The Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, PH.D., Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church. File photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Gazette.
By the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D. '13
Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals
Faculty of Divinity
(The following is a transcript of the service audio)
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Today is the second Sunday of Easter and we have this reading, the story of Thomas, the apostle, often known as Doubting Thomas, for reasons that are maybe obvious from this lesson.
Most of our church calendar, we rotate the readings. There's a three year cycle of readings so you can get through more of the gospels in three years. The fourth Sunday of Easter, every year it's a different lesson. But the second Sunday of Easter, it's always this lesson every year. Next year, second Sunday of Easter it'll be this lesson.
It's always the story of Doubting Thomas the week after Easter. This partly, I think, because in the story it says a week after Easter Jesus appeared to Thomas. But the more cynical side of me wonders is if already after all of the celebration and triumph of Easter Sunday seven days ago, if already the church is trying to manage our skepticism, acknowledging the unlikelihood of what we have just proclaimed and using the story to say this was true even then. Even then, seven days after the event, doubts had arisen.
The takeaway from the lesson it seems is don't be like Thomas, don't doubt. I'm going to try to complicate that a little bit this morning because I think doubt is normal. Testing your beliefs is normal. Not just normal for Christians, but normal for humans. I think we're skeptical creatures and were meant to be. It helps us survive in the world.
I remember when I was a child, I think I was about my son, Sam's, age. I was 10, maybe younger. I lived on a street... There was an empty lot right next to our house, but there were lots of little boys in my neighborhood who were in the same grade as me. Lionel, Sean and Brock were my best friends.
It was in the middle of summer. It may have been right after Easter, I don't know. It was the middle of summer, I think, and we found a little dead bird in Sean's front yard. You know the way little boys do, we all kind of gathered around it and looked at it and wanted to touch it, but nobody touched it I don't think.
Then Sean, the either budding theologian or scientist among us, he had the idea... He said, "I know, let's put it in a box and bury it and we'll check on it in three days to see what happens." Like I said, there was an empty lot next to my house, so I remember we got this shoebox... I think Brock had the shoebox, and we put this poor little bird into the box. Then we went to the empty lot next to my house and we dug a hole and we buried the shoebox, and then we forgot about it. I don't know what happened to the bird. There's probably a theological lesson in there somewhere for a different Sunday.
But all of this is to say is that doubt is normal. Testing is normal. Mary had it when she went to the tomb we heard last week and the tomb was empty. She didn't know what was going on and she was asking what has happened? What could have happened? Then when she told the disciples, if you'll remember my sermon last week, the disciples thought she was making up an idle tale and they didn't believe.
My friends and I, when we were eight or 10 or whatever, we didn't believe. I'm not sure Thomas is so special for his unbelief or his doubt this morning. The difference is that Jesus has appeared to his brothers, so they have reason to believe. Thomas doesn't, so he doesn't. In fact, if Thomas stands apart from his brothers among the disciples at all it might be for the urgency and eagerness of his faith.
At least earlier in the gospel of John, in chapter 11 of this gospel, Jesus wants to go back to Judea to go see his friend Lazarus and Mary and Martha, and the disciples don't want to go. It's too dangerous. They think that Jesus will be killed if they return, and Thomas, alone among the disciples, stands up and says, "No. If it is time to go and if Jesus will die, then we will die with him."
Earlier in the gospel Thomas is the model of faith and loyalty and commitment. So what's going on here in this lesson about Doubting Thomas?
I think we tend to focus on the second half of the lesson that we heard, this encounter a week after Easter between Jesus and Thomas, where Thomas, finally seeing the risen Lord drops to his knees and says, "My Lord and my God." But I think so much of what we need to do with this passage actually occurs in the first paragraph, when Jesus appears to the 10 other disciples when Thomas is not there.
So let me try to return you to that story. Remember this is on Easter day. The first paragraph of our lesson this morning is on Easter day, and I'm going to invite you to try to place yourself within this story. Imagine you are one of these disciples. Imagine what you've gone through the past few days.
You have told him that you will die for him, that you will never deny him, that you will never turn away from him, that nothing will separate you from him. Peter said this. Thomas said this. All the disciples said this, and then the authorities came and you ran away and you fled and you hid and you abandoned the one you promised you would never abandon and you denied the one you promised you would never deny.
After you do that, you know that he is taken and he is beaten and he is condemned and he is mutilated and he is murdered. You gather up together again and you're hiding, because you're afraid that they're coming for you next. Your fear is also a source of shame, because it just reminds you that you abandoned him already.
So you're hiding in this room two days after his death. Three days after his death you're hiding in this room. You're scared. The doors are locked. The scripture tells us the doors are locked because you are so terrified of who might come and appear before you, and Jesus appears before you, out of thin air appears in front of you.
