(I preached this sermon on April 11, 2010 at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Aurora)
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
How do you picture the scene in today’s Gospel lesson? What do you imagine Thomas was out doing when the rest of the disciples were in hiding and first see the risen Christ? Is he out doing something for the group? Is he in hiding on his own somewhere? Perhaps he was scattered on Good Friday and never re-established contact with his brothers and never heard the remarkable report of Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb. When Jesus shows the other disciples his wounds, is it because anyone asked to see them? Is he offering proof happily or reluctantly? When Thomas returns, do the other disciples speak to him scornfully because he missed Jesus’s appearance? Or are they truly eager for him to believe what they say? When Thomas replies that he will not believe unless he sees the wounds and thrusts his hand into them, does he say this in a mournful tone of voice, or sarcastically, or angrily, or defensively? Is it that the news is just too hard to believe, or is it that he has reasons for distrusting what his friends tell him? When Jesus appears again, how does he speak to Thomas? Is his invitation to see and touch the wounds spoken tenderly? Haughtily? With sadness? When Jesus praises those who, unlike Thomas, believe without seeing him, is he talking about us?
Each year on the Sunday following Easter, we encounter the famous story of Thomas. Each year the story to invites us to ask ourselves what we believe–how well we have heard Jesus’ words, “Do not doubt but believe.” The text tempts the preacher to commend you in your faith or console you in your doubt. But the story of Thomas asks us not only what we believe, but why we believe it.
Maybe you have come to this church or one like it for your whole life and have never really considered doing otherwise. Maybe you grew up in the church but left it, only to return in a time of crisis or after the birth of a child. Maybe you had no relationship with the church at all until something or someone brought you here. Perhaps you have had your faith tested in times of tragedy or doubt. Perhaps you feel the absence of a sibling or child or spouse who saw what you saw, heard what you heard, and still chose to spend their Sundays some other way.
Why do we believe what we believe? In some sense it is a mystery. Our tradition teaches that faith is not something we can summon up for ourselves. If you were trained in the Small Catechism for confirmation, you may remember the explanation of the third article of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him.” This is to say that we don’t so much choose our faith, but in fact our faith chooses us. The disciples in that locked room didn’t just strike upon the idea that Jesus had risen from the dead and decide that this was a splendid thing to believe. Rather Jesus came to them, even showing them his wounded body.
Faith is a gift. Like any true gift, we do not earn it and do not deserve it. We may not even have wished for it. And like anything we do not earn and do not expect, we may doubt whether it really is ours. “My teacher and Lord died a horrible death, in my sight. And then I was lost and alone and when I came back, my friends played a cruel joke on me, saying that they had seen him. How thoughtless of them to provoke my crushed hopes with this silly story. How heartless of them to put salt in my wounded love.” No wonder that Thomas didn’t believe his ears. No wonder if he had felt left out. No wonder the gift of faith was not one he was able, at that moment, to receive.
The gift of faith, like any other good gift, arrives wrapped up in something. It may be the words of the Scriptures, the preaching of the church, the sacraments, the love and support of people in the Christian community. And when our faith is tested, and indeed when it feels totally absent to us, God grants us this wrapping to hold on to and to remember what we have been given. There are days for all of us when Christ is still in his tomb. But even on those days, your brother or sister here will greet you with the sign of Christ’s peace. There are days for all of us when we don’t understand, don’t hope, don’t strive for goodness. Yet here we are told, “this is my body for you; this is my blood for you.” There are days when we put our faith to the test; but here Christ tells us, “Do not be afraid.”
I have to confess that I identify with Thomas. Years ago, when I first showed up at church, I was an irreverent college student full of doubts and disputes. I had had some experiences of God–some very powerful ones, in fact–but I needed to test them. My poor campus pastor was sorely burdened by me, I am sure. Here I was, preparing for confirmation, and I was deciding which heresies I would have to embrace. I was explaining which doctrines and teachings just made no sense to me. Thomas, you may remember, earlier in the Gospel seeks to follow Jesus even to death. I suppose I was an idealist, too, ready to stake my life on things I didn’t understand and had no experience with. As the big day of confirmation got closer, my anxiety increased. Everything I was preparing to say I believed became harder and harder to swallow.
But you would not know any of that from the people who had been willing to accompany me on this journey. I had been away from church for a long time, but I was welcomed back with open arms. I was skeptical, but people were eager for me to believe. Where I was sarcastic, my friends and pastors were patient, tender, and completely without religious snobbery. They willingly invited me to see and touch and ask and test everything they believed. People I came to admire, trust, and love passed on the gift of faith to me wrapped in their own good work and faithful witness. And someone they admired, trusted, and loved passed it on to them. And someone else passed it on to them. And someone else to them, and on and on, a great chain of gift-giving that goes all the way back to that locked room. This weekend we even add a new link to that chain, as the children of the parish are invited to take this great gift of faith in their hands, to enjoy it, and to some day take up their own role in passing it on.
Thanks be to God for the gift of faith, whenever it comes to us. And thanks be to God for everyone in the church who has wrapped that faith in the love and devotion of their own lives–in patience, in humility, in a warm welcome to the disciple who hurries back to the fold and is blessed to believe what she has been told by her friends. Amen.