A sermon preached by Pastor Robert Schaefer
St. John’s Lutheran Church
The Second Sunday of Easter - April 15, 2007
Text: John 20.19-31
Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
We begin our gospel reading this morning right where last Sunday's left off. It's still Easter Sunday, evening now, and the disciples have had many hours to ponder Peter and John's report of an empty tomb, and Mary Magdalene's stranger tale of seeing Jesus... alive! Very strange and unsettling news, to be sure. They were already crushed by the devastating parade of events the past week--a thrilling return to Jerusalem, a meaning-filled meal, a betrayal, an arrest, and an excruciating death for their teacher and friend--everything had fallen apart in just one week, and they had nothing left within themselves to deal with this new puzzle.
We don't know how many of them went to look into the empty tomb to see for themselves. We don't know whether Mary's encounter with the Lord was believed or dismissed. We can only imagine how frightened and bewildered they were when they left their homes that evening to gather together for some comfort. They made good and sure the door was locked up tight, we're told, out of fear that someone might come for them, too. Someone does come to them that night, but the locked door is no obstacle for him.
One can imagine the disciples talking quietly, urgently among themselves in the dimly lit room. Every so often, one of them will glance up, nervously eyeing the locked door. Think of the astonished look on the disciple's face when he looks up to see not a barricaded door, but a man who looks so very familiar! You can hear the conversation dying out as, one by one, the disciples notice that all the color has gone out of their now-silent colleague's face. See them trembling, looking over their shoulders, eyes popping and jaws dropping. Jesus is with them! God have mercy, Jesus was right there in the room with them!
Is it any wonder that his first words to them are: "Peace be with you"? He says this to them, lifting up his hands to show the wounds which held him to the cross. He reveals to them the place where a Roman soldier pierced his side. And finally, the disciples begin to believe. They rejoice, we're told, and I dare say that Jesus rejoiced with them.
But one of their company had not ventured out that night to join the others in hiding. Thomas was not with them that Sunday evening. Perhaps he stayed at home with his family, taking some comfort from them. Maybe he spent that night wandering the streets of Jerusalem, thinking about all that had taken place in so short a time, and trying to make sense of it all. You can almost picture him, retracing his Lord's last hours: going from upper room to garden; hurrying past Caiaphas' house and Pilate's judgment seat; lingering at Golgotha, the Skull-Place, his gaze fixed on the cross-sized hole in the ground and the dark red marks baked into the ground on either side of it, flickering in the light of his lamp. Perhaps he finally staggered home as the morning light was breaking, collapsing into his bed in exhaustion and sadness.
Whatever the reason, Thomas was not among the disciples that Easter night when Jesus appeared among them. It must have felt like some cruel trick to him: Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, probably soaked in the consolation of their wine, his friends had cooked up this obscene joke. More than likely it was Peter or Andrew's brainstorm--their fishermen's sense of humor always had tended toward the tasteless--but the whole company was clearly in on the prank.
"We have seen the Lord, Thomas! Oh, you should have been there... one minute it was just us, and the next, well, there he was! He wished us peace, and showed us his arms... he still had the marks, Thomas. The marks! At first we were scared, but then we were so glad... and he breathed on us, and said he was giving us the Holy Spirit, and..."
"Enough!" Thomas must have cried. "Enough, I have had enough of your prank! How can you joke about our master's death like this? Shame on the lot of you! You say you've seen him, ah? Well, until I see those marks for myself... no, until I can touch them with my own fingers, I won't believe a word of this. Death I know. And crucified men don't just suddenly start 'appearing' around town like it's nobody's business. You want me to believe your little joke, you'll need more than these drunken stories of yours. Show me some proof! Seeing is believing."
No doubt it was a very tense week that followed among the disciples.
When they all assembled again a week later, Thomas made sure he was there. He arrived early, even. Not one of them had cracked and confessed the joke... in fact, they wouldn't let it drop! Every last one of them--Peter, John, James, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, the other James, Simon, and Thaddeus--they all kept telling him how they'd seen the Lord. Well, Thomas would see for himself tonight, he reckoned.
