Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior? It’s not a question one gets asked too often in an Episcopal Church, nor in the Roman Catholic churches of my youth. But it is one I grew up with in East Tennessee among Southern Baptists, as perhaps some of you also did if you came up among evangelical Christians.
It’s the kind of question that might feel a little uncomfortable; it was the kind of question meant to get at the kind of Christian you were. My Roman Catholic mother told me always to say yes, because I had been baptized as a baby, so she and my dad had taken care of that for me. Our Southern Baptist neighbors didn’t quite agree on that: for them an experience of Jesus came first, then baptism.
Even though that question reflected a difference between my Catholic family and my evangelical neighbors, I never heard their question as an unkind one, though—the people who asked it mainly wanted everyone to experience what they had. I remember a college friend, an evangelical Lutheran, rewording the famous verse John 3:16: “For God so loved Bryan that he sent his only Son…” Surely I was not all that important, I remember thinking. The good Catholic in me always insisted that we are all saved together, as a community, as a body, even as a whole creation.
But it always made me curious: When my evangelical friends spoke of “being saved,” accepting Jesus, just what was that like for them? Intellectual certainty? Having all your questions answered? All doubts removed? I came to understand in their telling of it, which they were always happy to do, that it was above all more like a feeling, a feeling of being loved and protected and embraced, not only safe from some eternal hell, but protected also from ever falling away from God’s love, or falling out of love with God. It was God’s response to their longing for Jesus— not really in their heads at all, even if it was something they thought about.
I was thinking about that same question reading today’s gospel: the story of how Thomas accepted Jesus not only as Savior, but as “my Lord and my God.” What might that have been like for him? We tend to refer to him as “doubting Thomas,” as if he was intellectually unconvinced by what the other disciples told him, and needed proof. But when we listen to this story closely, Thomas never says, “I want to understand” or “Prove it!” He says, “I want to see him, I want to touch him.” He needs a personal encounter with Jesus to believe, not an argument for why he should. Perhaps he felt left out or overlooked or forgotten by Jesus. And he won’t take “no” for an answer.
And guess what? The risen Jesus says “yes”: “Go ahead, touch me!” And Thomas believes. But, to be honest, I don’t think we should call him “doubting Thomas” so much as brave Thomas, bold Thomas, for daring to ask for what really needed to believe, and trusting that Jesus would respond.
Amazingly, that’s what the risen Jesus seems always to be doing in these stories from John’s gospel: Saying “yes” to his friends not in their joy and wonder and awe, but in response to their doubt, uncertainty, even disbelief. As Kristin reminded us on Easter Sunday, it was Mary Magdalene in her deep grief that the Risen One came to, calling her by name so that she could see him through her tears.
The Risen One in today’s story appears among the cowering disciples, passing not only through locked doors, but through their overwhelming fear of sharing his fate. In the story that follows this one about Thomas, the Risen One appears again to the disciples in their forgetfulness, after they’ve thrown up their hands and gone back to fishing. And immediately after, the Risen One has another personal encounter this time with Peter, deeply ashamed of his denial of Jesus, deeply in need of forgiveness.
Mary Magdalene, the Ten, Thomas, Peter—and us as well. All of us invited to encounter the Risen One from wherever we are, joy and wonder and awe and praise and thanksgiving for sure, and also grief and uncertainty and doubt and unworthiness and fear.
I remember my own encounter like that, somewhere around age 17, not at all certain that anyone could love me as I was, and probably not the only one who ever felt that way. And yet on a weekend retreat, I did have an experience of Jesus’ love for me not unlike that of Thomas, when finally what those evangelicals had been talking about made a little more sense to me. It was less an experience of me accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior—my mom was right, I already had— but an experience of being accepted by my Lord and my God, just exactly as I was, in all my uncertainty and fear.
As I have grown into that experience, I have become utterly convinced that the Risen One is always waiting for any of us to be like brave Thomas: to ask with boldness for what we need so that we can believe, in whatever state we are, so our Lord and God can do just what we have asked.
Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior? Better yet: Have you accepted that your Lord and Savior accepts you, exactly as you are, without question or reservation. Now that is what I call good news worthy of an Easter alleluia.