Sermon April 7   Doubting Thomas (John 20:19ff)                      Rev. Betsy Hogan

So, I don’t know about you… but each time in my life that I’ve been lucky enough to see an eclipse – which is only twice before now – I do find myself imagining what it would have been like in ancient times not to know what it was. And even worse, of course, not to know it would end.

The sun slowly going black in the middle of the day, until it was completely covered. Those few minutes of utter despair when it was gone. When it was surely gone forever. And even as it slowly returned, the fearsomeness of knowing that now that’s a thing. The sun can apparently disappear. It’s a thing. It can happen. It might happen again tomorrow. Or next week. 

They didn’t know why it left. They didn’t know how it returned. But what I wonder most is whether if it DID happen again, say roughly thirty years later, did those who’d already experienced it panic in the same way? Or did they say to themselves and to everyone younger, “Don’t worry. Don’t panic. We’ve seen this before, and the sun does come back.” What I wonder most about is whether that worked.

How blessed are those who have not seen… and yet believe. That is, of course, Jesus’ pointed observation to Thomas the Doubting Disciple in the closing verses of the passage from John’s gospel that we heard this morning.

‘Have you believed because you’ve seen me’ Jesus rolls his eyes at poor old Thomas? ‘How blessed are those who have NOT seen… and yet have come to believe.’

It’s really a little rich, at this point in the Upper Room, and only a week after the resurrection. It’s really a little rich when, after all, there is as yet literally not one single person who has “not seen” but “has come to believe”. 

But this is really just Jesus looking ahead. It’s not really about Thomas at all, even though he’s the one who takes the heat and gets the permanent nickname of Doubting Thomas. But it’s not about Thomas at all, no different from any of the rest of the disciples in having to see before he believes.

It’s about all the rest of us. It’s really about “How blessed they’ll all be -- those who won’t have the chance to see, those who won’t EVER see -- and yet will come to believe. And yet will manage to believe.”

This is the passage that calls to mind for me, every year, that last speech of Martin Luther King Jr. The speech he made before going to Memphis to join the striking sanitations workers there.

That last speech that became iconic because it proved so uncanny. King reflecting on the ever-present hovering reality of the danger he was constantly in. Noting – not with pleasure, but also not with anger – that he might not survive to make it to the Promised Land. To see his dream realized, of an America in which the likelihood of a young person getting a decent education, finding work, buying a house, surviving a confrontation with police, would depend not on the colour of their skin but on the content of their character.

Because he recognized America wasn’t there yet. And maybe wouldn’t be for a while. And he recognized also that his life could be cut short anytime. As of course it was, the very next day.

But what King raised up in that last speech was the image of Moses. Moses, who had put in the time – who had laboured through the wilderness, who had led, who had guided, who had DRAGGED the people of Israel to a Promised Land of freedom, to a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey --

But who never made it there himself. Moses who at the end of his life is summoned by God to a mountaintop only for a glimpse from a distance. And dies before they arrive.

How blessed are those who don’t see, but manage to believe. Whose literal on-the-ground experience does NOT present evidence of promise and dream fulfilled. Who see nothing around them to suggest that chaos and suffering and death will ever yield to resurrection -- and yet who still can’t help believing it will.

We so often spiritualise this passage from John’s gospel, this gathering in the Upper Room. We so often spiritualise this challenge delivered through Jesus to his followers, to believe believe believe in the ‘fact’ of Jesus’ resurrection even despite the absence anymore of physical empirical measurable proof.

And will we, unlike Thomas, be able to make that leap into faith as the conviction of things not seen? And can we, unlike Thomas, set aside our need for certainty long enough to embrace the patently scientific impossibility of resurrection solely on the basis of trust?

But the problem, when we spiritualise this whole episode into an acceptance or not of the capacity of Jesus to have physically risen from the dead, and trotted around Jerusalem and Galilee appearing here and there to his disciples and eating fish and letting them touch his hands and his side –

The problem with spiritualising this whole episode into Do We Tick YES in the box that says I believe that Jesus’ resurrection really happened –

Is that it diminishes the full import of what believing in resurrection actually means in real life and on the ground. NOT as a spiritual question or even a faith question but as a perspective question and an orientation to the world question and a living in the world question.

