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2nd Sunday of Easter - April 11, 2021

One of the great joys of the Easter season is its joyful contrast with Lent. Color has returned to the church. It feels great to celebrate. “Lent’s long shadows have departed.” Alleluia!

Unnaturally, I want to start my sermon on this second Sunday of Easter talking about Lent. Well, actually one aspect of Lent: Lent Madness. It is not often that you hear the faithful say that they look forward to Lent, but followers of Lent Madness do. Led by two energetic and quirky Episcopal priests and supported by a host of Distinguished Celebrity Bloggers, Lent Madness mimics the March Madness college men’s basketball tournament, only for saints. Each year since 2010, Lent Madness starts at the beginning of Lent with a bracket of 32 saints, all but one of whom are steadily eliminated in internet voting until the winner of the Golden Halo is declared on Maundy Thursday. Along the way, we learn about and are inspired by the lives of these saints, reading about those lives and their impact from both the Distinguished Celebrity Bloggers and the many comments of voters. These saints teach us how to live as Christians and to live with adversity. While sometimes humbled by their examples, we see how we can be more like them.

If you follow Lent Madness, you start to notice some patterns in the voting and can make certain predictions. Voting often mirrors the concerns of the day. This year’s and last year’s winners of the Golden Halo were both African-American, Harriet Tubman and Absalom Jones, reflecting the national debate over racial justice. Indeed, this year’s runner up to Absalom Jones, a former slave and the first African-American Episcopalian priest, was Benedict the Moor, born of African slaves, who was a 16th century Franciscan friar in Sicily and who also endured discrimination.

In Lent Madness, the voting and the discussion about the saints also tend to favor the more recent saints over the saints of the Bible or of the very early Christian church. The reason for the trend is simple: there is more information about the later saints, particularly those of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, than there is about the saints from the first thousand years of the Christian church. We may know only a story or two about those early saints. Some of those stories appear to be legends that were either incredible miracles or fictional. For these saints, we draw a lot of inferences and lessons from just a little information. We use that little bit of information to define who these saints were.

That is how it has been for Thomas, the apostle of Christ. While only mentioned as one disciple among twelve in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Thomas speaks in three scenes in the Gospel of John. In the first, Jesus wants to return to Judea after Lazurus’s death. The disciples warn against it, as Jesus’ life had been threatened in Judea. Jesus presses the disciples about his need to be with Lazarus. Thomas, persuaded by Jesus to go but still convinced of the danger, urges his fellow disciples to undertake this hazardous journey with Jesus, saying they should die with Jesus.

In the second episode, Jesus has said that if he goes and prepares a place for his disciples, he will come again to take the disciples to himself. Jesus states that the disciples know the way to the place where he is going. It is Thomas who speaks up, saying, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

The third individual appearance of Thomas is described in today’s gospel reading. Despite locked doors, the disciples had seen Jesus, seen the wounds in his hands and side. Thomas was absent, however. In response to the other disciples’ exclamations that they saw the risen Lord, Thomas famously declares, “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, Jesus appears and allows Thomas the proof he required. Thomas recognizes Jesus. Jesus asks if Thomas believes because Thomas has seen him. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” The author of the gospel writes these signs so we, who have not seen them, may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.

I can’t help thinking how today’s gospel reading would have played out in this age of Facebook. I think about how a scene from a person’s life, once broadcasted on social media, can define that person to the world forever. Airline passengers film someone behaving badly and now that person is reviled by a planet. A dentist hunts and kills a beloved African lion, and people now threaten to hunt and kill him. A careless or overenthusiastic comment tarnishes the maker as a racist or a traitor, a betrayer of values many hold dear. We judge each person based on a snippet of his or her life, a snippet usually told to us by someone who heard the story from someone else. From words or actions that might be just a few days or a few minutes of these people’s lives, we confidently think we know all about them and we condemn them.

An ancient Facebook would have been on fire with comments about how Thomas was so arrogant, so pig-headed. Why didn’t Thomas put two and two together and know that Jesus would rise from the dead and return to his disciples? Why didn’t he trust his companions when they told him about seeing Jesus? One Twitter post would remind the Internet that Thomas even spoke to Jesus about this very topic. Remember that time when Jesus replied to Thomas’s question, saying “I am the way, and the truth, and the life”? It was so obvious, yet when the moment came, Thomas insisted on physical proof. What a jerk. He deserved that comment from Jesus about others being blessed when they believe without seeing.

