The Christian Church has the difficult task, at this point in the year, of trying to encourage people to celebrate an Easter season – a whole period of days and weeks of Easter – in a culture which always wants us to “move on to the next thing” right away. “O-kay, Halloween was yesterday – put up the Christmas decorations now.” “The new Avengers movie opened last week, I saw it already, what’s this weekend’s blockbuster premier?”
It’s like what my young teen nephew once said, who even before he was back out into the parking lot as the Kennywood Amusement Park in Pittsburgh at the end of the day, was already asking, “Can we go to Sandcastle water park tomorrow?” What’s next? What’s the next thrill? Move on to the next thing.
The church, following the model of the gospel stories, tries to encourage us to stick with Easter, for a little while. It is a season here. It wasn’t over as soon as the Easter Day brunch was consumed. The Bible contains several stories of Jesus coming to see his people after his resurrection, several “Easter appearances,” several incidents we can look at. He was around for forty days between his resurrection and ascension into heaven – six weeks; the day marking the Ascension isn’t until May 30th this year. Wouldn’t we want to spend forty days with the risen Lord if we had the chance, not rush him off to heaven right away? “Uh, Jesus, don’t you have some place you have to be? Isn’t God expecting you?” Let’s not turn our attention to our Mother’s Day plans quite yet.
So in the church, it is these stories of Jesus appearing to his followers, in the days after Resurrection Day, that are the texts recommended for our consideration. You can find them at the end of the gospels of Matthew and Luke and John, and in the first chapter of the book of Acts. They were summarized, I’m sure you all remember, in the Pastor’s Letter of our April 2018 newsletter:
- Luke 24: 13-35 – Jesus appears to two disciples, later in the day on Easter, walking toward the village of Emmaus, after having been in Jerusalem when Jesus was killed
- Luke 24: 36-49 – A second account, besides today’s gospel reading, of Jesus appearing to the disciples Easter evening, with quite a different emphasis.
- John 21 – Jesus appears to seven disciples on a beach – and cooks them a fish breakfast
- Matthew 28: 16-20 – The “Great Commission” to the disciples.
- Luke 24 and Acts 1 – Jesus’ final words to the disciples and ascension into heaven
- And Paul mentions, in First Corinthians, an appearance by Jesus “to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time” – but we know nothing more about that incident.
The Lectionary, that schedule of recommended Bible readings for Sunday worship services, gives us two more Sundays of the stories of the risen Jesus after Easter day – before it moves on to stories of the early church, which then continues trying to carry out the risen Lord’s wishes.
Now one thing that is a little out of character for these Lectionary readings is that they list the same gospel passage on the schedule every year, for the Sunday after Easter. One purpose of the Lectionary is to lead us through the whole Bible over a period of three years, not have us return to only our own favorite passages over and over; but every year, for some reason, the gospel reading for the Sunday after Easer includes the story we heard today in the Gospel of John, the story of the disciple Thomas. You thought ministers often went on vacation the week after Easter to get a break after all the Holy Week activities; I’m starting to think it might be to get away from having to come up with yet another sermon about the same story. And what Thomas is famous for, of course, is his failure to believe his fellow disciples when they tell him that Jesus has risen and has appeared to them.
Now we have this verse 24 in John 20 that says “Thomas was called ‘the Twin’”: “But Thomas, who was called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them.” But do we know him as “Thomas the Twin”?
And we have a story about him in John 11 that goes like this: “Jesus said to the disciples ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jewish leaders were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus told them ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, and I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said back ‘Lord if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ So Jesus told them plainly ‘Lazarus is dead. Let us go to him.’” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’” But do we call him “Brave Thomas,” for being willing to accompany his Lord into danger?
There’s also this, from the Lord’s Supper conversations in John 14: Jesus says “In my Father’s house there 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 take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him “I am the way – and the truth, and the life.” But do we call Thomas “seeking Thomas”? “Eager-to-understand Thomas”? “Determined-to-follow Thomas”?
