Doubting…? Thomas – Sermon for Divine Mercy Sunday on John 20

The Second Sunday of Easter is sometimes called Divine Mercy Sunday. The appointed gospel for this day is always St. John’s account from the evening of the resurrection, and then a week later with St. Thomas. This gospel account shows us, in vivid clarity, that God is merciful—quietly literally coming to us, reaching out to us, and giving us his peace. It’s this peace that is the ultimate mission of God. Not peace in the sense that we often think of it, but rather a restoration of things to God’s order from the beginning of creation. A peace we call “Shalom”—the peace that surpasses all understanding. And so as we continue through this Easter season and beyond, consider how God reaches out to you in the midst of your life, in the midst of things we might not always understand and in the midst of all our happy moments, and consider how God is restoring peace, harmony, serenity around you—or perhaps, even through you.

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Say we have a baseball player. He’s played 2517 games, over the course of 22 seasons. His batting average is .289, with 2715 hits. You don’t have to be a baseball expert to know that 2715 hits is a lot of hits to accrue. This player has 1077 runs scored, 498 doubles, 49 triples, 174 home runs, 1208 runs batted in—that is, the number of times his plays resulted in a run being scored. Over the course of his career, this player stole 183 bases, had 450 walks, and slugged an average of .408.

Not a bad player, eh?

These aren’t made up stats.

They’re the real stats, of a real player—one from the 1980s.

These are the career stats for the infamous Bill Buckner.

Yes—that Bill Buckner. The one who, playing for the Red Sox in the 1986 World Series, when the game was already in extra innings, allowed the ball to dribble to the left side of his glove, through his legs, and into right field, giving the New York Mets the winning run. For Red Sox fans, Buckner’s error embodied the “Curse of the Bambino,” the Great Bambino, Babe Ruth, who’d also played for the Red Sox before heading off to New York, but for the Yankees.

Buckner soon became the scapegoat for a frustrated fan base, even receiving death threats and getting heckled and booed by some of his own home fans. He was the focal point of derision from the fans of opposing teams on the road too—especially when he faced the Mets. To this day, if you say someone bucknered something, it means they failed, and failed miserably, at something that should have been easy—a failure that is amplified by the significance of the success. Suffice it to say, that despite his impressive, solid career, Bill Buckner is remembered for one mishap, for one moment that has come to define him.

Today’s gospel account is like the story of Bill Buckner. We have the disciples together in the upper room on the night of the resurrection, locked away for fear of authorities coming after them. They have no idea what might happen to them as disciples of Jesus—or worse, friends, as Jesus had called them all at his last meal with them. But we’re told Thomas isn’t with them that night. Jesus shows up to the disciples who are there. They see him, like Mary Magdalene had seen him in the morning, and he breathes the Holy Spirit upon them and they receive his peace. The other disciples tell Thomas about this when he gets back, but he doesn’t believe them. Remember these are the same disciples who didn’t believe Mary in the morning…Thomas says he won’t believe until he’s touched Jesus’ wounded hands and wounded side.

Fast forward a week later. Jesus shows up again among them. This time, Thomas is there. Jesus once more gives the disciples his peace, the power of the Holy Spirit, but this time he also invites Thomas to touch him. “Take your finger and examine my hands,” Jesus says. “Take your hand and stick it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” And from that word, that one word, “doubt,” we have the name we associate with Thomas to this day—Doubting Thomas. Thomas has been and continues to be remembered in the minds of not only Christians, but anyone who has some level of cultural knowledge, as Doubting Thomas. To this day, if someone calls someone a doubting Thomas, you’re saying that person is unjustifiably skeptical and refuses to believe something without proof. It’s not meant as a term of endearment.

And yet, is that why we should remember Thomas? Thomas is one of the few disciples who speaks in John’s gospel—three times, in fact. Once when Lazarus has died, but before Jesus has raised him. Once at the Last Supper. And finally a week after the resurrection in the upper room when he touches Jesus’ wounds.

And what does Thomas say when he speaks the other times?

