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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.”
How many times have you said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”? Or maybe you just think it.
I don’t know about you, but I often find myself in Thomas’ seat. I find myself full of suspicion and doubt, with thick, highly-defended walls, impenetrable by the people around me. It seems to make me feel like I am in control. It helps me to feel powerful. It keeps me safe from disappointment.
Thomas, or “Doubting Thomas” as he has come to be known in the Christian tradition, is one of the followers of Jesus, a disciple. And, it seems, he is the last of those 12 to see the resurrection of Christ.
He is not there when the community witnesses the resurrection together. He’s not there when Jesus breathes on them to bless them with the Holy Spirit. He is not there to learn the lesson of the Resurrection with them – that of forgiveness, of reconciliation.
Instead, Thomas is elsewhere on the evening of the Resurrection, we don’t know where. Thomas is left out. He’s not present. He’s not party to ‘the party.’ And so, he’s feeling marginalized by his community. He’s no longer in the know. He’s disconnected because he hasn’t had the same experience that the rest of the community has had.
And Thomas reacts much the same way I would when I feel disconnected from community. He’s a little defensive. He’s at odds with what his friends are telling him. He essentially says, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
And I think we all experience this doubt when we find ourselves in the margins, when we find ourselves on the outside in some way. It’s simple defensiveness, drawn from the depths of our own fears because we really just want to be accepted. We really just want to belong to someone, to something. And so, in response to the thought we are shunned, we shun others to make the experience easier to tolerate.
I think this need to defend ourselves is exactly what Thomas is displaying when he says, “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.”
And this is why today’s lesson about belief is actually about forgiveness. This is why our collect today talks about the new covenant of reconciliation as established in the Paschal mystery. This is why forgiveness and the Holy Spirit are intimately connected – Jesus says: “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.”
True reconciliation, true forgiveness, can only happen when we have completely dropped our defenses. It can only happen when we’ve let go of our need to have things proven to us. Because when we stand in the place of expecting to be disappointed instead of expecting to be surprised by joy, we prevent ourselves from being reconciled to God and reconciled to one another in God.
Have you ever been so disappointed in someone, perhaps someone very close to you, that you have steeled your heart to expect disappointment from them? Perhaps they are always doing something wrong, or they are never what you need them to be. And rather than see the gift that they actually are, we simply shut down in the face of our disappointment in them. We only see the lack. We can’t see the abundance.
And so we live our lives closed to Christ, instead of open.
We look for the potential scams, instead of looking for the potential glory. We expect the worst and try to protect ourselves from it, rather than expecting Christ to show up and opening ourselves to a new creation.
We hold our breath, instead of breathing the breath of Christ.
- In the homeless person we expect to swindle us by buying booze with the $5 we’ve given them instead of food.
- In the child we expect to get it wrong instead of empowering them to do it the way they think might be best for them.
- In the friend we expect to hurt us or the loved one we expect to break our heart again instead of working to reconcile with them.
It is hard to believe, especially when you’re hurt or shamed in anyway. It is hard to believe so that we might surrender our false power of building walls that constrict and protect ourselves and breathe in God’s Holy Spirit so that the true power of forgiveness might open our heart. It’s hard to believe that much in the Resurrection. But that is what we are asked to believe in, nonetheless.
Because, my friends, we are disciples. We are in the room. We weren’t left out. And we are called to believe in the possibility of a new creation. We are called to free ourselves and one another from the prison of death. We are called to believe that, not only can that person over there change, but perhaps I can change too. And perhaps the relationship itself can change.
When I think about forgiveness and reconciliation, I think about Restorative Justice. Restorative Justice is a movement in many countries all over the world that offers a different option than the typical criminal justice system. Restorative Justice believes that true justice happens when forgiveness happens. Both the victim of the crime and the perpetrator meet with a trained counselor. And if the counselor feels that both people are ready to step into a new relationship, they meet with the counselor present in the room, and they work together to restore the relationship.
