Have you seen the risen Lord? Was he in the parking lot when you went grocery shopping or at the Waffle House having coffee and eggs? Have you seen him? If you have, you could be celebrating what's known in the church trade as low Sunday, a small vacation from all things Christian that takes place on the Sunday after Easter. You could be relaxing with your newspaper and your coffee, not listening in today with those who are still hoping to get a glimpse of the risen Lord. As church people, we've heard that the resurrected Jesus has been spotted, of course. People have been telling us about it for years. But the reports have varied in unnerving ways. There is the story that Mary Magdalene saw him, but she thought he was a gardener. What on earth can that mean? If he didn't look like himself, was it really him?
There are stories we hear, usually in church, about meeting Jesus by caring for the helpless and hurting people around us. Friends have told us with conviction that they meet Jesus in people who are in need. That may well be so, but it may not have happened to us. Today we heard that the disciples were hiding together in a house to which they had fled after the crucifixion, terrified of what might come. They, too, had heard stories that he had risen, but rumors aren't as solid, as sure, as a locked door.
Then, suddenly, they saw the Lord. He spoke to them and gave them his peace. He breathed on them and sent them out of their locked room into the world to serve as his witnesses. He even gave them power to forgive people's sins or not to forgive them, but hold on tight.
Now, that's odd because, well, some of us have exercised that sort of power all along--the power to hoard sins up for years if we felt like it. If that is a commission, it's too much like ordinary life. No, it all sounds a little too unlikely. It would be so much better if only we could see it, see Him for ourselves. So here we are on low Sunday listening as Thomas has his say. He wasn't there when Jesus made his first appearance to the miserable group behind the bolted door. They told Thomas all about seeing the Lord, but Thomas said, personally, he wouldn't believe it until he'd touched Jesus' wounds for himself. In fact, he put it more strongly than that. His actual words were that he would never believe it until he had jabbed his finger in the wounds.
Many of us identify with Thomas--maybe not today. Today things may be fine for some of us, but at the low points in our lives, it would be good to have the kind of concrete evidence Thomas insists on. What believer doesn't want to see and feel Jesus' nearness when things are hard or going all wrong? Wanting some sign doesn't mean that you've lost your faith. You may still be confident in bad times that you are loved by God; but, still, there is a deep desire for a tangible sign just to be reassured. Or maybe you're the kind of person who is dubious by nature. Maybe for you faith has always felt like a matter that needs continual sorting through. Your faith is secure and real, but your questions are too.
Many faithful people struggle continually with belief, because struggle is part of their way of believing. Once long ago a group of pastors and I went on a spiritual retreat led by a rather remarkable nun. We had times to meditate and pray and times when we all gathered and she spoke about various things. At one point that weekend, we had an assigned period when we could speak with our leader privately. In my meeting, she said an insightful thing for someone who had only known me for a little while. "Keep struggling," she said as I walked out the door. "It's your way of being close to God."
The good news in the story of Thomas is that there is nothing wrong with struggle or with longing for concrete signals in the course of the life of faith. Before the morning is over, Jesus is going to invite Thomas to touch his wound and give him exactly the kind of evidence he needs to join in the rejoicing. That Jesus provides exactly what Thomas needs illustrates that there is nothing wrong with wanting solid reassurance. In fact, faith can be helped a great deal by the use of concrete things.
I once read of a mother with an adopted teen-age daughter. The girl had been through a great deal of emotional damage and was doing her best to spread her hurt around by verbally abusing her adopted mother. When things were at their worst, this mother would sit on a meditation cushion, light a candle in the darkness, and wrap herself in what she came to call her prayer shawl. With the help of these concrete aids, she was able to continue loving someone who was difficult to love.
Anything that helps in the genuine life of faith should be encouraged--
Reading devotional books
Designating a place in your house for prayer where these things can be kept at hand
As simple and even silly as this might seem to some, sight and smell and memory are powerful tools and mustering them in the cause of faith is not mindless. Who has not been brought to powerful, emotional recollection by certain smells? The habit of burning incense while you pray could very well bring an awareness of God's presence to you when certain odors are in the air.
"Pooh!" you may be thinking. "Candles and pillows and shawls and incense are a far cry from wanting to see the resurrected Lord and put your hands on his wounds! And didn't Jesus say that those who could believe without needing such concrete things as sight and touch were blessed? " Yes, they are blessed. The word for blessed, you will recall, means happy. Happy are those who believe without being able to see. Yes, perhaps it's true that those who don't ever struggle, who don't need concrete evidences of resurrection are happier in the life of faith than those who do. Perhaps they're able to accept the peace Jesus gives a little more readily. But Jesus never said such people are more faithful. Simply, that they are blessed. Doubt or the longing for signs is not a failure of faith. In the right circumstances, doubt may even be a sign of strength.
Sister Wendy Beckett is the cloistered nun whose work as an art historian has led to several books and television programs. One time when a program of hers was about to air, she was interviewed on the radio show "Fresh Air" by interviewer Terry Gross. Gross is a wonderfully articulate woman, a terrific, no-nonsense interviewer most of the time. But when she interviewed Sister Wendy, Gross was weirdly tentative and off her mark. Perhaps it was because Sister Wendy is devoted to absolute silence except when she's talking about art once every bundle of years. At one point in the interview, Gross asked Sister Wendy, "Have you always believed in God?" "Oh, yes!" said Sister Wendy. "You mean, you've never experienced any doubt?" asked Gross, sounding dubious. "No," said Sister Wendy in her small but solid voice. "Why do you think that is?" asked an incredulous Gross. "Well, I'm sure it's because God knew I was too weak for doubt," said Sister Wendy. "I never could have stood it, so God kept it from me."
Doubt is not a denial of faith. It's one way of faith among many. The risen Lord knew that those he would commission for service in the world come with different needs, and he is more than willing to meet them. In the end, Thomas is the only disciple in the Gospel of John to say to Jesus with confidence, "My Lord and my God!"
I once got a phone call from a retired minister who wanted an appointment with me. When we were together, I kept waiting for the shoe to drop, for the thing he had come for to reveal itself. Whatever it was, I knew it would be concrete -- an illness, a lapse, a fear, an alienated loved one. It might have been anything. And so we talked and I waited. Finally, as he was leaving, I understood. There was something concrete that had brought him to me. But I was totally unprepared for what it was. He never put it into words, but what he wanted was to open the locked door of his retirement by praying for a younger minister, someone who was doing each day the things that he used to do. He wanted to pray the power he had known in his own life of service, to share the commission, and so he knelt and took my hand and prayed for my ministry. With his words and his posture, it was as if he breathed on me a power that was neither his or mine. There was no one else in the room you would have been able to see had you looked in the window--just two followers, one old, one younger, but someone else was there giving both of us what we needed to serve him. Amen.
Let us pray.
God of power and love, who meets our every need, we give you thanks for the story of Thomas who doubts and loves with passion. We give thanks this day for all people in our lives whose questions deepen faith, who speak what others will not name and whose probing brings insight. We pray as well for those who know the blessings of surety, whose faith is a beacon when the way ahead is hard to discern. Comfort those who mourn, support the ill and those who are undergoing treatment and those whose care sustains them. Where any are locked behind doors of fear, bring the freeing light of your resurrection, for we pray in Jesus' name. Amen.