A sermon, based on John 20.19-31, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday of Easter, April 8, 2018
A few weeks ago, Pontheolla and I saw the movie, The Black Panther, which tells the story of the king of the mythological, hyper-technologically-advanced African nation of Wakanda. The Black Panther is the inspiration of the Marvel Comics gurus Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who, amazingly to me, in 1966, amid the turmoil of the formal Civil Rights Era, dreamed of a black superhero.
We loved the movie. Countless others share our affection. For in the past month-and-a-half since its release, The Black Panther has grossed over a billion dollars in ticket sales worldwide. And until we saw it, nearly a billion (well, not that many, but many) people who had seen it told us: “You must see this movie!”
I’m a native skeptic. If you tell me that I must do something, almost always my initial reaction is: “Really?”
Being fair to myself, my response has less to do with my mistrust of your counsel and more to do with my sense that we, you and I, always are individuals. Your experience is not mine. My experience is not yours. Thus, your fascination with a movie or book or restaurant or travel destination may or may not be mine. Hence, I may or may not follow your recommendation and check it out.
Thank God, Thomas was not like me!
Devastated by the death of Jesus, Thomas does not join his fellow disciples locked away behind closed doors in their communal grief and fear, hiding from those who killed Jesus and might be looking for them, too. Thomas, as many do at the time of death, suffers his sorrow in the solitude of his own company.
Thank God for the compassion of the disciples. After the resurrected Jesus appears to them, they hasten to find Thomas, declaring, “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas, a native skeptic, is unsure whether he can believe and accept the testimony of his friends. Their experience had not been his and his experience has not been theirs. He gives voice to those words that forever have labeled him, oft disparagingly, as a disloyal doubter: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
Nevertheless, no, truly for this reason, Thomas is my superhero.
Every year on the Sunday after Easter Day, after we proclaim the greatest Christian truth that Jesus Christ is raised from the dead, we read about doubting Thomas. For the relationship between faith, that capacity to say, “I believe…”, and doubt, that willingness to admit, “I wonder…” is essential. Doubt fuels, feeds faith. The shadowy path called “question” can lead to the bright destination called “clarity.”
In this, Thomas shows the way…
First, Thomas isn’t only skeptical of his fellow disciples’ report of seeing Jesus, he also is able to discern, to come to know for himself, and to declare, to say for himself, what it will take for him to believe. This is another form of clarity.
Second, Thomas, respectful of his own integrity, does not, dares not profess to believe something he doesn’t believe. Moreover, mindful of the potential self-inflicted harm of non-committal conformity to the crowd (for one can lose one’s soul), Thomas does not, dares not imprison his unbelief in the silent cage of his own heart. He speaks up.
Third, nevertheless, Thomas is no rigidly prejudiced soul who says, “This is what I believe (or do not believe) and I refuse to be swayed by contrary opinion.” No. “A week later,” demonstrating the courage of his convictions, able and willing to test them, he joins his fellow disciples. Jesus again appears and Thomas, needing not to validate his test, makes an astounding proclamation of faith: “My Lord and my God!”
Life in this world, replete with tragedies of natural calamity and human ill will, challenges our faith, our trust, our confidence in a divine benevolent providence. Let us dare to stand under the wing, the cape of our superhero Thomas. Let us dare to doubt. Yet not for the sake of doubting, for that would be to become a contrarian who disagrees simply, solely to disagree, but rather for the sake, in the hope of trust that we, in openly, honestly confessing our unbelief can, will come to greater, deeper faith. Let us dare to say, “Unless…”, trusting that we will be able to say, “My Lord and my God!”
Illustration: Doubting Thomas, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). Note: Though the Gospel according to St. John infers that Thomas saw the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands, the text bears no explicit mention that he placed his hand in Jesus’ wounded side. Caravaggio, nevertheless (and, I assume, for purposes of dramatic depiction) renders the scene portraying Thomas as carrying out his prior stated act of proof.