How 'doubting Thomas' deepened my faith
About a dozen years ago, God tapped me on the shoulder and whispered in the ear of my heart that I should check out a preaching retreat being held for laypeople in my denomination. As a confirmed shy person, I did not seem to myself like an obvious candidate for the job of preacher, but the tap and the whisper were unmistakable, and I was intrigued.
Attendance at this retreat required getting my pastor to agree to let me preach on the Sunday after Easter (a day when, at least in my denomination, people usually stay away from church in droves after the long slog through Lent, Holy Week and Easter). It's a Sunday full-time pastors usually take off, so having someone else to provide a sermon might even be helpful. My pastor readily agreed to let me preach that day, and I anticipated the retreat with excitement.
We were to base our sermons on the readings for the Sunday we would preach. In my denomination, we always read John 20:24-29, the story of doubting Thomas, on the Sunday after Easter. It's a bit like the movie “Groundhog Day,” with the story coming back around year after year on the same occasion. And, like in the movie, the repetition gives us the chance to learn something different, and possibly life-changing, each time.
I read all the lessons for the day and settled on the passage from John's gospel as my sermon text. Then I spent more time reading that lesson in different translations, thinking about the historical context in which it was written and asking myself what it really meant.
I have a clear recollection of sitting in my car in the parking lot where I worked in order to get a little privacy for lunch on a spring day, and asking myself, “Why does Jesus come back the second time?” As you remember, the story takes place soon after the crucifixion. The disciples are gathered in the upstairs room with the door locked for fear of the temple authorities when Jesus walks right through the door and greets them. “Peace be with you,” he says, to the amazement of all.
However, Thomas isn't in the room. When he turns up, the others all tell him about how Jesus appeared to them, but Thomas is skeptical. He refuses to believe it unless he sees for himself and is able to touch Jesus' wounds. A week later, Jesus comes again, and this time Thomas is there. Jesus invites him to touch his wounds and Thomas acknowledges Jesus as “my Lord and my God.”
Suddenly, it became as plain as day to me: Jesus comes back the second time because Thomas asks him to! Thomas' expressions of doubt are, in effect, a prayer, spoken in utter sincerity, and Jesus answers it. Thomas puts the pain of his uncertainty out where Jesus can get to it, rather than keeping it hidden away in his mind, and that is what Jesus responds to. We might well call this apostle honest Thomas, rather than doubting Thomas.
Well, after receiving the gift of an insight like that, I was hooked. And I hadn't even preached yet. I enjoyed the retreat and got a real high from delivering my sermon at my church a few weeks later. I felt I had been given a special message of love to share and I was filled with joy to do it.
After that, I had several more opportunities to preach over the next couple of years, and wanted to develop the gift I felt I had as a lay preacher. But it was harder to do than I had expected, and for various reasons, I did not pursue it. Until recently, that is, when I talked to my current pastor about wanting to preach.
“There's a process for that,” she said, and described to me what I would have to do to get the regional powers that be to approve. I wrote a letter, provided some writing samples, described my previous religious training. And waited. And waited. And waited.
Then, last Sunday, my pastor handed me an envelope. It contained a letter and an official-looking piece of paper licensing me as a lay preacher in the Episcopal Diocese of Maine. My pastor and I will meet soon to schedule my first sermon as a licensed lay preacher.
This answer to my heartfelt longing, like the answer to Thomas' prayer, is a beginning as much as an end. It calls me into a new relationship, with God and with the people of my church, and even with those beyond the church, because in looking deeply into the stories of God and God's people, I will find the way to weave my own story into that larger story day by day.