What would your first impression be? I'd be terrified. The man I let down, the man who I had seen perform all these acts of power, has returned from the dead and he has come for me, the one who let him down and abandoned him. This is a ghost come to haunt me. I am terrified.
What does Jesus say to them? In their terror and their fear of him, in their failure of him, he looks to them and says, "Peace be with you." Then again he says, "Peace be with you." But he needs to convince them of it. Really, it's okay. Peace be with you. I forgive you. Then he says this curious thing, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any they are retained."
This is an interesting passage in Greek. There's a biblical scholar named Sandra Schneiders, who is at Santa Clara University in California, and she notes that in this passage, "If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any they are retained," in the Greek it doesn't say sins in the second part. It says, "If you retain they are retained."
There's some grammatical stuff going on, but a valid translation might also be if you hold fast to anyone they are held fast. If you embrace anyone they will be forever embraced. So we might read this line as saying something like if you forgive the sins of any you are forgiven. If hold fast to anyone they are held fast.
Jesus, having forgiven those who betrayed him, tells them that they now have the power to forgive. Jesus, having held fast to those who betrayed him tells them that now they have the power to hold fast to others. This was a kind of controversial, radical teaching, because at the time when Jesus was teaching only God could forgive sins, but Jesus is saying I forgive you despite all your failure, and bearing that forgiveness, now you can forgive others.
This is what Thomas misses, not just the appearance of Jesus, but the reconciliation between these 10 and the one whom they betrayed and let down, which raises the question to me what is it that Thomas doubts? Does he doubt that Jesus has returned, or does he doubt that he could have returned with such grace and love and forgiveness?
A week later, when Thomas is with them, Jesus does return, and what are the first words out of his mouth to Thomas, the one who promised that he would die with him and ran away? The first words out of Jesus' mouth to Thomas are, "Peace be with you." Then he says, "Reach out and put your fingers in my side. Forgive like I have forgiven you. Hold fast like I have held fast to you. Reach out like I am reaching out to you."
I may have told this story before from the pulpit, and I tell it a lot. I intend to be in this pulpit for many years, so you'll probably hear it again if you stick around for many years, but there's a favorite passage of mine from the novel The Brothers Karamazov. There's this miraculous monk in Russia. His name is Zosima, and he performs miraculous healings to people all the time. They come to him with their ailments from all over Russia. They come to him and they ask to be healed of their maladies, and because of his closeness to the Holy Spirit he has healing power and he heals them.
In one scene there's a woman who comes to him and she says to him, "Father, I have the worse malady, the worse ailment, the worse sickness, and I need you to help me." Zosima says, "What is it?" She says, "I have lost my faith. I do not see God anywhere in the world." Zosima thinks for a minute and he says, "Yes, you're right. This is the gravest malady and I'm sorry, my daughter, but there is only one cure. There is only one way to be healed of this ailment." He says, "Go and love every person you see with your whole heart and without ceasing. Only then will you find faith."
The test of faith, the proof of faith is love. The test is not looking at the world's wounds from a distance and then wondering where is God's love. The test is placing our hands into the world's wounds and bringing God's love to those places of hurt. That's where faith is.
This encounter between Jesus and Thomas reads as a condemnation of doubt or a commendation of so called blind faith, but I don't think Jesus is demanding that we believe without evidence. I don't think he's asking us to believe without proof. He's offering us evidence and showing us the proof. He's not telling us to accept without seeing. He's telling us what resurrection looks like.
Faith isn't vindicated by what we see. It is given new life, it is resurrected in our acts of love, and here is the proof Jesus gives. "I forgave you," he says. Now you can forgive others. I have held fast to you. Now you can hold fast to others. I have reached out to you even in all your failure and betrayal and denial. Now you can reach out to me, where I wait in the wounds and among the wounded of the world.
"Do not doubt," Jesus says, "but believe." That's not a condemnation. That's a comfort. Believe it. You are forgiven. And it's a consolation and a comfort not just to Thomas, but to us, to all of us, because all this forgiveness and all this love and all this holding fast and all this reaching out is not just for Thomas. It's for you and it's for me, and it's true, and it's real.
The gift of the resurrection, the gift of Christ's good news, is something even more miraculous than a figure appearing out of thin air in our midst. All of us, you and me, we remain beloved of God, whatever we have done, and we will always be beloved of God, whatever we may do, and that love is our own so utterly and so entirely that we have been given the grace and the authority to share it and to give it to a wounded waiting world.
By virtue of the resurrection, by virtue of what we hear this morning, that power is in you. It is true. Do not doubt, but believe.