A sermon on John 20:19-29 delivered to LaSalle Street Church on Easter Sunday, 4/17/22. This was the first of three sermons delivered by pastoral staff that day, each focusing on a different reaction to the resurrection. The manuscript is edited below for reading, and you can find it in the full service via this YouTube video.
You might recognize this image. Amber Bracken’s photo was all over the news a few weeks ago when it won the World Press Photo Award.
You might also know the context. Along a stretch of highway in British Columbia stands a row of small wooden crosses adorned with red dresses, just like this one. The crosses and dresses are a memorial to last year’s discovery of more than 200 child victims of Kamloops Indian Residential School, part of a system of schools established in the late 1800s by the Canadian government in partnership with the Catholic Church. The schools existed to remove Indigenous children from their homes and assimilate them into mainstream Canadian culture and Christianity. Thousands of children died at these schools across the country.
The crosses and dresses stand so that people will not forget what happened.
The gospel of John only mentions Thomas two other times. The first is in chapter 11, when Jesus told the disciples he planned to return to Judea. The disciples tried to talk him out of it because they were afraid of violent threats against Jesus. But Thomas understood that Jesus had made up his mind, so he told the other disciples, “Come on. Let’s go, so we can die with him” (v. 16).
The second is in chapter 14, when Jesus told the disciples that he was going ahead of them to prepare a place for them to live in relationship with God. Jesus told the disciples they knew the way. Thomas replied, “Lord, we don’t even know where you are going! How can we know the way?” (v. 5). It sounds a little like Thomas Merton’s Prayer of Abandonment. It’s a prayer that begins, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.”
So here’s what we know about Thomas: (1) He was so devoted to Jesus that he was willing to follow him no matter what, even willing to die for him. And (2) he was this devoted to Jesus even though he didn’t see the whole picture; he didn’t know where Jesus was going. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds a lot like faith.
How do we make sense of Thomas’s doubt in John 20:19-29? In this story, Jesus appeared to most of the disciples on Resurrection Day, the day we celebrate today as Easter. But Thomas wasn’t there with them. When the disciples tried to tell him the good news, he didn’t believe them. He told them, “First, I must see the nail scars in his hands and touch them with my finger. I must put my hand where the spear went into his side. I will not believe unless I do this!” Did you catch that? He didn’t say, “I cannot believe.” He said, “I will not believe.”
It takes another week before Thomas has the chance to meet Jesus in person. Think of that, an entire week. An entire week of doubting and wondering, while all the other disciples are celebrating. What do you imagine was going through Thomas’s mind during that lonely week?
A friend of mine in Texas helped me understand the nature of Thomas’s doubt. Thomas loved Jesus and was willing to follow him anywhere. But then Jesus was tortured and humiliated. The authorities violently abused him. He died in public, and nobody stopped it. Here’s what I think was going through Thomas’s mind during that week, the longest week of his life: “I want to believe that Jesus is alive. But I can’t forget that Jesus was brutally wounded and killed. I want to believe this good news, but I will not believe it if it means the suffering wasn’t real, too. I will not forget what happened.”
Throughout this service—including at the end of this sermon right here—this church recites a refrain along with Christians all around the world. It’s very simple: The leader says, “Christ is risen.” And everyone else replies, “Christ is risen indeed.” That’s because we are celebrating! We’re celebrating the good news that our entire faith revolves around. But the death of Jesus was real, too, and when we say, “Christ is risen indeed,” we don’t forget what happened before that.
We don’t forget the precious, beloved people who might be missing from your Easter celebrations today. We don’t forget the victims of the violence against Ukraine. We don’t forget the victims of the violence committed against Indigenous people, including children, even the violence committed in the name of spreading the Christian faith. Don’t think for one second that anyone here is asking you to forget what happened.
Jesus meets Thomas in his doubt. Jesus patiently shows Thomas the wounds in his hand and in his side. It’s almost as if he is saying, “I am alive…and I don’t forget what happened, either.” Today we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. We hope and trust that we might share in that resurrection, too. And we do so in the belief that Jesus suffers and grieves with us, whatever losses or hurts or doubts you carry today. That all belongs here, too.
As we march on together, we do not forget, but still we proclaim: Christ is risen. (Christ is risen, indeed.)