Reaching out with wounded hands

+In the Name of God: who was, and is, and is to come.  Amen

Living God, for whom no door is closed, no heart is locked, draw us beyond our doubts, till we see your Christ and touch his wounds where they bleed in others.  Amen.

New Zealand Prayer Book, The Fourth Sunday of Easter

How grateful I am that, every year on this Sunday after Easter Day, we hear the story of Thomas and his doubts! I’m grateful because I have a few doubts of my own, and because faith and doubt are part of every person’s life. To know that someone so close to Jesus had doubts, too, is very comforting. So let’s talk about faith and doubt today.

We played a lot of cards when I was growing up. Does anybody still play cards? Like most children, I had my first introduction to playing cards with the game, “Go Fish” – it’s been the gateway game for future card sharks for generations.  “Stephen, do you have any red cards?”  “No, I don’t, go fish!” From “Go Fish,” we graduated quickly to rummy, then pitch, and then to a game called “Spite and Malice.” You can imagine what kind of a game that was with a name like that!

One of our family’s favorite games was called “I doubt it.”  Some of you may know it by a different name.  It’s also called Cheat, Bluff, Bluffaroo, Bologna, Challenge, No Way, Liar, and I Don’t Think So.  Adults sometimes call it by a two-word name that begins with the same letters as Boy Scout and Bible Study.

For those of you who have never played “I doubt it”, the game works like this: the goal is to get rid of all your cards. The first person to do this wins. All the cards in the deck are dealt out to start the game. Players arrange the cards in their hands so they can see them all (it’s not an easy game for little children, because their hands are small, and it’s hard for them to hold all those cards in their little hands.)  The first player lays cards on the table – face down – and makes a claim about what the cards are. 

Once a player has made a claim, any other player can challenge it by saying, “I doubt it”.  When someone calls, I doubt it, play stops and cards are turned over. If the cards are what the first player has claimed, then the player who has called I doubt it has to take all the cards. If the player lied about what he put down, he has to add all the cards to his hand. 

You can imagine the strategies that develop – people trying to get away with lying early in the game when they are less likely to be challenged – people casting doubt on another player’s cards to make themselves look more honest – people encouraging some other player to call I Doubt It, so that person accepts the risk of doubting another player’s cards. Where am I going with this? I think you can guess.

Today’s Gospel is all about how Thomas called I Doubt It when the other apostles told him that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Thomas did not believe them. That’s why he’s called, “Doubting Thomas.” 

Our story begins on Easter Day. Most of the day has already passed since the startling news of the morning – Mary Magdalene’s discovery of the empty tomb and her claim that she has seen the Risen Christ. It is evening now, and the doors are locked by the fearful disciples. Then, “Jesus came and stood among them.” He greeted them with a word of Peace and showed them his hands and his side. The disciples were overjoyed to see him. Mary Magdalene’s claim was true.  Jesus was alive, not dead! 

But Thomas was not there when Jesus appeared.  We don’t know where he was or why he was not with them. John’s Gospel doesn’t give a reason. It just says that Thomas wasn’t there on that first Easter night. So, when he rejoins the group, the others excitedly tell him the Good News: “We have seen the Lord.”

But Thomas doesn’t believe it. He wants proof. He wants to see for himself. He wants to put his hand in Jesus’ side and touch the mark of the nails in his hands. Only then, he says, will he believe. And Thomas stands his ground until Jesus returns the following week and offers him the evidence he needs to believe. Thomas is the patron saint of all who doubt, and who struggle to believe the Good News of the resurrection.  And that is a lot of us, including me sometimes.

The reasons to doubt are many. For starters, there’s this past year and all that’s gone on – the thousands of deaths from COVID-19 that could have been avoided if simple precautions had not been politicized, the polarization of our nation around so many things: race, police brutality, and – most recently – voting rights. Where is the God of Easter in any of these things? Where’s the power of the resurrection – the power of new life – in the middle of so much evil and death?

