Have you ever asked God for a sign?
Have you ever gotten what turned out to be a sign, that didn’t look like a sign, that you didn’t recognize as a sign?
Have you ever gotten so fed up with waiting for God to send you the kind of sign you were expecting that you grabbed the poster board and the markers and the glitter and made your own sign?
Bill Engvall is a comedian on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, sharing the stage with Jeff Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy, and Ron White. Mr. Engvall has a routine called “Here’s your sign.” The premise is that certain people should have, or be given, a sign that says, “I’m stupid” to carry with them at all times, to warn others and to protect them from harm.
He says, “My wife and I were getting ready to move and we were loading up the truck. Boxes all over the driveway, the U-Haul stuffed with furniture, and the neighbor wanders by. Looks over the scene and says, ‘Oh, are y’all moving?’ Here’s your sign.”
We’ve all had times in our lives when we would surely appreciate a sign. Some guidance from God on what to do next. Some big honking obvious sign, like fireworks in the sky saying “Change jobs,” or “Adopt a shelter animal,” or “Go back to school.”
And the times in our life when we most need, or want, a sign tend to be the times when things are, well, not going smoothly.
Let’s put ourselves in their sandals.
I think it’s time that we lose the “Doubting Thomas” label, or at least redefine it.
First, it’s worth noting that, as the gospel reading for today tells us, Thomas wasn’t asking for anything other than what the other disciples already had. That first gathering, minus Thomas, Jesus showed them his wounds and made it clear that he was alive, that he had risen from the dead.
And, Jesus did not criticize Thomas for asking for a sign. That statement at the end of the reading has been lifted up and waved around for years as a criticism of “Doubting Thomas.” Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Let’s read that not with the conjunction but, which criticizes Thomas, but with an and, which strengthens and builds on Thomas. “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are you, and, blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” because that’s going to be everyone else in this community, until the end of time, which is what Jesus will tell the disciples on the beach at their next meeting.
Blessed are you, Thomas. Here’s your sign. Blessed are you, Thomas, who wants no more and no less than what your brothers and sisters in this community have already received. Here’s your sign. Blessed are you, Thomas, who in the Upper Room was the only one who had the courage to admit, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Here’s your sign. Blessed are you, Thomas, who had the courage to doubt and still came out in public, at the risk of your very life, to gather here with your brothers and sisters. Here’s your sign.
And there’s more than just asking for what everyone else had gotten. Thomas had the courage to doubt. It’s Easter. Do not be afraid to doubt. Doubt boldly. Doubt joyfully. Doubt is an important, faithful, and holy response to the mystery of Easter. Easter is both joy and triumph and fear and disbelief. It would be easier if Easter were only the trumpet blasts and Alleluias. Or, it might even be easier if Easter were only fear and disbelief. But Easter is all of this, it holds all of it, even the contradictory emotions.
Maybe Thomas wanted to see if Jesus was true to his word, that he would, as he had once promised, go in search of the lost sheep. Maybe he wanted to prove his friends wrong. Maybe he had something deeper than belief in the resurrection.
Maybe he had faith in his Lord.
So he waited in the darkness of his own unbelief for the ghost of God to reappear and breathe on him, too. This is more difficult and more courageous than simple belief. That Thomas waits, while questioning, is the very definition of faith.
Thomas refuses to believe his friends, but he demonstrates faith that can move mountains, or at least, faith to bring our doubts to a room to wait on the return of a Teacher who is dead. And that is the miraculous work of faith.
Nothing about that Easter was all smiley-faced. First, it was the emptiness of the tomb, which hurt, and frightened them, and held out hope, which is always fragile and scary. Mary, crying in the garden, heard her name and wanted to hug him, to touch him for herself, and he commanded her not to. Two disciples on the road to Emmaus, who will hear nothing familiar in Jesus’ voice, will be amazed by his hands breaking bread. Resurrection, however it came to them, was terrifying, placing new demands on people who were emotionally and physically exhausted and afraid for their lives.
Sitting next to every true believer in the Easter pews is a doubter, who is here because of unanswered questions. Which is why Doubting Thomas was in that room: he belonged to the group, those who believed, those who said they did but didn’t, and those who had questions but were afraid to ask. Churches are communities of believers, which means that they are also communities of people who have questions, who doubt, who hope, who come to find something out.
“We are an Easter people.” That’s what the ELCA proclaims. Easter people, when we unpack it, might mean that we don’t need to have it all figured out before coming to church, or helping out a neighbor, or feeding someone who is hungry, or caring for someone in need. If we have to figure it all out ahead of time, then we’ll never get started.
Because we are Easter people, we believe and doubt. And believing, in this fragile, scary way, we act — we reach out, we feed, we care, we tend, we struggle, we work, we love, all without any guarantees, just a promise from the Lord who continues to bless those who believe and ask questions.
Who gives a sign to those who have the courage to wait.
We know him as Doubting Thomas.
Maybe we should know him as Courageous, Believing Thomas. Here’s your sign.