This weeks sermon discusses the results of a survey measuring the religiosity of Americans, which shows that fewer people consider themselves very, moderately, or even slightly religious. The trend is decreasing across all levels, with a corresponding increase in the number of people who are not religious at all.
The speaker believes that this decrease reveals a positive honesty and could result in a church with a core group of committed believers. The sermon then turns to the story of Thomas in John’s Gospel, who initially refuses to believe that Jesus has risen from the dead.
The sermon argues that doubt and uncertainty are not necessarily bad and are part of faith, but ultimately asks the question of whether someone loves Jesus and believes in Him or not.
A new survey came out of the University of Chicago this past week. It actually might have come out before that, but I saw it this past week. And one that I think is really interesting and worth noticing, it’s not surprising, but the survey measures simply how religious Americans consider themselves to be. Not just whether or not you are, but how religious you are.
And I can imagine you can probably guess what the general trajectory is. And that’s that religiosity is falling at all levels. Compared with 2018, the last time it was done, there are now fewer people who consider themselves very religious, fewer people who consider themselves moderately religious, and fewer people who are even slightly religious. So whatever the level of commitment someone had, it’s dropping.
And it’s a pretty steady rate. And to no one’s surprise, the category that is rising is not religious at all. Which has jumped at a steeper rate than any time in the recent past. Like all the other lines are kind of going down like this.
That one’s going up like this. It’s gone up over 10% between 2018 and 2021. 10% more people aren’t religious at all. It’s gone from about 22% to almost 35% of Americans over three years.
It’s been a bad couple years. So I’m not saying this because it’s doom and gloom. I don’t really actually think it is. I think on the other hand, it reveals a kind of honesty that has been needed for a really long time.
And I think we should welcome it to some degree. The rapid falling away of people who are moderately and slightly religious, I hope, means, that the kind of church that we’ll live in in the next few decades is one that is filled with people who want to be there. There’ll be less people, but the people who are around, and this is already the case, want to be there. Who aren’t choosing to be in the church out of tradition, out of obligation, but because they found something there.
They find that it’s good, that it’s right. They met God here. But it makes you wonder, whenever these numbers existed, how many people have been around for decades in the church, in this kind of slightly or moderately religious category, who have needed to be evangelized, who have needed to hear the good news presented to them as like, this is a life-changing thing. Now as we look at this, I want to give the caveat here that doubt, uncertainty, those things aren’t bad necessarily.
Those are a part of faith. There’s a lot of nuance about this. I don’t want to dismiss doubt and uncertainty, but reading over this survey too, I couldn’t help but wonder, how can a Christian be slightly religious or moderately religious? Maybe I’m misunderstanding what the word religious means to a lot of people, but what I understand it to mean is the level of commitment to your belief. And if that’s what it means, I have to ask, do you love Jesus? Is he the Lord or is he not? Do you believe in Jesus or don’t you? And so that brings us to Thomas this morning in John’s Gospel, the apostle known as the twin, or today, he’s often derogatorily called doubting Thomas, which isn’t fair.
But shortly after Jesus saw Mary Magdalene at the tomb on Easter morning, Jesus arrives at the room where the disciples have been hiding. After the crucifixion, the disciples go into hiding because they obviously don’t want to be crucified too. Peter’s denied knowing Jesus. They’re all moving away because they don’t want to get into trouble.
Everybody but Mary Magdalene who went to the tomb of ruin accord. And so somehow he passes right into this locked room, this room that they’ve locked up tight out of fear of their own persecution and he greets them, “Peace be with you.” And maybe they don’t say anything back and he says it again, “Peace be with you.” And with that they rejoice. They’re thrilled to see him. They believe that he has risen again as he promised.
They seem to have forgotten that over the past couple days that he’s been saying this for months, years. He will be killed and rise again, but they rejoice that he has risen again. But one apostle, Thomas, for some reason, for whatever reason is not there with them. The rest of the 11 are there, all 10 of them
But Thomas is somewhere else. John doesn’t say where. Thomas is. He might be hiding somewhere else. Maybe he’s given up. Maybe he’s gone home to Galilee where Jesus found him.
But But whatever the case may be, the apostles, the rest of the apostles, catch up with him shortly and excitedly report that they have seen Jesus risen from the grave. And they invite Thomas to come back with them to stay at that house, that safe house in Jerusalem. And what Thomas says is, “No, I don’t believe you. Jesus is dead.
