John 20: 19-31
Click here to view the full sermon video for April 11, 2021, entitled "Unless."
When detective Joe Friday went to work on the old TV show Dragnet, he didn’t want his investigation muddled by extraneous information, or emotional inference. “Just the facts, ma’am,” Joe would intone and a catch phrase was born. Then along came shows like C.S.I. and its many off-shoots. The forensic science of crime scene investigators elevated the importance of hard evidence in making a legal case, coming to some kind of conclusion about what may or may not have happened. It’s even had an effect on the judicial system as juries demand the kind irrefutable proof that they see on their televisions.
Toward the end of that first day of the week, that began with an empty tomb and discarded grave clothes, that breathless morning of confusion and running here and there, that day when Mary Magdalene burst in on the disciples to proclaim, “I have seen the Lord,” on the evening of that first day of resurrection, it still wasn’t clear just what all the facts were. The evidence was sketchy at best. When you got down to it, what Peter and the other disciple had seen earlier that day was what wasn’t there. Namely, Jesus. And Mary’s account of having seen the Lord himself; was there anyone to corroborate this sighting? Maybe that is why the doors of the house were locked. John says that it was for fear of their own people, for fear of getting swept up in the same tide of mob violence that had carried Jesus to his death. That was one unmistakable fact. The crowd had turned on him, and it had contributed to his death. But then his very own disciples had turned on him too. They might not have been the ones crying out for his crucifixion, or driving the nails into his hands and feet, but they hadn’t said or done anything to try and stop it either. The door might very well have been locked because they feared the forces that brought him to trial and sentenced him to death, but it might just as easily have been locked because they feared what they hadn’t seen; what Mary was convinced she had. Maybe they frightened by the prospect that he really had been raised. What would it mean if he were? What would he have to say about what they had done, or rather, what they hadn’t done? They never really understood what he was talking about when he suggested as much before his death. Thomas even said as much. On the night of the last meal together, when Jesus talked about going to prepare a place for them, it was ever-practical Thomas who pointed out, “Lord we do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?”
No, at the end of that very long first day of the week, it would have been far easier to close the door than try to understand what had happened and what it might mean; far easier to throw the tumblers into place and hide behind the undisputed fact of what all of them had seen. He had been beaten, nailed to cross, then laid in the tomb, dead and buried. Not only that, but there was no telling if the Roman authorities wouldn’t do the same to them, just to make the point, just to demonstrate their power to put down the movements of would-be kings and their followers. Who knows, maybe that is why Thomas wasn’t there that night. Maybe he couldn’t get past the locked door. Or maybe he just couldn’t get past the facts of what had happened, how it had all fallen apart. Maybe he couldn’t bring himself to face Peter and the rest, to see the indisputable fact of how pathetic and incomplete they were without Jesus there to teach them and lead them and show them the way. Those were the facts.
When it comes to church, the facts can be enough to keep anyone away. Because the fact is that the people you find in church aren’t all that different than the ones you find outside of church. They sometimes say things that they shouldn’t, or harbor attitudes that don’t always reflect the indiscriminate welcome of Jesus. They are known to fail at acting in ways that are consistent with that they say they believe, refusing to heed the voice of God that calls them to break free from the familiar safety of what their lives have become and trust instead the sometimes frightening but always life-changing promise of what they can be if they follow where God is leading them. Perhaps the coldest and hardest fact is that to claim a place within such a body of imperfect believers is increasingly uncommon these days, if not downright counter-cultural. Face it, from the outside what we do together can look pretty strange. We get up on Sunday morning, when other people might otherwise sleep in, so that we can show up for one another and for God. Lately, we’ve been doing that online. Soon we may even get dressed up nicer than we do the other six days of the week to drive down to a building where we’ll stand up and sing together (probably with masks on). The only other place that people sing together anymore is at the start of sporting events. We turn our attention toward trying to hear a Word from God in sacred texts that were written anywhere from nineteen hundred to close to three thousand years ago. We even have bizarre rituals that involve pouring water on people’s heads (especially unsuspecting infants) and eating bits of bread and sips of juice that we call the body and blood of Christ. In a world that is quick to repay evil for evil as a way of getting even, we talk about things like grace, forgiveness, and even reconciliation. In a world that swoons over the latest celebrity sighting and who has the most bling, we affirm that the least among us is the greatest. And when death visits those unfamiliar with what it is that we celebrate in this season of resurrection, the grief is often deep and raw and leaves a wound that is slow to heal, if it ever heals at all. None of which is to suggest that being Easter people can protect us any more than anyone else from the eventuality of death. But when death does come- as it does for us all- we do not speak of it as though it were the last word in any of our lives.
All that is to say, if one were simply looking at the facts, there is a far better argument for Thomas, or anyone else for that matter, keeping their distance from the church than there is for joining it. When Thomas does finally make it to church- and what is church really but a group of would-be disciples living in the wake of resurrection and filled with the breath of the Spirit upon them-when Thomas finally shows up and hears about the visit that Jesus had paid, he refuses to believe it. Facts are facts. Unless he sees those wounded hands for himself, he’s not buying it.
Scripture tells us that Thomas was called “the twin,” but never introduces us to Thomas’ other half. This has lead the writer Frederick Buechner to suggest that the other half is us. We are Thomas’ twin when we refuse to believe what we cannot see without own eyes, when we come to conclusions about things like faith and Jesus and his church based solely on the evidence that is before us, the facts that are on hand.
In her poem, “Monet Refuses the Operation”,
Lisel Mueller imagines the famous impressionist painter
declining the procedure to remove the cataracts from his eyes:
Doctor, you say there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don't see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolves
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don't know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and change our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.
With their own eyes, Thomas and his twin can only see the facts. They cannot, in the end, see the truth. But the good news is that even when we shut the door, and slide the dead bolt and hide behind it, when we use our facts to bar the door against the fearful joy of resurrection, the truth still finds us. Heaven pulls us into its arms, showing us the unmistakable marks of love in a way our eyes alone will never see. And when it does, there is nothing left for us to do but exclaim with our twin, “My Lord, and my God.” Alleuia, Christ is Risen. Christ is risen, indeed. Alleluia!
 Buechner, Frederick. “The Seeing Heart.” Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006. pp. 256-264
 Mueller, Lisel. “Monet Refuses the Operation.” Second Language. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1986. p. 59