Thursday, December 23, 2004

Trust, in order to verify

A sermon preached on the Feast of St. Thomas (tr.)
December 22, 2004
in the Lady Chapel of St. Paul's Episcopal Church

O Lord, be present in my speaking and in our hearing to your glory. Amen.

I think as modern folks we can really appreciate the apostle Thomas. Just like him, we are given to wanting independent proof of outrageous claims. Your dear Aunt Sally succumbed to spontaneous human combustion? Show me the burn marks and the autopsy. You’ve just seen an alien spacecraft? Show me some pictures and a crop circle. You’ve just encountered someone alive and well when he was previously cold and dead: show me the marks on his hands and let me touch his side. After all, this could be some mysterious look-alike, or else some sort of apparition. No, I think we can really sympathize with Thomas on this one: show me the evidence so that I can make up my mind for myself.

Even though this is historical remembrance, the evangelist John most likely included this story because Thomas was not alone. Writing a generation or two after the events he is describing, John is aware that claiming that Jesus was raised from the dead was a unique, controversial thing to say. It is not as if this was a run-of-the mill occurrence then, any more than it is now. So there were legions of believers all throughout the Mediterranean world, who followed Christ and yet had never been witnesses to the resurrection. For them, and for us, John gives us a glimpse into the room where the apostles met, to witness Thomas doubting, and his Lord coming to him, meeting him in his doubt.

In this scene, we can see a couple of helpful, valuable things: First, it’s okay to doubt. Thomas wasn’t drummed out of the apostles for doubting. Jesus didn’t come to him and say, “Frankly, Thomas, I’m rather disappointed in you.” Perhaps if he wasn’t honest about it, Jesus might not have come to him in the first place.

Second, even though Jesus comes to Thomas, and we are meant to see this meeting in the reading, Jesus says that we don’t need to see him to believe in him, that we don’t need to touch the scars and put our hands in his side to follow him.

Of course, this second point doesn’t seem to help us much. We still want independent, verifiable proof, something weighty enough that it would persuade our friends, relatives and all we come into contact with that, indeed, Jesus is risen and alive today – or at least persuade them that we are not nuts for thinking so.

But we ought to be skeptical of independent evidence. That is, if evidence is so independent – just a free-floating fact – that it does not make any difference in your life, then one might well wonder why it constitutes evidence at all. Thomas didn't put his hand in Jesus' wounds and side and sit back and say "hmm, interesting, I shall have to ponder this in my study for a while." He fell on his knees and confessed "My Lord, and my God!"

In entering the church, the community which down through the years has borne witness to Jesus Christ, you find a group of people whose lives have been changed, turned upside-down by Jesus – although we’re more likely to say that they have been turned right-side up. These lives changed by Jesus bear witness to the resurrection. It’s here in the church that we meet people like Mother Theresa, or Oscar Romero, or Saint Francis, or Saint Monica, or even Saint Thomas, whose skeptical question was not only answered, but according to tradition, the answer moved him across the world to India, so that he could be that answer, that good news to others. May we also be so graced. Amen.

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