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Sunday April 11 John 20 Thomas

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John 20: 19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors 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 side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

24 Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

30 Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Sermon

John tells us in the evening of the first day of the week, the evening of Resurrection Sunday, the day Jesus rose from the dead, all but one of the disciples were locked in the upper room. The door was bolted from the inside, because they were afraid of the Jews.

Earlier that morning, Mary Magdalene had been to the tomb, and found the stone rolled away. Mary’s reaction was to run and fetch Peter and John who came to the tomb, Mary wanted to share this crisis with the other Jesus followers. When they reached the entrance to the tomb, they found the tomb empty with only the grave clothes left lying there.

After Mary met Jesus in the garden, she went to the disciples and told them about her experience with the Resurrected Jesus.

John doesn’t tell us how they responded to Mary, but he does tell us what they did that evening. They went and locked themselves in a room together, afraid of the Jews.

I think what John is telling us, is that in reality they did not believe Mary. They did not believe that she had met Jesus, the resurrected Jesus. That’s not such a strange response, because the Jews believed that the resurrection would only happen at the end of the world. Their theology did not have a resurrected messiah; they were waiting for a messiah who was a political superhero.

At this point, they did not believe the resurrection of Jesus was theologically correct, that was off their radar.

But as they sat locked away in fear, Jesus came and stood in the middle of them.

When we are afraid, we put up barriers; we put up barricades to protect ourselves from hurt. Not only in the physical sense, but we put up emotional barriers to keep people and thoughts out of our headspace.

But Jesus appeared on the inside of those barricades, behind the well constructed defence mechanisms. When we put on a mask, when we try to keep people out of our private space because we are afraid, we find Jesus is not limited by our defences. He gets under our skin; He whispers in our hearts, He challenges our thoughts and our fears.

Sometimes the locked doors we hide behind are the doors of our church tradition, our doctrines and our dogmas. Sometimes our locked doors have “Calvinism” on the outside, or “Pentecostalism”, or some other new high point in the Christian faith which was turned into an impenetrable fortress, locking out all new ideas, all new advances and developments.

Jesus enters into this room of disciples who are petrified that they are about to come to a sticky end, and His opening line to them is, “Peace is with you”.

Jesus ministers straight to the heart of their problem. We know Jesus did not change the circumstances outside the doors, the Jews were still angry, but Jesus changed the mood in the room.

The peace they received was not a peace because everything would come up roses, but their peace was that Jesus was with them, Jesus had risen from the dead. Their peace was that they were a community of believers who were committed to each other as followers of Jesus.

Their peace is because the risen Jesus is here, with us.

Friday morning I was at Green Acres ICU, when a nurse asked me to come and pray for the family of a young lady who had died. As we spoke, they were sad, they were heartbroken by the death of a 34 year old mother of two children, but they were at peace, because they were assured of the resurrection of Jesus. They were assured this was not the end for their sister, their daughter.

All around them the world was a tornado, and yet in the middle of that was a peace that goes beyond human reason.

In the face of catastrophe and disaster and even in the face of death, peace came into the hearts of this family.

When Jesus stepped into the room where the disciples were hiding, the Prince of Peace was there.

When Jesus showed them the wounds in His hands and His side, their fear turned to joy. Their mourning was turned into gladness.

Suddenly the chaos outside the door was no longer the deciding factor which was creating the chaos in their hearts. No longer was the plot to kill them the most important factor in determining their mood. Their worldview shifted because Jesus is alive.

When you read a compass, you set your compass to North, either True North or Magnetic North. Magnetic North will pull the needle of the compass towards it, but if you follow Magnetic North, it will lead you astray. What complicates things more is that Magnetic North is not always in the same place, it moves by 64km a year. So even if you navigate by it today, tomorrow it is different.

When we set our attitudes, when we set our course in life, when we make decisions on which way we should go to achieve safety and security, there is a strong pull, a magnetic field created by the chaos outside the room. When we read the newspapers and watch the news and when we read all the fear emails that are sent around, they try to pull us in the direction of Magnetic North, and our hearts become full of fear and our legs are like jelly and our feet are in boots of lead. We start looking at gun prices, we stock up on canned foods. Our heart is set on escape and self preservation.

If Jesus is the Prince of Peace, then whose work is being done by people trying to stir up fear and anger? If Jesus is the Prince of Peace, then whose work is being done by those fear mongers who try to instigate a civil war?

Jesus enters the room where the disciples are cowering with their tails between their legs and announces a second time, “Peace is with you”. I suspect peace is really important to Jesus and the Disciples at this point. He shows them His wounds from His crucifixion, they are filled with joy, and then He says to them, “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.”

This is why they need the peace.

How was Jesus sent? Was He sent into the world armed to the teeth with AK47’s and 9mm pistols, with hand grenades strapped to His chest? Was He carrying swords and spears, surrounded by armies and soldiers?

Actually the opposite, He was sent into an unfriendly world, a violent and cruel world, and He was sent like a lamb to the slaughter.