He did see. Jesus appeared before them, just as before, and wished them peace. Turning and looking Thomas in the eye, he told him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” But Thomas, as much as he had disbelieved the stories of his fellow disciples, now was filled with belief. No longer did he need to reach out and touch Jesus' wounds to cure his doubts. Filled with faith, he utters the most powerful exclamation anyone says about Jesus in all of John's gospel: "My Lord and my God!"
Jesus accepted Thomas' shout of gladness and praise--I'm sure--with a smile. Then he said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
There are three lessons that we should take with us this morning from the story of "Doubting" Thomas:
(1) Seeing isn't believing. Believing is believing. We humans rely very heavily on our sense of sight. What we see ranks right at the top of what we believe. If our eyes are telling us one thing, and our other senses are saying something else, we are still likely to trust our eyes above everything else.
But what we see can be misleading. When I was in high school, two of my friends went to see the magician David Copperfield perform in Minneapolis. They were extremely impressed with the show, especially his signature "Flying" illusion. "It looked so real... it was absolutely convincing!" they told me the next day in our physics class. Yet we all knew that no matter what their eyes had told them, there was some trick involved. We spent the rest of that week in class pretending to work out the equations on the board, but in reality trying out different theories for how David Copperfield flew. What my friends saw was completely believable, but they did not believe it. Seeing is not believing.
In fact, the letter to the Hebrews teaches us that "faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Thomas saw, and Thomas believed... but belief doesn't come through our eyes. Jesus was careful to point this out: There would be many, many people who would believe in him who would not see with their own eyes what Thomas saw. Believing is believing.
(2) Doubt is the tails-side of faith. We usually think of doubt and faith as stark opposites. The more doubts a person has, the less faith, or so the reasoning goes. Many people struggle with doubts about Jesus, and come to believe they are "second-class" Christians because of their doubting. But look at how Jesus responded to a doubter!
Thomas, after all, had much less excuse to doubt than we have. He had followed Jesus, known him personally, heard every word he taught about his death and resurrection. He had no less than eleven first-hand witnesses that Jesus was alive, all of whom he knew and trusted. Even so, I can hardly blame him for having his doubts, and it seems that Jesus does not blame him, either. Jesus, true to form, reaches out to his struggling follower. Paul told the Romans, "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." I would point out that "doubt" certainly falls into the category of "anything else in all creation."
Faith is, in fact, believing in something despite the doubt. If there is no uncertainty, no question at all about a thing, then you can't "believe" in it. You have factual knowledge of it, not faith. Jesus asks us to make that leap of faith, of believing despite our doubts. During his ministry on earth, a man in great need cried out to him, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And Jesus did exactly that. He will help us in our unbelief, too. Doubt is just the tails-side of faith.
(3) When in doubt, don't strike off on your own. Finally, a word of simple common sense. For whatever reason, Thomas isolated himself from the other believers after Jesus died. He was certainly struggling with doubts even before his friends began telling him their glad story. He could have pulled back even more from these newly-recharged disciples; in fact, that's often how we react to those with overflowing faith when ours is nothing but dregs. It's a very understandable, human response. But Thomas did not pull back. Instead of withdrawing from the group, he made sure he was with them the next Sunday, and he received exactly what he needed in doing so.
The times that I have struggled the most with doubts are also the times that my friends have been the most valuable to me. They have not let me sit alone and stew in my unbelief; instead, I've been able to find strength in their faith. When you are in doubt, don't strike off on your own. Stay close to those whose faith is strong, and draw strength from them.
If we take each of these three lessons with us this morning, we will find it much easier to journey through the inevitable times of doubt in life. Remember them – take them to heart: Seeing isn’t believing; believing is believing. Doubt is the tails side of faith. When in doubt, don’t strike off on your own.
And finally, never forget who it was who cried out--bolder than anyone else--"My Lord and my God!" It was none other than "Doubting" Thomas. Alleluia! Amen.
Originally preached at Fir-Conway Lutheran Church, Mount Vernon, Washington, on April 22, 2001. Revised and revisited for preaching at First and Spring Creek Lutheran Churches in 2005, and St. John’s Lutheran Church in 2007.