This sermon was preached at Advent Vespers at St. Thomas Episcopal Church on 12/17/19.
Text: John 20:24-29
Tonight, we celebrate the feast of St. Thomas, a pretty familiar name around here.
Our fathers and mothers here took St. Thomas as a particular model for living out faith in this time between Christ’s first Advent at Christmas and His second when He comes in glory to judge the living and the dead. St. Thomas seems a strange example of faith since, colloquially, he is known as, “Doubting Thomas”, in large part because of our Gospel reading this evening.
At the start of the story, Thomas has just missed Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples since the crucifixion. Thomas’s friends, excited by their encounter with Jesus, enthusiastically tell him what has happened: “We have seen Him! We saw Jesus! He was here! He is alive!” Thomas listens to them and then responds in a way we wouldn’t expect a saint to. He responds more like we would. “Unless I see with my own eyes, unless I touch Him with my own hands, I will not believe.” For him, faith does not come easily, no more easily than it does for the rest of us. He knows resurrections aren’t everyday occurrences and he needs something more to go on.
Yet only a week later, Jesus shows up just as before. While He greets all the disciples, He is there especially for Thomas. Surprisingly, Jesus does not reprimand him for doubting. He is there to do just as Thomas has asked. He holds out his hands and says, “Look, Thomas. Just as you asked, here are the marks in my hands, the wound in my side. Come touch. Come see. Believe.”
In the presence of Jesus, Thomas does not need to test and verify his hypothesis. He doesn’t need to touch and analyze, as he had demanded. The presence of Jesus overwhelms him and he bursts out, “My Lord and my God!” No one had ever said this before. No one, in the entirety of St. John’s Gospel has ever referred to Jesus as divine. Jesus’ presence turns St. Thomas’s infamous doubt into the clearest declaration of who Jesus is: God with us, culminating the story St. John has been telling since the opening words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In the presence of Jesus, Thomas’s doubt is turned into the clearest declaration of faith we have.
And then Jesus says, more for our sakes than those disciples: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Faith was not easy for St. Thomas and for good reason. But in some ways, he had it easy. He had the advantage of knowing Jesus for those years. He could demand this kind of evidence and have it met because Jesus was still around. In many ways, belief has only gotten harder. We cannot touch Jesus in the same way. We haven’t spent years with Him standing next to us. There is a lot of distance between us and Jesus. He’s up there and we’re down here. The longer we wait for Him, the harder it gets. The more violence in our world, the more destruction to our plant, the more injustice, the harder it is to believe in a world in which Jesus has been raised, in which He claims to reign, and in which He promised to return.
Jesus knows this and so pronounces a blessing on us. But what is this blessing? I suggest that the presence of Jesus is the blessing. The only thing strong enough to overcome St. Thomas’s doubts and our own is the presence of Jesus Himself. We have the records of witnesses such as St. Thomas. In our Scriptures, to quote former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, we have “a living communication from God, telling us now what we need to know for our salvation.” His Spirit shows up in communities to show Himself to the world. As the violence of suicide shakes Rowan University, God opens up a neighboring space of peace and healing. As climate change makes our weather more extreme and destructive, God’s generosity pours out of small parishes to help brothers and sisters in far off places, like the Bahamas, rebuild. In the face of injustice, God builds communities where people vastly different from one another consider each other family.
And every week at this altar rail, we reach out our hands and handle Jesus. We come touch, come see, come taste, come believe. So as Jesus blesses us with His presence and overcomes our unbelief, may we, like St. Thomas, blurt out with him, “My Lord and my God!” Amen.