The Lord that I trusted, that I followed for three years is crucified. Everyone saw it. He was crucified on a cross for everybody to see. I saw that with my own eyes like everybody else in Jerusalem.” And so Thomas says he doesn’t hold back at all.
He has no qualms in declaring that he will not believe until his conditions are met.
Not Not only does he not believe his fellow disciples, he says that even seeing Jesus alive and well, that wouldn’t be good enough either. He needs instead to see him risen with the nail marks in his hands and to physically put his hand in the hole that a Roman spear left in Jesus’ side.
A A moderate faith, one that doesn’t really capture him is not an option for Thomas. He wants to know. If he’s going to follow, he wants to know.
He wants to be sure one way or another because he is living right now in this horror of Jesus’ death breaking his faith and him. This is who he was. He was Thomas the Apostle and now who is he?
So So Jesus passes through the door once more, the locked door. Somehow they’ve talked Thomas at least into coming with them. And he meets Thomas in that doubt. Jesus holds out his hands for Thomas and invites him to touch the wounds on his hand, invites him to put his hand in his side that’s been pierced and broken. And Thomas is breathtaking and he gasps, “My Lord and my God.”
Jesus Jesus says, “No more disbelief, believe.” And Thomas cries out, “My Lord and my God.” And he returns to believe. He returns to worship. But why did Thomas have such an incredibly high standard for truth, for knowing? And why did Jesus understand it as important enough to meet him there? It was good enough for the other disciples.
Because Because there’s this sense of in or out. Are you on board or are you not? Belief in Jesus is not this casual Sunday morning thing that you can put on or take off, pick up or set aside. Thomas is so hesitant and careful, not because he’s careless, not because he’s callous or angry, none of that, but because he knows he’s staking his whole life on Jesus being raised. This is a choice that he knows matters.
This is why his threshold is so high. Thomas, after he meets Jesus having risen from the dead, his ministry continues for decades after that. I mean, this isn’t in scripture, but we know this from history. He followed Jesus’ call to go out into the world.
As Jesus said, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” Thomas listens to that sending. And he follows his call to go preach the good news to the ends of the earth. Thomas goes further than any of the other apostles. Thomas became the apostle to India.
He started a Christian community in South India that still exists today, the St. Thomas Christians. Some hypothesized that he made it to China, that he preached it in the Chinese monarchy out there, but he definitely created a strong Christian community in South India until a few decades later, ironically, he was killed, pierced by a spear. Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
He was a German Lutheran pastor. He was martyred under the Nazis. He famously said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” And Thomas gets it. Thomas gets it, maybe more than any of the other apostles do.
If he’s going to believe in Jesus, he wants to be sure because he knows that the life he’s known without Jesus has to pass away as he embarks on a new one. The same is true for us. Paul says this over and over again throughout the epistles. Your old life is gone.
Your new life is Christ. Every day that you live now is in him, is for him. The whole idea of baptism is we’re drowning the old life and coming out of the waters of the womb and new creation. There’s no halfway.
You don’t get to stick your fingers in Christ’s side, feel the nail holes in his hands and say, “Maybe.” Yeah?
Bonhoeffer’s Bonhoeffer’s most famous book is entitled The Cost of Discipleship. It was written years before he was killed by the Nazis, and it emphasizes throughout that getting caught up with Jesus has consequences for all of us, and he ended up living that. Faith in Christ demands sacrifice, probably not of your life, literally, but sacrifice, full commitment because Christ deserves it. Now, look, I didn’t grow up in the church beyond vacation Bible school.
I don’t know how many of you know that. I didn’t grow up in the church at all. I stumbled upon this for myself when I was a young teenager, and because of that, how things work in the church is still kind of mysterious to me in some ways. I hope I can hold on to that.
It’s nice to have kind of an outsider’s perspective, and I don’t mean the structures and stuff. I get that. Lord knows I know how the committees work, how the general conference works. I know all that.
But the culture sometimes I don’t understand. It was just explained to me relatively recently, for example, and I think it was here, why offering envelopes are important, why they’re better than just dropping a check in the plate. I didn’t know. I never had offering envelopes.
