Thomas: Apostle for the Ages

Sermon by Pastor Bill Chadwick | March 11, 2021

The Second Sunday of Easter | Acts 4: 32-35, John 20: 19-29

Today is not the first Sunday after Easter.  It is the second Sunday of Easter!  In its wisdom, the Church has not only given us the forty days of Lent, but then also fifty days in the season of Eastertide, in which to celebrate Resurrection.  Thank God!

Two things before I read the gospel text.  A story and then some background.

One of my all-time favorite stories.  A man was walking home one stormy and very dark night.  Because of the wind and rain, he decided to take a shortcut through the cemetery.  As luck would have it, he fell into a freshly-dug grave, ready for a burial the following morning.  Once he realized he hadn’t actually broken anything he tried to climb out.  But the grave was deep and the sides were steep, and mighty slippery.  Try as he might he kept falling back into the hole.  He hollered and hollered, but because of the storm and the wind no one could hear.  After some time, he resigned himself to a cold and bleak night in the grave, knowing he would be rescued in the morning.  As luck would have it, another man hurrying home decided to take a shortcut through the cemetery and he fell into the same grave.  He did not fall on top of the man huddled in the corner and in fact, in the darkness and rain, was unaware that someone was already in the hole.  The second man tried to climb out.  But the grave was deep and the sides were steep, and mighty slippery.  After a few minutes, the first man down in the corner quietly said, “You can’t get out of here.”

But he did.

Are these Easter stories just fairy tales we tell ourselves because we are afraid of the grave?

Some background before I read the assigned gospel text.  The gospel of John was written around the year 90.  At the time, Emperor Domitian ruled the Roman Empire.  As you history buffs will know, Rome allowed its subject peoples a great deal of religious freedom.  You could do what you want as far as worship goes, 364 days a year.  But one day per year you had to show your allegiance to Rome by journeying to the nearest Roman worship center where a statue of Emperor Domitian had been set up.  There you burned a pinch of incense before the Emperor’s statue and declared, “My Lord and My God.”  My Lord and my God.

Now for the context.  Just before this passage, in the first half of chapter 20 is the story of the Risen Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene in the Garden when she went early on the morning of the third day to prepare Jesus’ body.  It is that familiar and oh-so-beautiful and poignant scene in which Mary, in the low light and through her tears, at first thought Jesus was the gardener, until Jesus tenderly called her by name, “Mary.”  After this amazing reunion Mary ran and told the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

Okay, beginning with verse 19.  Listen carefully, for this is more important than anything I am going to say about it afterwards:

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, (the disciples had good reason to fear the Jewish leaders—they didn’t want to wind up on a Roman cross like Jesus did) 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 be unbelieving 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.”

Who identifies with Thomas?  At one time or another in our lives, I think we all do.  Or at least I did.  For many years, I would occasionally have a day, about once a year, in which my faith would for no apparent reason, disappear into thin air. I would become unmoored and panic and think, “This Christian faith in which I have been raised and given my entire life to, personally and professionally—is all a hoax.  Just a whistling in the dark as we make our way through the cemetery.”  But I realize I don’t have those days any more.  What caused the change? It was my experience as a chaplain in a care center, dealing with an average of nine deaths per month.  As I had the holy privilege of journeying with people through their transitions, so often there was an almost palpable sense of God’s presence as they moved from this life to More Life.

Well, let’s start at the beginning with our friend Thomas and see where we might find Living Word for us today.  (This is such a rich passage.  I’m going to kind of bounce around, offering a number of different thoughts to chew on, in hopes that you will find a nugget or two to nourish your life of discipleship.) 

We read about Thomas as an individual, separate from the other disciples only in John’s gospel, three times total, today’s gospel lesson being obviously the third and final time.  We first encounter Thomas by name in the story of Lazarus’ illness and death, John 11.  Jesus had recently narrowly escaped arrest in Jerusalem, so the little band of disciples had gone across the Jordan to safety.  Word came to them there that their friend Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha, had died, back in their hometown of Bethany, just a few miles outside of Jerusalem.  Jesus said, “Let us go to him.”  We can imagine that the disciples thought this was not a great idea.  We can imagine them saying, “Um, Jesus, we don’t mean to be insensitive, Lazarus was our friend, too, but…well, Lazarus is already dead… and the Jewish leaders are looking to arrest you…and probably us with you.”  But Thomas said, verse 16, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  Pretty admirable.  Courageous.

The second time we hear of Thomas is in John’s setting of the Last Supper, chapter 14.  Jesus is giving last-minute instructions to the disciples in these famous words of comfort: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”  Okay, great.  But then he said, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

That would have befuddled me.  How would I know the way?  Haven’t we all been in classrooms when the teacher says something about which we don’t have a clue.  We don’t want to look stupid in case everyone else understood it, so we don’t ask. But Thomas wanted answers.  That’s why he’d followed Jesus in the first place.  To make sense out of life.  So Thomas was the only one to raise his hand and say, “Um, Lord, we don’t know where you are going.  How can we know the way?” 

I love Thomas, don’t you?

The third time we read of Thomas is here in this 20th chapter of John.  Despite Mary Magdalene bringing the message that she has seen the Lord, the disciples are huddled behind locked doors, for fear of the Jewish leaders.  Huddled in fear behind locked doors.  Sound familiar?  That’s where we have been for the last year.  Huddled in fear.

The disciples are huddled in fear.  The door is locked when suddenly the Risen Christ appears among them and said, “Peace/shalom be with you.” And he showed them his hands and his side.  The disciples rejoiced!  Try to put yourself in their shoes.  We read the occasional story of a soldier killed in action, or of someone lost at sea and reported dead.  The families hold a funeral and go through the grieving process.  They are not hoping their family member is alive.  Yet some time later, out of the blue, word comes that their loved one is, in fact, not dead, but alive.  Try to imagine the joy!  