No, what do we call him? “Doubting Thomas,” based on that incident of disbelief in chapter 20. Wouldn’t he be just thrilled with the Lectionary maker’s decision to repeat it every year. Forget his bravery, his seeking, his “twin-ness.” Instead, he’s known only as “the disciple who didn’t have faith.” The weak one. The bad one. “Don’t be a doubting Thomas,” we say. Don’t be like the bad disciple.
But at the end of the day, does Jesus consider him to be “a bad disciple”? Has he been kicked out; is “the twelve” down to ten, now? Or has he been sent outside the inner circle of disciples, put with the minor league disciples, now with the Triple A club Indy Indians disciples? Or has he been put on some kind of probation?
Just two verses after today’s reading, we read this: “Jesus showed himself again to the disciples, by the Sea of Tiberius, and he showed himself in this way: Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Nathaniel of Cana-in-Galilee, the two sons of Zebedee, Thomas called the Twin, and two others of his disciples.”
In Acts chapter one, when the disciples gather, the group that will create the core of Christianity, start the new church, we read “they entered the city , and went to the room upstairs where they were staying: Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip, and Thomas” – and five others. He’s right there, amongst the leaders. Apparently Jesus didn’t kick him out, or consider him a lesser disciple, or “not really a disciple,” now. He’s not even called “doubting Thomas” in these two stories – or anywhere else in the Bible, for that matter.
And you know why? Verse 28 in today’s reading: “Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God.” That is the strongest confession of faith made to Jesus, face to face, in the whole Bible; some consider it to be the climax of John’s gospel. At the end of the day, Thomas is confessing Jesus as his Lord; Thomas is saying “I believe in Jesus Christ.” “Believing Thomas.” “Faith-filled Thomas.” “Witnessing Thomas.” If you do that, sincerely, really meaning it, you are a disciple. That’s all it takes.
Romans 10 puts it this way: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. One believes with the heart . . . and confesses with the mouth, and so is saved . . . Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Thomas looks at Jesus and says “My Lord and my God.” So he is a disciple, is saved. Any lapses from a week earlier, along with any other sins, are forgiven, no longer count. At the end of the day, he is not “doubting Thomas” any more; he is Thomas the Christian. Because he confesses Jesus as Lord.
There are Christians today who still call him “doubting Thomas,” still think of him as “the bad one,” the one who didn’t really believe. Those Christians seem to have missed the part where he confesses Jesus and is saved. There are Christians today, too many Christians, who like to look at other Christians around them now and think of them as “bad disciples,” ones who don’t really believe. “Well, she’s not really a Christian,” I’ve heard far too regularly. “She may say she is, she may even think she is, but she’s not really a Christian.” She doesn’t share my belief on a particular political issue or theological point, so she’s not really a Christian. He won’t endorse my church project or participate in my small group, so he’s not really a Christian. She listens to the wrong kind of music, wears black too much, has too many body piercings – not really a Christian. She doesn’t pray as often as I do, or in the same way, doesn’t demonstrate the same interest in the same kind of spiritual disciplines. She’s “not really a Christian.”
Well, you know what? If she says, “Jesus is my Lord and Savior,” like Thomas, she is, like Thomas, a real Christian. Because that’s what makes someone a Christian. Confessing Jesus as Lord. “Confessing with your lips and believing in your heart” – that’s the job description, the required element, the one essential ingredient. It’s the one thing, you might know, that we require of parents at a baptism: “Do you believe in Jesus, and will you teach that faith to your child?” It’s the one thing we require of new church members as we receive them: “Do you trust in Christ as your Lord and Savior and do you intend to be his disciple?”
She may be a real Christian who has a different opinion from yours, or a different way of showing her faith, different cultural expression, different spirituality; but at the end of the day, she like Thomas, is a real Christian because she says Jesus is Lord. Whatever wrong opinions she has, whatever mistakes of thinking, will be forgiven, will not count. Because of this: “My Lord and my God.”
Let’s let Thomas off the hook, as Jesus did. Let’s let each other off the hook. Let’s be Christians together; “My Lord and my God.” And let’s pray:
God, thank you for your grace, your mercy, your forgiveness – that we don’t have to have everything exactly right our whole lives long to be part of your family; that it is sufficient to state our faith and try to follow you, to be accepted by you. Help us to accept one another as your people as well. Amen.