I knew that we’d hand them out, and I’d encourage you to take them, but I didn’t know why. The same way, I emphasize again that it’s puzzling for me that a person can even be slightly or moderately religious. Was Jesus slightly raised from the dead? Was he moderately the son of God? You can’t slightly be a follower of Jesus Christ. Thomas knows that.
You’re moving towards him, deeper in love and service, or you’re moving away. Period. That’s it. And this is, incidentally, I’ve tried to emphasize this over and over again, this is the key point behind trying these small groups now that we’re working on.
We are explicitly choosing in these to help each other move towards Jesus as individuals and together in our day-to-day lives, becoming more and more devoted disciples of Jesus, not learning things, but walking with Jesus better together. Listen to this from Saint Ignatius. He was a bishop who lived in the second century. He wrote, “Now is the moment that I am beginning to be a disciple.
May nothing seen or unseen begrudge me, making my way to Jesus Christ. Come fire, cross, battling with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing my whole body, the cruel tortures of the devil, only let me get to Jesus Christ. Not the wide bounds of the earth nor the kingdoms of this world will avail me of anything. I would rather die and get to Jesus Christ than reign over the ends of the earth.
This is whom I am looking for, the one who died for us. This is whom I want, the one who rose for us. Let me imitate the passion of my God.” Do you have that? Do you want that? Because this is what that is all about. That’s what Thomas knows.
Something else here I think is important. As we think about this rapid rise of the not religious at all contingent, if there’s one thing that this gospel story shows, when Jesus appears to Thomas, when he reaches out his hands, it’s that God has a special level of love and care for the people who doubt the most fervently, the most harshly, those who have the most trouble believing. Thomas doubts because he’s heartbroken. The Lord he loved is dead and he knows it.
He doesn’t doubt because he doesn’t care. He doesn’t doubt because he’s being difficult. He’s avoiding being wounded by his faith again.
He He needs to see Christ’s wounds so that his wounds can be healed. Many who doubt today, doubt because the body of Christ, the church, has been a place of exclusion, of judgment, and at its very worst abuse of all kinds.
If you think it’s only the Catholic church that’s dealing with that fallout, unfortunately, you are wrong. We’re all dealing with it evenly.
Us Us and faith have been annihilated. In the Christian church, no matter what your denomination is, people outside the church don’t care. We are known for hypocrisy, for greed, and you ask young people, the polls of young people are very clear.
The one thing the church is known for is its opposition to LGBT people. Whether we like it or not, and whether we think that’s us or not, that is how we are viewed. We’ve done our part to create millions and millions of doubting Thomases, and now it’s our job to fix that. The body of Christ to extend wounded hands back out with gentleness, with grace.
It’s a really beautiful moment when Jesus enters back into that hidden room the first time when he greets the disciples, when he breathes on them, tells them to receive the Holy Spirit, fills them with power and grace. Because we inherit that. We now are both those disciples and the risen body of Christ. We’re filled with the Spirit.
We’re sent into the world with the good news of resurrection. Our gift and our obligation is to be his disciples, to be Christ’s body to the world. Our fundamental role in how we walk through this world, the most basic way that we go about evangelism, outreach, is by showing the world who Christ is in his beauty, in his grace, and in his wounds. As we love our neighbors, especially those that most people have the most trouble loving, as we suffer with them, as Jesus suffered for and suffers with us.
When When Jesus rises, as he stands before the ten, and then as he stands before Thomas two, he demonstrates his love, his humanity, his divinity, all of those things all at once come together in that moment.
That Jesus is God who can be touched. This is what we are supposed to be showing to the world. That we and the rest of the world may have life in his name, as John says. Faith Faith in the risen Christ means we strive to know him better and better ourselves as we show him to other people too, inward and an outward journey. And faith in the risen Christ also means that there is no halfway, if you believe in him, this is what your life is about now.
Jesus has, in Bonhoeffer’s words, invited you to come and die, to lay down all that you had for what you have found in him instead. Thomas comes to faith once more and he exclaims, “My Lord and my God.” And from that day he lives every single moment as a lover and a servant of Christ and his church as best as he can. There’s no moderate, there’s no slight faith in Christ. So walk out of your locked room, come out of hiding, be filled with the Holy Spirit and be his disciple, bearing his love and his wounds to a wounded world.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit Amen.