And in this case, the disciples, or at least the more courageous women, had actually SEEN Jesus nailed to the Cross.  They KNEW he was dead.  Despite what he might have told them while he was alive, they were NOT expecting him to be raised from the dead.  So such joy and amazement when he appears among them.  

Then 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…”

This is John’s version of Pentecost, the giving of the Holy Spirit, in this version through the very breath of the Risen Christ.  In our biblical languages, there is just one word, the same word, for “breath” and “Spirit” and “wind.”  All the same word.  In Hebrew it is ruach, in Greek it is pneuma, from which we get the words “pneumatic” and “pneumonia.”

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  John’s version of the Great Commission.  Here the disciples become apostles.  We tend to use the terms interchangeably, but they are not identical.  A disciple is a student, actually more like an apprentice, who learns from the master.  An apostle is a messenger, one who is sent. That’s why we talk about the Apostle Paul, not the Disciple Paul, because Paul didn’t sit at Jesus’ feet, but only encountered Christ after the resurrection.

Okay.  Great excitement.

But when the Risen Christ appeared in the room…someone was missing.  Thomas was not there.  Why? Where was he?  We don’t know.  

That’s where we use our imaginations.  I imagine that he was so devastated by the death of Jesus, and perhaps by his own abandonment of Jesus.  Remember in chapter 10 he had bravely said, “Let us go, that we may die with him,” but not long after when the soldiers came to the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest Jesus, what did Thomas do?  As far as we know, Thomas fled with the rest.  So after Jesus’s death, while the others gathered together, I imagine Thomas went off to be by himself, like a wounded animal slinks off to die alone.

When he does return to the other disciples, they erupt with the good news, all of them talking at once, “We have seen Jesus! He is alive again!”  I imagine Thomas thought to himself, “This is crazy.  That can’t be true.  I’d like to believe that, but I am so far down now, I am not getting my hopes up, only to have them dashed again.”  I imagine he snarled, “What are you talking about?  The women saw him nailed to a Roman cross. The soldier speared him in the side.  He was buried in a tomb.  He’s dead!  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.”

And then 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 be unbelieving but believe.”  

Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

“My Lord and my God.”  The Roman Emperor is not Thomas’s god; Jesus is.

Are you a little jealous of Thomas?  To get your doubts answered so dramatically and absolutely.  I am a little jealous.

It takes some faith to trust that God raised Jesus from the dead, but I can’t really explain the existence of the Church without the fact of the Resurrection. Something positively transformed these disciples.  They are converted from cowards cravenly cowering behind bolted barriers to suddenly on the streets boldly proclaiming that Jesus is alive again, knowing full well that it could cost them their lives; and for ten of the eleven it did.  Would you die for a lie?  

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the empowering energy of the breath of the Risen Christ, the disciples became apostles and dispersed throughout the known world.  Tradition tells us that Thomas spread the good news of Jesus’ resurrection all the way to India, where he died as a martyr.  

Those of us who have said yes to Jesus and have been granted the power of his Holy Spirit are today sent as apostles, to bring the good news, to offer forgiveness and hope, and to work for justice and peace in Christ’s name.  And to share our worldly goods as we read in Acts.  And we are called to see his face in the face of everyone we meet.  “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these you hve done it unto me…” (Matthew 25)

Before I enter a hospital room or cross the threshold into the home of someone I am visiting on your behalf, I remind myself of two theological truths: I say to myself, “This person I am about to encounter is Jesus” and “For this person I am Jesus…” not because I am so wonderful but because I am representing the Church of Jesus Christ on your behalf.

Like Mary Magdalene we sometimes don’t see Jesus when he is right in front of us.  Let us have eyes to see.  When I see someone signing on a street corner asking for help, well, not every time, but on my good days, I think, “There is Jesus.”  And I need to be Jesus for that person.

I am reading Anne Lamott’s latest book, and it is wonderful, of course.  Entitled  Dusk Night Dawn, in it she relates this story: Once, newly sober, thirty-three years (ago), at an airport hotel in Miami, where I had given a talk at some book association convention, I found myself alone at midnight, twenty stories up, thinking about drinking everything in the minibar and then jumping off the balcony.  But something—life? grace?—had one other idea: to pick up the hotel phone and let someone enter into the mess of me.  There was an all-night hotline for addicts and alcoholics, so I called that.  A young man answered, listened, and said he would send a sober woman to my hotel.  It sounded like a nightmare to me, and also unlikely: a stranger was going to come to my room at midnight? 

And by God, an elderly woman with a frosted bouffant and a strong Texas accent arrived at my door half an hour later.  We got to know each other a little, and then she asked if there was anything I needed to get off my chest.  I hadn’t thought so, but I spent the next hour telling her terrible things I had done drunk, and terrible things I thought sober (and still do).  She nodded a lot and then told me her version of the same scary behavior common to female alcoholics.  I felt saved.  Before she left, she fluffed up my pillows, turned down my bedspread and blanket, and put a glass of water next to my bed.  She must have been forty years older than I, with twenty-five years of sobriety.  I told her, “I can’t ever repay your kindness,” and …at two that morning I walked her out to her car which turned out to be a pink Cadillac convertible.

I had seen the face of God (and also her car), in Her distressing guise as a Texan.  Pp. 16-17)

Friends, we are called to be Easter people, Easter apostles, and we can be confident that indeed


Amen?  Amen!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s