Scripture: John 20:19–29
In 1875, a scientist by the name of Francis Galton conducted one of the most important psychological studies in what has been called the “nature vs. nurture” debate. Galton deduced that biological twins were genetically equal, therefore any differences between them must be caused by environmental distinctions. He asked if we are the way we are because we are born that way (nature) or because other environmental influences make a difference (nurture)? Galton helped to inspire 150 years of what are commonly called “twin studies,” comparisons between twins to contrast anything from physical differences, like heart disease or allergies, to behavioral differences, like addiction or mental health.
But, close to 150 years later, scientists are increasingly suggesting that it is not so simple. In fact, identical twins aren’t actually identical. Geneticists are now able to identify slight genetic mutations and variations, even between those born of the same zygote in the same womb. Monozygotic twins, or what used to be called identical, actually have the potential for slightly different genetic make-up, including different fingerprints! We are more complicated than “nature vs. nurture.” The more scientists learn about humans, the more complexity they find. We are rational, emotional, instinctual, social creatures, capable of enormous particularity and intricacy.
If you don’t believe me, just ask the writer of the Gospel of John. Have you noticed the complexity of the people that Jesus has interacted with throughout the Gospel? These are not over-simplified, black-and-white caricatures, but unpredictable and complicated people:
Consider Nicodemus. He is knowledgeable, but still fails to understand what Jesus is talking about. He hides his commitment to Jesus, but in the end sacrifices in order to honor him.
Or consider the woman at the well. She is an outcast at several levels, possessing no external reasons why she should follow Jesus. But she becomes one of his most effective evangelists, convincing an entire village to follow him.
Or consider Mary and Martha. They are both clearly angry at Jesus, who abandoned them in their time of need and failed to use his power to save their friend Lazarus. Yet, it is Martha who proclaims that he is the Messiah, the Son of God, showing amazing trust and faith.
Or consider Peter. It is unclear throughout the Gospel whether Peter is Jesus’ biggest supporter, or his grandest enemy.
Or consider Thomas. Ah, Thomas, poor Thomas. If there is anyone who gets turned into an oversimplified caricature, it’s him. He even gets a title meant to summarize his entire personality: Doubting Thomas. Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples when Jesus appeared, so we as preachers get to fill in the blank depending on what we want to rail against in a given sermon. We want to target commitment? Thomas wasn’t committed enough. We want to talk about faith? Thomas didn’t have enough faith. We want to complain about intellectualism and doubt? Thomas is our bulls eye. And I admit to being part of the problem…even in my Easter sermon last week, I picked on Thomas for being a day late and a dollar short. It is just so easy for us as preachers.
But the bottom line is that we have actually no idea why Thomas wasn’t with the rest of the disciples that Easter evening. Maybe he was out feeding the poor. Maybe he was looking for Jesus after he appeared to Mary. Maybe he was the bravest of all of them, refusing to hide out in an upper room. And to add to Thomas’s complexity, remember the first time in the Gospel we met him? It was when Jesus had just heard about Lazarus’s illness, and he told them that he was headed back to Judea to be with the family. But they had just tried to kill him, and most of the disciples told Jesus he was crazy for wanting to go back. But it was Thomas who tells them: “Let us go, that we might die with him!” Whoa. Not much of a doubter there. He is on the spot, ready to die for Jesus and his mission, and encouraging the others to do the same. Thomas becomes an important voice of devotion and trust. He leads the disciples to follow Jesus, and then is there for this amazing moment when Lazarus is raised. But then, like the rest of the disciples, he flees the garden when Jesus is arrested. He is not with Peter in the courtyard outside of the trial with Pilate. He is not at the foot of the cross with the women and the disciple whom Jesus loved. And for whatever reason, he is not with the disciples when Jesus appears to them on the evening of Easter, and wouldn’t believe them until he saw him with his own eyes.
It is perhaps not an accident that Thomas was named “Didymus,” which is the Greek word for Twin. In fact, Thomas is the Hebrew word for twin. Very likely, Thomas was a monozygotic twin. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to conduct a twin study on Thomas and his twin? Why did Thomas follow Jesus, but his twin didn’t? What personality differences existed between them? But again, just like today’s geneticists are realizing, and John knew all along, there is something particular and complex and complicated about Thomas, someone who would say both: “let us go that we might die with him!” and “I will not believe until I see the marks on his side and hands and feet.” But I would suggest that Thomas is for us an example of the complexity of the human experience. We are committed, messy, loving, imperfect, devoted, distracted, doubting, sacrificial, and unpredictable creatures. We all have a lot of Thomas in us, both the admirable and the embarrassing.
