[Sermon preached on Sunday, April 8, 2018 (Easter II, Year B) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, Minnesota]
[You can listen to this sermon by checking out the latest episode of the Word Made FRESH Podcast]
“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.”
This past week, on April 4, our nation marked the 50th anniversary of the martyrdom of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King dedicated his life and ministry to the expansion of civil and human rights for those in this country who found themselves on the underside of political and economic power, particularly those who were experiencing racism and poverty. He rooted all of this work squarely in the Gospel – in the creation of what he called the “Beloved Community.” I think many of us know about his life and ministry and we know how it ends, with an assassin’s bullet, but I wonder how many of us know about how it began, about how Dr. King began his ministry.
In his own words, Dr. King describes his call to ministry as “neither dramatic nor spectacular.” Unlike many of his biblical counterparts, this 20th century prophet didn’t experience some great vision or divine encounter. Instead, his call “expressed itself in a desire to serve God and humanity, and the feeling that [his] talent and [his] commitment could best be expressed in the ministry.” What I appreciate the most about his call story is how, even though Dr. King achieved incredible levels of notoriety and fame, his call story is so incredibly ordinary. It almost seems that he entered the vocation or ordained ministry almost reluctantly, relaxing into God’s will for his life even though he didn’t have all the steps figure out beforehand.
I don’t know anyone who would suggest that Dr. King wasn’t a man of faith. In fact, he exemplified an incredibly pragmatic faith, one that embraced doubt, uncertainty, and, at times, a-belief. His life shows us that faith is not certainty. In fact, certainty is the opposite of faith. Faith isn’t a clear understanding of the historic creeds and Christian theology. It isn’t knowing the difference between homousias and homoiousias. It isn’t just “right belief.” Faith, at its root, is a system of life. It is about “right action” – choosing to follow the higher way of love even as we stumble through the questions life brings to us. Faith goes beyond mere knowledge. It isn’t an intellectual enterprise alone. Faith is meant to infiltrate and influence every aspect of our lives. To choose to follow Christ is to choose to do as he does – to love and serve and advocate and support and care for those around us who stand in need of grace. It is to pattern our lives after his life. That is what it means to believe in Christ.
After the Resurrection, John’s Gospel suggests that Mary Magdalene was the first person who encountered the Risen Christ. In the words of the Rev. James Martin, Jesuit and Roman Catholic priest, “Between the time Mary Magdalene met the Risen Christ at Easter and when she announced his Resurrection to the disciples, [she] was the church on earth, for only to her had been revealed the Paschal Mystery.” All she knew what the Christ was risen! She didn’t know how. I’m sure she even knew why. She just knew that Christ had risen and because he lived, a whole new world was possible. She responds to this new awareness by growing the church through sharing the Good News with the disciples. “I have seen the Lord!” she says to them.
But when we encounter the disciples in today’s Gospel, we find that most of the Church on earth is locked behind closed doors, paralyzed by their fear of Temple authorities. Sure, they’ve heard from Mary Magdalene that she had seen the Lord, but that news wasn’t enough to overcome their own fears. The news didn’t make sense. Dead people don’t rise from the dead. Like Mary Magdalene, the other disciples needed to see the Lord in order to believe in him. And so their fear or disbelief or the ongoing grief or a mixture of all three kept them locked away, paralyzed in fear, wrestling with what must have felt to them not be Good News, but fake news.
Except that Thomas wasn’t there when the Risen Christ first appeared to his scared and fearful disciples post-Resurrection and when the disciples attempt to expand the Church even further by drawing Thomas into fellowship with those who had seen and therefore believed in the Risen Christ, he responds by saying, “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.” Thomas responds the same way Mary Magdalene and the other disciples respond. Seeing is believing and until they see it for themselves, they will not believe.
In a 2013 article in The Christian Century, the Rev. Steve Pankey, suggests that, despite the unfortunate label of “Doubting Thomas,” Thomas didn’t actually doubt. Instead, Thomas a-believed. Doubt and a-belief are two different things. Belief, for John’s Gospel was not an intellectual enterprise. It was a relationship. It might seem like a small difference between words, but according to Steve, Thomas believed in Jesus. He had a relationship with him. He walked with him, saw the miracles, heard his teaching, witnessed the crucifixion, but that relationship died when the Lord of Life died on that old rugged cross. “Thomas believed Jesus,” Steve writes. “He gave him his heart and his hope, and that belief couldn’t live beyond the grave. Unless, that is, Jesus lived beyond the grave, and that is so hard to fathom, that Thomas wanted proof before he handed his heart over to be burned again.”
Thomas believed in Jesus. Thomas had a relationship with Jesus. Thomas loved Jesus. I’m sure it didn’t always make sense, but Thomas’ relationship with the Lord was enough to bring him back again and again. When Jesus appears to Thomas after the resurrection, he is reentering their relationship. Death couldn’t kill it because love is stronger than death.
Thomas is the patron saint of those of us who have tried this faith thing again and again and still find ourselves with more questions than answers. Thomas is an example of how a pragmatic person can fall in love with the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not because we are convinced or argued into it. It is not because someone manages to answer all our questions and craft a convincing argument about the existence of God. Pragmatic people come to faith because they have an experience that they cannot quite explain, they have questions they can’t figure out quite how to wrestle with, or, like Dr. King, they stumble into it because it seems right even if they don’t exactly know where the next steps lead. Those tiny openings created by questions, or experiences, or curiosity is all the space God needs to break open new worlds.
Worlds where the dead rise from the grave.
Worlds where relationships and love transcend the thin veneer of death.
Worlds where diverse, questioning, and skeptical people can come together and bear witness to a loving force larger than themselves alone.
Worlds where simple elements of bread and wine speak to elaborate and divine banquets of welcome and grace.
Worlds where even the most devastating circumstances still possess the possibility of hope and newness.
Because if, against all odds and all logic, the dead do come back to life, what else is possible?
 Martin Luther King, Jr. “My Call to the Ministry”
 James Martin. Twitter (@JamesMartinSJ). Accessed 7 April 2018.
 John 20:25b
 Steve Pankey. “Doubting Thomas Didn’t Doubt” in The Christian Century (https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2013-04/doubting-thomas-didnt-doubt). Accessed: 7 April 2018.