Every year the Sunday after Easter we hear his story.
Thomas, the disciple who doubted. Thomas, the one who listened in disbelief as his friends tell him that they have seen Jesus raised from the dead. Thomas, the one who said he wouldn’t believe it until he had not only seen Jesus with his own eyes, but actually touched the wounds in Jesus’ hands.
Thomas has gotten a bad rap over the years. The very term “doubting Thomas” is used as a pejorative for someone who is habitually doubtful or suspicious.
But if we read this story carefully, there are no grounds for making Thomas a negative example of discipleship and faith.
Thomas asked for confirmation, for affirmation. And Jesus makes available to Thomas exactly what he needs. Jesus appears to him and lets his friend touch his wounded hands.
There are times when I’ve been a little envious of Thomas. How wonderful to have one’s doubts assuaged so easily, to be able to see and touch and feel the risen Christ.
But just as Jesus knew what Thomas needed, he knows what those of us in future generations need to help us in our lives of faith.
“Have you believed because you have seen me?” Jesus asks Thomas. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Jesus’ words stand as a pledge and a promise to later generations, including our own, that even if we are not able to see and touch the risen Christ, we will still be able to experience God’s grace through him and through each other.
And then the gospel writer adds this message to future generations of believers:
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But 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.”
Two millennia later, this Sunday after Easter, these words are addressed to us, as they have been addressed to countless generations of those “who have come to believe.”
How have we come to belief in Jesus? And what exactly does that mean?
Many of us first came to believe through our families. Maybe we were told the stories of faith by our parents; maybe we were brought to church and Sunday school and steeped in the stories, prayers, and hymns.
Maybe you, like me, were brought up that way, but then left the church for a while, maybe a long while. But something or someone brought you back. Maybe it was having kids of your own.
Maybe, like me, it was the persistent invitation of a friend, which I finally accepted and discovered to my shock when I walked through that old church door in Nashville that I had finally found the home that I hadn’t even realized I was searching for.
Maybe you weren’t raised in the church at all, and found your way here by accident, not really sure why you were coming, but knowing that somehow you needed to be here.
Maybe you’re here this morning simply out of habit.
Whatever the reason, by our presence here we are saying yes to Jesus, yes to Christianity. We are saying that there is something here that we want and need, even if we aren’t sure exactly what that is.
Theologian William Dych writes that the Church’s job is to provide “a contemporary framework within which Christianity can make sense” and also be true.
Can we, as today’s gospel says, “come to have life in Christ’s name?” Are we and all creation known and loved by God? “Is the ultimate and radical truth about us a word of grace?” Dych asks.
Christian faith says the answer to these questions is “yes.”
When we encounter this “yes” of Christian faith and its traditions, we are confronted with two questions, Dych says.
“First, can I make this ‘yes’ my own, can I hear it as the final word of truth about my life, and thereby make Christianity’s interpretation of human existence my own self-interpretation?
“Secondly, what is this word saying, what is it exactly that a Christian believes?”
Theologian Marcus Borg notes that the common meaning of believe is usually followed by “that.” We believe that something, a statement, is true, with varying degrees of certainty.
But, he says, in the earliest days of Christianity the verb believe always had a person as its direct object, not a statement. It meant more like what we mean when we say, “I believe in you.” It meant having confidence or trust in a person.
In a Christian context, it means having confidence and trust in Jesus and God.
Believe was also synonymous with “belove,” to hold dear.
So to believe in God and Jesus means to hold them dear, to trust them, to have confidence in them, to give our heart to them.
That is what the first disciples did. And they recorded the stories of their experiences of Jesus, so that we too, might come to believe in him, to trust him, to hold him dear.
For us the stories of scripture are a primary way for us to come to know and trust in Jesus, but scripture is not the only way.
One commentator writes that “coming to faith is a shared project of trust and traditions in a fellowship of believers of all times and places who, by the grace and power of the Spirit, edify one another in strength and supply one another in lack.”
In other words, the church, the community of believers, is the place where, guided by the Holy Spirit, we come to learn from one another, to strengthen one another, to help one another.
Or in the words of the hymn which we sang at our annual parish meeting this morning, “This is the Lord’s house, home of all God’s people, school for the faithful, refuge for the sinner, rest for the pilgrim, haven for the weary; all find a welcome.”
It doesn’t matter if we feel our own faith is lacking – we can gain strength from someone else’s. Or we can help another in ways that we can’t even imagine.
Church is a place where we can, like Thomas, ask for what we need.
“The church is a company of disciples learning to pool the gift of faith,” the commentator says, “while eagerly inquiring into and trusting each other’s experiences of God. We borrow from and lend to one another – generation to generation.”
What a wonderful description of what the church should be — a community where we can trust one another; where we feel comfortable sharing our experiences of God; where it is safe to, like Thomas, express our doubts; where we can learn from and lean on each other.
Garrison Keillor, an Episcopalian, beautifully expresses what that means in his reflection on attending church on Easter last Sunday.
“On my way back from communion, the choir struck up a hymn, ‘I am the bread of life,’ with a rocking chorus, ‘And I will raise them up. And I will raise them up. And I will raise them up on the last day,’” he writes.
“As the congregation sang, a few people stood and some raised their hands up in the air, a charismatic touch unusual among Anglicans, and then some more people stood.”
And then surprising himself, Keillor stood.
“I raised my right hand,” he writes, “I imagined my long-gone parents and brother and grandson and aunts and uncles rising from the dead and coming into radiant glory, and then I was weeping and my mouth got rubbery and I couldn’t form the consonants.
“That’s what I go to church for,” he says, “to be surprised by faith and to fall apart.
“Without the Resurrection, Episcopalians would be just a wonderful club of very nice people with excellent taste in music and literature, but when it hits you what you’ve actually subscribed to, it blows the top of your head off.”
This Easter season may we all have moments where we are surprised by our faith, and come to have life in Christ’s name.