“In Defense of Thomas” was a sermon preached by Pastor John Valentine on the 2nd Sunday of Easter — April 24, 2022. The text upon which it was/is based is John 20:19-30. To access a copy of this week’s worship bulletin, click here: Worship Bulletin 20220424
In Defense of Thomas
Easter 2 (NL 4) John B Valentine
John 20:19-31 April 24, 2022
“IN DEFENSE OF THOMAS”
It’s the first Sunday after Easter ... folks! “The Second Sunday of the Easter Season” as it’s labeled on the church calendar.
And ... believe it or not ... most every year ... on this Second Sunday of Easter ... Christians who gather for worship throughout our nation hear the exact same story: John 20:19-31.
• Every year ... we hear about how the disciples are huddled in an out of the way room with the doors locked ... trying to process what has gone down in the past three or four days ...
• Every year ... we’re confronted by the reality that one of the disciples wasn’t there that first Easter evening at the dinner table ...
• Every year ... we learn that this one ... for his part ... isn’t buying what the others are selling ... and that his name is Thomas ... and we even have a nickname for him ... don’t we???
Heck ... we’ve even immortalized this Thomas fellow in the dictionary ... such that anyone who is skeptical and/or refuses to believe without direct personal experience is called a ....... “Doubting Thomas”.
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I don’t know exactly why ... but there’s something about this story that has made me hear it with fresh ears recently.
And I’ve discovered something of a new-found sympathy for this Thomas fellow.
You see ... in part .... I think that the problem is one of translation ... that has to do with the word “doubt”.
The issue being that most biblical translations have Jesus saying to Thomas “Do not doubt, but believe” .... and thus ... for all time ... sets “doubting” and “believing” up as polar opposites.
The problem is ... without getting mired in the details of it ... John the Gospel writer doesn’t actually use the Greek word for “doubting” ... or even the Greek word for “skeptic” ... but rather the Greek word for “untrusting”.
• Despite what millions of sermons by thousands of preachers have told us on countless Second Sundays after Easter ...
• Despite what I have probably confirmed for you in my now two decades as the primary preacher in this community ...
“Doubting Thomas” wasn’t so much admonished by Jesus for ‘doubting’ as he was for not trusting ... not trusting Jesus to be good to his Word.
You see ... according to John’s gospel ... believing in Jesus isn’t about an intellectual assent to some list of facts ...
Belief ... “trust” really ... is about a relationship.
And Thomas figures that ... when Jesus dies on the cross ... so too does Jesus’ relationship with Thomas.
Thomas had believed Jesus.
Thomas had given Jesus his heart and his hope and his commitment for the past three years.
But that belief couldn’t live beyond the grave .... and Thomas wanted proof ... real, tangible proof before he would be willing to hand his heart back over to Jesus to be burned again.
Kind of a “Once burned, twice shy” sort of a thing.
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I suspect we all have doubts from time to time.
That’s a normal part of living lives of faith.
And it seems to me we shouldn’t begrudge Thomas for doing what all of us ... for our own parts ... have done over the years.
But what Jesus longs for in this encounter with Thomas is that Thomas might once again entrust Jesus with his heart and his hopes ... so that Jesus might bring him to experience the fullness of love and joy and peace.
Even as our hearing of that story might bring us to entrust Jesus with our own hearts and our own hopes ... that we too might experience the fullness of love and joy and peace.
That’s what living an Easter life is all about.
That’s what Thomas wanted ...
He just needed to see it ... to touch it ... to experience it ... before he was willing to risk relationship again. Believe me, I get that.
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But there’s also something in this story of the so-called “Doubting Thomas” that has kind of gotten under my skin.
And it’s got to do with how WE appropriate the story of Thomas.
You see ... we get so fixated on what Thomas does wrong in when he first hears the news that Jesus is up and alive and out of the box ...
That we completely MISS what it is that Thomas gets right just a few short days later!
Seriously ... if you were to go through John’s Gospel and catalog all the different labels that people have for Jesus ... you’d quickly come to the realization that Thomas is the first person EVER who gets the answer to the question just right.
Back in John 1:1 ... we got the answer that we are supposed to be looking for ... “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God .....”
But then ... as the story gets told ... nobody ... not NOBODY figures that answer out until Thomas.
To be sure ...
• There are some people that call him their Teacher and Rabbi ...
• And some are willing to call him “The Lamb of God” or “the Son of God” or even “the Messiah” or maybe “the Christ” ...
• And Simon Peter is so bold ... at one point to acknowledge that Jesus is “the Holy One of God” ...
• And Pilate ... as we saw a couple of weeks ago ... will mockingly acknowledge that Jesus is “the King of the Jews” ...
