Saturday, April 02, 2016

April 3, Easter 2, Thomas the Realist

Acts 5:27-32, Psalm 150, Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:19-31

Thomas was the last to believe that Christ arose from the dead and the first to believe that Christ was Lord and God. Why Thomas? Why was he the first to see it all?

Why wasn’t it Simon Peter who jumped to the daring conclusion, Simon on whom the Lord would build his church? Why wasn’t it the disciple John, the beloved one of Jesus, to intuit what no one had dared yet think, or even James, the third one of the inner circle, but Thomas, a disciple of the second rank, Thomas of whom we know so little, and who has come up only twice before in the story. It is none of these others, who first makes the audacious claim that Jesus is not just the Messiah, but Lord and God. Why Thomas?

As my wife Melody said to me yesterday, the gospels are short, but not simple. They never lose their capacity to surprise us. Here is a character we might have overlooked, and suddenly we see him in a new light. He comes out of the shadows and for the first time takes center stage and says his lines and then he steps aside and the Bible does not speak of him again. As pieces of literature, the gospels are short, and economical, but not simple, and always challenging our expectations.

Why Thomas? It’s not because he was a doubter. It’s too bad that the tradition has given him that title: “Doubting Thomas.” He is not called that by the Bible, and in this story it is a poor translation of the Greek to use that word. The Lord Jesus did not say to him what your English translation says he said to him.

What Jesus said to him, in the Greek, was something like this: “Don’t be unbelieving but believing.” Or, “Don’t exist unfaithful but faithful.” What Jesus says to him is terse and almost philosophical, with some wordplay in it, it’s epigrammatic, it’s meant for all of humanity, and it’s not a choice between doubt and belief but between unfaith and faith, infidelity and fidelity, unbelief and belief. It has little to do with doubt, you can doubt and still believe. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. One person has written that “doubt is the ants in the pants of faith.”

What little we know about Thomas is that he was a realist, at least according to John’s Gospel. In chapter 11, when Jesus and the disciples were staying over the Jordan River, outside of Judea, to keep from getting arrested, but then when Jesus decided to go back into Judea because of the death of his friend Lazarus, it was Thomas, the Realist, who drily said, “Let’s all go along, and let’s all die too.” And then, on the night before Jesus died, in the Upper Room, when Jesus was making his final speech to the disciples, and he told them, “You know the way where I am going,” it was Thomas, the Realist, who said, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?” Just sayin’. To which the Lord Jesus gave one of his great answers: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” It’s like Thomas is the set-up guy, the hand-off guy, in the Gospel of John.

Thomas the Realist. And then in this morning’s lesson it was that very realism that allowed him to see what the other disciples had not yet seen, and to make the leap in his belief beyond where the other disciples had yet believed. What the other disciples saw was that their Messiah was alive again. What Thomas saw was that their Messiah was their Lord and God. He suddenly saw the full reality of Jesus. Or I should say, he suddenly saw the full reality of God. He suddenly saw the full reality of everything that had just taken place. “Oh my God!” Yes, exactly. This was the real deal.

I haven’t figured out this story completely. I haven’t figured out the full combination of what it was about Jesus that he finally saw, what it was about the sight of his scars and his wounds or what it was in the sound of his invitation to Thomas that triggered that very first human recognition that this Jesus was somehow God, that this man descended from Abraham was impossibly the God of Abraham, that this particular Jew from Nazareth was the Lord God of Israel, and even more impossibly, the Creator of the world. Maybe it’s not for us to figure out how he suddenly saw it.

But I suspect it was connected with the gift that Jesus gave him, and in the stance in which Jesus addressed him. The stance of peace, of absolute forgiveness. I don’t mean peace as the absence of conflict, but peace as the positive reconstruction of the world, I mean peace as the active energy of welcome and embrace, I mean peace as active hospitality, peace as active invitation. And absolute forgiveness. So absolute as not even having to say it. Assuming it, not counting it, not holding some things as forgiven and some things as not, not holding against Thomas what he had said, not judging his attitude of realism but actually meeting him there, even welcoming it, “Yes, Thomas, I accept your conditions, try me.”

Within that gift and stance of Jesus. Thomas must have recognized himself, and saw himself as both judged and graciously justified, indeed, as seen, as fully seen, so that this one who had so fully seen him and yet welcomed him must be his Lord and his God.

I mean that’s how you come to God, right? And why. You want to be both rightly judged by God but also graciously justified. You want to be seen by God and welcomed by God. You want to be forgiven, and be at peace, but it’s more than that, you want to be understood by God. You want the understanding that comes with love. That’s a God you can believe in. Even when you cannot see. So this Thomas is for all of you. This is what your belief is like, constantly dealing with your unbelief, your constant choosing to believe again instead of giving up to unbelief.

What might help you and encourage you in this is that your belief is not the opposite of realism. As if by being a believer you are less realistic about the world. As if you are less realistic about the difficulty of peace, or less realistic about the very great risk you take in forgiving sins. You know these as realistically as any unbelievers do. But you are no less realistic about the alternatives. Belief is the next step up in realism, belief is how you see the full reality of the human soul, the full reality of evil in the world, the full reality of loss and grief, of scars in the hands and feet, and of gaping, unhealed wounds in peoples’ chests, yes, these are all true, and even these we must embrace in the courage of peace and with all the force of love.

This is the stance in which God addresses us and this is the gift which Jesus gave to Thomas and the gift which he breathed upon his disciples, this gift which has been breathed down mouth to mouth across the centuries and body to body to us right here to keep on giving to the world. This is the breath of life, a breathing uninterrupted in the church from that day until now, and from now into the future, and this is the life that you believe is real, because this is the life that smells of peace and has the fragrance of God’s love.

Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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