Sermon / April 3, 2016 / John 20 / A New Reality / Pastor Terry Defoe
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!” (N.I.V.)
Our Gospel reading for today is one of the few scripture passages in the lectionary -- that book of readings for the various Sundays of the church year -- that never changes. On the Second Sunday of Easter, we always hear from the twentieth chapter of John’s Gospel. It's just that important! I pray that God would richly bless our consideration of His Holy Word this day!
All of us appreciate the alleluias of Easter Sunday, after the season of Lent has come and gone. But those alleluias can mask our doubts, our fears, and our pain. We tend to forget that, for Jesus' disciples, there was confusion and fear early on Easter Sunday. In the Christian church, in these weeks of Easter, we need to make room for the Thomases among us. There are those for whom doubt is a reality. That doubt may come and go. Or it may be a constant companion. The Apostle John is inviting us into the story he's telling us this morning. He's inviting us to make this story our story.
In the darkness, early on that first day of the week, Mary, Peter, and the beloved disciple John didn't know what had happened. Had the body of their teacher been stolen? Early that morning, Mary Magdalene had come, concerned, to tell the disciples that Jesus’ body was not in the tomb. Peter and “the other disciple” ran to the tomb and saw for themselves that Jesus' body was missing. They saw the linen cloths lying there, but there was no body to be found. Then, later that day, Mary Magdalene came to the disciples, breathless with excitement, and said, “I have seen the Lord.”
Jesus' first resurrection appearance was to a woman. Mary responded by telling the disciples the news. But the disciples didn't say, "Great! That's amazing! We believe you!" Instead, they huddled together with the doors locked for fear of persecution. We're certainly not judging them. They had a lot to be concerned about. They could have been accused of stealing Jesus' body. They could have been punished for being Jesus' followers. Who are we to blame them for locking themselves in? We do it ourselves sometimes, locking the doors to keep the world out, but sometimes, we're just locking ourselves in.
Our Bible text this morning isn't just about Thomas. It’s also about frightened disciples. They were letting the world, rather than the risen Christ, determine their actions and they attitudes. Maybe, just maybe, the disciples were afraid of Jesus. After all, they had failed him miserably. Peter had denied him three times, and the rest of them deserted him -- all of them except for John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” John had been at the cross and had taken Jesus’ mother into his own home.
Down through the years, Thomas has taken a beating for his doubs, but his position is essentially the same as that of the other disciples. They wouldn't believe until they saw Jesus for themselves. So, let me ask you -- was Thomas the only one who doubted Jesus’ resurrection? Of course not. Everyone doubted it! But, down through the years, Thomas has been our scapegoat; our “fall guy.”
Thomas obviously had doubts. He questioned things. He openly and brashly disbelieved. He wasn’t satisfied with second-hand reports. He wanted to see for himself. And again, who can blame him? He was, after all, one of those who had seen his Lord mistreated, beaten, and then crucified and had probably spent the last few days putting the broken pieces of his life back together and trying to figure out what to do next. Apparently, Thomas believed in data-driven conclusions. And, truth be told, so do we.
We might assume that faith came easily to the disciples. But we would be wrong. It took an actual appearance of the risen Christ to convince them. Thomas, like the other disciples, insisted on more than hearsay. He was thoughtful and discerning, and, in that way, he's a good role model for us. Thomas was the hard-nosed skeptic -- brash enough to poke around a bit and see if this thing would hold water.
This desire for proof is completely normal. This longing for evidence isn't just the special burden of those living in an age of science. Thomas wasn't the only disciple who wouldn’t take someone else’s word for it. Jesus' disciples were totally unprepared for the resurrection. Words from Jesus himself, words which had foretold His death and return to the Father hadn't taken root in their hearts and lives.
Our text this morning presents us with two very different ways of coming to faith. One is through seeing; the other is through hearing and believing the gospel proclaimed by Jesus' witnesses. Jesus' words
"Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe"
puts Christians of all times and places on the same plane before God as that of the original disciples. The disciples, to whom the risen Christ had appeared, were bound by time and place. But others, people like you and me, come to believe without literally seeing Christ. We are blessed as we hear the gospel and receive the Sacraments.
Like Thomas, there's something in us that would prefer hard evidence. If only we had been there when Peter entered the tomb. If only our hearts had been ignited by the words of that Stranger on the road to Emmaus. If only we had been there for the breaking of the bread. Or even with the Apostle Paul when he met the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus. We would gladly haved endured that, because then we would be sure. Or even just to be a face in the crowd, one of the anonymous onlookers there when our Lord appeared to more than 500 believers gathered in one place. We understand Thomas. A part of us cheers him on when he sets his terms for belief: “Not unless I see ... not unless I touch.”