Another reason for our doubts is that so many of our institutions have failed us, including the church. Leonard Pitts, Jr. wrote an opinion piece that appeared on Good Friday in the Miami Herald called, “Americans still have faith in God, but more of us have lost our faith in religion.” He talked about how the church, synagogue, and mosque are shrinking. He recited all the usual reasons: “the Catholic Church’s many sex scandals, growing distrust of institutions in general, and a modern disinclination to be pigeonholed into any single theological tradition.”

But then Pitts gave what he sees as the main reason for the decline: he says that people have been driven away by the church. “We went from ‘feed my sheep’ to cutbacks in school lunch programs,” he said. “From ‘love ye one another’ to ignoring AIDS because it was ‘only’ killing gays. From ‘woe unto you who are rich’ to tax cuts for the wealthy and trickle-down leftovers for everyone else. From compassion for ‘the least of these’ to condemnation of mythical welfare queens and other lazy and undeserving poor. . . . ultimately,’ Pitts says, what churches were espousing “was not faith at all, only the degradation thereof.” If you were a person seeking God, he asks . . . would you be drawn to that? His answer: “Fat chance.”

Perhaps the greatest reason for our doubts are those personal experiences that have hurt us deeply. The Canadian priest and writer, Herbert O’Driscoll, describes this superbly when he writes, “Loyalty, devotion, even love has been too often betrayed. . . . something, somebody, some aspect of life we thought could be totally trusted has proved to be otherwise. . . . We know that love, trust, promises, faith, friendship, integrity, that all such concepts are illusions, useless, well-meaning, lovely dreams made all the more agonizing because we once passionately believed them.  And now?  Never again!” 

If Thomas had written about his own experience as a disciple, he might have said the exact same thing. He had put his trust in Jesus, loved him and been loyal to him, and had seen his faith shattered into fragments. No wonder he had his doubts.

For Thomas everything changed, however, when Jesus came and met his wounded faith with the wounds in his own hands and in his own side. Thomas’ faith was restored –not by a display of God’s power, but by a display of God’s woundedness. And I believe it’s when we share our wounds – and our faith in spite of those wounds – that we help each other in our doubts.

At the Easter Vigil last Saturday, Ellyson Joy Sheehan was baptized, and we all promised to support her in her life in Christ. I can’t count how many times each of us has made this promise over the years, since we make this promise whenever some is baptized. I suspect that if we traced our connections, we’d discover we’re all obligated to each other somehow.

We may not share our goods in common as they did in the early church, but we do share a responsibility to each other for our faith – a responsibility that is especially important when doubts and uncertainties come up. What might it look like for us to do this – to support one another in our life in Christ?

One answer comes from what the tradition says about Thomas after Jesus appeared to him. Tradition says that Thomas sailed to the coast of southwest India in 52 AD, to preach to the Jewish colonies settled there. After making both Jewish and Brahmin converts, he followed the coastline further south, winning hundreds of followers in the villages along the way. Thomas has been known as the “Apostle of India” ever since.  Two of my seminary classmates came from the Church of South India, a church that Thomas started two millennia ago.

My classmates always thought Thomas got a bad rap from us in the west.  His reluctance to accept the testimony of his fellow disciples, his insistence on physical proof – the things we in the west have interpreted as signs of a weak faith – is not what they saw in the patron saint of Indian Christianity. 

They saw instead a person who yearned for a living encounter with Jesus. A person who couldn’t settle for someone else’s experience of resurrection but stuck around in hopes of having his own. A person who dared to show uncertainty amid other people who seemed so certain. A wounded person whose intimate experience of the wounded Jesus made it possible for him to share the Good News with others.

So, the answer to the question of how we can support each other in our life in Christ is to help each other become more like Thomas – people hungering for a relationship with Jesus, sharing our doubts and struggles along the way, discovering the Risen Lord in his wounds and ours, and being willing to share our experiences of him in all the places where we have found him.

Of course, for us to do that for each other, each of us must do this for ourselves.  We have to take Thomas’ story and make it our own.  May the Easter story spill over from each of us, to bless one another, and to bless the world.