Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas,“Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” —From John chapter 20
The traditional Christian pilgrimages are pretty obvious. People have been going to the Holy Land since the earliest times after Christ ascended. Think of all the places people visit there: the Wailing Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Mount of Olives, Bethlehem, Nazareth, the Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee—the list could go on, but those are the main hits. I have known a number people who have been baptized (or re-baptized!) in the Jordan River. This is a sacred moment for those people. This is no normal baptism. This is a baptism in the same waters John baptized Christ in. This is why people go so far as to have themselves re-baptized, which is not actually possible (that is, you can only be baptized once). Oftentimes these people will bring back small jars of Jordan River water. It is kind of like pre-blessed holy water.
Christian pilgrimage can take on many other forms as well though, such as going to Rome and visiting the Vatican, going to Constantinople to visit the holy sites of the Eastern Church, or if you are Anglican going to Canterbury (the Canterbury Tales were written about a group of people traveling to Canterbury on pilgrimage with each other). I have also known people to take pilgrimage to Wittenberg where Luther began the Reformation or to the church where John Wesley preached and ministered in Oxford and London. Anytime someone goes on a retreat, such as to a monastery, this also is a form of pilgrimage.
The idea is that a pilgrimage is a sacred and holy act. You set yourself apart, going somewhere where at one time something entirely unique took place, and in so doing put yourself into a different mindset, expecting an encounter of some kind, expecting an awakening, expecting to know God in a different way. This might sound a bit flimsy or even a bit superstitious, but N.T. Wright, who himself shares some of those same doubts, puts it this way in The Way of the Lord, his book on Christian pilgrimage: "when God is known, sought and wrestled with in a place, a memory of that remains, which those who know and love God can pick up." (pg. 5) Christians believe time and space have been redeemed by Christ and that all the world has been made holy. Wright even goes so far as to say that because of what Christ did on the cross and in the resurrection, the whole world has now been made the "Holy Land." And then, when something happens in a place that could be considered wholly unique and world-altering, that place itself becomes a holy space.
Here is how N.T. Wright described his visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the church in Jerusalem that designates where Christ died:
"I found that somehow, in a way I still find difficult to describe, all the pain of the world seemed to be gathered there...It was a moment—actually two or three hours—of great intensity, in which the presence of Jesus the Messiah, at the place where the pain of the world was concentrated, became more and more the central reality. I emerged eventually into the bright sunlight, feeling as though I had been rinsed out spiritually and emotionally, and understanding—or at least glimpsing—in a new way what it could mean to suppose one act in one place at one time could somehow draw together the hopes and fears of all the years. I had become a pilgrim." (pg. 6)
Protestant Christians might balk at these kinds of ideas, but it still has not stopped them from being continually fascinated with finding Noah's Ark on Mt. Ararat, getting dunked in the Jordan, or traveling vast distances and spending vast amounts of money to attend massive Christian conferences featuring famous speakers and worship leaders. Indeed, we might think of pilgrimage as an outdated concept, but I would argue it is built into every aspect of our culture. Every time someone says "I just need to get out into nature and take a hike," they are going on a pilgrimage. Anyone who goes to a Comic Con convention in order to meet beloved actors and perhaps be able to watch clips of upcoming films before anyone else is going on a pilgrimage. Think of the reverence given to sports stadiums, concert halls, or museums. Our culture crave sacred spaces and sacred times, even if many of us no longer attend church. The idea and practice of pilgrimage is alive and well.
But what do you do when your pilgrimage is unattainable? Personally, I do not ever see myself journeying to the Holy Land. It is pretty expensive and honestly, there are a lot of other places I would like to go before I die. If I was given the opportunity though, I would go instantly. Who would refuse such a trip? But I do not think it will actually happen. Does that mean I am missing out? Does that mean my spiritual formation will be incomplete?
The book of John contains a number of encounters with the resurrected Jesus. These are kind of like inverse pilgrimages, where the pilgrimage came to the people rather than they going to it. Mary Magdalene encounters Christ as she turns from the tomb in confusion, wondering where "they" have taken his body. You could say the the disciple whom Jesus loved encountered Christ spiritually when he went into the tomb, saw it empty with the burial clothes lying there, and "believed". The disciples encountered Christ when he appeared to them in the place they were staying on the night of Easter, the first day of the week.
