A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter (19/04/20): Believing Thomas

Believing Thomas
John 20:19-31

The first Easter day ends with the disciples gathered together. They are back in their usual meeting place. They are with one another in the house where just three nights ago they had shared a final meal with Jesus. So much has happened since then. Fear had scattered them and has kept them apart. But now good news has brought them together. The tomb is empty. Since early this morning the word has been spreading amongst them. Before dawn Mary Magdalene had been to the tomb and found it open and without Jesus inside. She had become convinced that Jesus has been raised from the dead. She told Peter and John. And the word has spread from there. By this time on Sunday Mary and perhaps some of the others have had their first experience of the risen Jesus himself. This good news overcomes the fear that has separated the disciples and kept them in solitary hiding for the last couple of days.

The good news at this point has overcome their fear, but not eliminated it altogether.
When it was evening on the first day of the week and the doors of the house were locked for fear of the Jews. . .
What is good news to the disciples, is also dangerous news. It is fearful news. Those who wanted Jesus dead presumably wanted him to stay dead. If the Priests and the leaders of the nation were prepared to kill Jesus, they would go to similar lengths to eliminate anyone that suggests that Jesus isn’t exactly where they had put him, dead and sealed behind a rock!
Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”
The locked door is an important detail. Nothing in scripture happens, or is remembered, by accident. Jesus appears among his disciples. There is no doubting between them that his presence is real. He is as solid and present as any of them. This is a physical reality. Jesus is “there” in the same way that any other human being could be “there”. This is Jesus, not a ghost, not a projection of their shared grief, not a pious hope or simply their imaginations. The resurrection is real, and the evidence of it is standing before them. But now Jesus is unbound from the limitations that constrain other human beings. That is why the locked door is significant. Jesus is freed from the limitations that physicality imposes on human beings. He has overcome the greatest human limitation of all, death, so no other limitation now obstructs him. He will not be held outside by a locked door. Jesus is free to be present, to any one, in any place, at any time. Jesus can and will be present just as he has been to the disciples in their locked room.

But Thomas (who was called the Twin) was not with them when Jesus came.
We could sometimes wonder where Thomas was. When the disciples gathered, Thomas should have been there, but he wasn’t. Maybe he was more fearful than the rest. Maybe he was more grief stricken than the rest. Maybe he was simply better at hiding than all the others, so that the news of the empty tomb never reached him. Or perhaps it did, and it sounded too much like a fantasy or an old wives tale to make him emerge from the security of wherever it was he was concealed. Eventually though even Thomas came out of hiding. Eventually the good news reached him.
So the disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.”
Thomas seems to possess a natural scepticism. He is less inclined than some to be swept along by the excitement of others. He perhaps possessed the wisdom and self knowledge to know what he did not know, and the courage sometimes to admit it out loud. All this has earned him a slightly undeserved replacement to his nickname, when once he was known to the disciples as “the Twin”, he has been remembered by everyone ever since as “the Doubter”. Thomas responds to the good news:
“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.”
The physicality of being human, in death, has its gruesome side. Thomas wants his lack of knowledge to be replaced with knowing. For something this important Thomas senses that hearing and even seeing are not enough to convince. To know that this really is Jesus he would need more than being in the same room as him. To be sure that the one who died on the cross and the one who is now present are one and the same, Thomas feels he would need to trace the marks of that suffering with his fingers. He definitely needs more than the words of another, or a dozen others, to believe. Thomas’ search for a sure and solid ground for his faith has earned him, unfairly, the position of being ever remembered for his doubt.

