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Doubting or Courageous Thomas?

by Susan Russell

based on John 20:19-31

Welcome to the Second Sunday of Easter. Notice it’s “of”, not “after” .. because Easter is a Season: not just a Sunday. I had the chance to impress that on the children in chapel this week, when they returned from their Spring vacation. “Let’s review” I told them. “How many days in Lent?” Being good St. Peter’s students they waved their hands and said “FORTY!” Good answer. “How many days in Easter?” I asked. “ONE”, they said. “Nope ... there are FIFTY days in Easter: We do Easter until Pentecost, and I’m very grateful, because I didn’t do forty days of Lent to only get one day of Easter!!”

We’re very good at “doing Easter” aren’t we, with the flowers and vestments, festival hymns and grand processions, it’s a “pull out all the stops” liturgical occasion as we do what we’re best at for the best of all reasons: The Lord is Risen: The Lord is Risen, Indeed!

So here we are at the SECOND Sunday of Easter: the lilies are browning around the edges, the ears are off the chocolate bunny, the Easter dress is at the cleaners and the awesome impact of those “alleluias” denied to us during the somber days of Lent fades as we get back to business as usual. There’s no question that we know how to do Easter as an event: the question that comes to me this morning is ... How are we at Easter as a way of life?

My favorite Easter card says:

The great Easter truth is not that we are going to live newly after death, but that we are to be new here and now by the power of the resurrection

But “here and now” is easier said than done. Yes, as Christians we are “the Easter people” but as the lilies fade and the chocolate gets eaten, it’s very easy to make Easter a Sunday to remember rather than a truth to live.

Well, if it’s any consolation, the first Christians: those who had the direct experience of our risen Lord, don’t seem to have been much better at it than we are.

We hear a series of “post - resurrection” stories: the women at the tomb who seemed to have forgotten the “punchline”: that Jesus told them he would rise after three days. It took the angels to remind them of that rather important detail. And then when they ran back to the tell the disciples, the men didn’t believe them! And Mary in the garden: she thought he was the gardener

And today we hear of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples: who were huddling in fear behind locked doors!

And Jesus appeared and “breathed on them.” In the Johnanine Gospel, this is the birthday of the Church ... a “fast forward” if you will to the Pentecost story we will celebrate at the end of this Easter season. In the Luke/Acts story the experiences are separated but the truth is the same: the Spirit came, filled the disciples with faith rather than fear and they began to take up the ministry of Jesus on earth: to become the Body of Christ -- new, here and now, by the power of the resurrection.

It’s impossible for me to imagine this scene of new life and creation and not harken back to the original creation story we inherit in Genesis, as the Spirit brooded over creation and God breathed life into the first humans. Or the wonderful story from Ezekiel, as new life is breathed into the valley of dry bones. The coming of the Holy Spirit is like the wakening of life from the dead


Breathe on me breath of God Fill me with life anew That I may love what thou dost love And do what thou wouldst do.

A favorite hymn which has become for me a prayer: to be filled with the breath of God and understand more fully the will of God ... that’s what Easter as a way of life is all about. And it’s a way of life we live one day at a time: one step at a time -- trusting that even if we take a mis-step, we never journey so far from God that the life giving breath of that Spirit is beyond our reach: even when it seems impossible to believe.

This morning, that’s the lesson I learn from Thomas. Thomas, one of the faithful 12 -- who goes down in history forever as “doubting Thomas” for his refusal to accept the testimony of others, but demand his own experience of the risen Lord. What took him away from the community that day? Why was he out of the room? Had they drawn lots for someone to venture out for food? Had they gotten into another quarrel about who was the greatest and Thomas had left in a huff or gone off to compose himself? We’ll never know -- but the possibilities are rife with the humanness of these early Christians: they didn’t always get it right, either!

Imagine, missing one Sunday, and coming back to hear “Guess who showed up while you were gone?” Would you believe it?

I’m a little intrigued, actually, about how quick we are to make Thomas the poster child for faithless doubt. The rest of the bunch don’t acquit themselves so well, as a matter of fact.

The women at the tomb, the men who didn’t believe the women’s story, Peter who runs back to see for himself ....

And here are the “faithful” disciples, after the appearance of Jesus: still in the locked, upper room. What struck me particuarly about this story this year, was that Thomas came back at all. Whatever had taken him away from the community, he came back. And it was in the community that Jesus came to him, and without so much as a confession or absolution, offered him what he needed to believe: “Touch, me Thomas. Do not be faithless, but believing.”