Because those disciples, gathered in the Upper Room a week after Jesus has first appeared to them? It’s crucial for us to notice that they are STILL hiding in there. They’re still huddled behind those locked doors. 

They’ve all seen – all of them except for Thomas. They’ve all seen Jesus risen and they all believe. The resurrection has happened. God has triumphed. Christ is risen, risen indeed – but those doors are still locked.

Because this isn’t, as it happens, just about ticking the box saying YES Jesus’ resurrection really happened. Like that’s somehow magic and now the disciples are… unassailable.

If this was only about ticking the box saying YES Jesus’ resurrection really happened, the disciples would have thrown open the doors to that Upper Room and marched triumphantly out into the streets of Jerusalem and faced down every Roman centurion and perfidious collaborator they met.

But they didn’t. It’s a week later and they’re still in that Upper Room. And the doors are still locked. This episode in this morning’s passage isn’t about “now we’ve seen, now we believe, now it’s all good”. This episode is just the beginning.

So it’s crucial for us, I think, to notice that the disciples still have the doors locked. To un-spiritualise this Upper Room event and recognize that Jesus knew that the true measure of the disciples’ belief in the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen –

Isn’t ever going to be achieved inside that Upper Room with their perfect proof, no matter what glories they see there, or what boxes get ticked.

Because the true measure of the disciples’ belief in the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen, Jesus knows, is only going to be achieved when they open those locked doors and step out into the chaotic and suffering wilderness that humanity unleashes and look reality in the eye – and find, even against those odds, that they still believe… 

..that people are truly good at heart, as Anne Frank wrote. That the dream would be fulfilled, as Martin Luther King Jr proclaimed. That it’s Godness and goodness that have the last word.

The true measure of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection, in anyone’s belief in his resurrection, Jesus knows, only happens when we dare to step outside those locked doors into a world that makes us depressed, that makes us despair, that tries to crush our spirits, and declare with our living that it can’t and it won’t. Because goodness and Godness persist and prevail and love matters. And no matter how hard the world tries to crush them, it can’t. Because injustice and wrongness don’t ever get the last word. 

It’s astonishing to me how often, how routinely, people of faith are dismissed as being naïve and weak-natured and easily led. It’s imagined, perhaps, that we keep ourselves locked inside an Upper Room deriving easy comfort from patently unproveable assurances of things hoped for and convictions of things not seen.

But it actually takes a courageous spirit to live passionately a resurrection belief right now, in this world the way it is and seeing clearly the way it is. It’s been the cornerstone of every liberation theology that’s arisen in oppressed Christian communities around the globe, from the 1950s Black Liberation theology that fueled Martin Luther King in his mission, to indigenous liberation theologies in Latin America and Asia and Africa, to the Christian movements for full inclusion regardless of gender or orientation or disability. All of which have been about resistance and advocacy and courage. 

Because it takes courage to live fiercely a resurrection belief that it’s God who’ll have the last word on oppression. It takes courage to live fiercely the conviction that God desires what’s good and right to prevail, and what’s good and right will prevail. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Nor is it easy. Nor is it necessarily constant or unwavering or without times of overwhelming despair. There’s a reason, even when they’d regained courage, there’s a reason the disciples kept going back to that Upper Room, week after week after week, to regroup and find their feet again. Because there were surely times – there had to have been, there are for us – when they lost the thread. 

When a shadow started moving over the sun and they caught themselves momentarily thinking “but what if it doesn’t come back”. And for a few brief moments or as long as it took, it was fake it till you make it, leaning on God to carry them through.

It's not ticking a box. It wasn’t for Thomas OR for the rest of the disciples. It’s… how then shall I live. Out there in the world and looking reality in the eye, but fiercely believing that there’s a path through to goodness and justice and well-being for all – and living firm on that path. 

It takes courage, living as resurrection people. How blessed we are that we don’t do it alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.