S. Easter 2.17 “Doubt, Faith, and Skipping Church” John 20:19-31
Most people read this famous Gospel as a story of doubt and faith, the conundrum between seeing and believing. And, no doubt, there’s some of that going on here. But I think it might be as much, or more(?) a story about the danger of skipping church, or on how “you snooze, you lose”. And what more perfect Gospel for this Sunday, of all Sundays, when most all the world, after having turned up for the semi-annual church visit last week, sleeps in this morning, and skips church? The Anglicans practically invite you to skip by calling it “Low Sunday”, basically telling you “hey, there’s no reason to get up, this Sunday. Nothing special happening here today, folks!”. Seriously, I have a lot of pastor friends who always take this Sunday off, to rest up and catch up, so feel good for being here today. I do. I love this Sunday, more, I confess, than the Easter hoopla itself.
To paraphrase Pascal (who was pretty savvy on doubt and faith and the wonderful excuses such worries present for skipping church) we don’t miss church because we’re filled with doubts about the truth of Christ’s Story; no, it’s the other way around: we’re filled with doubts because we skip church. Like Thomas. Our hero.
Look closely at the details in this story. In the beginning of the chapter, the women were up early for Easter Sunrise service (my least favorite service of all!). But the early bird does not get the worm. They find nothing, see nothing but an empty tomb and some scary dudes sitting in it. Whew! No reason to have sunrise services, thank God! Mary Magdalene goes and tells Peter and John someone has robbed Jesus’ tomb! Peter and John go for the 8:30 service, as good Lutherans, and they also find nothing, but an empty tomb—oh, and the Shroud of Turin, BTW, laying around, but they don’t seem to notice the striking photographic negative image on it, and just chuck it in the back of the closet and forget about it for several centuries, it would appear. But that’s a story for another time. We’re getting distracted.
It’s only when everyone has cleared out, at coffee hour before bible class, that Mary runs into Jesus in the garden. It’s only then that she sees the two angels, and then, still crying over the loss of Jesus, she sees Him but thinks He’s the gardener(!). His somewhat stern “Mary!” snaps her to. He tells her to quit hanging onto Him but to go tell the disciples that He is ascending. This gathers them together.
But it’s only at the Sunday evening service (Lucernarium, the Service of Light, which was always my favorite service in college in the undercroft of the chapel) attended only by a few hardcore types, that Jesus appears openly bestowing peace and a promise that we are apostled as He is apostled, giving us the Holy Spirit and the power to forgive and retain sins. Pretty cool stuff. Impossible not to believe if you were in on that!
But Thomas was not in on that. He skipped that crucial Sunday evening service. Because he’d already been to the 11 o’clock service and nothing special happened there. Peter had already forgotten about the Shroud of Turin and it was same old, same old at 11. Didn’t even sing especially familiar hymns. Besides, only the Baptists and a few liturgical nut-jobs go to Sunday evening services. It’s not for old-school Lutherans like Thomas or us. It’s like Pastor’s Class on Wed. evening—nice for a niche crowd, but not like you’re going to find anything special there, usually…
Except when you do—find something special there, that is. Like Jesus appearing openly, bestowing gifts and promises of heavenly treasures. At the Sunday evening service, of all times! Not even a preaching service, that one! And Lucernarium usually has incense, which affects my allergies sometimes, you know? And seems a bit affected if you know what I mean? The writer to the Hebrews says somewhere, something about not “forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some…” because whenever the Body of Christ gathers, Jesus is always in the house, and you never can tell at what service, or in what manner exactly He will choose to reveal Himself with special power…
In fact, Jesus seems to delight in sneaking up on us when we least expect Him. We look for Him in the big displays, the grand services, the large churches, the spectacular special effects. We go to the popular and highly touted places and services and experiment with the liturgies for maximum emotional effect. And, so often…nothing. No special lift. No great insight. No appearance of Jesus in the flesh bestowing the Spirit and Forgiveness and Power on us. And if Jesus isn’t in the big services in the big places at the big times, what is the point to going to the chapel on Sunday evening at 10 pm at Valpo for Lucernarium? What are you going to see there? Huh?
So, Thomas skips the Sunday evening service, because like Wed. night book discussion, it’s a niche kind of thing for the hardcore. But then, that one service that Thomas skips, happens to be the one where it all happens, where Jesus appears, His Peace and Spirit and Forgiveness and Life bestowing. Drag! But Thomas might have noticed what you have surely noticed in the Gospels: that crowds kind of put Jesus off a bit. He tends to favor the more intimate settings for the big reveal, the right crowd, with no crowding…
Like Sunday night service in the undercroft at the college chapel (still one of my favorite services that got me back into church) or the Wed. evening pastor’s class with a few hardcore types. I’m not saying that we have to revive Sunday night services. I’m just saying that these traditions start up in ways no one can quite account for, Wed. evening book discussions, a mid-week communion service, Lucernarium in the undercroft at the college chapel, a prayer breakfast. Wherever the Body gathers together around the Word and Sacraments of Jesus, He is always present in the midst to remove doubt, to give life and salvation by the forgiveness of our sins, to draw us into His new life, victorious over death and the grave. And He seems to do His best work when two or three or 10 or 12 are gathered—more than 4 or 5,000. (Not that He can’t work with any size group!).
You can be sure Thomas knew about the Sunday evening service in Jerusalem that night. He had a standing invitation. But when you skip services, even (and maybe especially) the minor ones that no one attends, you might miss the really important stuff. “Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.” He took the more traveled by Road, that evening, Thomas did, and it made all the difference. The other disciples told Thomas what he’d missed and that should have been enough, but Thomas insisted on more, insisted on seeing the print of the nails, touching and seeing for himself.
But I think that’s bluster. 8 days later, the disciples were again gathered, and Thomas is with them, and when Jesus shows, offering Thomas what he said he needed to believe, Thomas merely says “My Lord, and My God.” Just being at the Sunday evening service, the one no one attends, that was enough for Thomas. And it’s enough for us, still, I think.
It’s not our doubt that keep us from service; it’s skipping service that fuels doubt. So with Thomas, so with us. And so today the Lord appears again at this Service, by Word and Sacrament; that even without physical sight, we see and believe, and believing, have life in His Name and the Peace that surpasses all understanding guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.