I Believe You

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This is a sermon I prepared for Northside Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor this morning. I thought I would share it too if it’s helpful. I’ve also prepared a transcript in here if you’d like to use that.

As we begin, I’ll read the story first. It comes from the Gospel According to John, chapter 19 verses 20-31.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the religious leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

When the scene of our scripture passage opens, we might be surprised to remember that it is Easter day itself. It is the very day of this shocking resurrection experience, but the disciples of Jesus are hiding behind closed doors and living in fear. I think we can relate this year… Mary Magdalene, one of their own, has shared incredible news with them. She has already told them that she has seen Jesus alive, but they have yet not seen Jesus themselves. Maybe some of them might risk wondering if it really could be true. . . Others, as we know, dismissed her story entirely. They believed it to be an “idle tale.”

So there they are hiding behind locked doors, scared for their lives, and in this story, the resurrected Jesus chooses to meet them right there. He shows up on the other side of that locked door right in their presence. And what does he say? He speaks words of comfort: “Peace be with you,” he says. Then the story shares that after he greeted them with these comforting words, he “showed them his hands and his side.”

That’s kind of an interesting thing to do, isn’t it?
He showed them his wounds from the crucifixion.

The disciples were overwhelmed with joy in his presence. They had been locked away from life, and life met them right where they were. Jesus, risen to new life, stood among them, and the he commissioned them to service. He said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And he gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit. This moment changed everything for them, and all of them were called to new life. They were all astounded, and all of them were sent forward from his presence.

Well, all of them except Thomas.

Thomas wasn’t there in that moment when Jesus appeared to his disciples behind the locked doors. We don’t know what he was doing. Maybe he was behind locked doors somewhere else — social distancing — or maybe he was living outside with greater courage.

But this is what the story shares: He missed it. I can’t imagine what it would be like to hear all of this amazing news secondhand without encountering Jesus himself. Maybe Thomas had grief. Maybe he had isolation after missing out. FOMO. Maybe he had doubt about it all.

It seems to be that way. Thomas said to the rest of the disciples, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” So Thomas continued to stay connected to these disciples, believing something different than they did and maybe feeling something different than they did.

Whatever he believed, and whatever he felt, Jesus met Thomas right in that place too. One week later, all the disciples were gathered together, and this time, Thomas was there. Interestingly, the story shares that the door was shut yet again, but Jesus appears in that house with them. He was among them, and once more, he said, “Peace be with you.”

Then Jesus looked straight at Thomas. Jesus met him in his grief. He met him in his isolation. He met him in his doubt. Jesus said, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

Do not doubt but believe.
Believe, Thomas. . . that is, trust. . .

Jesus is there before Thomas, meeting him right where he was struggling.
Jesus is there before Thomas, as one who has known suffering and pain himself,
one who has known grief, isolation, and trauma in his body,
and that very one – the one who suffered and died – is risen to new life.

Both of these realities are overwhelmingly powerful. Jesus is risen from suffering and death. And God, found in the human embodiment of Jesus, is a God who still bears wounds. This God is one who knows what it means to suffer and chooses to bear those marks of woundedness forever. As theologian Nancy Eisland shared in her writings,* Jesus is the Disabled God. This is the God who meets Thomas, and this is the God who appears to us today.

Thomas is overwhelmed. Both of these realities – the suffering and the resurrection – are absolutely powerful. Thomas is overcome, and he exclaims with joy and wonder, “My Lord and my God!” He has moved from doubt to the highest profession of faith. Thomas sees the living God with wounds. He sees life standing before him, meeting him in his own place of woundedness. This changes everything.

Jesus didn’t leave Thomas out of the resurrection experience, and so I imagine that Jesus didn’t leave Thomas out of the commission either. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” In our scripture text, we don’t hear Jesus saying those words again, but I’m sure the calling remains constant. Thomas was included in that also.

And as we are gathered here this morning, we may very much be like Thomas. We carry own grief, isolation, and doubt, but gathered in community, we seek to remind one another that there is a God who is living and breathing — a God that journeys with us in suffering and the experience of death. A God who loves us to the core of our being, and one who commissions us to love others.

Maybe we can invite one another to hear those words for ourselves this morning. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And here’s where it becomes challenging and life-giving at once:

If we are sent, even sent in a sense from inside our own homes,
If we are sent as the Father has sent Jesus,
If we are sent with the gift of the Holy Spirit,
we are being sent forward toward the world’s woundedness.

We are called to show up in solidarity in the presence of great suffering and pain. We are called to believe the stories behind that pain — never doubting, but believing. These stories of human pain are real.

And we are called to speak the new life of resurrection which God breathes into the world and desires for every human being and every community. That is how high this calling is. It is challenging and life-giving at once.

The God we worship chooses to bear wounds, and this God cares for those who carry their own wounds. But so often, people doubt not only God but the stories of the wounds themselves.

I have a friend named Sarah Watkins who wrote something succinct on Facebook, but I thought it spoke volumes in its power. She said, “If you want to be a good ally to someone, believe them. Do you know how often people who are marginalized and abused are doubted about their own experiences?”

She goes on to say,

“I believe you were assaulted.
I believe you were blocked from voting.
I believe you are in constant pain.
I believe the cop pulled you over because of your skin color.
I believe your boss/supervisor/colleague harassed you.

I believe you.”

We can believe, and when we do that among our neighbors, I think we are all called to new, resurrected life.

I’ll close with another story. On a couple of occasions, I’ve had the privilege to meet Dr. Allan Aubrey Boesak. Dr. Boesak is a prolific writer and theologian. He has a long history of being present alongside those marginalized and oppressed in South Africa and a number of other places.

During the Apartheid in South Africa. Dr. Allan Boesak served as an advocate for justice, working to change laws and restore dignity to so many who faced discrimination and were even killed because of the color of their skin.

I heard Dr. Boesak speak at the Next Church conference a couple years ago in Atlanta. He ended a keynote lecture there in a powerful way. He said that at the end of our lives, and at the end of time when God has reconciled all things, perhaps God will say to us, ‘Show me your wounds.’

He said,

In that moment – even as people of resurrection – if we have none to show, perhaps God will ask us, ‘Wait. Was there nothing worth fighting for?’

And in that moment, he said, even if we stand there with no obvious signs of solidarity, this very God will show us his hands and his wounded side, and we will know that we were worth fighting for.

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

As we leave this time, we are called to journey with our neighbors, even locked inside our own houses.
We have stories to believe.
We have truth to tell.
We have human lives worth advocating beside.
We have resurrection to live.

To this we say thanks and yes.

Amen.

Renee Roederer

*Nancy Eisland wrote about this in her book, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability.

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