanting to be gullible. Wanting evidence. This is not a bad thing. Like Thomas, we want to experience Christ for ourselves.
But unlike Thomas, unlike the rest of the disciples, we have to believe without laying eyes on the Risen Christ. Jesus tells us: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” That is us today. That is the millions of Christians that since that first century have come to believe without touching Christ’s hands and feet.
In Jesus’ hands and feet, in his wounds, we find ourselves. We know that he suffered, as we suffer. We have compassion for his bleeding body, hanging from a cross. We feel a kinship with his humanness. We enter our relationship with Christ through his wounds.
Detail from Hans Holbein, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
There is another important theme in this passage that sometimes gets overlooked with Thomas’ story. Thomas missed an important part of that first evening when the disciples witnessed Christ. On that first night, Jesus breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This was further blessing upon the disciples, another revelation of Christ’s divinity and an action to pass his mission on to them.
The Old Testament is filled with references to God breathing life into his people. In Genesis 2: 7 we find:
...then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.
Then there is Job 33:4:
“The Spirit of God has made me,
And finally in Isaiah 42:5 we read:
Thus says God the Lord,
Jesus invokes his Father when he uses breath to impart the Holy Spirit into the disciples.
The Episcopal writer Barbara Brown Taylor beautifully illustrates the power of breath. She describes an occasion when she was attending a conference for religious leaders held in North Carolina. Desmond Tutu was in attendance and was asked to baptize a baby. This was a special needs child with Down’s Syndrome and the family felt some urgency in having the child baptized. Tutu of course agreed and a large impromptu baptism service was held that included some three hundred attendees of the conference. Before he anointed the child, Tutu slowly breathed over the font, making the sign of the cross with his breath. Taylor describes this as a powerful holy moment, this breathing on the water. Tutu’s act of expelling breath recalls Jesus passing on the power of the Holy Spirit to his disciples.
It would have been thrilling though to be there with the disciples, to have experienced Jesus with them, to be present for his teaching, to be in the company of God’s own Son. But we are far too late to that party. We join with our forbearers and believe without seeing; that is the essence of faith. We believe first because we have been taught to believe. Then we believe as our faith matures because we have seen in a different way. We have experienced the things that God does, the miracles that God performs, the prayers answered, the comforts given, the richness of a life that depends on God. Unlike the disciples, we may not know what Jesus looks like, but we know what it feels like to see his work among us, to experience his presence, and to hear his words held in the life and breath of each other. Amen
The Reverend Nancy Emmel Gunn is a transitional deacon in the Diocese of Missouri, currently serving at St. John's.
Various members of the St. John's congregation contribute to this blog. For editorial suggestions, contact Jeff McIntire-Strasburg at firstname.lastname@example.org
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