A Sermon for Covenant
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
April 27, 2014
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
Thomas gets a bad rap: doubter, skeptic, slow to believe. “I will not believe unless I put my finger on his scars, my hand in his side,” Thomas insists with atheistic force, and while our eyes may widen at his audacity to make demands, the other ten disciples nod knowingly, for Jesus had already showed them his nail-scarred hands and sword-pierced side. Before he arrived they were all cowering behind locked doors for fear of the Jews, terrified and unsure of their future.
Perhaps Thomas is no more of a doubter than any other disciple. In fact, I hear less fear in him than I do in the others. He seems so matter-of-fact about it all. He just confidently asserts, “This is what I need to believe.”
Have you ever wondered why Thomas wasn’t there the first time? They were all huddled together in fear, but Thomas was out and about in the world somewhere, risking exposure as a disciple of the crucified Christ. I have to wonder, when the women told the story, “We have seen the Lord,” if Thomas went looking. If Thomas braved the consequences of leaving the locked room to search for the body. If, after hearing the rumor, Thomas had just enough faith to go exploring.
We do not know where Thomas went that day, whether he left the room with the courage to find Jesus or whether he disappeared into despair or whether the disciples sent him to get the coffee and missing Jesus was pure happenstance. What we can know is that to Thomas it was important to see Jesus with his very own eyes, and whether that sent him on a search or sent him home grief-sick, bedridden with longing, either way it means he was passionate, plagued by loss, and also: part of the human race.
People need physical proof of the extraordinary. This doesn’t so much make us doubtful as it means that we are human. We all ache for a tactile faith. Think of Gideon putting out the fleece or Moses needing many signs before he could face Pharaoh. It’s not just Thomas, and it’s not just us. Longing to touch the evidence is normal.
This is okay because God was the one with the bright idea to give us bodies. From the very beginning of all our flesh, God said that flesh was good: our toes and wrinkles and joints and lungs and arm hair. Every bit of being a body = good. It is how we were created. We were meant to relate to one another skin on skin, meant to make eye contact, experience audible sound passing between us, meant to have salty tears and flushed faces and the occasional arrival of goose bumps.
If you have ever ached for the physical presence of someone you missed, then you know how Thomas ached. Doubting is too intellectual of a word for it. Thomas pined. Thomas itched. Thomas craved. Thomas agonized. His stomach hurt and his breath was short and his muscles were tense, and the absence of Jesus kept him up at night and gave him headaches.
Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” and while I suppose the physically blind have something to teach us about true seeing and the deaf know something about hearing the truth that we can never comprehend, most of us could not bear to live with such trying limitations. We need to taste our food if we are to believe the world is good, bend our knees and walk in order to know adventure is possible, see the sky to understand what beauty is. All of us experience faith in our bodies—these bodies into which we were created by the loving wisdom of our God.
All of us are half-believing Thomases, which means we are half-doubting too, but the part that matters is the believing. Actually, both halves matter because one side does not exist without the other. Nothing murders faith faster than certitude. Arrogance is the kiss of death for the faithful. To hang in limbo between your confidence and your questions: this is where the stuff of miracles begins to grow. Just enough uncertainty to keep the soil tilled; just enough hope to fertilize the seeds.
Or to say it differently: imagine your faith is a pot of stew. Your imagination and ability to dream are the spices. Your doubt is the large wooden spoon that stirs it all up, keeps things moving, resists stagnation or over-boiling.
There is nothing wrong or sinful about Thomas’ struggle to believe. He is just our individual peek into every disciple’s experience. And to his credit, he names what he needs to believe. He does not feign belief, does not pretend, does not feel the need to impress anyone with his apparent confidence or stunning discipleship. He just says it plainly, pretenses aside, “I will not believe, unless . . .”
And Jesus complies with this request as if it weren’t the slightest bit of an inconvenience for him to listen and come alongside. Freely Jesus offers his wounds to be handled and seen.
And while this is beautifully inspiring, the truth is that you and I don’t always get to sink our fingers in Jesus’ wounds or otherwise touch with our own hands the miraculous, the extraordinary, or the presence of God. Our hands are left empty.
When Jesus tells Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” I don’t think this is so much a rebuke of Thomas, but a blessing Jesus is giving us. “I bless those of you who will not get to see,” Jesus says, as if he can only imagine that blessings are a thing we future disciples will desperately need.
Then the text says Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not even written in this book, as if touching his side wasn’t enough. They got to see even more! Goodness, I am jealous. The passage concludes, saying, “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
We ache for a tactile faith, and a tactile faith, we have been given. God came to us as human flesh, so that humanity could touch God, brush shoulders with God, dine with God, sweat in the heat side-by-side with God. When Jesus breathed into the disciples the Holy Spirit in the room that day, his hot breath was so real and so human, they would have known it if Jesus forgot to brush his teeth. God became that tangible, for us. From the beginning of the Jesus story, we have a human savior, close enough to touch. This shall be a sign unto you: “God can be found as a child, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
In our day-to-day lives, we have to live a world where faith feels more abstract and difficult to grasp. We do not know what Jesus smells like or how his voice sounds, whether his scarred skin was a shocking thing to behold, or whether his eyes got red and puffy when he wept for Lazarus. We often ask as Thomas asked to see, but we ask and we do not receive such signs as he.
Sometimes the gift of faith does come to us in a roundabout way and later we see that God was there with us in the room of our suffering, the room we thought was locked with no way at all for Grace to get in. Sometimes all we have to cling to are the stories of our faith, the hope that our very own Savior took on flesh.
In either situation, the fact that we ache, that we itch, that we pine, that we crave and that we agonize for God, for answers, for deliverance does not mean that these hungry ravenous bodies are bad for us. It means that we are alive. It means that we are passionate and part of the human race. It means that a God-in-human-flesh and God-resurrected-in-a-body is truly Good News for us.
Just like bleeding is a sign that your heart is still pumping, doubting is a sign that your faith is still thumping. Scraping up against life’s difficulties and watching the doubt come pouring forth: this means you are human and awake. The ache tells you that you have a heart and a soul, and that both are large with possibility.
Like Thomas, may we hold out for what we need in order to believe. May we forsake the idolatry of false certitude. May we feel the full force of our longing, and know that this bodily ache is good and right and regular. May the need to know God more closely make us humble and make us better friends with one another. When we are not cowering in locked rooms or lying down in our grief, may we have the audacity to search, to be on the lookout for the simple signs that God is here. May we be open to God’s presence, wherever it shows itself.
If you don’t believe me, believe Thomas: disciples do doubt, and this does not keep them from Jesus. It brings them to Jesus in the end. May each of you find what you are looking for. Though answers take far longer than you think you can stand, may you one day know God as intimately as you know a good friend. Amen.