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Touchable Faithfulness

A Sermon on John 20:19-31

[Note - this sermon was preceded by a worship drama, performed by the youth and adults of the Abiding Peace drama team. The drama was modified from the script "The Facts", written by John Duckworth for the resource book High Impact Worship Dramas published by Vital Ministry. The drama imagined two Dragnet-style detectives investigating Jesus' resurrection.]

In the worship drama that our talented team of actors just performed for us, it’s pretty easy to shake our heads in judgment of the two detectives and their captain, isn’t it? To roll our eyes at their claim to just want – in true Dragnet style - “the facts,” when really it was a safe, “reasonable” explanation that they wanted, so that they could explain away the resurrection and not have to face its challenges to their assumptions and the status quo.

Similarly, the Christian tradition has long stood in judgment over Thomas, who is featured prominently in today’s gospel reading. We’ve titled him “doubting Thomas,” as though skepticism defined his entire personality, and the only important thing we could possibly know about this man who walked, and ate, and learned with Jesus for months or years was that he said he needed to see the marks of crucifixion on Jesus’ body before believing he had risen.

Because this simplification keeps Thomas safe, and prevents him from challenging our assumptions or the churchly status quo.

You see, by limiting Thomas in this way, we in the church have turned this story into a combination warning/ego boost:

We have held Thomas up as a cautionary tale for anyone who dares to bring their questions or doubts to the gospel story of resurrection;

And we have patted ourselves on the back for being – unlike Thomas – among those who “believe without seeing,” assuring ourselves that Jesus has blessed us for this belief.

But, there’s a problem with this one-dimensional view of Thomas – it doesn’t really build our faith. For one thing, self-righteousness does not tend to be very edifying. Perhaps we have believed without physically seeing Jesus, but does self-congratulation for that belief help us to live more faithfully? Or does it, rather, teach us to fear all doubt and to shut-down any Thomas-like inquiry that asks for some personal confirmation?

I worry that in elevating “belief without seeing” we learn NOT to seek our own experience of the Risen One. Because, if we define faith as believing without seeing… then the most faithful thing to do is to shut our eyes.

But that’s NOT what Jesus told Thomas to do. Thomas wanted to be able to touch Jesus… and so Jesus appeared again and invited him to touch. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” It’s a continuation of the “come and see” motif that is repeated over and over again in John’s gospel. People are called into faith, into discipleship with the invitation to “come and see.” So, when Thomas voices his doubt, Jesus calls him into continued discipleship with the invitation to “come – even touch! – and see.”

Over this Easter season, we will be exploring what discipleship looks like by exploring the six core values of our Synod. These core values express the guiding principles that the state leaders of our denomination look to in their own discipleship, and in their efforts to support the faith and ministries of local congregations. And one of these core values is expressed in the discipleship story of Thomas: that value is FAITHFULNESS.

That’s right… I want us to see the story of Thomas’ doubt-marked discipleship, as a story of faithfulness. Because doubt and faith and NOT opposites.

One of my favorite quotes about faith comes from writer and spiritual truth-teller Anne Lamott. She famously says: “The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.” Certainty established US as the source of authority, but we KNOW, but doubt by definition is about questioning… about NOT being certain… about leaning in to get more information because we know we don’t KNOW.

In fact, doubt is about the recognition of our own inability to establish everything through our own knowledge and skill; and that kind of dependence is a pre-requisite for faith. Because faith is about TRUST, even when we can’t be certain. It’s about God being in control and knowing the answers, not us.

Similarly, the opposite of faithfulness is NOT to seek our own experience of Jesus (as Thomas did); the opposite of faithfulness is spiritual self-reliance – the belief that we can do everything on our own.

Our reading from 1 John today directly addresses the danger of thinking we can do it all perfectly in the life of faith: “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Pretending to have no sin means pretending to have no need for Jesus. It’s not true, and it turns our faith into something that WE accomplish.

But faith is about trust in what Jesus does FOR us. And faithfulness is about seeking our own experience of God – leaning into the relationship that builds our faith, even when that looks like speaking our doubts, and saying we need Jesus to show up – because we can’t believe on our own.

Which is exactly what Thomas did.

In the Synod’s core values, faithfulness is described this way: “Rooted and nurtured in relationship with God through Word and Sacrament, we follow Jesus for the sake of the world. Daily prayerful discernment and striving for excellence in discipleship move us forward into God’s future.” By the definition, faithfulness is not passive on our part. It involves prayer and striving in our discipleship. But it also is not something we produce on our own. It is rooted and nurtured in relationship with God through Word and Sacrament.

Thomas wanted to believe the testimony of the other disciples, but he needed something he could TOUCH. We hear the testimony of the Word each Sunday, but maybe we need something we can touch too.

That’s why we gather every week around the table. To touch the body and blood of Jesus for ourselves, and to experience how that gift changes us... h ow both our faith and our faithfulness start with Jesus reaching out to us to say: come – touch – and see.

Doubt can be part of our story. Doubt only destroys faith when it is a search to disprove – like our Dragnet detectives. When doubt is an effort to protect ourselves from the claims and consequences of the Risen One then we are right to reject it.

But if our doubt makes us “come and see”; if it makes us lean in, and seek the personal experience of Jesus that nurtures our relationship with God…

Then doubt can be what faithfulness looks like.

Thanks be to God.

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