Jesus is telling the disciples that they need to leave this room, because this room is not their protection, this room is not their peace. They need to leave this room and go like lambs among wolves, because His peace is with them.

We can’t disengage from society because there are some angry Afrikaners running around sowing fear and hatred. We can’t disengage from the world because there are a few black politicians breathing hatred and singing songs of war, because if we set our compass by them, they will only be a Magnetic North and we will miss the cardinal point of Jesus, our Prince of Peace.

Jesus then breathes the Holy Spirit into the disciples, the Spirit of Peace. Peace becomes the air they breathe that flows through their veins. That peace will sustain them as they go out as Jesus’ ambassadors, even as they die for their faith as He died.

Jesus then says something that has theologians minds all boggled. He says, If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

We need to remember this applies to us as representatives, as those sent by Jesus, and if we are sent by Jesus, we need to operate in the same way He would operate and we need to speak from His instruction to us. So when Jesus met with people, were their people whose sins He did not forgive? Well yes. Think of the Rich Young Ruler who would not follow Him. Think of the Pharisees who refused to listen to Him. Think of the man on the cross next to Him who ridiculed Him. Actually, its not that Jesus refused to forgive their sins, it’s that they rejected His offer of forgiveness.

But then we need to remember too that the way we forgive others will determine the way we are forgiven. We can choose to be unforgiving, but then we set the standard for our own judgement.

Maybe its human nature, but my mind rushes to the power of being able to hold people unforgiven in their sins. But as Christians, should our minds not be doing somersaults of sheer joy because we are given permission to forgive people their sins. What a privilege that we can tell people they are forgiven, their sins are gone, they are free. Just think of Jesus on the cross, praying for the people who are killing Him, praying that God will forgive them for this murder, His murder.

With that in mind, Jesus is sending the disciples out into the shark tank, saying, “You can choose to forgive those who are about to rip you to shreds, to whip you, to stone you, and finally to kill you. You can forgive them, as I forgave my killers”.

It is not that we can conquer any foe that we may meet when we leave the room; it is that we can forgive those who persecute us. Forgiveness conquers sin.

To think that when we are Christians, our lives will be without storms is unrealistic.

But being a Christian means that none of those things are the final word on how you live your life.

John then tells us that one of the disciples, Thomas, was not in the room when Jesus met them.

I wonder why he wasn’t there. Clearly he was still one of the disciples; he was accepted by the others.

Could it be that Thomas was not as afraid? Could it be that Thomas was less fearful about walking the streets and meeting with other people? Could it be that Thomas was less unsettled than the other disciples?

Could it be that Thomas had lost faith and gone back to his old tradition, his old Jewish religion?

When Thomas met with the disciples again, they told him that they had seen the risen Jesus. The Greek means that they told him repeatedly, again and again and again they told him, “Thomas, Jesus was here”. But Thomas was not easily moved from what he believed. Maybe he was more set in his Jewish doctrine that the resurrection won’t happen now. Jewish theology at first didn’t expect a resurrection at all. But from the fifth century BC, some Jews came to believe a resurrection would take place at the end of the world. That’s what Martha said to Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” [1]

Thomas said, “I will only believe when I see the nail marks, and I put my fingers into the holes in His hands and into His side.”

Thomas is not without belief, his faith runs deep, but it is a faith in an old theological reality which has not taken the resurrection of Jesus into account. Thomas believes that, “No-one comes back from the grave”. When Thomas believes, he believes deeply, solidly, not tossed to and fro by every new idea.

So if you want Thomas to change his beliefs, you have to convince him with hard physical evidence.

Faith is not believing the impossible, faith is believing the unseen, based on the little bit that is seen. Faith is knowing the road continues over the horizon, because we can see it all the way to the horizon.

It’s not always the people outside of Christianity we are afraid of. Thomas was sceptical about this new brand of religion the disciples were grasping at, but these were his friends, his inner circle.

Sometimes like Thomas we are more afraid of other Christians than we are of atheists and agnostics and Muslims. We are afraid of those who question our brand of Christianity, who disagree with our doctrines. We are afraid of those who have moved on theologically from the sure ground we thought we were standing on.

Sometimes we treat people who question the resurrection, or the virgin birth, or the authority of the Bible asif they are heathens, unchristian antichrists.

God is unchanging, but the world is always changing, and so the history of the Church shows that we need to constantly re-evaluate our position according to True North, because the Church is also prone to drift to Magnetic North. We have to undergo mid-course corrections, revivals, reformations.

It’s ironic that our “fathers of faith”, Luther, Calvin, Knox, Wesley, Wycliffe, were all branded as heretics by the church. They were heretics because they went beyond the Church’s understanding. And yet today they are lauded as the mainstays of our faith, of our doctrines. But if we remain indentured to them, does their freedom not become a new slavery for us? Are we not at risk of becoming enslaved to their theological insights the way the Church before them was enslaved to earlier doctrines?

