Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard
April 12, 2015
John 20: 19-31
“Come To Believe”
“Our Scripture lesson this morning comes to us from the Gospel According to John, Chapter 20, Verses 19-31.
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin ), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
“God has blessed our hearing and understanding of these ancient and holy words.”
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Thomas was a doubter… He didn’t believe the accounting of his fellow disciples about Jesus having been raised from the tomb.
Now before we go into this further let me clarify there are many levels of doubters. Some doubters use their doubts to strengthen their faith other doubters allow their doubts to destroy their faith, and then they begin to tear down the structure of the institution where their faith began. Some doubters, simply, are constant complainers and skeptics of everything. They doubt anything good can come from any form of thing they do not completely understand, and they fear this may ultimately change something they are not ready or willing to change. Doubters of this type tear things down, or they tear things apart. These types of doubters spread discontent ‘seemingly’ maliciously.
There is no reason to believe Thomas was looking to instigate a movement to discredit Jesus. Rather, Thomas was just like most of us, he had the ability to think and reason and it just didn’t seem possible that Jesus was still alive, whether it was in bodily or spiritual form.
No, Thomas was simply trying to get confirmation that what the others saw was real, and he wanted answers, he wanted details. Let us bear these thoughts in mind as we look more deeply into our scripture this morning.
Traditionally, on Easter Sunday, we speak of how Mary found the tomb, where Jesus had been placed after his crucifixion and death, empty. At the empty tomb she is confronted by angels, and according to the account given in the Gospel of John Jesus speaks to her just outside the tomb. Mary goes and tells the disciples of what she has seen. This is what the excitement of Easter is all about. Our scripture lesson today takes us beyond Easter morning and on up to the room where the disciples had previously met with Jesus.
The disciples were understandably frightened and confused. Not only had their teacher and leader been taken from them and executed like a common criminal, but now his body was no longer in the tomb. Mary had come to them with her witness of what she had seen and heard at the tomb, but this could only have confused them all the more. What she told them simply didn’t seem possible. Our scripture tells us that the doors to the upper room, where the disciples gathered, were locked for they were afraid of the enemies of Jesus. Yet, we are told that Jesus came and stood among them. What an incredible event that must have been.
The disciple named Thomas had not been with them when Jesus appeared to the others and when they told him of the appearance of Jesus he was skeptical; Thomas had his doubts. This is where we get the expression “doubting Thomas.” Thomas had not personally seen the risen Christ and he wasn’t willing or able to accept the witness and testimonies of the disciples to this event. The fact that Thomas didn’t believe doesn’t seem to be of such great importance, many didn’t believe. We might ask: why did the gospel writers think it was important to tell this account of the one doubting disciple?
Was Thomas any different than most of us; as we were not there either? Jesus did not appear to us in the upper room when the doors were locked. What makes us any different than Thomas? Surely some of us must find ourselves doubting as he did?! It can’t be true. It’s not reasonable; it’s not rational! Dead men do not get up and walk and even if they could their bodies do not appear in and out of locked rooms! It is no wonder that many reviewed this with doubt. Like so many of those of us who still doubt, Thomas simply stated the obvious: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, (where the soldiers had pierced him with a spear,) I will not believe.” His assertion was no different than what any rational man or woman, like you and me, would say.
Each of us here this morning experience moments in our lives when we are asked to believe the impossible. We are asked nearly every day to believe in something, and not everything we hear is believable… that’s for sure! It really is pretty easy to get jaded and callused in this modern world. Back then, during a time of persecution by the Romans, when religious leaders didn’t want to see the truth, Thomas, was being asked to believe that the crucified Jesus had somehow risen from the grave.
Surely, Thomas wanted to believe, just as we all do. But, did he dare, considering all that had happened? Before the crucifixion it must have been easier to be a follower of Jesus. It was perhaps even exciting. Jesus attracted the crowds; he healed the sick; he made the lame walk and the blind see. He was able to satisfy the hunger of thousands. Jesus promised life in a new kingdom. What grand and glorious times! Of course, any Bible study class knows that these miracles were known as signs that pointed to who Jesus was.
Like Thomas we follow a process of rational reasoning. We use our intellect that God gave us to sort out the facts the best we can. Sooner or later, however, we must make a decision and that decision is often based on faith. We are called upon to put our trust in something or someone. This is what Thomas was being asked to do; this is what we are asked: to have faith, to believe without seeing.
We are told that Thomas does get to see the risen Jesus. Our scripture today tells us that Jesus came, a second time, and stood among the disciples. Thomas was present and after Jesus invites him to place his hands upon the marks of crucifixion Thomas declares his belief in Jesus. He proclaims: “My Lord and my God.” Standing there seeing and hearing the risen Jesus… Thomas is able to believe. But what of us who can only read about what Thomas and the other disciples saw that day? Even Jesus chastises poor old Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me?”
The reprimand from Jesus of Thomas for demanding a sign, before he would believe, leads us to the conclusion that we should come to believe based on the writings of early believers; as spoken to us through the gospel. We are even left with a blessing from Jesus for us in the future: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.” When Jesus appeared to Thomas it was with a summons to faith. This gift from God, we are called upon to accept it. Unless we are willing to accept that which God brings to us, we have nothing.
Many of us have had faith experiences. They may not be as dramatic as the experience of doubting Thomas but for those of us willing to witness to our experiences they are real. I can’t prove to you my faith but I can ‘testify’ to you regarding my faith and trust in God. On many an Easter morning, as I and many others watched the miracle of a beautiful Florida sunrise, and as we listened to the sounds of the morning air, we could smell the fragrance of life. The Spirit of the Living God was present to those who have been willing to experience God in this way. We can’t prove this. Yet, God’s grace has granted many the gift of faith this morning and many have shared that with us. In return, let us share with others our gifts of faith; witness to a stranger, witness to each other, tell how you have come to believe.
We started our conversation today by saying that Thomas was a doubter. Yes, that’s right, Thomas was a doubter whom was simply trying to attain affirmation that what the others saw was real, and he sought after the answers, he wanted the details.
Thankfully, Thomas was not trying to tear things down, he was not trying to discredit anyone – rather he wanted the opportunity to know this firsthand, like the others had. Thomas was the type who would gladly join in and agree, thus giving him an opportunity to build up a cause for the sake of the good. It was just that he, like most rational humans, needed or at least wanted a little firsthand knowledge before fully endorsing this dramatic sighting of the risen Christ!
Unlike Thomas, cynical doubters tear things down, whereas doubters seeking confirmation, like Thomas, oftentimes become the builders that build things up. “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” /Paul Tillich, 20th century/ As we have reflected on this scripture testimony of what had occurred in the upper room that day, I challenge you to consider which type of doubter you are? Now which type do you want to be remembered as?
Furthermore, let us ponder the question: Why did the early faith communities remember the story of doubting Thomas?
Was it to help us know that we are not the first to have doubts? Was it to reassure us that even the most skeptical of us can come to believe; if we are willing to trust in those who witness to us their truth? In the letter to the Hebrews our author speaks of faith: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” /Heb 11:1/ It is reasonable to assume that Thomas hoped and prayed that his fellow disciples were right about the resurrection of Jesus. I believe that we all hope and pray that what we celebrate at Easter is true. Without our hope and without our prayers, we have nothing. Likewise, without trust and a willingness to believe without seeing, we are lost. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, the gospel accounts are filled with them. We need to become willing to have faith in those who testify to the truth on our behalf. In the same way, you and me, we are called upon, to witness and to share our faith as well, of this there is no doubt. Faith is a gift that must be shared.