Sermon: It’s Okay to Want to Touch the Paint

Sunday, April 16, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Second Sunday of Easter
watch this service online (readings start around 18:58; sermon starts around 26:29)

Do you know how many stars are in our galaxy? If I told you that there are over 100 billion 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? You might be a little more skeptical on that one, but most of you would probably believe me. But, if I told you that there was wet paint on that wall over there, you’d all have to touch it to believe me.

It’s one thing for us to hear data about astronomical numbers like how many stars there are in the Milky Way or how many ants there are on earth. It’s interesting information, but not necessarily something we feel like we have an immediate stake in. Like, it probably doesn’t change much of anything for me to tell you that I lied earlier about the ants – there are actually closer to 2.5 million ants for each human. 

But wet paint we care about. It’s important to us. I mean, you could accidentally brush up against a wall and get wet paint all over your nice clean clothes. And for those of us who know this space so well, hearing that there’s wet paint would immediately raise questions, like: How can there be wet paint there? Who would be painting in here? And why? What happened? We’d feel compelled to go and touch the wet paint to see for ourselves if it’s really true. Our very skepticism, our doubt, shows that – unlike stars or ants – this is a question that really matters to us. 

In our gospel reading for this morning, Thomas’ friends tell him some news that is a lot more staggering than the numbers of stars or ants in the world. After the crucifixion of Jesus, his followers were all gathered together in fear behind closed doors – probably discussing the rumors going around about the empty tomb – when out of nowhere, Jesus himself suddenly appeared among them! The rumors were true! And everyone but Thomas was there to see the risen and living Jesus in the flesh, to hear his voice speak peace to them. 

We have no idea what Thomas was off doing, but we do know that when he came back, he definitely did not expect to hear that everyone else had gotten to see Jesus while he was out. Thomas reacts to this news with disbelief – with doubt – and he flat out refuses to believe the testimony of the other disciples. Instead, he insists that he will only believe if he sees Jesus with his own eyes and touches his wounds with his own hands.

It’s a scene that actually fits pretty well with how Thomas is portrayed all throughout the gospel of John. Thomas is the disciple who says the quiet part out loud – he’s the one who says the things that everyone else is thinking, but too afraid to say. After all, when the great Simon Peter himself first heard from Mary Magdalene that she had seen Jesus at the empty tomb, what was the very first thing he did? He ran to the tomb because, like Thomas, he had to see for himself!

In fairness – or at least in theory – none of them should have been that surprised by this news. Jesus had told them, multiple times, that this was exactly what was going to happen. And if that weren’t enough, they were all there, in Bethany, to see Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead. 

But of all of them, the one who gets saddled with the label of “doubter” is Thomas. And centuries and centuries of church tradition and history have cemented his reputation ever since as “Doubting Thomas.” I think I may understand, though, why the church seems so particularly troubled by the case of Thomas. I think it has to do with his lack of faith in the witness of his fellow apostles. By this point, he had heard the news of Jesus’ resurrection from Mary Magdalene and the other women, from Simon Peter, and now from the whole group of the disciples. These were people in whom Thomas should have trusted. And for us, as Christians living thousands of years after Christ died and rose from the dead, our faith is built on the foundation laid by the witness of all the people who came before us. So naturally, Thomas’ rejection of that witness makes us, as a church, kind of uncomfortable!

But Thomas is by no means faithless. If you look for Thomas elsewhere in John’s gospel, you find that when Jesus announced that he was returning to Jerusalem, turning toward almost certain death, it was Thomas who declared, “Let us also go, that we might die with him!” Thomas was a ride-or-die disciple of Jesus. Knowing what we know of Thomas, it makes little sense to read his doubt as a lack of faith. He was willing to lay down his life for Jesus! Instead, I’d argue that what his skepticism and doubt actually show us is just how deeply this question matters to Thomas. He is still deep in grief and shock over losing his friend and teacher. This news of resurrection seems too good to be true – and it’s just too important for Thomas to take it lightly.

And what is beautiful in this story is how Jesus immediately seems to understand that. Jesus never gives Thomas grief for doubting. Instead, when Jesus returns, after he greets everyone with, “Peace be with you,” the very first words he has are for Thomas. He immediately holds out his hands to Thomas and invites him to touch him, to see for himself and believe that the good news is true. Jesus understands that Thomas’ doubt isn’t a lack of faith – if anything, it is evidence of his faith. And so he reassures Thomas that he really is risen, just as he promised, and he reminds him again that the scope of God’s power stretches far beyond human understanding.

This is the way of faith. With God, there is always space left for doubt. The vast majority of humans – including ourselves – are among those who have not seen. And God often works in ways that are beyond our understanding. God is the God of ants and wet paint and stars – and God is also the God of an impossibly vast cosmos of which we have seen only the tiniest fraction. Mystery and doubt are an inescapable part of our faith. 

But doubt is not a threat to faith. On the contrary, doubt is what enables faith to exist in the first place. You can’t really have faith in something that can’t be doubted – that’s just knowledge. For example, I don’t have faith that this podium exists; I know it does, because it’s obviously here.  Likewise, if we were absolutely, 100% certain of God, certain that we understand exactly how God works, well, that would be knowledge, and not faith. And in that case, our ‘knowledge’ would almost certainly be wrong, because we’d be reducing God down to something comprehensibly human, instead of something cosmic and divine. By contrast, doubt approaches the divine with humility and it leaves the door open for mystery and wonder. Doubt is like a prayer reaching out, asking that we too be allowed to touch God with our own hands.

For this reason, acknowledging doubt is often a sign of faith in and of itself. When we doubt and ask hard questions about our faith, we are showing that we take our faith seriously, that – in a world in which church is often -at most- an afterthought – these questions of faith actually matter to us, and deeply. We show trust that God is strong enough to withstand our doubts and our questions. 

And God understands. God understands that, sometimes, we just really need to touch that wet paint for ourselves. Sometimes we need doubt to open the door for us to be mystified and awed by God all over again.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we should all just dig in our heels for funzies and refuse to believe until we get to stick our own fingers in Jesus’ wounds, like Thomas did. I mean, for starters, we’ve got to be pragmatic about this – it’s been 2,000 years since those particular wounds were made, and like, Bandaids have been invented since then. What I am saying is that questioning and doubt can be potent opportunities for our faith to grow.

Thinking we have all the answers or that we understand exactly how God operates is the kind of stuff that chokes the life out of faith. Absolute certainty leaves us nowhere to grow. Instead, doubt is an invitation for us to draw closer to God and for God to draw closer to us. It’s an invitation for us to get to know God ever more deeply and to grow stronger in faith and in our relationship with God.

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. And just as blessed are the doubts that help us to grow deeper in faith until we too cry out, “My Lord and my God!”

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