The text of the sermon, based largely on John 20.19-31, video-recorded and shared with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 2nd Sunday of Easter, April 19, 2020.
The Second Sunday of Easter is oft called Low Sunday. Not because of typically low attendance following Easter Day (which, amid coronavirus-induced social-distancing, is even smaller!). But rather because the church calendar is arranged in octaves; eight-day periods from Sunday to Sunday. As Easter Day and its proclamation, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!”, is the pinnacle, the highest height of the church year, without which there is no Christianity and no church, the following Sunday, the eighth day after is low.
Now, every year on Low Sunday, following our annual Easter Day witness to the heart of our faith, we read the story that has branded Thomas as a doubter; which, in many lexicons, is defined as disloyal, even dishonest. And that, given John’s gospel where Thomas appears thricely and is given voice, is not a fair assessment of who he is. Even more, such a characterization overlooks what I consider to be the inextricable bond between faith and doubt.
Without doubt, enabling me to admit, “I’m not sure,” I cannot question.
Without doubt, I cannot listen. For, settled on what I believe, I have little desire to lend my ear to ideas other than my own.
Without doubt, I cannot learn, so to discover something other than what I already know or what I think I already know.
Without doubt, I cannot believe, so to give intellectual assent to the truth of something or someone.
Without doubt, I cannot have faith, so to be convinced of something or someone I cannot see.(1)
Thomas tells me, teaches me about the value, the necessity of doubt.
Again, Thomas appears three times in John’s gospel.
Martha and Mary summon Jesus to come to Bethany to aid their sick brother Lazarus.(2) Jesus, eventually, says to his disciples, “Let’s go.” Now, Bethany is near Jerusalem where Jesus has faced increasing opposition from the authorities. The disciples remind him, “Rabbi, the last time we were there, they tried to stone you, and you want to go there again?”
Courageous and loyal Thomas (though hardly an optimist!), says to his fellow disciples, “Let us go that we may die with Jesus!”
On the night before the crucifixion, Jesus gathers with his disciples for the Passover meal. He washes their feet and gives them a new commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.”(3) Then, as I imagine the scene, Jesus, looking around the room into the sorrowful faces of his disciples who know that their friend, their rabbi, their Lord is soon to suffer and die, says:
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”(4)
Honest Thomas, refusing to give silent assent to something he doesn’t understand, says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thus, calling, compelling Jesus to testify afresh and most powerfully to his identity: “I am the way, the truth, and the life (of God).”(5)
When Jesus died, everything Thomas believed, the one in whom he believed had been destroyed. Devastated, Thomas, hopeless, withdrew; sorrowfully, socially-distant. Jesus, risen, appears to his disciples, who, inspired, inspirited with joy, search for their solitary friend to share this gospel, this good news, “We have seen the Lord!”
Fair-minded Thomas doesn’t reject their confession of faith. He doesn’t say, “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Much less does Thomas reject them. He doesn’t say, “I don’t believe you!” Rather, in the irony of the clarity, the certainty of his doubt, Thomas can and, to his friends, will articulate what he wants, what he needs to believe.
Even more, in the integrity of his doubt, Thomas rejoins his friends, putting himself in place to test his conviction, putting himself in place to behold a vision of the risen Jesus, putting himself in place to make the declaration, “My Lord and my God!”
Thomas was…is a soul, a saint of courage and loyalty, honesty and fair-mindedness, and integrity. As we continue to follow Jesus, let us listen to Thomas, who teaches us that our faith and our doubt always walk hand-in-hand.
(1) An allusion to Hebrews 11.1
(2) See John 11.1-44.
(3) See John 13, especially verses 3-4, 34.
(4) John 14.1-4
(5) John 14.5-6
Illustration: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (c. 1601-1602), Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)