One of Thomas’ great virtues was that he absolutely refused to say that he understood what he did not understand, or that he believed what he did not believe. There was an uncompromising honesty about him:he would never still his doubts by pretending they did not exist.

Verna Dozier, the Anglican theologian, writes:

Doubt is not the opposite of faith: fear is. Fear will not risk that even if I am wrong, I will trust that if I move today by the light that is given me, knowing it is only finite and partial, I will know more and different things tomorrow than I know today, and I can be open to the new possibility I cannot even imagine today.

Thomas had doubts, but he refused to surrender to the fear which kept the disciples shut up in that locked room. He both ventured out and then had the courage to return: to face a community which had had an experience he did not share and be willing to insist on his own experience of God.

Thomas is often pointed to as the icon of the later church: the second, third and umpteenth generation of Christians who inherit the stories of the risen Lord, but must, at some point, insist on their own expereince of Christ. In that way, Thomas becomes for us not a symbol of faithlessness, but of courage. To trust that there are no doubts so profound that God cannot answer -- to believe that Jesus cares enough to show up a second time ... a third time ... an umpteenth time ... to breathe that breath of life on Thomas -- on us.

Breathe on me breath of God until my heart is pure. Until with thee I will one will to do or to endure.

As we celebrate and journey into this Easter season, we do so with the awesome privilege and responsibility of being the church in the world: being Jesus on earth: being the place where those who come seeking the risen Christ, doubts and all, seek that breath of new life that God offers all creation.

I remember well a baptism I attended at St. Mary’s, Palms. After sprinkling the little one, the priest said, “Welcome this new Christian. “And how is she going to learn to be a Christian?” he asked. And holding her high in his arms to face the congregation, he said, “By watching you.”

Is it possible that the story in today’s gospel is not so much about Thomas’ disbelief but about the failure of the disciples to act our theirs? Why should Thomas believe when the others were still cowering behind closed doors, not acting as if they’d seen the risen Christ? Will those who come to us, seeking the risen Christ, experience us as moving out into the world, in spite of our doubts ... or closing ranks out of fear of the unknown? What would they learn about being a Christian by watching us?

In these days after Easter Sunday when the Alleluias may echo hollowly against the background of all the work there is yet to do, we are Easter people who want to believe that Easter is more than a Sunday ... but it is hard.

I found this in the AnglicanDigest one year, and return to it again and again:

I was regretting the past and fearing the future. Suddenly, God was speaking: My name is I AM.

I waited. God continued. “When you live in the past with its mistakes and regrets, it is hard. I am not there. My name is not I WAS.

When you live in the future, with its problems and fears, it is hard. I am not there. My name is not I WILL BE.

When you live in the moment, it is not hard. I am here. My name is I AM.

To live in the moment -- neither regretting the past or fearing the future -- is the life abundant God promises us. What can and does get in the way is what a friend of mine calls “the yo-yo approach” to spiritual life:

Give it to God -> take it back. Give it to God -> take it back.

Sometimes I don’t even know I’ve done it ... taken it back, that is ... until all of sudden, there I am in a locked room, hiding for fear of something ... and I realize that I’ve once again stepped into regretting the past or moved forward into fearing the future: no wonder it’s hard!

It is when I dare trust the promise, to live in the moment, that life abundant happens. Not in the echoes of Alleluias of Easter past or in the fears of what the future holds -- but in the Jesus who enters wherever we are and says “Peace be with you” ... who invites us to be present in the Easter moment that is not a Sunday but a way of life: a way of life that is nothing less than the Kingdom of God.


What does the kingdom look like? we asked the children in school on Friday: love, happiness, peace, caring for each other, friendly, joyful. They know. So do we. We are the Easter People, and we have some pretty tremendous Good News to tell: a wonderful invitation to offer.

Breathe on me, breath of God So shall I never die But live with thee the perfect life Of thine eternity.

It is no coincidence that the words conversion and conversation both have the same root. The conversion that Thomas experienced he experienced in community: in “conversation”. On his own, he had only his doubts for company; in community, he encountered the Living Christ, the same Lord who calls to us today.

“Come and receive the holy food and drink of new and unending life and be nourished to go out and be my people in the world,” he invites us. “Feed my sheep -- tend my lambs -- take up my ministry on earth as my Body in the world” giving us purpose and direction and hope. “When you live in the moment, it is not hard. I am here ... Peace be with you.”

Thanks be to God. Alleluia. Amen