This is a story of second chances. You’ve probably thought about Christianity in terms of second chances before. After all, the forgiveness of sins offers a second, and then a third, fourth, fifth… chance. Our first deviation from being perfect doesn’t end our pursuit of the good. The chance to pursue relationship with God, even from our rock bottom is an amazing gift.
I imagine, too, that the disciples in this Gospel story felt like they had been given a second chance. After all, in the days leading to Easter, it had become clear that no one actually expected him to be resurrected. Judas betrayed him, Peter denied him. The women who went to the tomb that Sunday went expecting to find a corpse.
So whatever their faith in Jesus looked like, it didn’t include this cosmic dimension, this transcendence of death. They had followed him, had learned from him, had loved him. And he had told them we would die and then rise again, but that, frankly, is really hard to believe. Who’s to blame them? Not I.
They had it easy, too. They got to see him, to see the wounds. Thomas, the first person to be told the story of Jesus re-appearing with his disciples, was incredulous. I love Thomas for that. Thank God we get Thomas to give voice to what we are thinking. Thomas needs to see and feel. It’s easy to take Jesus to be a great teacher and a good man. On that level, he’s still worth following. But Thomas was being asked to believe that Jesus was God, and had returned from the dead. He was being asked to believe that Jesus not only rose on Easter, but that he loved his disciples so much that he came back to be with them. Thomas was going to need to see some proof. He got it, too. Lucky guy.
Their second chance was more than another chance to be in his company, or another chance to get things right. It was another chance to formulate their faith. The disciples’ post-Easter understanding of Jesus was surely much deeper than their pre-Easter understanding. Jesus as a notable religious teacher, or even as a prophet, is different than Jesus the one who trampled over death and revealed the foolishness of the world’s violent ways.
In a sense, the disciples were being shown the way to a deeper faith. We all can resonate with this. Growing up, if you were brought up practicing Christianity, we were taught a kind of strange array of Bible stories first. The ones that would make good movies. I mean, the Christmas story, sure. Good one. But Jonah and the whale, Noah’s ark, the Tower of Babel, even Jesus walking on water… These are good and beautiful stories, but they make a peculiar introduction to God. These stories teach us of God as more of a storybook character, not unlike the fairy Godmother in Disney movies. A strangely distant yet omniscient figure that comes through with magic at the perfect moment.
The storybook understanding of God, frankly, doesn’t make it past the cross. That God died. Breathed his last, literally ex-pired. Maybe that was the God the disciples thought they were dealing with. There’s no shame in it. Resurrection is hard to wrap your head around. Surely, having followed him up to death’s doorstep, and having seen him keep going, more than one disciple, maybe all of them, thought God had died.
What had died was their neat and tidy understanding of God. The tame, storybook God. The understanding of a God whose ways are compatible with the ways of the empire, whose power would manifest as secular force. The understanding of a God who keeps tabs of our good and bad deeds, and whose wrath can be kept at bay—and good favor secured—by worshipping God in very specific correct ways. The understanding of a God whose favor was most seen in the delay of death. A long life and lots of descendants and land. These were the signs of God’s favor. That God was nailed to a cross and died and then the story ended and everyone went to where they were staying and probably stared at the floor, feeling like they had been punched in the gut.
Thomas was trying to understand that he had a second chance. That where his early faith had been destroyed by death, this reappearance of Jesus didn’t mean that his old faith was correct after all, but that it fell far short of the mark. God had always been much more than that. Jesus triumphed, not by force, and not by passivity either. He triumphed by actively walking into the fray and showing that all of our violence is ultimately meaningless. This was not a victory for the storybook God, but for the God who persists in agonizing situations, the gritty, messy God of people who cannot ignore the dark side of life.
God the superhero who is always in your corner but never seems to show up quite like in the stories gives way to God the ceaseless calling to a way of love, a burning flame which cannot be snuffed out by the executioner’s tools. The God you never saw yields to the God who actually shows up in the darkest of moments.
This is the second chance the disciples were struggling to comprehend. We struggle with it today, too. The storybook God is far easier to understand. But this God runs deeper. This story doesn’t die on the cross, unable to push past the unavoidable specter of death. Sunday school faith eventually falters, and the more resilient, subtle, and achingly beautiful faith in the God who keeps reaching to God’s people carries on.
If you’ve been here for the first Sunday after Easter before, you have heard me say that I love doubting Thomas. He is the patron saint of those who have doubts, who struggle to believe that there could be room in this world for the love we hear described in this Gospel. It is a reasonable and understandable struggle. And yet, the second chance to form our faith is always arriving.