Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sermon: John 20: 19-31 Doubting Thomas

Barak Obama’s birth certificate was recently published - did you see that on the news? It was a fairly strange development, but a necessary one, providing final proof that Obama can indeed be President. You see, to be US President, you must have been born in the US, but there were many who didn’t believe that Obama had been. Donald Trump alleged it was a conspiracy and Obama had been born in Kenya - he needed proof. And so the birth certificate was released. Trump refused to believe the facts until he had seen with his own eyes.

It’s one thing when it’s American politics, but when it comes to God, we all want just a bit more proof. If God exists, why doesn’t he show himself? It may be that you’re taking opportunities to tell your friends and colleagues about the wonderful things God has done in your life, and you’re hit with something like this: Well, that’s nice for you, but if God really does exist, why doesn’t he show me? I need some more proof. It’s all very well you claiming he’s alive and all that, but I need to see for myself.

That’s all at the does God exist level, but when we get down to the very specific fact of Jesus having been crucified and risen, and alive, then the demand for proof is even more stringent. If Jesus is alive, then I will only believe it if I see him myself. Surely Jesus should make an appearance on TV, sit on the couch with Oprah or call into the BBC Breakfast studios so that we can see and believe.

Plus, we’re two thousand years since this is meant to have happened - we all know that dead people don’t rise. How are we supposed to believe that Jesus really is risen? I have to see, then I’ll believe.

As we turn to our reading this evening (an extended one as we make up ground lost to my man flu last week), we’ll find those very words spoken by one of the disciples, one of the Twelve - a man you might know as doubting Thomas. Poor Thomas, the name has stuck through the whole of church history, based on his words in verse 24. ‘Unless I see... I will never believe.’ Tonight we’re going to think about his doubt, and his faith - and what that means for us.

In order to understand those words of Thomas, we need to go back just a wee bit further. In verse 19, we’re still on the evening of that first Easter day. There have been reports from the empty tomb, brought by the women; Peter and John have been to the tomb and have believed (something), but things still aren’t entirely clear. The disciples are fearful - the doors are locked - and yet suddenly, unexpectedly, amazingly, Jesus is with them.

It’s not just a collective hallucination; it’s not just a remembering of what he looked like - Jesus is in the room. The risen Jesus can show them his body, his scars - his hands and his side. There’s no doubt who this is. And as he comes, he says some very important things. ‘Peace be with you.’ They’re fearful, and Jesus brings peace. They are glad when they see his scars. And Jesus sends them out: ‘As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’

He promises the Holy Spirit (to be received at Pentecost), who will help them as they go and proclaim the gospel - through which forgiveness of sins will come. They’re in no doubt - they have met with Jesus. Jesus is alive, and that changes everything.

But in the room that night there were only ten of the Twelve. Judas has committed suicide, and Thomas ‘was not with them.’ We’re not told where he was or what he was doing, but either way, he missed out on seeing Jesus. Remember, you couldn’t update your Facebook status and say ‘in the upper room with Jesus’ or text Thomas and tell him to come round quickly... when they next see him, all the disciples are bursting with excitement: ‘We have seen the Lord.’

Yet Thomas doesn’t believe them. He’s spent three years with them, he knows them all really well, yet he doesn’t believe what they have said. They’ve given the eye witness testimony, and yet he refuses to believe. It doesn’t pass his standards of evidence. ‘Unless I see in his hands the marks of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.’

Unless I see, I will never believe. End of story. Perhaps that’s what you’ve heard from your friend or loved one. You might be able to trust these fairy stories, but I need some evidence. Imagine the frustration of the disciples as they struggle to convince him. As the week goes on, and Thomas is still resolute. But we did see him.

Eight days later - it’s the following Sunday evening - and his disciples are gathered together again. More than that, Thomas is with them this time. And, as we see from verse 26, the very same thing happens. Locked doors, Jesus came, stood among them, and greets them with those words: ‘Peace be with you.’

It seems as if he’s there precisely for Thomas’ benefit - even knowing the very objections that Thomas had expressed, so that he is able to say: ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.’

For Thomas, the proof that he needed was standing before him - we’re not told that he takes Jesus up on the offer - to have seen Jesus is enough. And immediately, Thomas utters that fullest confession and statement of faith found in John’s Gospel: ‘My Lord and my God!’

There’s no doubt now with Thomas - Jesus is alive, has conquered death, which means that he is Lord and God, but more than that: ‘MY Lord and MY God.’ All that the disciples had told him was true and is confirmed as he meets the risen Lord. Notice that Jesus accepts his praise - he doesn’t correct Thomas or stop him from saying what he says: Jesus is Lord and God.

Now pause for a moment. You might be saying to yourself, well, that was all right for Thomas. He said he wouldn’t believe unless he saw firsthand, and Jesus appeared to him. Does that mean that I will never believe, because I’ll never see firsthand? Isn’t seeing believing? Or that relative or friend will for ever be consigned to doubt, because Jesus has ascended and doesn’t do the appearing bodily thing any more. How can anyone believe now?

In a way, Thomas is the unusual one - he got a special dispensation where Jesus appeared to him in this way. But as Jesus continues, while Thomas may have been privileged to see Jesus in this way, there is a blessing for those who haven’t seen Jesus and yet still believe.

‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ So is the Christian life just about blind faith, as Dawkins likes to claim? Is it like standing on a precipice, closing your eyes and jumping off? Is there virtue in unthinking, unseeing, blind devotion?

That’s not quite what Jesus is saying - for very good reason. Remember who he is talking to. He’s speaking to the Twelve (Eleven!), the eye witnesses chosen and appointed to go and tell what they have seen. The reason we can believe is because they have seen - and we believe their testimony that Jesus is alive.

It’s what John says in those last two verses of our reading. Sometimes those headings (which aren’t part of the text) can get in the way. You see, we really need to keep reading: ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’

Do you see the connection? Thomas believes because he has seen Jesus face to face. That option isn’t open to us, so how can we believe? We believe through the things that have been written for us - the witness testimony John provides, that prove that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, through what he said, what he did, how he died, and how he is alive. We believe through the disciples’ witness - and so have life; so that we are (in Jesus’ words) blessed.

As we’ve said before, the proof that Jesus is alive exists - we hold it in our hands. The disciples were transformed from being fearful, locked away, to going out, boldly declaring that Jesus is alive, and being willing to suffer for him. It’s the word that shows that Jesus is alive, which will help your friends and neighbours and colleagues encounter Jesus.

If only I could see, then I would believe. Why doesn’t Jesus show himself once and for all so that we can know for sure that he is alive, with no doubts? The truth is, he already has. Jesus still takes the initiative in revealing himself to unbelievers, as they hear the testimony of the disciples, as they believe that Jesus is who he says he is and so, they, just as we also have, they meet the risen Jesus and come to know him.

You see, we’re not the first generation to have this issue; we’re not the first people to have never seen Jesus and yet believe - the apostle Peter in his first letter is writing to people in the same boat: ‘Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.’ (1 Pet 1:8-9)

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 15th May 2011.

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