Preached at the evening service at Historic Christ Church, Old Town Alexandria, VA
Scripture: John 20:19-31
The best thing of all is God is with us.
I was raised in the Methodist tradition. The founder of the Methodist movement was John
Wesley, a Priest in the Church of England who lived in the 18th Century. He and his brother Charles became very prominent in the Anglican world, eventually leading to the creation or influencing nearly every protestant denomination in the United States, including the Episcopal Church, especially through the authorship of hymns and a very deep understanding of holiness, social justice, and grace. Wesley was famous for his itinerancy. Rather than having a single parish, he would ride from town to town on horseback, bringing the word and sacraments to people gathered in parishes, open-air meetings, and homes. It is estimated that John Wesley rode far enough on horseback to encircle the earth at least 10 times. And part of the tradition of the day, especially of prominent figures, was to record the last words of that person. His last words were “The best thing of all is God is with us.” I have spent some time pondering these words. What does it mean that God is with us? Why is it the best thing? How do we respond to a God that is with us today?
We often get fixated on Thomas’ role in this story, but for all the wrong reasons. “Doubting Thomas” is so well known as a colloquialism that it is now a phrase used to describe skeptics even outside of religious contexts. Even though tradition states that Thomas went on to preach the Good News in India where he is now celebrated as a saint, we have the cultural tendency to think only about this one moment in his ministry when we talk about him. To make it worse, we cast this incident in a negative light.
We give Thomas no grace, no explanation, and no second thought. In some ways, this makes me quite upset, because this is such a revealing passage about the nature of Christ – a nature of compassion that in our culture, we tend to deemphasize. And in this time of Easter in the context of all the trials around us, it is time for us to reexamine how God approaches us in our moment of need.
I am confident this passage is not about the doubt of Thomas because just a few verses earlier, Peter and an unnamed disciple don’t believe the women, so they run to see an empty tomb and are not scorned - but rather the text says, “He saw and believed.” And qualified it with “They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.” Jesus gave sight to the blind, so there are other instances of a general condoning of seeing and believing. In our own Anglican tradition, we value thought and reason alongside tradition and scripture – to provide a more complete picture of our salvation. Our faith is filled with icons, songs, and sacraments, all to engage the senses that God gave us to grow in our faith.
But more specifically to this passage, Jesus does not condemn Thomas. There is no curse that
Thomas receives for needing to see Jesus. Thomas was never scorned for questioning the Disciples who already had the benefit of seeing the risen Jesus face to face. Interpretations of this text that condemn Thomas tend to focus on Thomas’ words rather than Jesus’ actions. This is especially odd given that this is a story about Easter – about God’s work on Earth to save us.
This passage is not about seeing and believing, or thought and reason being the ultimate antithesis to faith. Rather, I contend that is passage is not important because it talks about faith and doubt, but because it talks about care. Jesus gives Thomas exactly what Thomas needs.
Rather than casting Thomas away because he is too hurt to realize the glory of the resurrection, Jesus engages him. We know Thomas is mentally suffering and traumatized, partly because the disciples were present for the execution of Jesus and there was no escaping the horrifying violence that they witnessed, but also because when talking about Jesus all Thomas can say anything about is the marks that the empire left on his body. And yet when Jesus enters the room he extends his hand toward Thomas. He makes his battered and torn body vulnerable to the physical senses of Thomas. Jesus recognizes, validates, and addresses Thomas’s trauma and mental anguish without any hesitation. And Jesus comforts him saying “Peace be upon you, Thomas” - a bold statement to a man who just watched his friend murdered at the hands of the empire and is now in hiding from his own people. Thomas was not in the wrong, but he was hurting, and Jesus literally took him by the hand to guide him to hope.
Thomas was broken, mentally traumatized, and hurting. There was no way for him to believe except to be healed by the touch and words of Christ, and that is exactly what Christ offered to him. Thomas needed to be with Christ, and so Christ was.
Up until this point in the narrative, Jesus has said nothing about faith and everything about how he comes to those who know and love him in our desperation. Moreover, it shows a pursuit by Jesus to meet the needs of Thomas. Jesus went back to address this trauma that was weighing on Thomas.
But then Jesus addresses us. I say us because, to my knowledge, even though this church is very old, none of us were alive to see Jesus face to face. When Jesus says “those who have not seen” he is talking about all of us, with the knowledge that the church would continue for generations past the eyewitnesses of his death and resurrection. And rather than saying that we needed to also see him face to face to believe, he states that we are blessed – that we are fortunate, well-off.
Easter people, the same God that extended his wounded hand and body to Thomas now moves among us as the Holy Spirit. The same God that said “peace be upon you, Thomas” now has created institutions for us to show that same love to the world. The same Christ that went back into the room, though the doors were closed, because one of his closest friends needed to see him meets us at the altar. God still gives us the opportunity to be healed.
The best thing of all is God is with us.
And the wonderful thing about all of this is that because God is with us, we now have an opportunity and responsibility to join God in this work of healing and reconciliation for the world. Christ calls us to address one another’s health. In this case especially, mental health is chief among the concerns of Jesus. Thomas was broken just as we are today. But Christ shows us no longer have to accept the very worldly and lonely way of dealing with our issues alone. We now have the authority and power to deeply address the wounds of this world with the same love that Christ extended to us. We have the privilege of being a home for the wounded and a place of refuge for the weary – including ourselves. We can show this world, a place filled with many broken, weary, traumatized people, that there is a God that loves them, and a people that do too.
We are blessed because God is with us, now let us show the world. Amen