April 7, 2013
Preached at Milwaukee Mennonite Church
In 2008 when I was the pastor of Central Christian Church in Dallas, TX, Merrill and Janna joined the church after he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer as the climax of a reluctant journey to faith after Merrill had retired as a successful investment broker. God, church and religion seemed unnecessary until confronted with premature mortality. Merrill was particularly reticent about claiming faith in Jesus in a time of crisis after a life of ignoring God. It seemed Jesus claimed Merrill and Janna more than that they claimed faith. I was privileged to accompany them.
That summer we had been planning our vacation that would take us to Candy’s Dad in Minnesota. A day or two before we were to leave, Janna called to ask me to come to the hospital since the doctors didn’t think Merrill would last the day. As I sat with the gathered family, Merrill seemed to rally, and the family went to lunch. Janna told me to go home, and she would call if anything changed. I had barely eaten lunch when Janna called to say Merrill had died while we were all away. Of course, I went back to the hospital immediately to be with Janna and the family. After a little while, they left the hospital feeling rather useless. Janna asked if I would stay with Merrill until they took him to the hospital morgue. The hospital chaplain and I spent most of the afternoon in silence and quiet conversation alongside Merrill’s bed.
Janna insisted that we not change our vacation plans. She would be happy to have the Associate Pastor, Todd Boddy, conduct the service for Merrill. Thanks to modern technology, I was able to give my own brief remembrance at Merrill’s service with my cell phone from Candy’s Dad’s living room in Minneapolis. Several times Janna told me how important my presence was at both hospital and funeral, even though I felt I had been absent.
Thomas missed out on being with the other disciples when Jesus appeared to them Easter evening. Here we are a week after Easter, in the evening. Will Jesus to show up? I suggest that Jesus extends grace for shaky faith through those who think they have missed out spiritually.
I’ve heard plenty of preachers criticize Thomas for not being with the disciples Easter evening. However, none of that is even hinted at in the Gospel. John 20:26-31 simply says…
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.”27Then 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.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.31But 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.
Thomas missed out before. When Jesus told the disciples Lazarus had died, in John 11:16 Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” At the Last Supper when Jesus said he was going to prepare a place for the disciples, in John 14:5 Thomas said, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Jesus obviously knew about Thomas’ doubt, but he did not scold. Instead, he invited Thomas to touch his wounds and see that it was him. We all know that when young children say, “Can I see that?” they mean, “I want to touch it.” With eloquent storytelling, the Gospel does not say whether Thomas touched Jesus. Some commentators make a huge point that Thomas didn’t touch, but I’m not so sure. I suspect the ambiguity is intentional.
When John’s Gospel reports Jesus’ healings and works of power, it does not call them miracles but signs. They are not offering proofs to support our faith. Rather they point to who Jesus is. Similarly, I don’t think Jesus was proving something to Thomas but offered a sign that he could be trusted for eternal life. Thomas, with all his doubt, still is a sign to those who believe without seeing. By missing out, not only on being with the others on Easter evening, but also missing out on immediate faith, Thomas still invites us to trust Jesus.
In college I read Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. 45 years later my recollection of the story is vague. Its main character is the unnamed “Whisky Priest” who has many personal moral and spiritual failings but persists in trying to serve the spiritual needs of poor folk in Tabasco, Mexico despite the violent opposition of the Mexican revolutionary junta in the 1930s. The “Whisky Priest” is something like Thomas. He would disqualify himself as a Christian and priest, yet he brings grace to many others who missed out.
The Christian Century recently published an interview with author Pico Iyer whose recent book The Man Within My Head reflects on Graham Greene. Iyer said that Greene called himself a “Catholic agnostic” who had faith (emotional connection with God) but not belief (rational convictions about God). Iyer calls him “the poet laureate of the half-believer, or the person who longs for belief.” (March 20, 2013, pp. 10-11)
Greene had gone to Tabasco, Mexico in the time of the revolutionary junta. He wrote about that in Lawless Roads out of which The Power and the Glory came. He said he first started to become a Christian because the faith of the peasants assumed such proportions that he couldn’t help being profoundly moved.
A man whose wife is a church elder once came to see me. He told me he would really like to have faith but just can’t seem to get there. Could I recommend something for him to read? He quickly amended his question. I don’t need arguments for God, Jesus or the Bible. I’m convinced about all of that already. What I need is to know how to release and trust. Whether they say it or not, I believe a lot of people are like that, and Thomas is their apostle.
Jesus told Thomas that we who would believe without seeing would be even more blessed than he was. I suspect most of us would like to have been present to see the risen Jesus. How are we more blessed? We are those who have missed out spiritually through whom Jesus extends grace for our shaky faith.
While I was in the middle of preparing this sermon, a friend sent me a link to a 2009 Esquire article by Shane Claibourne addressed to his “non-believing, sort-of-believing and used-to-be-believing friends.” He wrote of walking with some out of town friends in downtown Philadelphia. They encountered a street preacher standing on a box, shouting through a bull-horn alongside a coffin with a fake dead body in it. The preacher was saying that everyone was going to die and if you didn’t believe in Jesus you’d go to hell. Some people snickered. A couple of teenagers tried to steal the fake body. Claibourne said he wanted to jump up on the box with the preacher and shout, “God is not a monster!” He wrote that he has become convinced that Christianity spreads best not through force but through fascination.
We all encounter Thomases every day: people who are hungry for faith but just can’t seem to get there. They don’t need to be convinced; they need to be surprised by Jesus as Thomas was. In reality, we are a lot of Thomases sitting here as well. We’re sure we missed out spiritually. Jesus isn’t scolding you. Jesus is waiting for the right time to surprise you.