I can’t say who for sure, but I suspect James and John, still wanting to sit on Jesus’ left and right sides, or maybe Peter, trying to solidify his position as leader of the disciples (Peter’s Facebook page refers to himself as “The Rock”), instigated posts that labeled their fellow disciple “Doubting Thomas.” The name goes viral, replacing Thomas’s former nickname “the Twin.” Even Thomas’s brother distances himself, posting their photos on his Instagram page with the caption “He and I don’t look that much alike.”

The joy the world takes in cutting Thomas down makes us forget the cowardice of the disciples just a couple weeks before, when only the women stayed with Jesus. The Facebook frenzy replaces the previously hot, but now forgotten, rumor of Peter’s repeated denials of knowing Christ. And why not? It is clear Jesus has gotten over what those disciples did or didn’t do during Holy Week. The Twitterverse muses that after Jesus made that “blessed are” comment to Thomas, we don’t know whether Jesus still thinks much of Thomas.

Nothing more is written about Thomas, so his story ends with our reading today. His reaction to the disciples’ good news brands him forever as Doubting Thomas. There are legends about great things he did the rest of this life, including preaching the Gospel in India, but those are legends and, as you see from Lent Madness voting, we don’t put much stock into legends.

But if we disregard the simplistic label of Doubting Thomas and look more closely at this disciple, we see a more sophisticated person who understands Jesus more than others do. Thomas listens to what Jesus says about returning to Judea, and Thomas changes his mind. Thomas breaks with the rest of the disciples and helps convince them to risk their lives to accompany Jesus when he returns to Lazarus. Thomas may not have understood all that Jesus was saying, but he trusts in Jesus, enough this time to risk dying with him.

Later, Thomas is brave enough to make the statement none of the other disciples dared: “Lord, we do not know where you are going.” The other disciples may have been content just to let Jesus speak and not understand his words, but Thomas wants to know what Jesus means. He is that kid in the classroom that keeps the class from getting out on time because he asks the questions every student should have been asking. He is the person who risks embarrassment and ridicule from his peers to know what the answers are.

Thomas is strong enough to demand the same proof of Jesus’ resurrection that his fellow disciples saw the week before. The other disciples never had the opportunity to question, to become doubting disciples. They got to see Jesus’ wounds without asking to see them. Jesus just showed them. When Jesus asks Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?”, his question applies to all the disciples, not just Thomas. What besides seeing these wounds made any of the disciples believe? In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene had already told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, but there is no indication any of the disciples believed her. Indeed, Jesus showed the other ten disciples his hands and his side and “[t]hen[1] the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” Like the other disciples a week earlier, when shown the wounds Thomas immediately acknowledges and rejoices in the presence of Jesus. Thomas’s response is actually the same as that of the other disciples. They just never had a chance to doubt.

What stands out, however, is Thomas’s exclamation to Jesus. Thomas required proof, but when he got that proof, he understands everything. He cries out, “My Lord and my God.” Thomas’s declaration that Jesus is God is the climax of the Gospel of John, bookending the very first verse of the gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” After a long gospel, it is the recognition by a disciple of who Jesus really is—not just a lord, not just a messiah—but God.

Like a strong contestant in the Lent Madness competition, Thomas is a powerful model for how we should live today. From Thomas, we learn to be open to changing our opinions, particularly when we see the change as a way of better serving Christ and our neighbors. From Thomas, we learn not to be afraid to ask questions. For while Jesus declares as blessed those who have not seen yet come to believe, he does not mandate that as the only path nor does he curse Thomas for demanding to see proof with his own eyes. Some of us need more answers. Thomas’s example encourages us to ask questions even if those around us are nodding their heads thoughtfully as if they understand. Thomas inspires us to be that person who demands more information, more explanation, more proof. For despite the dirty looks from friends, despite the name calling, despite maybe even a comment from the Teacher, it is his hunger to know the way, the truth, and the life that enabled Thomas ultimately to understand Jesus is God and to understand his relationship with him.

May we share this hunger but may we do more. So many people in America—in Amarillo, Texas—have abandoned Christianity or organized Christianity because they were taught they must obediently accept their churches’ teachings without thinking. Outside our church, in our daily lives and conversations, may we let others know that is not just permissible, but saintly, to question, to doubt. May we, as saints of God, show others that asking questions is not sinful but a way to have life in Jesus’ name. For many who struggle, this revelation can make a tremendous difference, giving them great comfort. Even more, their questions, their doubts, like those of Thomas, like those of ours, can lead them—and us—to the greatest truth of all.

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