NB

We may be afraid that if we ask questions, if we go beyond the prescribed doctrines, we will destroy the Christian faith. But doesn’t that fear reveal that we don’t really believe in a living God any more? Because if we do believe in a living God, we must believe that He can lead us onto the right path, He can correct us and redirect us if we wander or stray. Jesus said He would send the Holy Spirit to lead us to truth. If we cling to our doctrines asif they are all we have, then we probably believe that God is dead. If our doctrines have replaced the Holy Spirit, we have adopted a static rule book rather than a dynamic relationship.

God could move Thomas forward, as He did, or He could bring the other disciples back to the conservative Jewish doctrine of an end of time resurrection.

Thomas struggled to get his head around the new doctrine he was hearing about, a doctrine that Jesus had risen from the dead. It seemed to go against 1300 years of Orthodox Judaism for him. But peace was with them because Thomas stayed engaged with the other disciples, and they stayed engaged with him. No one declared a separation, no one walked away, no one gave up and retreated to their little cave.

Already on the day of the resurrection, the Church had to make allowance for theological differences between believers, or be torn apart.

We have to think back and remember that the other disciples weren’t convinced by Mary’s report either. Like Thomas, they still hid behind locked doors after hearing Jesus had risen, and only when they saw Jesus, only when they heard Him speaking to them in the middle of their room, only when He breathed the Holy Spirit into them, did they actually believe. Thomas’ locked doors were just internal doctrinal doors, not large wooden ones.

Thomas is not so different to the disciples, or to us.

After a week, the disciples were in the house again, the doors were locked, but this time there is no mention that they were afraid, and Jesus appeared to the disciples again, and this time Thomas was with them.

Jesus knew the struggles in Thomas’ heart, he knew that it was difficult for Thomas to leave his beliefs in the resurrection, the beliefs he had grown up with, the beliefs that the religious people around him already thought was very progressive. Jesus knew how difficult it was for Thomas to now have to adjust to new doctrines, new beliefs. And so Jesus came to Thomas and told him to put his finger in the holes in his hands and in the hole in his side. Jesus offered Thomas scientific evidence of His resurrection to prove to Thomas this new doctrine was not some heresy, but fact.

But Thomas didn’t need to physically put his fingers into Jesus’ hands. When he saw Jesus he declared, “My Lord and My God”. Thomas took longer to shift theologically, but the end result was that he made a declaration that none of the others had thought of. He had an understanding and an insight into Jesus that none of the other yet understood.

Jesus said to Thomas, “Stop your unbelieving and believe, stop your faithlessness and have faith.” “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Like Thomas, the Church is always too slow to react. We were too slow to react to HIV/AIDS, we were too slow to react to Apartheid, we were too slow to react to slavery, we were too slow to realise that the earth was not the centre of the universe or that the earth was flat.

We are at risk of being too slow to react to free market capitalism. Many of us still think Capitalism was designed by God, but it isn’t.

We are extremely at risk of being too slow to react to the change from Modernity to Postmodernity. We are surrounded by change, and it feels like everything around us changing at a million miles an hour. The way people think is in the midst of a change as huge as the Renaissance, or the Enlightenment, or the Industrial Revolution, or the French Revolution. We are in the middle of that kind of rapid change all over the world. For some of us, we want to retreat to the Church as the last vestige, the last stronghold of the world as we know it. Sometimes we think the world as we know it is the world as God made it originally, and we fail to realize the world as we know it is just the next stage after the world as it was before Modernity. In fear, we hide in the Church like the disciples hid in their room, with the doors bolted and locked. The problem is, that the people outside these doors, the people who live and think in Postmodern ways, they need to hear the gospel. Not in our lingo, not in our culture, not in the voice of Modernity. They need to see us filled with peace, leaving our fortress and meeting them on the street.

The Church is too slow, because we are always waiting for hard evidence, rather than reacting in faith. We fight against scientists until they prove unquestionably that the world is not how we say it is. Until they prove us wrong, we brand them heretics, and we burn them on the stake from every pulpit.

We are too slow because we are always afraid of change. We are too slow because we are hiding away, trying to save our own lives, our own beliefs, our own doctrines, rather than showing true faith in a resurrected Jesus who is able to correct us on the way.

We are too slow and millions of people are the innocent casualties of our hard headedness.

What if our doctrines, our way of doing church, our church culture, are just Magnetic Norths that move around, changing, shifting, relocating? Do we have the courage to set our compass to True North, to Jesus, to the Holy Spirit, to The Father?

Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed”.

Blessed are those who don’t need to wait to be proven wrong by scientific evidence, but who are in tune with the Holy Spirit, who can believe through faith and follow Jesus before sight is possible. Blessed are those who aren’t a week late, but who are where Jesus is, early, ready to go.

Blessed are those innovators, reformers like Luther, Calvin, Knox, Wesley, Wycliffe, who are able to see into the future and lead in faith.


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[1]John 11:24

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