But nobody .... NOBODY ... puts ALL the pieces together unto Thomas does here at the end of chapter 20.
Sure ... Thomas gets it wrong to begin with ... but just a few short verses later ... Thomas gets it just right! And we much give him credit for that!!
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You ever been given a label ... maybe at school or at work or even at home that you had a hard time moving beyond?
“Shorty” ... “Fatty” ... “Stupid” ... “Mental” ... or worse.
• Maybe because one time ... you messed up one thing ... and were never able to live it down?
• Maybe because you didn’t fit into somebody else’s categories of ‘normal’ ... and were called out for being different?
• Maybe because ... for a while you engaged in some behavior that people held against you ... and continued to hold against you even after you stopped doing what they accused you of?
Thomas is obviously an extreme case of this sort of thing ... after all ... he has worn the label ‘Doubting Thomas’ for for two millennia!! ... even if that label isn’t entirely appropriate ...
But can you relate ... at least a bit ... to Thomas’ predicament??
The tricky part about other peoples’ labels for us is that we often don’t realize the ways in which we end up taking them on ourselves.
When people see our limitations or imperfections or short-comings ... we tend to assume that they are right.
We admit to having bad skin ... or bad grades ... or having botched an assignment at the office ... and suddenly we’ve labeled ourselves as being ugly or stupid or a failure.
Perhaps what started simply as a tool for identification or maybe as a light-hearted jest all too often becomes self-defining ... self-limiting ... and even self-defeating.
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I often chuckle how when Bethany was teaching over here at Del Rey School ... every year she would put on this end-of-the-year musical in her classroom ...
So every year ... during the last week of school ... I would end up getting drafted to shoot a video of her students ... as they sang and acted their way through a make-believe meeting of all the classic fairy-tale characters from literature.
And ... every year ... per the script ... I got to witness one of her students ... the one who’d been assigned to play the role of “the Handsome Prince” in the musical ... lament why he had to be “the handsome prince” and never “the intelligent prince” or the “athletic prince” or even “the artist formerly known as Prince”.
It was cute ... and it was memorable ... but it was also a reminder that labels can be limiting ... and even at times self-limiting.
It’s not that labels are necessarily a bad thing in and of themselves ...
No ... our minds are forever working to categorize and sort others whom we encounter as a way to make sense of the society in which we live ...
But when we allow labels to define us ... or when we weaponize labels and use them against our neighbors ... we absolutely miss out on what Jesus said about “loving your neighbor as yourself.”
And if we cart around this label of Thomas the disciple as “Doubting Thomas” ... as the one who got it wrong ... we may never get to see and hear him get it right.
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The story is told of a third-grade student named Emma ... who’d been born with Down’s Syndrome.
Emma attended the Sunday School class at her church in Flagstaff, Arizona ... where she and her eight-year-old classmates played and laughed and learned together.
But – on account of her physical challenges – Emma wasn’t too readily accepted by her classmates. Emma didn’t want to be different ... but she knew that she was.
Anyhow ... the Sunday before Easter ... their teacher worked up that great idea for helping his students understand the Easter story ...
And so he collected ten of those egg-shaped containers that women’s nylons used to come in ... those L’eggs Eggs things.
And he asked the kids in the class to each go on a personal scavenger hunt ... and find a symbol of new life ... put it in the egg ... and bring it back to share next week.
And one-by-one ... as they left the classroom on Palm Sunday ... he handed each of them an Egg.
Come Easter Sunday ... after the mandatory Egg Hunt ... it came time for the students to share their own Easter Eggs with their classmates ....
• And one youngster opened up her egg and showed the class a butterfly she’d made ...
• And other kids cracked theirs open to reveal flowers and leaf-buds and the like.
But ... when Emma handed her egg to the teacher ... the teacher opened it ... and there was nothing inside.
• And one of the kids hollered “That’s stupid! Emma didn’t do it right again.”
• And other of them sniped “Emma, you never do anything right!”
But Emma stood her ground ... and with no small amount of frustration in her voice ... pleaded “I did so do it right ... I did so! It’s empty because the tomb is empty.”
And all of a sudden ... the class was very silent.
For those of you who believe in miracles ... one happened that Easter morning.
From that time on ...
• Emma became a part of the group and ...
• She was set free from a label that had too-long defined her.
Emma passed away three or four years later. Her parents always knew that she wouldn’t live out a full life span ... for too many things were wrong with her little body.
But when time came for Emma’s funeral ... at the church where Emma had gone to Sunday School.
Her classmates decorated the altar. But they didn’t decorate it with flowers ... but rather with a basket full of eggs ... empty containers for nylon stockings.
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Thanks be to God for people who get it right.
For people like Emma ... like Thomas ... like ....... you???