Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Risen Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
In an ancient and sacred tradition, the second Sunday of Easter has been observed in the church as “Associate Pastor Sunday.” And for many, many years, the Gospel lesson for the second Sunday of Easter has been the famous story of Jesus appearing to the disciples, of the doubt of Thomas and his eventual belief in the resurrected Lord.
Now I usually like to preach about Thomas on Associate Pastor Sunday. I have a number of sermons on him, and I will share them with you if you would like. But today we are going to consider Jesus, and the way in which he responds to the news that Thomas has doubted his living presence among them. Because we are considering today the second Sacrament of the Church: Holy Communion. And you will notice that both the story of Thomas and the words of Jesus we repeat in the celebration of Holy Communion relate to the body of Jesus. “Take and eat; this is my body, given for you.” And “Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”
But first things first. Thomas is out of the room when Jesus appears to the disciples and when he returns, he doesn’t believe what they tell him. Not only doesn’t he believe, he makes a rather revolting vow that our wimpy translators don’t really capture: “Unless I thrust my finger into the mark of the nail, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Thomas is not just disbelieving; he’s suggesting something unclean and blasphemous.
One scholar writing about this story found that it raised an interesting question:
At this crucial point in the narrative we might well wonder how Jesus will react to Thomas’s profession of disbelief. Might he not be irritated? If, for example, Jesus were a pagan Greek god, that is, a being with superhuman capabilities but very human desires and defects, he would doubtless respond by making a brief but convincing demonstration of his superior physical power. Instantaneous incineration might well provide a highly persuasive argument (think of Zeus and Semele). But such a strategy suffers from overkill, as it were, for it does not allow the skeptic himself to survive his lesson long enough to change his mind, let alone his way of life; would not a less lethal demonstration make the point just as well?”
Moreover, what if the god in question is a new kind of god, gentler, sadder, more inclined to love humans than to lust after them, a god subject to every humiliation, pain, and death that humans suffer, one summoned not only to rule over humans, but also, and above all, to protect them, if only from themselves? And what if the humans to whom that god is sent are not the tragic heroes of ancient drama but small, frightened survivors, anxious to live on in this world and also willing to live on in the next, especially if the price for doing so is… the inner impulse of belief–someone capable of changing the direction of his life in midstream by the miracle of sudden, radical conversion? How can Jesus, a very different god from the kind most inhabitants of the ancient Mediterranean world were used to, one endowed not only with unlimited power but also with a capacity for unlimited suffering, convince Thomas that he really is divine?
So how does Jesus answer Thomas’s doubt? He appears also to Thomas, and he invites the very violation that Thomas says he demands. And I like to imagine that he does it just as Professor Most suggests: gently, sadly, lovingly; seeking not simply to be Thomas’s Lord and God, but his protector and friend. Jesus had his hands and side pierced by his enemies, and now he invites a disciple to do the same thing. He has suffered to redeem the whole human race, and yet he is willing to suffer again in order to bring his friend to faith.
The image on the cover of the book makes a crucial but interesting error–Thomas never actually touches Jesus in our story. But like all great paintings of Bible stories, it captures something true nonetheless. If you look again at the story from John’s Gospel today, you’ll see that it has the outline of a simple worship service. The disciples are together on a Sunday–the first day of the week. Christ proclaims peace, just as we share it with each other. The Holy Spirit descends on the disciples, just as we pray in the Holy Spirit. The forgiveness of sins is promised, just as we experience the forgiveness of sins. And here’s the key: the Risen Christ is really present in the locked room, just as he is present to us today, really present, in the Sacrament of his body and blood and in the preaching of his Word. Thomas is the one who’s late for church. He misses the forgiveness and misses the body of Christ.
And what is so powerful is that Jesus does it again the next Sunday, just as he does for us. His risen body passes through the locked door, and it comes to us under the bread and wine. Jesus invites us to handle his body, to enter into his wounds, to touch and feel his sorrowful, joyful presence. This invitation is a pure gift: we may do with it as we wish. We can ignore it, we can despise it, we can love and embrace it; we can doubt it and we can believe it.
My guess is that most of us do all of these things at different times. Yet Jesus endures in patience. Jesus invites us over and over again to handle his body–we doubting people, we inconstant people, we wayward, sinful people. He makes himself so totally vulnerable to us in order to create the faith he seeks to find in us. Take and eat. See my hands and my side. Do not be doubting, but be believing.
In the Small Catechism, Luther explains that the Sacrament is “the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ himself for us Christians to eat and drink.” For Luther, Christ was wherever he promised to be, and if he promised to be present in his body to Christians all over the world, then he present he is. And yet the sacrament is not just about touching and eating.
“The words ‘given for you’ and ‘shed for you for the forgiveness of sins show us that forgiveness of sin, life, and salvation are given to us in the sacrament through these words,” Luther says. “These words, when accompanied by the physical eating and drinking, are the essential thing in the sacrament, and whoever believes these very words has what they declare and state, namely, “forgiveness of sins.”
That’s why faith is so important in today’s story and so important in our receiving the sacrament. We possess what we trust: the real presence of Christ among us in the holy meal, and the real presence of the Risen Christ among us to the end of the ages. We possess what we trust. And so our Lord says, “Take and eat.” “Put your finger in the mark and your hand in my side. This is my body for you. Do not be doubting, but be believing.”