My first sermon: Believe and You Just Might See

April 6-7, 2013
John 20:19-31 — “Doubting” Thomas

Do you know how many stars are in our galaxy?  If I told you that there are 100s of billions of stars just in our galaxy alone, would you believe me?  You probably would, right? (And you should, because it’s true!)  What if I told you that for every person on earth, there are about 1.5 million ants?  Maybe a little sketchier, but I think you’d still believe me.  But, if I told you that there was wet paint on that wall over there, you’d all have to get up and go touch it to believe me.

It’s kind of a human trait — we want to see things for ourselves.  We can’t touch the stars or all of the trillions of ants on earth — and don’t have much of a stake in these things anyway — but wet paint is something we can see — and, more importantly, it’s something we can accidentally get all over our clothes — so if we can check that it’s there, we won’t be satisfied until we do.  We’re a lot like Thomas in that way, wanting to see for himself that Jesus really had come back from the dead.  Can you blame him?  The other 10 disciples had gotten to actually see Jesus, but here was Thomas, receiving this extraordinary news, and being asked to just accept it all at face value.  Without checking.  Without seeing.  I don’t know about you all, but I would be at least a little skeptical, too.

So why do we give Thomas such a hard time for having doubts?

Doubt itself is not a sin.  In fact, it’s a necessary part of faith.  Jesus himself points to this in today’s gospel reading when he says, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  Not seeing something leaves room for doubt.  For example, I don’t have faith in this piece of paper — I see it, I can touch it, I know it’s there.  But believing in something we haven’t seen takes tremendous courage.  If there were no reason to doubt, having faith really wouldn’t mean very much.  That’s why we observe Good Friday with such solemnity and reverence, why we so faithfully remember the day that humanity’s last and greatest hope for salvation died a horrible, bloody death on a cross.  It’s that depth of darkness and doubt that gives Easter its glory, and makes us joyfully cry out the words of Psalm 118, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!”  It’s what gives our faith its meaning — but that still doesn’t mean it’s easy to believe.

So I have no problems with Thomas doubting.  Truth be told, I’m often right there with him.  What’s unsettling to me about Thomas’s reaction to this news is that he’s not just reacting to the news; he’s also reacting to his friends.  We’re talking about some of the people Thomas loves and trusts the most, and he’s not even willing to consider the possibility that they might be telling the truth.  It’s his lack of faith in the community, not his lack of faith in Christ’s resurrection, that I find most troubling.  Because, let’s face it, 2000 years after the fact, all we have is the community, and the testimony of others.  And it’s so easy to doubt.  It’s easy to want to dig in our heels and stubbornly demand some sort of empirical proof before believing, rather than trusting in the words of those who have come before us and those who are around us now, still speaking.  But God is asking us to have a different kind of trust.

It’s by beginning to trust in the community around us that we can really begin to trust in God and to overcome our doubts.  To believe without seeing.  And when we do this, the most extraordinary thing happens: we begin to see because we believe.  We experience the risen Christ — much like Thomas did — and we experience him when we are together.  Not just in bread and wine, or even in the waters of baptism, but in our fellowship itself — in the love and kindness and hospitality that we show toward one another.

This is something I have experienced personally here at Grace, and for me, it is all the more profound because of the uncertainty and doubt I experienced before coming here.  Many of you know that I just began the candidacy process to become an ordained minister in the ELCA; and part of that process has been telling my story.  And I wanted to share a little bit of my story with you, because like Thomas’s, it’s one that is characterized by doubt.

I was raised in the church, but remember less of an emphasis on knowing God and more of an emphasis on knowing the right answers.  When I was 9, my mother passed away after a years-long battle with cancer, and suddenly the right answers just weren’t enough anymore. I was constantly bullied and picked on by my peers, just for being different.  I wondered how a loving God could allow these things to happen.  As I grew older, I was impressed with the idea that being a Christian meant being socially and politically conservative, and that simply wasn’t the way I saw the world.  I was beginning to develop a strong passion for social justice and didn’t believe that Jesus would tell someone in real need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps or that “the Lord helps those who help themselves.”  It felt like my answers — when I had any — were always the wrong ones.  So I left the church.  And for years, I experimented with different faiths and philosophies, bouncing around from religion to religion, trying to find something that fit — feeling more and more depressed and broken and inadequate as time went on.  I had some wonderfully uplifting and life-giving experiences at Camp Carol Joy Holling as both a camper and a counselor, but by the time I showed up on Grace Lutheran’s doorstep, I felt consumed by doubt and unworthy of belonging to a Christian community again.

But despite my doubts I took a leap, and I came to worship here.  And then I came back.  And I came back again.  You all embraced me as I was, with warm hospitality and without questions; and little by little, I began to trust in this community of faith.  Now, I set foot in the door and immediately feel surrounded by a loving family who supports each other and constantly reaffirms our shared faith in God.  And the funny thing is that my doubts and questions haven’t gone away — if anything, this experience has given me better and even more difficult questions to ask.  But I’m not afraid to ask them anymore because I finally feel like my faith is founded on the rock of a real relationship with God — the loving God I have experienced here, in our midst.  I have gotten to know Christ by getting to know the people sitting next to me in the pews.  And I have learned that Christ doesn’t care if you’re conservative or liberal or prefer not to be labeled.  Christ doesn’t care if you know the right answers or if you struggle constantly with doubt.  Rather, Christ is loving and welcoming and accepting of others, just as they are.  Being in this community has given me that knowledge.  It’s given me the knowledge of Christ that forms the grounds of my faith — and it’s also given me room to explore the doubts I still have and the questions that give me the opportunity to exercise that faith.

So I just want to say that, if today you’re feeling kind of like Thomas and just don’t buy the alleluias and the assurances that Christ has triumphed over death, don’t feel like you have to slap on a happy face and play along.  Just be present with us here.  After all, we are people of the resurrection living in a crucified world.  Although the war is won, the battle rages on and we are caught in the crossfire.  We know all too well the pains of living in this broken world.  Acknowledge your doubts to God and let God’s love work in you and let the questions you have inspire you to a whole new depth of faith.  Because God is still speaking, still working in the world, and it’s communities like this one where God’s word and God’s work go on.  There is so much good happening here, and I know I’m not the only one who sees it.  Just last week, we welcomed 11 new members into our congregation; new brothers and sisters in Christ whose decision to join us bears witness to the presence of God in our midst.

So I challenge you this:  in a little bit, when we get up to share the peace, I want each of you to look into the eyes of the people whose hands you shake, and smile, and imagine you are clasping the hand of the risen Christ… because you are.

We are the body of Christ at work in the world, his hands and feet and face and heart; and if you want proof that Christ is alive, just look around you, at this community gathered in testament to that truth.

Believe, and you will see.  Amen.


Hymn of the day:  ELW 379 Now the Green Blade Rises

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain
Love lives again, that with the dead has been
Love is come again like wheat a-rising green.

In the grave they laid him, love by hatred slain,
Thinking that he would never wake again
Laid in the earth, like grain that sleeps unseen
Love is come again like wheat a-rising green.

Forth he came at Easter, like the risen grain
He that for three days in the grave had lain
Raised from the dead, my living Lord is seen
Love is come again like wheat a-rising green.

When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain,
Your touch can call us back to life again
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been
Love is come again like wheat a-rising green.

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