When have you been so afraid that you ran away, hid in some room, and locked the door? Maybe you did that when you were a child, or a teenager. Or maybe life has been such that you have had to do it as an adult, as well. Maybe you did it this week.
Most of the terror we hide from is the kind of terror that human beings inflict on each other—domestic abuse, sexual violence, gang violence. Crime. Terrorism. War.
Sometimes it is the legal authorities we hide from. In a congregation of any size, there is a good chance that at least one person in it has at some time hidden from the law.
This was the case for Jesus’ disciples. When Jesus was arrested, most of the disciples ran away and hid. All but Peter, who skulked around trying to spy on what was happening to Jesus, all the while lying and denying he was Jesus’ disciple. And Judas, of course. Judas had other things on his mind.
Crucifixion is a horror. Any of us would hide from it. We don’t often think of Peter as brave in his sneaking around, but he was being brave. He was risking his life for Jesus, even while still trying to not get caught.
The gospel lesson today is often called the story of Doubting Thomas. It’s that, but it is so much more than that. I think the real thrust of this lesson is to tell us why, and how, and when Jesus will come to us.
First of all, when the disciples were hiding, Jesus came to them. When we’re hiding, when we’re most afraid, when we’re terrified, Jesus comes to us. Through locked doors, in hidden places, Jesus comes to us.
This truth is profound. It is the ammunition, if you will, of our faith. The crucified Christ, having suffered, is there with us in our suffering and fear. We pray, and Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” And we are immediately stronger, calmer, and able to have hope. Jesus’ answering our prayer is the steel that holds up our quaking façade so that we can face the terror and survive.
Second, Jesus sent the disciples out of the locked room and into the world. “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you," he says. This is John’s version of the Great Commission. Jesus also sends us out of our locked rooms, into the world to carry the Good News to others. Even in the face of fear. Especially in the face of fear.
This has special resonance today for Coptic Christians, Syrian Christians, Sudanese Christians, Chinese Christians—and others—who face persecution and even death for doing as Jesus asked us to do.
It is worth reflecting on this. I ask myself, when was the last time I faced persecution and possible death for doing what I am doing today? The answer is, never. American Christians would do well to think about this.
Third, let’s talk about Thomas. I think Tom gets a bad rap, for two reasons.
First, have you ever heard a friend or a relative tell you about a supernatural experience they had? Did you believe them? Next, have you, yourself, experienced something supernatural? Something that spooked you and made the hair rise on the back of your neck. Raise your hand if you have. Did anyone believe you?
It is not such a hard thing to understand Thomas’ doubt. All of the followers of Jesus had a whirlwind of a week. Arrest and murder of their rabbi. Hiding in fear. Now suddenly, Thomas is told that the deceased Jesus appeared into a locked room. Can you blame him for doubting?
Second, Thomas gets a bad rap because he wasn’t the only doubter. Luke records how Mary and the other women saw the open tomb and the angels, who told them that Jesus had risen from the dead. They ran back to tell the disciples, and guess what! They did not believe the women. But we don’t now talk about “Doubting Peter.”
If we take both the Thomas story and the Mary story as true, now we have a whole bunch of people who did not believe, at first, that Jesus was anywhere but among the dead.
Nevertheless, Jesus is not deterred. He obligingly comes to the locked room not once, but twice, just so Thomas can see and believe. In other words, Jesus is not put off by our doubt, our skepticism, or even our unbelief. Jesus comes to us in our unbelief.
We all have these moments, and for some of us it is the norm rather than the exception. It’s ok. Jesus is fine with it. He says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Blessed can also be translated, “happy.” He doesn’t mean Thomas isn’t blessed. He just means, you will be happier when you believe! “Happy” are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. And they are happy!
It is a proven fact that believers, at least those who pray deeply and regularly, are happier than non-believers. Ask me, and I’ll direct you to the scientific studies.
It is also a fact that prayer and meditation, which can actually change the mood structures in our brain, are effective even when we do it out of our doubt more than in our faith.
It is perfectly natural to doubt tales of otherworldly experiences. Because, if something is “supernatural,” it is by definition beyond our natural realm of experience, and it is immediately suspicious.
This is why there are so many atheists in the world. They cannot bring themselves to believe something they cannot see or verify by scientific proof.
But here’s a funny thing. They believe in molecules and atoms. They believe in gamma rays, and x-rays, and radio waves, and viruses, and they can’t see them. But, they will say, “science shows us their effects, so we know they are real.”
Well. Well, well.
We see the evidence and the effects of God all around us. The miracle of life probably has scientific steps that show how it came to be--first this combined with that, and then something else happened, and there you have it. Life.
But why did it come to be? That is a question that science will never be able to answer. It wasn’t random. God brought it into being.
I see the miracle of life all around me. You see it too. I experience (and can document, by the way) the effects of prayer. You experience this too. I experience joy, and love, and grace from God our Father. I’m certain you do, too.
This is what Jesus meant when he said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
We can believe it, or we can not believe it because we didn’t see it. We always have that choice.
But God works faith in people who seek God. The people who show up—that’s us. That’s why it’s important to keep seeking, keep questioning, and keep showing up. Because God is faithful, even when we are not faithful.
Jesus comes to us in our fear, comes to us in our hiding places, and comes to us in our doubt..
May the God of all faithfulness abide with us always.
Vicar Sharon Richter Mt. Olive Lutheran Church Santa Monica, California April 23, 2017