A Sermon: “Doubt Thomas”

I gave this sermon on April 12, 2015 at First Church Cambridge. It’s now May. I’ll be honest: I completely forgot to post it. Forgive me? I sure hope so…

John 20:19-31
20:19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Trigger Warning: Some discussion of sexual assault.

I told this story to some of my non-Christians friends, and asked them how they felt about Thomas. They all identified with him. I think a lot of people do, myself included. Having grown up without a specific faith tradition, John’s whole emphasis on the divinity of Christ makes me a little uncomfortable. John’s Jesus is divine first. By the time John writes his gospel sometime near the end of the first century or early in the second, Jesus is “not of this world.”[1] I imagine John’s Jesus as a being made completely of light who imitates a human so well that we forget that he is made of light. Like Winston Niles Rumfoord in The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, John’s Jesus materializes into human form on earth for a specific duration of time only to return to a realm where time is irrelevant. So, I get why people identify with Thomas.

We are meant to see ourselves in him because we all have doubt, and rightly so. There are many occasions for doubt in our world, so we align ourselves with the one disciple in the gospels who shows it. This story only appears in John and its name is familiar with Christians and non-Christians alike. Everyone has at least heard of Doubting Thomas. His doubt feels just as real as ours. I see myself in Thomas. He is logical. Thomas makes sense.

And yet, something about this passage didn’t sit well with me this time. Following that feeling, I found a backlog of all the times people told me I was being “sensitive” in the face of their racism. I thought of all the friends who have jumped through hoops to prove that they are “disabled enough” to receive Social Security. I thought of all the times that I asked people to prove that they are who and what they say to settle my own needs. That’s when it sunk in. Jesus poses the question: “Have you believed because you have seen me?” This question stings. It cuts right to that place in my heart that thinks I am unassuming. It makes me think about how my interactions with people have caused them pain. After sitting with this question, Thomas is no longer my hero. So instead of being Doubting Thomas, I’m asking you to doubt Thomas with me. Thomas knows that God’s power is wide enough to bring the dead back to life. Thomas was there when Lazarus was raised just a few chapters before. John 11:16, Thomas is named, you can check if you want proof. But rather than check, rather than pulling out the Bible in your pew to find chapter and verse, will you trust me? Can you believe, sight unseen, without hard data? Will you come with me? I hope so, because I’m taking this a few steps further.

Instead of a doubting Thomas, I see in this passage a demanding Thomas who can’t trust his friends to bring the good news of the resurrected Christ, whose ego breaks down the chain of communication in his community. Most importantly, I see Thomas inflicting even more violence on the resurrected body of an already victimized Jesus.

In the first appearance to the disciples, Jesus discloses that his resurrected body still carries the wounds. He comes back imperfect, allowing his disciples to recognize him after seeing the marks. The point being that Jesus chooses to show them. He appears in the locked room, giving them a greeting a peace, and reassuring them of his identity by showing his hands and his side. The disciples see that it is Jesus and rejoice, at which point he blesses them. There is no need for touch. When the disciples bring this good news to Thomas, he doesn’t believe them. It’s as if all the lessons about faith and belief have gone out of his head in this moment. Instead of listening, he says no. Can you imagine how his friends must have felt? In a community based on trust, Thomas communicates loud and clear that he doesn’t value their word. I imagine him shaking his head, ego shattered, as his friends deliver the news that Christ has appeared to them without him. I imagine his friends’ faces dropping, as he gives his ultimatum: “I will not believe unless…” Fault in a single word: unless. His friends’ words—and The Word—are not enough. He demands proof.

So Jesus shows up again, to let Thomas to feel his wounds. After reading this closely, my question was why. Why would Jesus let him touch the marks of a brutal execution? Why would Jesus so lovingly let Thomas reopen the wound in his side by sticking his hand into it? John’s answer is in verse 31, which sums up the purpose of this gospel: belief. Thomas is one of the 12. Jesus is doing all he can to bring back the one who has strayed from the flock.[2] He wants Thomas to believe. He wants Thomas to feel the whole weight of that belief in those wounds because Christ’s wounds are the weight that disciples must bear. They are the stigmata, which is a Greek noun in its plural form. The singular form is stigma. We know this word well, but not necessarily in context with the marks of Christ. We know that there are certain situations, qualities, and types of people that carry stigma. Mental illness, skin tone, sexual orientation, gender identity, criminal background, and disability to name a few. Thomas asks for proof of Jesus’ stigmatized body as a victim of the state, and Jesus obliges, because Jesus needs him to believe in order to defend the message of peace and justice that Jesus left with him. So Jesus provides proof.