Thomas though was denied an encounter and thus he denied Christ's rising as being true. He needed to see and touch the very wounds of Christ in order to believe. Everyone else had either come close to Christ and so believed, or had heard the reports of others and so believed. In John it says eight days passed until Jesus appeared to the disciples again. Those eight days of absence must have been very different for Thomas than for the other disciples whose hearts were full of belief. The other disciples could rest and be at peace. They did not need another encounter. They knew Christ was risen. There could not have been peace for Thomas though.
There are some of us that are denied the encounter with Christ, like Thomas was, and so we go on in a state of hope that is yet a state of unbelief. Hopeful unbelief. It is a state in which we wait for God to arrive. Here is the key about Thomas: he was in that same room eight days later. He was where he needed to be, faithfully waiting.
But here is the big reveal in the "doubting Thomas" story: we are all Thomas in those eight days of waiting. Christ is no longer present with us in bodily form. He has ascended as he told Mary Magdalene he would earlier in chapter 20 of John. There is a tangible absence of Christ in our world.
We can rejoice though that this is not the full story. We are not to remain in our doubt or in a cloud of unknowing. To start with, Jesus' last words to Thomas are a blessing on those who have never seen the risen Christ and yet believe. We are to be like the disciple whom Jesus loved—we see the evidence that he is risen and so believe, or we believe the testimony of those who saw the evidence. But there is more, specifically, three Biblical encounters of his presence that Christ has left us:
1. First is the Holy Spirit. On the evening of Easter, when Jesus first appeared to the disciples, he breathed on them and said "Receive the Holy Spirit". He does not leave us alone down here. He gives us the Holy Spirit. If we are in him, his life is in us. In his letters Paul says we are to walk in the Spirit. We are to encounter Christ in our daily lives as we live and move and have our being in the Holy Spirit.
2. Second, Jesus is himself the Word of Life and he has left us his words to live by. Every time we bring out the Gospel book in the midst of the people and read aloud his words and deeds, we are encountering Christ. Every time we speak the words of Scripture, whether together as a group or in our own private time, the living God is present with us.
3. Finally, we encounter Christ in the breaking of bread. In the book of Luke, after the resurrection, two disciples unknowingly meet Christ on the road to Emmaus. They invite him into one of their homes, and as he breaks bread they recognize him. In the meal he calls us to, Christ has given us himself. Every time we come around the table of the Lord we encounter Christ. This is both a physical and spiritual encounter. In the body and the blood of Christ we take Christ into ourselves. For those of us who were just confirmed, this is where we find meaning in the word "sacrament" which is where we have an outward sign of an inward grace.
And so, even though we are all like Thomas, waiting for Christ in his fullness to come into our midst, to break forth into our world and put everything right, if we are open, we can still have full and true encounters with Christ in the here and now, in our present "eight days of waiting". In this way, we can begin to look at every Sunday as a pilgrimage. We can look at our worship space as the Holy Land, the holy ground where we encounter the living God. When we get ready for church in the morning and as we enter, we are making pilgrimage. We are setting aside time and making a journey to another place. We enter into a different mindset and ready ourselves to encounter the Triune God as the Holy Spirit fills our prayers and songs, as we hear of the Word made flesh in the reading of God's word, and as we commune with Christ in the bread and wine.
Some of us might continue to feel like Thomas, waiting for belief to come, and I would say that is alright, so long as you find yourself in the right place when Christ finally arrives, so long as you are always open to making the same declaration as Thomas, looking on Jesus and crying out "My Lord and My God." Perhaps you will come to see he was here all along. But there are different paths to belief and Thomas' story is a testament to that.
In conclusion, let us live a life of pilgrimage, even if we never make it to Canterbury, Rome, Jerusalem, or even our local monastery. Let us daily walk in the Spirit, fill ourselves with the words of life, and then draw near to Christ as we gather around the table where he gives us his very own body and blood. Let us live lives of holy encounters with our living God.
Other Sermons and Addresses:
Come To His Marvellous Light—A sermon for the feast of Epiphany
Speaking the Truth in Love
We Have a Problem With Authority—A Reflection on Christ the King Sunday
Reflections on the Death of Moses
Plunge into the Glorious Mystery—A sermon for Trinity Sunday
The Two Greatest Cliches Ever Spoken—Graduation Commencement Address