It’s the Sunday after Easter, and so it’s time for the annual retelling of the Tale of Thomas the Doubter. You know how it goes. On the evening of Easter, the disciples are all gathered together, spending time in prayer and Bible study. But not Thomas. He is probably out telling people that he doesn’t believe that the sky is really blue. When Jesus appears to them, he shows them his hands and his side and they believe! When they see Thomas later, he is telling everyone that he doesn’t believe that the earth is flat, when they tell him that they have seen Jesus. Thomas doesn’t believe, instead saying that unless he touches the nail marks, he cannot. Clearly, this is because he does not love Jesus, and also hates children. And puppies. Only when Jesus appears to him, belittles him, and tells him that most children aren’t that bad, and he should give puppies a chance, does he believe. Begrudgingly. But he doesn’t budge on the puppies. Thus endeth the Tale of Thomas the Doubter.
OK, maybe I am overstating a little, but this is pretty close to how we sometimes tell the story of Thomas. We even give him the name “Doubting Thomas.” If you ask the average Sunday School go-er on the street what they know about Thomas, most of them will say, “He’s the Doubter, right?”
But what if we told the story a different way. Without stretching the Gospel too much, perhaps we could tell the Tale of Thomas…the Brave. It might sound something like this:
It’s the Sunday after Easter, and all of the disciples have gathered together in a room. But not Thomas. They were all presumably present when Mary came back from the tomb and proclaimed, “I have seen the Lord!” But they doubted. All of them. After all, Mary was a woman. And she did not have any other witnesses with her. And when it came down to it, really? Back from the dead?
And so, the whole group of doubters gathered in a hidden room, terrified. Behind closed doors. Behind locked doors. And waited to see what would happen next.
Except for Thomas. One of them asks where Thomas is, why he is not with them. And they begin to remember. Remembered the times that Thomas stood up when the rest of them faltered. Remembered the times he showed courage and conviction. Like the time when Jesus announced that he was going to Jerusalem. Most of them were terrified to go back to the place where they knew that Jesus would be at risk and probably killed.
But not Thomas. It was Thomas who stood up and proclaimed, “Let us go, that we might die with him.” Again and again, it was Thomas the Brave who stood up when others would not. In fact, perhaps he was not with them because he was actually out doing what Jesus had taught them to do – to feed the poor and care for the sick and visit the prisoners. All we know is that he was not hiding in terror behind closed doors like the rest of the disciples were.
And when Jesus did appear to him a week later, his response was not skepticism or doubt, but belief. “My Lord and my God!” This is the first proclamation by anyone that the Resurrected Christ was not just his leader, his teacher, but his God! Thus endth the Tale of Thomas the Brave.
Perhaps we can look to the character of Thomas in John as something more of a hero. To me, he has always been a skeptical believer. No one else proclaimed as he did: “My Lord and my God!” So, as a bit of a skeptic myself, Thomas is one of my heroes. Not naïve or gullible, his faith was built on thoughtful and reasoned evidence. But once he gathered that evidence, Thomas became a significant leader amongst the disciples, first proclaiming that the Risen Christ was in fact God! He is a skeptical believer.
Which leads us to a third story of the morning. It is the story of you and me and a hundred and fifty-nine year old Baptist congregation.
Tim Soerens is the director of The Parish Collective, a group that wants to pull us back to recognizing the particularity of place, and understanding our role in our particular neighborhoods. He suggests that we should become a character in our neighborhood’s story. We should get caught up in the plot of the place where we welcome and worship and work and wonder. Of course, that also means that we get caught up in the plot of what God is doing in this place. What would it look like to be a character in our neighborhood?
Over the last few months, the Spiritual Leadership Team and the staff have begun talking about what we are calling Project 3422. Now, my guess is that most of you will not recognize those numbers. Unless you happen to spend much time reading our mail. The numbers 3342 are our “last four” – the extension of our zip code here at 1330 Kasold. We are in the zip code 66049, along with about a quarter of the city. But there is a smaller area around our neighborhood that has the extension 3342. Most of you have probably never paid attention to your “last four”…I don’t even know what ours are at our house. But it’s not the numbers that matter. What matters is that we have begun to talk about the impact that we have on our 3342 – on our surrounding neighborhood. Do we look at the houses as we drive by? Do we notice what is bought at sold on the route to our church? Do we pay attention, or simply shut our brains off until we pull into the parking lot and start to look for a spot? Disappearing behind our own locked doors.