The burden of proof usually falls to the stigmatized person. I have trans friends who after transitioning will not talk about their pasts because they don’t want to have to face the barrage of questions. I, myself, have been forced to educate the white people I’ve lived with on my everyday experiences of racism, at home, when it was the last thing in the world that I wanted to do. I’m not saying that was the case for Jesus, but he did appear once to the other disciples. Maybe he thought Thomas would be able to believe the other disciples because he wanted to reveal his stigma only once. I can think of many for whom this is true. They lead workshops on topics like racism and gender identity hoping that those in the room will be able to carry the message out into the world. Because doing it alone is draining and dehumanizing, having to retell the same story such that the only thing people know about you is that one story. They have rich, multifaceted personalities, but are ever only asked about their race or their gender. They speak on panels about mental illness or incarceration because people need to hear their stories, but in structured settings where they can tell as much or as little as they choose, without someone telling a story of an uncle who went to jail and was able to find a job so why is it so hard for you. Without fear of a Doubting Thomas standing up to make sure that they’ve been to the hospital at least once for their mental illness because (apparently) going to the hospital is what makes it real.

If you’ve been paying attention to the discussion about sexual assault on college campuses, you’re aware of how much pain the burden of proof can cause a person who’s just been assaulted. The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC) reports that an estimated 20% to 25% of women in college experience attempted or completed rape while in college. More BARCC statistics show that 42% of these cases go unreported. The ones that get reported are often dismissed citing a lack of proof as the reason. What’s more alarming is that 35% of college men indicated some likelihood that they would sexually assault someone if they were assured of getting away with it.[3] People who commit sexual violence get away with it because the burden of proof falls to the accuser, placing him or her back in the trauma of the experience. It reopens a wound that may not be healed—a wound that may never fully heal. So they don’t report. A person whose been assaulted may not be ready to confront the reality of it until months—sometimes years—after the assault has taken place. Yet our justice system can’t move forward unless people are willing to report, and to provide proof. Like Thomas shoving his hand into Jesus’ side to reopen his traumatic injury, we ask people to dive back into their trauma to provide proof. How do we handle this? I’m actually asking because, in this case, our demand for proof is invasive and traumatizing by making the victim relive the experience, yet the victim will not be believed if too much time passes between the incident and reporting, if it gets reported.

Thomas shows up in our society so often that we think it normal to demand proof of things that may be private. We can compare Thomas’s demand to see Jesus’ wounds to our demand to make people with disabilities disclose their status. If I told you I have a learning disability, would you believe me, and would you leave it at that? If I told you that I’m disabled in some other way, without providing any more information, would you leave it alone, or would you ask, “You have a disability? You don’t look disabled. How?” In other words, prove it. We put people on the spot, forcing them to reveal information about themselves that may not be necessary for us to know. I’m choosing to tell you now that I don’t have a physical disability. I could become disabled in the future. All of us can. That’s another sermon. My point is that there is a time where we have to stop asking questions of people and just trust them, because demanding more information is an aggressive lack of solidarity. We can support one another and love one another without that information.

Jesus taught us to live solidarity through love, peace, and trust. The first words out of his mouth upon seeing the disciples are “Peace be with you.” Jesus shows up after the worst trauma of his life with greetings of peace. It’s all he said, accept to bless them and to send them forward with this same message. Peace. Love. Trust. But then there’s Thomas and his demand for proof. I can’t identify with Thomas anymore. I can’t see him as the disciple I’d like to be. There is no honor in his need to verify the information brought to him about Jesus, because Jesus needed for him to just believe. To trust. I return to Jesus’ question: “Have you believed because you have seen me?” Yes, and, my God, what have I done? I don’t want to be Thomas after a friend tells me that he’s been raped long after it’s happened. I don’t want to be Thomas when someone tells me that she has a disability or a mental illness that keeps her from being able to function in a way that society deems normal. I don’t need to touch the marks left on you by racism. I don’t need to see that your condition meets my standards because it doesn’t have to. That’s what Jesus thought. The blessing he gives in verse 29 is not meant for Thomas. It’s meant for “those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” So, I can’t go back to identifying with Thomas, because I don’t need to see. I need to trust that whatever you’re telling me is there, so that I can continue caring for you. I need to trust in your word as my friend because, sometimes, words are all we have. So, I believe you, sight unseen, no proof needed. And though I may have some doubt, I still believe you, as someone with stigma that I don’t carry. Just because I haven’t experienced it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. I believe you because the sense of solidarity that goes into trusting God and one another is what makes peace possible. So yeah, I doubt, but I also doubt Thomas. And by God, I believe, I trust, and I love because that’s what’s needed in the world. Love. Trust. Peace.

Amen.

[1] David K. Rensberger and Harold W. Attridge, “Introduction to The Gospel of John,” in The Harper Collins Study Bible, ed. Harold W. Attridge (San Francisco, 2006), 1814–16.

[2] Matt 18:10-14

[3] Boston Area Rape Crisis Center: http://barcc.org/assets/img/Statistics_Download_-_College.pdf

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