Our Gospel reading today is a story of faith, though some may be diverted down another path by “doubting Thomas” and his refusal to believe. There is probably a sermon here to be preached on doubt, and it is (doubtless) being preached today in a number of places. Our hypothetical sermon makes approximately these points: how honest doubt is preferable to indifference; how some with a strong reaction against faith may be closer to believing than they actually think; then, finally, how the real opposite of faith is certainty (that’s the theologian Paul Tillich). All good points, and three make a sermon.
But I think our Gospel writer shapes the story of Thomas’ encounter with the risen Christ as he does without doubt being the main point. St. John has belief, faith, in the forefront, to such an extent that the story is less about Thomas and his faith or lack of faith, as it is about our faith and its character. “Our faith”: because Jesus himself says in the Gospel, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (Jo. 20:29).
Jesus here virtually collapses the famous “fourth wall” that divides the speaker on the stage from those in the seats by turning to the audience in order to address them: to let us know, as hearers of the Gospel, the blessing that is ours as believers in him. He’s turning to the camera, in other words, and directly addressing us. It is faith, trust in God, that is commended: belief in Jesus and his resurrection from the dead, which means new life for us. John’s Gospel has in view those to whom Jesus speaks: future Christians who will believe without seeing.
So important is this point that it is one of only two places in John’s Gospel where Jesus declares anyone “blessed.” In the sermon on the mount, of course, it is a familiar idiom: “blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3); “blessed are the pure in heart” (Matt. 5:8); “blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9). But in John, it is only “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (Jo. 20:29), said a week after Jesus’ resurrection; and then, on the evening of Maundy Thursday, after Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet, used again in his invitation to them to wash the feet of others. “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (Jo. 13:17).
In John’s Gospel, Jesus underscores the blessing of belief and action, all gathered together in Jesus’ words delivered in the shadow of the cross and the light of Easter Day. “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (Jo. 13:17). Once again, the fourth wall is collapsed as the message to the disciples breaks down the barrier of space and time, and is now spoken to us.
The service that Jesus models on Maundy Thursday, in the foot washing, is sacrificial love: love willing to give without counting the cost. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (Jo. 13:1): that is, to the cross. Then again, later the same evening, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (Jo. 13:34). Sacrificial love is the action Jesus calls us to: “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (Jo. 13:17): if you give yourselves for others. Here, in John’s Gospel, the blessing of belief is joined to the blessing of action.
Many in the State of Tennessee have been reflecting on the action required by sacrificial love, and our belief in the Risen Lord, in light of events at Covenant School in Nashville. Here, our faith is certainly tested. Our response requires us to exercise our capacity for practical wisdom in order to chart a course forward. What, in this situation, are we called to? What can be accomplished? The blessing is promised for those who believe and act upon what they know.
In Thomas’ case, recognizing Jesus required the wounds to be seen: the marks of the cross to be taken in and understood. St. Augustine wondered, in a long-ago sermon, in an acute and perceptive comment, whether the wounds of Christ were displayed in order to heal the deep wounds we ourselves bear (Ser. 88). In other words, our very woundedness is the key to our belief and action.
There is no doubt that we now bear wounds, and others bear even worse ones. Each of us has a story to tell. Can these wounds shape our belief, our understanding, and our actions? Well, as the Lord says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (Jo. 20:29). “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (Jo. 13:17).