Because the reality is that many of the folks in our neighborhood are just as likely to not even notice when they drive by 1330 Kasold – and a lot of that has nothing to do with signs or location. Multiple national bloggers and polls and studies over the last few years have dared to ask the question “what would happen if the church in your neighborhood ceased to exist?” In general, the results have not been flattering. They usually range from “nothing much” to “we’d have better parking” to “there’s a church in our neighborhood?”
So perhaps we ought to dare to ask the question: What would our neighbors say about us? At Jade Garden? The Sconelady’s coffeehouse? Presbyterian Manor? Sunset Hill Elementary? New Hope Fellowship? The residents of Lawrence Avenue? What would our neighbors say if we asked “what if we ceased to exist?”
If we are to take an honest look at today’s passage, some difficult questions arise:
• How do we as a church tend to stay inside our upper room?
• How do we lock the doors and wait to see what might happen next?
• How do we tend to live out of fear instead of courage and bravery?
• What would happen if we opened up the doors and started to proclaim “My Lord and my God!”?
I have an assignment for you. This week, I would like for you to explore our 3422. Maybe drive into the church from a different direction than you normally do. Maybe write down the businesses you see on your way in. Maybe get here a little early or leave a little late and take a walk around the neighborhood. And as you do, I want you to pray. Pray for our neighbors. Pray for our church. Pray for our own doors to be opened up and for us to tell the good news that Jesus came back.
Maybe it was a holy accident that we moved into our new space and time on Thomas Sunday.
What if our move out of the sanctuary for a few months became an opportunity to ask ourselves what doors we hide behind as a congregation? What if our transitional time and schedule became a way to take a critical look at our own way of doing things and ask what are we hiding from? What if Thomas became a guide for us, one that helped us to become more thoughtful and skeptical about the “we’ve always done it this way” mentality? What if these next few months became a chance for us to ask “where is Jesus commissioning us to go to, breathed into and empowered by the Holy Spirit in our midst?”?
Because there is one final story to tell today. The important reality is that this story today is not about the disciples. Or about Thomas. Or even about us. This is a story about Jesus.
We have to be careful not to bury the lead here by focusing on Thomas, or the disciples, or anyone else. This is a story about Jesus, and the fact that Jesus came back. Of course, the big Come Back is the Resurrection! But beyond the obvious that Jesus conquered death itself, look at the story from the relational perspective with the disciples. In the wake of betrayal by Judas, denial by Peter, and cowardice by the rest of the disciples – Jesus came back. Jesus came back. I don’t know about you, but if I were Jesus, I would be tempted to leave that lot locked behind the closed doors and find a new crop of followers. But Jesus came back.
And not only did Jesus come back. He offered a blessing of peace, patiently showed them all his hands and side (not just Thomas), and then breathed the power of the Holy Spirit into them, creating with them a new community of followers and believers. This is a story about Jesus.
That is the story here. Our takeaway from John 20 should not be that we should never have any doubts or skepticism. Instead, it should be this powerful fact: Jesus came back. Back from the dead. Back from rejection. Back from betrayal. Back to those who didn’t deserve his grace.
The story for us today is the same. Jesus comes back. Even when we hide ourselves from the world, overwhelmed by fear, running away from reality, Jesus walks through our locked doors and he shows up. Again and again, Jesus comes back. And that is a story worth telling.
As the church of the Christ of Easter, we, too, must not be motivated by our fears as the disciples were. We are not called to be a church of the locked doors, but instead a church of the stood amongst and breathed into, a church of the called and commissioned, even a church of the skeptical believers.
Just like he did on Easter Sunday evening, I believe that Jesus comes back. Just when we aren’t sure what to do, he shows up out of the blue and he breathes into our church a new commissioning to turn our faces outside of our own upper rooms. Just like he did on Easter Sunday evening, Jesus is changing the way that we see the world, and once our eyes are opened to this new vision, and it’s up to us to unlock the doors and take a step outside.