2nd Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 20:19-31;
Acts 2:14a, 22-32; 1 Peter 1:3-9
FROM DOUBTER TO AGENT OF SALVATION
Twenty-one years ago one of the strangest things happened to me in my role as a preacher. I went to bed on Saturday with a sermon written on this set of readings, primarily on the theme of doubt and faith, per the story of so-called Doubting Thomas. Then, I had a nightmare which dramatically changed things. I dreamed that I was a chaplain for several prisoners on death row. The details are fuzzy and strange, like they usually are in dreams. I have no idea of what the crimes were, for instance, and the prison cells appeared to be in my basement, so I could visit them often. But then their execution day arrived, and it became a nightmare. I hadn’t realized the execution was to be by guillotine. It was a method of execution too horrible for me to imagine, so instead of staying with these prisoners to the end, I abandoned them, running out of the room. I just simply couldn’t watch. When the sound of the first beheading happened, I awoke in a cold sweat with my heart pounding and racing. I never was able to fall back asleep that night. Instead, I finally got out of bed and rewrote my sermon. Strange, right? And that’s never really happened again to me in such a dramatic fashion — having to rewrite a sermon in the aftermath of a nightmare.
My sermon on doubt and faith, you see, was primarily in a modern key, talking about things like not being able to believe that someone could actually rise from the dead. But as I lay awake with my racing heart gradually settling down, I realized that that was not the nature of Thomas’ doubt. When he asks to see the marks of the crucifixion, for example, it occurred to me that his doubts had more to do with the horror of the execution, like in my nightmare, not the facts of the resurrection. He had run away from the horror of it, just like me. And it wasn’t just the brutality of crucifixion itself, but the fact that he had believed Jesus to be the Messiah. Messiahs don’t get crucified. They crucify. They lead armies into battle against one’s enemies, and they win, and so they get to execute the prominent prisoners. One thing’s for sure: they don’t get executed themselves.
As it came to me that Thomas’ doubts had more to do with the execution than with the resurrection, I realized for the first time that in the flow of the Gospel of John it made no sense for Thomas to doubt the resurrection as such. For he had seen Jesus himself raise Lazarus from the dead only a few days earlier. It had been the final straw for the Judean leaders, who were so frightened by the hubbub this was causing among the crowds, that they planned to make Jesus the scapegoat. We read that story ourselves from John 11 only three Sundays ago. And its in that story that John’s Gospel first mentions Thomas. It begins, you might recall, with Jesus hiding out from the Judean leaders across the Jordan River. The Judean leaders had just tried to stone Jesus, and he needed a break from Judea. That’s when word comes to him that his friend Lazarus is gravely ill. But there’s a problem. Lazarus lives in Judea. Going to him means risking his life. When Jesus decides two days later, after Lazarus has already died, to go back to Judea, it seems very strange indeed. Why go back now, after Lazarus is already died? Why leave the relative safety outside of Judea?
But it is Thomas who thinks he knows why. Because Jesus is the Messiah, he is finally ready to lead them and their fellow Jews into battle against the Romans. He says at that moment to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). Yes, Thomas imagines that they will die fighting with their Messiah. Maybe they will even win, if Jesus is finally the one that God has chosen to bring the victory over their enemies. There had been many failed Messiahs you see, so he could imagine them fighting and dying together — in which case, Jesus has then become another one in the long line of failed Messiahs.
The one thing Thomas no doubt didn’t imagine is a Messiah who didn’t even fight. He didn’t and couldn’t imagine a Messiah who would win victory by letting himself be executed on the cross as an insurrectionist. After seeing Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, Thomas couldn’t be doubting that God could raise Jesus from the dead. No, his doubts concerned why God would raise a failed Messiah from the dead. Messiahs get to crucify others. They don’t let themselves get crucified. No, if Jesus were really raised like the other apostles were saying, he’d need to see the marks of the execution, to make sure that this one he had hoped to be the Messiah was actually a raised-from-the-dead crucified Messiah. It made no sense to him how that could be.
In order for us to understand, we need to once again recall our theme since the beginning of Lent — namely, that Jesus came to heal our sin of Us-vs-Them thinking and its deadly consequences. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is the intentional scapegoat, in order to begin to bring an end to scapegoating. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin (singular) of the world. He’s come to take away our Us-vs-Them thinking. It’s the kind of sin, for example, which led Thomas to think about the Messiah in only a win-lose scenario. Either Messiahs bring victory over one’s enemies, or they die trying, becoming failed Messiahs. Losers. Jesus had clearly been a loser, to his way of thinking.