When Jesus tells the disciples that Lazarus is dead, Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” We might easily get the impression that was some sort of a pessimism, resignation to fate, but that’s not it at all. These words reflect Thomas’ budding understanding that his dedicated loyalty to Jesus and his determination to accompany him at all costs is the heart of the gospel. Thomas already has an inkling of what Jesus will reveal to Martha after raising her brother—“I am the Resurrection and the Life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Thomas may not get it fully yet, but he’s starting to understand, he’s starting to believe. His words here are truly commendable.

At the Last Supper, Peter asks Jesus where he’s going, to which Jesus answers that they can’t now follow him where he’s going. They’ll follow later. And they’ll all know the way. Here, Thomas asks Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” This question opens the opportunity for Jesus to utter one of the most iconic lines of Scripture—“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Again, Thomas is at a focal point, in the thick of the important matters. He asks the right question that gets to the heart of the matter. Jesus is what’s important. Jesus has come down from heaven to reconcile us and all creation to God, to conquer sin—anything and everything that stands in the way of overflowing life that God first intended. And Jesus is the way that happens.

And so this episode with Thomas a week after the resurrection must be viewed in light of who Thomas is. Thomas is the one who has been there at critical moments. Thomas was there when Jesus proclaimed that he is the resurrection and the life, that relationship with him means life without limits—no limits such that even death cannot stand in the way. And Thomas was there to ask the right question about how to enjoy this life—through Jesus. Through following the way we know the truth and we have life. Through following Jesus, we have a relationship with him, and we live and move and have our being in him. He is our all and all…

But what does that look like? What does it mean to follow the way, to know the truth, and to have life?

Sometimes—no, always—it means acknowledging things the way they are. When Thomas says he won’t believe unless he sees the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands or puts his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in his side, he’s not denying Jesus. He’s saying that he can’t have a true relationship with Jesus without honestly confronting the unpleasantness of life, the unpleasantness of truth, the unpleasantness of the way. Because you see—Thomas knows that the way, the truth, and the life means, demands death before newness of life can happen. To be a follower of Jesus, to follow the way, to know the truth, to have life, we must first die to sin before rising to newness of life. Only then can we know the true blessing of relationship with God. And it’s precisely this that Thomas gets—from Jesus.

Jesus reaches out to him. He reaches out in mercy. He meets Thomas where he is, in the midst of his need. He reaches out with his wounded hands and shows his pierced side, and provides exactly what Thomas needs, not only to have a full relationship with Jesus, but to proclaim it—“My Lord and my God!” In the whole gospel of John, Thomas’ words here are the strongest confession of faith. He is the only one who calls Jesus God directly, and owns him as his own God. He is the only one who declares, in a word, “My all and all!”

And yet, it’s not for this strong confession, it’s not for his wrestling with what his relationship with God means for him, it’s not in understanding that Jesus is the key to everything that we remember Thomas.

No—we choose to remember him for one moment that has come to define him—a moment that many, many wrongly believe to be a mishap, but in fact is nothing more than the fertile ground of faith. Without acknowledging the pains of life, we cannot enjoy the blessings of life. Thomas knows this, and he shows us that throughout John’s gospel. We ought to remembering Thomas, not as Doubting Thomas, but as Confessing Thomas…

And what’s true for Thomas is true for us. We may feel defined by one thing about ourselves—despite the complexity of who we are. And yet one moment, one event, one trauma, one illness, one death, one choice, one error doesn’t define us. We are wonderfully made, made in the image of God, and just as God is full of different aspects that defy easy labeling, so too are we full of different aspects that defy easy labeling.

And God knows that about us, and reaches out to us in mercy, in the midst of our need, right where we are. God is always merciful. God always comes to us and says to us, “Live in the relationship I want with you.” God doesn’t judge us when we have moments of doubt or uncertainty, but instead reaches out to us with reminders that he knows what it’s like to live a human life—pain and joy alike.

In Jesus, God knows all our stats. In Jesus, God plays ball with us, so to speak. God knows everything, the good and the bad. It doesn’t matter to God if we’ve bucknered or if we’ve notch up grand slam after grand slam. God loves us for who we are—not what we’ve done or not done. God loves and calls us his own, his children, and just like his beloved Son Jesus, nothing will stand in the way of God’s love for us. God is our biggest fan.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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