So what does Jesus do with all that complexity? How does he handle the Thomas who offered to die for him, and then ran away when he had a chance to do so? He does at least two things:
First, Jesus tells Thomas “come as you are, with both the beautiful and the messy parts together.” Take another look at the language that Jesus uses with Thomas. He doesn’t berate Thomas for not being with the rest of the disciples. He doesn’t tell him “you doubted, so too bad.” Jesus appears, honors Thomas’s request, lets him put his hands in his hands and side, and allows Thomas to be Thomas. Jesus invites us to come as we are, even in our complexity and ambiguity and messiness.
Which, by the way, is exactly what Jesus does! He tells Thomas and the disciples to come as they are, and then demonstrates that truth by his own physical presence. Think about it. Does anyone find it weird that the Resurrected Jesus still has holes in his body from the nails and spear? I mean, if God could raise up Christ from the dead, don’t you think God could have figured out how to patch up a couple of holes? Am I the only one who thinks about this stuff? But I think that Jesus is demonstrating physically what he is telling Thomas verbally. Bring your full, complex, imperfect, full-of-holes self into this life. Don’t wait until all the holes are fixed. Don’t sit on the sidelines until you are 100%. Don’t think you need to be perfect to engage the world on behalf of God. Jump on in, “warts and all,” holes and all. Bring the fullness of who you are, an imperfect, finite human being with finite personality and characteristics. The Resurrected Jesus still had holes, perhaps to show us what it looks like to live life out of the imperfection of our bodies and minds and souls.
Which is the message that we chose to convey to the world. Six months ago, we had a fire that caused significant damage to this section of the sanctuary. Wall. Ceiling. Roof. It barely missed both stained glass windows, moving up instead of out. And when the time came to refinish the wood, the char damage was deep enough that a section could not be sanded out. Now, the physical structure is fine…strong and safe enough, but the cosmetic damage is still clear. So, the general contractor gave us options to hide the char. Cover it with a white trim piece to match the wall. Find a wood piece to match the support beam. There were all kinds of options to hide it. But that is when we made the decision: Leave it. That’s part of our story now. Sure, some visitors might scratch their heads every now and then. But that just gives us a chance to tell the story. We are an imperfect church, doing our best to live life in this world in the name of Jesus. We are a messy church, doing the best to live through our imperfection, pointing instead to God instead of our accomplishments. Just like Jesus’ physical body, full of holes. Just like complex, imperfect Thomas, stumbling through faith and doubt and conviction and belief. We aren’t going to be all things to all people. But we can be us. And with the “us” that we are, we believe that God can show the world grace and love and hope and peace.
So the first part of the message from Jesus to Thomas was: come as you are, warts and all. But there is more. I love Anne Lamott’s version:
“I do not understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”
That is the second part of Jesus’ message. He doesn’t leave Thomas where he found him. Jesus shows Thomas the physical proof that he needed, but then invites him to imagine a life where he didn’t need to have physical proof. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” In other words, Jesus is asking Thomas to rely on God in a way that doesn’t need physical evidence to be committed. Before Lazarus, Thomas told the other disciples “come let us go that we might die with him.” In other words, “As long as Jesus is leading the way, I’ll go. As long as that physical presence, my Lord and my God, is right here beside me, I am game. But if I don’t have that presence with me, not so much.” That is where Jesus invites Thomas and the disciples to imagine life without physical presence.
“Do not doubt, but believe.”
But remember what happens before Jesus and Thomas have this encounter. In John’s Gospel, the coming of the Holy Spirit takes place here, on Easter, as a reminder of the non-physical presence of God with them. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus invites them all to imagine a life of even more than they have been. Not limited by things we have control over, things that we can see, things that propel us forth by way of evidence. It was their ability to see themselves as Jesus saw them that allowed them to propel the message of Christ beyond their own little alternative community, and into the streets and villages and ends of the earth. Every one of them, including Thomas, died on Christ’s behalf, proclaiming the world-altering Gospel of Jesus.
Jesus meets Thomas where he is, but does not leave him where he finds him.
And God does the same thing with us! Let me stay with the example of the building and the church. A year ago, we were in the middle of the ReShaping Initiative, asking how is God working to help us reimagine our shared calling. Now, after the fire, we ask those questions again, with a renewed interest in how we can use this building for God’s work.
Reshaping welcome…who do we welcome and how is the building an extension of that hospitality?
Reshaping worship…through the ever-evolving 838 service, and a rebuild of an organ for the 11:00 worship that cements our commitment to glorious traditional worship.
Reshaping work…reimagining justice ministry and what that might look like, the building and around the community.
Reshaping wonder…asking how this building might be both the place for people to gather for in-person discipleship, and a launch pad for virtual discipleship, and the alloyed version that combines them together.
Jesus came to Thomas and helped him imagine who he might become. Thomas responded to that call, and followed Christ’s passion into a lifetime of ministry and commitment to birthing the Church. Today, 2,000 years later, we ask a similar question: how has Jesus met us where are, and how is he refusing to leave us where he finds us?