But what if Jesus had come precisely to change Thomas’ way of thinking? From the win-lose thinking about Messiahs who bring victories over enemies, to the win-win thinking of a God who vindicates a Crucified Messiah and raises him with the power of loving forgiveness, extended even to enemies. God desires to heal the Us-vs-Them reality of humanity by working to reconcile enemies. God wants to change our perspective on our fellow human beings: There is no longer Us and Them. There is only Us. God in the cross of Jesus is seeking to begin to transform our Us-vs-Them thinking into Us-only thinking. We human beings are all sinners in need of forgiveness, especially from our Us-vs-Them thinking that leads to so much death, so much killing. We human beings are all children of God who need to come together in doing the continual work of God, the work of creating, the work of helping all life to flourish. John’s Gospel from beginning to end is all about God’s work of bringing abundant life.
Let’s remember the wider context of the story of Thomas’ doubt. Easter morning marks the dawning of a New Creation, and already on Easter evening the apostles are sent out to be its agents. On that very first Easter evening in John’s Gospel, Jesus comes to the frightened disciples behind locked doors and carries out the analogs to both Luke’s Pentecost story in Acts 2 and Matthew’s commissioning story in Matthew 28. Jesus breathes onto them the Holy Spirit, and he sends them out commissioned with the true power of life, the power of loving forgiveness, the power to hold fast others into the beloved community of God’s children.1 God in Jesus Christ brings about the victory over our original sin of Us-vs-Them thinking. In pouring out the Spirit’s power of forgiveness and holding fast, our thinking is transformed into Us-only thinking so that we might see all fellow human beings as brothers and sisters with whom to work out God’s creative power of bringing all life to flourish. Our minds are transformed from the doubts spawned by Us-vs-Them thinking into the faithfulness of Us-only thinking.
I’d like to conclude this morning with a brief story I shared on my very first Sunday here at Bethlehem. It comes from my friend Brian McLaren’s book, so aptly titled for this day, Faith after Doubt.2 It’s the story of an encounter with a thirty-year-old woman named Charis, who is unchurched but seeking to join the kind of church community that Brian writes about, one that actually works to save the world which God sent his Son to save. She says to Brian,
Look, I do all the [trendy] stuff. I do yoga. I go to therapy. I do these online self-awareness-unleash-your-inner-goddess courses and stuff like that. But I’m not an idiot. I know about climate change and nuclear war and economic inequality and all that. The world is in such a mess! I don’t just want to be a good, happy, fulfilled, spiritual consumer while it all goes down the toilet. I want to be part of a group, a movement, that’s trying to . . . you know, save it. There. I said it. I want to be part of a community that isn’t obsessed with just saving their own damned souls, but that actually wants to try to save this world that we’re on the verge of destroying. (Faith after Doubt, 134)
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, our grandchildren and children look around at a world we are destroying, and they also see a politics of division that seems paralyzed from doing anything about it. We are mired in Us-vs-Them thinking which keeps us stuck. They long for a community of people who can help us get unstuck and do something about the real problems which the human family faces right now. They seek people who will approach these things as a human family — not as enemies who only fight about the answers and fail to try anything.
And we all long for a God who has a plan to save us from these things, not simply punt us to the afterlife. The Good News is that’s exactly what we have with the God of Jesus Christ who sent him to save us from ourselves — first, to save us from the Us-vs-Them thinking which keeps us stuck from working together with others on the things that lead to the flourishing of life. Brothers and Sisters, you and I are called to be agents of this salvation. We are called to help heal the Us-vs-Them thinking armed with the power of forgiveness and of holding fast in the human community. We are called to make a difference in this broken world of ours. Let’s not doubt that, but rather to begin to act as faithful followers of the one sent to save us — here and now. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, April 16, 2023
1. The characterization of our mission in terms of forgiving people’s sins and holding them fast in community is based on a different translation of John 20:23, which I had changed in the bulletin and my reading of it. The congregation did not hear the usual translation, such as the NRSV: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Rather, they heard this translation: “Of whomever you forgive their sins, they are forgiven; whomever you hold onto are held fast.” This is based on Sandra Schneiders’ two essays (originally published in two separate journals but then as chapters 5 and 6 in Jesus Risen in Our Midst [Liturgical Press, 2013]): “‘Whose Sins You Shall Forgive’: The Holy Spirit and the Forgiveness of Sin(s) in the Fourth Gospel,” and The Lamb of God and the Forgiveness of Sin(s) in the Fourth Gospel. Both parts of the verse begin with an tinōn in the Greek. tinōn is a pronoun. Does it refer to persons, or to “sins”? Schneiders argues, successfully to my mind, that this isn’t about what the apostles are supposed to do to sins — forgive or “retain”; it’s about what they are to do for people — namely, forgive their sins and hold them fast in community.
2. Brian McLaren, Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do About It, St. Martin Eseentials, 2021.