Now one of my favourites, heard almost thirty years ago and used too often by me is “We are invited to exchange our living death for Christ’s dying life.” But this week I remembered another that’s touched me for almost fifty years. From the ninth chapter of Mark’s Gospel where the father of a boy who has convulsions asks Jesus to heal his son. Jesus says, “All things are possible to the one who believes,” (a pretty good one-liner in itself) and then immediately the father of the child cries out, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” And it is that statement that brings forth the miracle the father seeks. “I believe, help my unbelief.” The more modern translation is, “I have faith, help me where faith falls short,” but either phrase meets us at the same place, where faith meets doubt, pointing to a kind of pilgrimage moment when Jesus calls us to move into a place where new possibilities arise in a world we cannot presently inhabit, where we are called to allow the barren ground of doubt to be a place where new faith can bloom.
For I believe we are called to embrace a faith that is not afraid to ask hard questions. I think that the first disciples changed to true apostles when they learned to leave room so that new answers, larger than the original question, could emerge over time; and I believe that apostle Thomas is a prime model for following that paradoxical place we hear about with, “I have faith, help me where faith falls short.”
Now Thomas makes his first speaking appearance in chapter eleven of John when Jesus tells his crew they’re going to the dead Lazarus in Bethany. Thomas says, “Let us go with him that we might die with him." Likely he thought that Jewish religious prudence and Roman political rule would combine to make sure that Jesus and his message would be killed off quickly if he appeared in Bethany: and Thomas was ready to go that far with Jesus. But what he didn’t know was that Jesus would go farther than that.
Because when they get there, when Jesus calls, "Lazarus, come forth!" And when Lazarus three days dead breaks out of the tomb to embrace life anew, then something in Thomas dies. Because Thomas sees, maybe for the first time, that he may be called to believe, have faith, live in a larger life than he could ever conceive before: that what he had thought he was about and who he thought he was with and where they were going is not large enough to follow this Jesus who calls the dead to new life. So the life Thomas thought he was called to live has to die right there and it does. For Thomas goes on, keeps following Jesus, to Jerusalem, to the end of his life, But he’s called to even more than that!”
After Easter, in the Gospel we just heard, Jesus meets the apostles gathered behind their closed doors and breathes the Holy Spirit on them, Thomas is not there, and when the other disciples tell him he says, “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.” Can you honestly blame him?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that the cost of discipleship is that when Christ calls us, he calls us to die. My question is, "Are we allowed to pause on the way, every now and then, and mull that one over?"
If Jesus is now alive, if resurrection is real, if Christ’s new life is true and we are called to take part in it then this means new definitions of law and love and defeat and death for each and every one of us. Can you see where Thomas - and we - might want, maybe just for a moment, to hold back from this faith that calls us to stretch out to a future we cannot presently get our heads and hearts ‘round?
Listen: after any death, pain, betrayal, heartbreak or defeat, you make a kind of deal: with luck you let it go, you accept the fact, cut the losses and close the door. But if Jesus is back, then the door is opening even larger than it was with Lazarus. If He got through it, and comes here, showing the scars, bearing the wounds now of all those gunned down by whatever law or judgment did them to death, then the final victim has just walked into the room. If Jesus is alive, then all fallen hope, all lost belief, all dead ends might come to life too. And what can you do with that. How can you feel it, think it, take it in, live it out? This is more than the road to Emmaus: not only does your heart burn within you but it feels like it might break apart for the breath you have to take in order to take all this in. Then do you see that maybe it makes some sense that Thomas wants to take a break. Could he be saying, “My faith will just not stretch this far right now!” Could he be saying, “I believe, help my unbelief!”
So we fast forward a week with the disciples in the house, and Thomas there too: doors shut, and suddenly Jesus is there saying, “Peace be with you.” Then he turns to Thomas, who I imagine with his back against the wall and Jesus calls, “Thomas, come forth! Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe”… believe in life this large. And the life of resurrection rises and Thomas lives there now and says, “My Lord and my God!” and Jesus replies, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” A free translation might be, “Thomas, I’ll take you as I find you and I’ll love you as you are. Just come and follow me!” And Thomas does just that.
I think the good news here is we get the same deal, the same call. With all our doubts and fears, Jesus honours our pace, sees that we’re doing the best we can, even as he calls us to do a little better too, to join him in larger life, where doubt and belief bloom into a new being, that's what Eastertide's about, where we are called to be newborn witnesses to these things, by the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him, as we move together towards Pentecost, because Christ is risen from the dead, Alleluia!
NOTE - if you've come this far I would really love to know what you got from the sermon, so please comment!