Yet how different is he from Peter and John? When it was still early on Sunday morning Mary Magdalene had come to them. She had breathlessly told them that the tomb is empty. And she inferred from this that Jesus is risen. The question is how did Peter and John respond? Did they simply take Mary at her word? Was her testimony sufficient to remove their scepticism?
Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went to the tomb.
Did they go to the tomb because they doubted Mary? Or did they go because they believed her? And if they believed her, why did they need to see for themselves? Faith may start in hearing, but it is built on personal, direct experience. Peter and John heard what Mary said. Perhaps we could say that her testimony planted a seed of faith. But Peter and John did not believe until they had allowed that seed to grow by looking for direct experience of the resurrection for themselves. Which they got, when they found that the tomb is empty, exactly as Mary had stated. That is a direct experience which seems to open up the possibility of everything that follows. It begins the chain of events that gathers the disciples and allows Jesus to be present in their midst. It seems somewhat harsh to be critical of someone for needing the kind of direct experience which the other disciples were already building their faith upon.

A pattern of Christian life is established immediately. A Sunday by Sunday gathering of the believers has marked out Christian social practice from the very beginning. The next Sunday the disciple are together again:
A week later the disciples were again in the house and Thomas was with them.
Despite his scepticism Thomas does join the other disciples at their meeting place. If it was “doubt”, doubt should be the very last thing that should stop anyone from gathering with believers. Thomas is present this time. Thomas is at least willing to be persuaded. He has faith enough to think that there is at least a possibility that his scepticism may be confounded. One of the things that modern individualism has undermined is the value of social gathering. Less and less do we make time to be in the presence of others. Believers gathered together with one another is a means of grace. Which is one of the reasons the present moment is so difficult for us.  Though conversely, being prevented from being together might just serve as a reminder of what Thomas discovered. In that gathering Jesus can and will be present, and faith can and will emerge
Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”
Once more Jesus is there, in his real, not imagined, physical presence. He is there still unconstrained by the grave, or by locked doors, or even by the doubts of those who knew him.
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe.”
Jesus knows what it might take for us to put our faith in him. As it happens Thomas needed less than he himself had imagined. The gruesome scene of Thomas poking at Jesus’ wounds does not come to pass. It doesn’t happen, even though Jesus makes that experience was available to Thomas, if that was what it was going to take. But as it happens, seeing Jesus is enough for Thomas. And he goes beyond the confession that the other had yet been able to make. For Thomas perhaps his initial scepticism meant that his coming to faith was all the more dramatic. When the bow is drawn back further, the arrow travels further. Thomas answers Jesus’ invitation to touch him:
“My Lord, my God!”
Thomas is the first to make the characteristic confession of Christian faith. He declares what was to become Christianity’s first creed: Jesus is Lord. Jesus is the one who has the authority to direct the believers’ lives and bring about the kingdom of God in this world. But also the declaration that Jesus is more than just a prophet, or a great philosopher or a marvelous spiritual leader. Thomas declares what marks out Christianity from all other faiths. Thomas announces the faith that holds Jesus to be God. The belief, that may be hard to define precisely, that to experience the presence of Jesus is to experience the presence of God.
It is deeply unfair to remember Thomas for his doubt, rather than for his faith. Because Thomas is the first to announce a fully articulated Christian faith in Jesus: My Lord, my God.

From Mary Magdalene to Peter and John, from Peter and John to the other disciples, from the disciples to Thomas, and from Thomas through a long chain of other hearts and hands to us, so the good news runs. The question for all of them, and the question for us is; how do you respond to the good news? Do we go to the tomb hoping to find it empty? Do we gather with the believers hoping to have our scepticism confounded? Do we require some other sign of Jesus presence? Jesus, in that room on the second Sunday gathering of believers, looks toward us and declares a blessing:
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
To encounter Jesus, and see him in the way that Thomas and Mary Magdalene and the other disciples did, is an enormous privilege. It is a privilege that has been afforded to a few dozen, hundreds at the most, of the billions of Christians who have ever lived. It is certainly something we might long for. But it is not something that our faith needs to depend upon. Because Jesus’ blessing rests on us. Seeing, they say, is believing. It certainly was for Thomas, even though he had suggested touching would be necessary. For the vast majority of us though hearing is sufficient, coupled with the experience of the living Christ we find among his people and those he calls us to serve. Jesus’ blessing rests on us: Blessed are you who have not seen, and yet believe.

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Believing Thomas by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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