After forty-seven days of Lent, I’ve been absent for a week. I needed the rest. I’ll pick back up with this week’s sermon where Jesus, Father Guido Sarducci, Garrison Keillor, Thomas, and Ted Lasso all manage to show up. The passage is John 20:19-30. Thanks for reading.
I was in college when Saturday Night Live started on NBC. One of their early characters was Father Guido Sarducci. Perhaps you remember him. One night he was promoting his Five Minute University, because he said in five minutes he could teach you what most college graduates remembered five years after graduation.
For Spanish, he taught that when someone said, “¿Como está usted?” you answered, “Muy bien.”
For economics, all you needed to know is supply and demand. You buy something and then you sell it for more.
For theology, two things: “God is everywhere” and “God really likes you a lot”–a combination of Disney and Catholic philosophies.
He also offered a twenty second spring break, a cap and gown, a picture, and a diploma–all for twenty bucks.
Besides writing a funny sketch, he hit on something that attracts most all of us: a summary. A quick sound bite that helps us think we have a handle on whatever is being discussed. Summaries and sound bites have their place, but if they are the only things we remember, we miss valuable details.
Garrison Keillor used to say a perfect novel had elements of religion, family, royalty, sex, and suspense–and he had written the perfect one-sentence novel:
“My God,” said the Queen, “I’m pregnant. I wonder who the father is.”
When it comes to the Bible, we often do the same thing with some of the people we meet there, particularly those around Jesus. We never do much more with Judas than label him as the one who betrayed Jesus, for example. And then we come to Thomas, who is a part of our story this morning, and my guess is when most of us hear his name we hear it as “doubting Thomas,” something he is never called in scripture.
With that in mind, let’s look again at the story.
Right after John tells of Jesus’ encounter with Mary in the cemetery, which we talked about last week, John describes three other appearances, two of which are in our passage today. On Easter night, even though they didn’t call it that yet, the disciples were in the room where they had last shared supper with Jesus–well, all except Judas, who had completed suicide, and Thomas. We don’t know where Thomas was, but no one seems to have questioned his absence.
John says they had locked themselves in the room because they were scared of the authorities hunting them down as well. That fear was well-founded. Suddenly, like a scene from a Hitchcock movie, Jesus appeared in the middle of the room without unlocking the door. He came through the door—literally—and said, “Peace to you.” I’m guessing that didn’t go over too well. They must have been freaked out. But Jesus stood there long enough for them to gather their wits and then he reminded them that they were called to be the messengers of God’s love. He didn’t say anything about their fear, or their cowardice during his trial and execution. The risen Christ didn’t come in judgement; he came in peace.
When they told Thomas what had happened, he couldn’t quite take it all in and said, “I need to see that for myself; I need to touch his wounds,” which got him tagged as a doubter, when, in fact, he was no different than any of the others. The men had not believed the women who were the first to see Jesus. And even those who had seen the empty tomb were still hiding in a locked room.
Even eight days later, they were still gathering in that room—this time with Thomas—Jesus showed up again without knocking. Even when they knew he was coming it still caught them by surprise. Again he offered peace and then he turned to Thomas. Jesus didn’t judge him or correct him, he simply said, “Do what you need to do to trust me.” And then Jesus said something that has also become a memorable quote and if often read as though it is the point of the encounter, though I am not sure if it means the same thing to everyone:
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
If you are a Ted Lasso fan, it’s hard not to picture Jesus saying that and then turning around and hitting the “Believe” poster on the wall above the door as he left.
Though Thomas has become the poster boy for doubt because of this passage—there’s even a Wikipedia page for “Doubting Thomas” as someone who questions everything—the story is not primarily about him, nor is it mainly about doubt. Remember John is telling stories about Jesus.
This is an account of the Resurrection, of life beyond Jesus’ execution. In the course of a weekend, his followers had scattered at his arrest, watched his brutal death, hidden in despair, heard and seen of his resurrection, and had ended up locking themselves in a room together just to be safe. To say they doubted Jesus was alive makes it sound like an academic discussion. They were scared to death, they were ashamed of their actions, they were unsure of their future.
And Jesus showed up behind closed doors to meet them where they were.
He didn’t chide them, he offered peace, just as he did to Thomas a week later. He called them to choose trust over fear. He commissioned them: “I send you out just as I was sent.” And then he told them to receive the Holy Spirit and start forgiving people, which sounds a little like his take on the Five Minute University:
Peace to you;
Receive the Holy Spirit;
If you forgive people they are forgiven. Got it?
The way our translations read, the part about forgiving sins sounds a bit cryptic–“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
The Message translation offers a more helpful reading.
“If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?”
Isn’t that a great question? What are we going to do with what we won’t forgive?
Jesus wasn’t giving them special powers. He was inviting them not to rush to judgement in God’s name, but to breed trust, to help others move beyond fear and shame and anything else that breaks relationships.
We can be agents of forgiveness, trusting that God can touch others through our lives. Or not. Risking the power of forgiving others is choosing trust over fear, and hope over despair. It is an act of faith. (Here also, forgiveness is one of those words that get too easily summarized. Jesus was not saying if you are facing abuse that you just need to forgive the abuser and take it.) The question is worth wrestling with: if we don’t forgive others, what are we going to do with what we won’t forgive?
Thomas doesn’t become part of the story until the end. Eight days had passed and they were still sequestering themselves in the locked room, even after having seen Jesus. We don’t know if they had been there every night for a week, or if they just happened to be there that night, but once again Jesus showed up in the locked room and offered peace.
And then he turned to Thomas. Part of me wonders if the others thought Jesus would lower the bomb on the guy. Instead, he told Thomas to touch him and to trust him.
Then Jesus said those who trust without seeing were blessed, but I think that’s probably a pretty small group of people. Yes, we can say we trust God even though we can’t see God, that we follow Christ even though we never saw him or touched him, but we all need to see something—no, someone—who shows up in the locked rooms of our hearts and invites us to choose trust over fear and doubt, which is another way of offering forgiveness.
We are called to be people who help others see and trust. We are called to be that for one another, to incarnate forgiveness, to foster faithfulness, to be the embodied presence of Christ’s love in a locked and frightened world. If we want to summarize this story, it’s not about Thomas, or even his questioning. Let’s just say, in Jesus’ Five Minute University there’s no rush to judgement. Amen.