I heard a story by a Restorative Justice counselor once: He had started meeting with a young man who had damaged some property and tagged it with graffiti. He would have been sent to a juvenile hall in California’s penal system, but it was a case that was given to the Restorative Justice counselor.
He worked with this young man. And he worked with the owner of the house, an older woman. Her garage door had been spray-painted and broken. And when they met, the woman explained that her husband had just died a month prior to the crime. She spoke through her tears that he had worked tirelessly before his death to make sure that the house was in perfect shape so that she wouldn’t have to worry about problems once he had gone. It was his last gift of love to his wife.
As she spoke, the counselor watched the young man – his eyes, at first, defiant and scared, his arms crossed in front of him. The counselor watched as the young man’s defenses melted before his eyes. The young man’s eyes beginning to well with tears, his arms uncrossing as he reached up to wipe his own face. And then he watched as the light of Christ grew within this young man as he offered all that he could in that moment, his deepest most sincere apology and his desire for this woman’s forgiveness.
And so then it was time for him to tell his story. His grandmother – the one person in his life who believed in him, who watched over him – had died a few months ago. And now he had no one who he felt was on his side and he had grown angrier and angrier. And, now, here he was in this room with this woman that he had hurt and he was so sorry that his thoughtless anger had done such damage.
So, they decided that, instead of going to juvenile hall, this young man would come to the woman’s house and repair the damage – fixing the door, painting it with a fresh coat of paint.
As the counselor tells it, the young man and the older woman grew to be friends. He became the one she called on when something needed to be fixed in the house. And she became like his family, someone who could care for him, who believed in him and who he would care for until the day she died.
And this happened because she opened her heart and chose to believe that there was more to this young man than the vandal who had damaged her home and ruined her husband’s gift of love. And, perhaps more importantly, she chose to believe that she was more than a bitter, powerless woman and that she could do more than just let the police handle it.
Instead, she stood strong in the powerful love of Christ and extended that love to someone who just needed someone to believe in him, in the gift that he was and is, in his inherent goodness and preciousness as a beloved child of God. And this gave him the power, then, to stand strong in that love too alongside her. And both people were resurrected into a new creation awakened by mercy and true power.
My friends, we are disciples. We are called to believe. We are called to look for abundance, and for goodness, and for true power.
And more than that, we are tasked to call it forth in one another. This is the mission of the Church – to call this forth in the people that we meet. In our communities and our homes and our workplaces and on the street. In our everyday lives… people who inconvenience us, who hurt us.
The mission of the Church is for us to be called out into the world to spread this love, this forgiveness, this understanding of reconciliation that is the Resurrection of Christ.
We’re not called to tell people how they need to be. But we are called to stop expecting them to meet our standards and instead to wait patiently, expecting nothing more than the glory of God that is already inside of them.
Bp Desmond Tutu knows this. Nelson Mandela knows this. When Nelson Mandela walked out of his South African prison cell after 27 years believing deeply in a new creation, he worked tirelessly with Desmond Tutu to work toward reconciliation in South Africa.
Instead of seeking retribution, instead of inciting rebellion and racial riots, Mandela and Tutu worked with the white government of South Africa to end apartheid. Because they believed in the Resurrection. Because they believed in God’s abundant, saving love for creation. And they believed, then, in their discipleship mandated them to call everyone to the Light of Christ so that an entire country could become a new creation.
By surrendering our hardness, our need to have people prove their worth, our desire to see people get what we think they deserve, we empower ourselves and other people to shine forth the light of Christ. So that we all may walk in the Resurrection with our Savior and know the love and the abundance of God.
Thomas, the doubter, is a part of all of us. He comes to visit when we feel we’re on the outside, when we feel we need to protect ourselves, when we have come to believe more in our own false power than in God’s power to work through us. And this is why Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Because while Thomas is an inevitable aspect of being human, and an understandable one, as disciples of Jesus, we are called to believe.
We are called to receive the breath of life, the gift of God’s Holy Spirit that continually calls us toward one another – to forgive, to believe in one another’s belovedness – not more than our own but in concert with our own, so that we may always be reconciled to God.