One of the dangerous things about a job like mine — where part of the time you’re producing ideas — is that, because of the way inspiration works, sometimes your best work happens right as you were blithely wasting time. And that tends to happen when you’re using any available mental energy left over from Holy Week, which is none, cramming everything in to your last week before you go on vacation so that you can really take a break.
So I was on Facebook this week…
… and my friend Karen posted that she was working on her sermon (as I should have been at the time) and, because this week’s Gospel reading is about Thomas, she couldn’t stop thinking about the introduction of another Thomas — Thomas Jefferson — in the musical Hamilton. As many of you who have heard me or Lyn and Abby Roberts talk in the last two years already know, Hamilton is the hip hop musical about treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton and his role in the Revolution and the early years of America.
In the musical, the actor who plays Jefferson plays Marquis de Lafayette in the first act, because during the Revolutionary War itself, Jefferson was the ambassador to France. In the second act, however, Jefferson — or Thomas, as he’s called for most of the musical — opens the second act with a jazzy number called, well, “What’d I Miss?” That, plus getting the inspiration to rap at Vigil, helped me to produce something a little shorter than the dry bones, but enjoyable, I hope nonetheless.
The other thing that happened was that I ran into a roadblock with my sermon and went to get drinks with my friend Lorraine, who’ll be your guest preacher and presider next week. She and I had fun irreverently describing matters from Thomas’s perspective and how unfairly the church has treated him in calling him “Doubting Thomas” through the centuries.
And so that’s when this happened: an intro in the style of Hamilton followed by what I think Thomas would say to the Church today. You can help me out by snapping.
“How does the Son of God who’s risen from the dead
And appeared to Mary live —
Are you ready for more yet?
Appears to eleven of ‘em in the Upper Room*
A miracle is seen — Jesus risen from the tomb
But someone hasn’t heard the resurrection promise
You simply must meet Thomas, Thomas!”
(*No one knows the precise number of disciples present, though one can assume that is was actually ten (minus Thomas and Judas). But in hip hop, sometimes you need syllables, so I went with Eleven.)
What follows is a much less catchy letter to the church from the Apostle Thomas.
My dearest Church,
My name is Thomas, and I have a beef with you.
You see, I was a martyr. But you don’t call me “Thomas the Martyr.”
I was a saint, but you Protestants especially so rarely refer to me as “Saint Thomas.”
I went to India — India — to spread the Gospel. But you don’t call me “Thomas the Missionary to India.”
I was a disciple that accompanied Jesus, saw him crucified. I was the only one not hiding when Jesus appeared to the disciples the first time. John straight up told you that everyone else was hiding out of fear. I wasn’t. But you don’t call me “Brave Thomas.” Oh no.
But I miss one resurrection appearance and I become “doubting Thomas” for centuries.
Look, I get it.
It seems, the way John wrote this, that I don’t have that much faith because I don’t believe the other disciples when they tell me that Jesus had appeared to them.
Easy for you to say, man.
You know the end of the story. You hold four accounts of the resurrection in your hands on the regular. I did not have that luxury.
Put yourself in my shoes. Your friend and beloved teacher just died a brutal and horrible death, and you and your friends are somewhat concerned that the same thing might happen to you. But you, Thomas, always the bold, practical one, decide that you’re not going to hide like the rest of them. You’re going out, no matter the consequences. And the disciples needed milk and wine and I drew the short straw. Whatever.
Then, when you get back from the market, your friends come to you all of a sudden and say, “We have seen the Lord!” The Lord — the guy you all are mourning. The dead one.
What would you say? Honestly? If you’d believe immediately, you’re probably pretty easy to pull pranks on. I’m just saying.
Look, maybe it was a lack of faith. But it happened one time, in the midst of a lot bigger things — you know, like Jesus coming back from the dead. And I’m a little worried about what my reputation as “Doubting Thomas” says about you, church. It was only the beginning of a long history of defining people based on one bad look, one mistake, one perceived mistake, one moment.
Believe me: for the rest of my life I thought of myself as Doubting Thomas, too.
You probably do it to yourselves, too. Who is the worst version of you that you define yourself by? Are you the Liar? The Betrayer? The Addict? The Black Sheep of the Family? The Victim? The Racist? The Bully? The Crazy One?
No, you’re not.
Any more than I, the real human Thomas, am Doubting Thomas. And this is not just about me getting my ancient wool undies in a wad.
It’s contrary to the Gospel of the Risen Lord that I saw with my own eyes.
If there’s one thing I know, it’s when we start to define ourselves by what we’ve done or haven’t done, this whole church thing falls apart. After that, it all turns into a ladder climbing game just like everything else.
But this Church thing isn’t supposed to be just like everything else. This Church thing isn’t even supposed to be about us. When we make it about us, or about any other person, we miss the miracle of resurrection and new life standing right in front of us.
We miss God.
Look, we all fail. Human failure is nothing new. Whether you screwed up big by, you know, denying Jesus three times (no one calls Peter “the Denier,” I might add) or whether you just happened to miss an appearance of the risen Christ, we all need a second chance. Or a third. Or a fourth. Et cetera.
Because I’m not saying that John made any mistakes in what he told you. That story is how it went down.
It’s just that people focus too much on me, Thomas, when what John was writing was a story about Jesus.
I missed the boat. I didn’t believe my fellow disciples — not Mary, and not the guys. I admit, I got really sarcastic with the “Look, unless I put my fingers in the wounds….” that really was in poor taste, I admit, whether the Messiah was dead or alive, and the church has, not surprisingly, entirely missed the subtlety of my humor there.
But focus on Jesus instead of me for a second. It’s a story about Jesus, after all.
Notice what he did. Jesus didn’t scold me or label me “doubting Thomas.” He gave the other disciples a whole week to try to convince me, and then he showed up himself. He showed up and he blessed us and he looked at me and said “This is my body. Reach out your hands. It’s really me.”
Turns out, Church, that’s what you do every Sunday. Every Sunday you gather together just like the disciples did. You gather together, and just like us, some of you are sure you’ve seen Jesus and some of you not so sure this isn’t a bunch of bullhockey and for some of you, the level of your belief just depends on the Sunday. But Jesus still shows up, blesses you, gathers you around the table and says to you: “This is my body, given for you. It’s really me.” In bread. In wine. In water. In Words. In all of us.
Jesus is here, too, if you know how to look. And I think you do. You’re the Church, after all.
Yours in Christ through the Ages,
I know. Writing a letter from a dead guy about how he got shorted by the church was not a normal way to spend a weekend. But you don’t keep me around because I’m normal.
The good news is redemption: that, like Thomas, you deserve to be known by more than your mishaps and mistakes and your questions and your doubts. Because think too much about yourself and other people, and you miss the real miracle of church: that the risen Jesus is here, offering himself.
Because the Church’s story is still a story about God, not us. The Church’s story is one where Jesus’ response to doubt is not wrath, but instead to show up every single time, no matter who believes or doesn’t believe, and say: “This is my body, given for you.”
Jesus is here — let the church rejoice, and all God’s people say: Amen.