In John’s Gospel, Jesus is the first Advocate, the first Intermediary who links heaven and earth. The Holy Spirit is the second -- the second link between God and humanity. As Jesus' earthly ministry was coming to a conclusion, the Holy Spirit spoke for Jesus. The Spirit reminded the Christian community of all that Jesus had done and taught. Jesus promised his disciples that he would send them an Advocate, "... the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father" (John 15:26). And with that Spirit accompanying them, he would send them out into the world to spread the message (John 17:23).
In the scriptures, the Holy Spirit has various names: Helper, Comforter, Advocate, Intercessor. His primary function is to continue the very presence of Jesus who, as the Word made flesh, must now return to the Father (16:7). The Spirit is "another Advocate" (14:16) given by the Father to be with the disciples forever (14:26-27; cf. 16:7-15). In the midst of fear, uncertainty, and unbelief, the Spirit brings peace and comfort. Jesus breathed on His disciples the sweetness of the Holy Spirit. And, like that first breath of life that the Almighty Creator God had breathed into Adam’s nostrils at the dawn of creation, this, too, was a life-giving breath that made all things new.
Jesus gives peace not "as the world gives" (14:27). Jesus comes to us more than once this morning with the words, "Peace be with you." He leaves no room for fear. He brings peace, shalom. "It’s all right," he says. Jesus speaks a word that is the opposite of fear -- a word that squelches shame, puts away and banishes any thoughts the disciples may have had about Jesus’ bearing a grudge against them. Jesus wasn't out to settle old scores but to create a new reality.
In John's Gospel, Jesus is the very Word of God. He's one with God (John 1:1). He's the Word that brings peace. Peace, of course, is what the Apostles were lacking. Jesus had returned from the dead after three days. He left his tomb behind, empty. Fourty-one times in John's Gospel Jesus says that he has been sent by the Father -- sent into the world to reveal the Father -- to teach, and to gather disciples. Jesus declared that, after his return to the Father, he would send his disciples out to continue his ministry (17:18). Now, that sending was being fulfilled.
Jesus didn't say a word about the disciples' past actions, their betrayals and their denials. He gave His disciples a brand new identity; they were no longer just disciples, now they were apostles, "sent out ones." The disciples were sent out to continue Jesus’ mission of revealing God to the world. They would not be left on their own. Jesus gave them an Advocate, one called alongside to assist them, one who would be with them forever (14:16-17). In an act of new creation (cf. Genesis 2:7), he breathed into his disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit (20:22).
In John's Gospel, whenever people come to know and abide in Jesus, they are “released” from their sins. If, however, those sent by Jesus fail to bear witness, people remain stuck in their unbelief; their sins are “retained” or “held onto.” In John's Gospel, to have sin abide, therefore, is to remain estranged from God. Sin in John is an inability or refusal to recognize God's revelation in and through Jesus. Jesus says, in John 15:22:
"If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin." (Cf. John 9:39-41).
Jesus asked Thomas to place his hands in his wounds. He told Thomas not to be faithless but faithful. Thomas then uttered the boldest statement of faith found in the entire New Testament:
“My Lord and my God!”
These are sincere words of adoration and reverence. Thomas had come full circle from unbelief to devotion. What Thomas says is a statement of trust and relationship: “My Lord and my God!” (20:28). Jesus’ response to Thomas (20:29) isn't a rebuke, but rather a blessing for all those who would come to believe without having the benefit of a flesh-and-blood encounter with Him.
In John's Gospel, people encounter spiritual reality through their senses. Sometimes it's tasting, as in the feeding of the 5000 (John 6), sometimes it's smelling, like at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11), sometimes it's hearing Jesus' own words (John 10), and sometimes it's seeing. All of these senses make us human. Thomas was called upon, by none other than Jesus Himself, to touch the wounds He had sustained at the cross.
On this second Sunday of Easter, our text carries with it the amazing message that the good news of Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, breaks through locked doors, breaks through the limits of time and space. We're all like Thomas. We weren't in that upper room on the evening on that day, the first day of the week. But that doesn't matter.
Our text this morning reminds us that Jesus will not be stopped by locked doors. He who is himself the “door” of the sheep (10:7) comes right through locked doors and appears in the midst of his frightened sheep. He comes not to confront us with our failures, but to grant us the peace that passes understanding. Jesus comes to us as he came to those first disciples, in the midst of our fear, our pain, our doubt, and our confusion.
What's more, Jesus keeps on showing up. As he returned a week later for Thomas, Jesus keeps coming back, week after week -- in the word, the water, the bread, and the wine -- not wanting any of us to miss out on the life and peace he gives. And he keeps sending us out of our safe, locked rooms, into a world that, like us, so desperately needs his gifts of life and peace. Jesus returned for Thomas because he will not lose a single one of those whom the Father gave him (18:9).
The act of believing in John's Gospel is never a noun, but always a verb. Believing is an action word, and believing in Jesus means to be in relationship with Him. You and I are in relationship with Jesus and the purpose of John's Gospel is to support, nurture, and sustain that relationship. True, vigorous, vibrant faith comes with the freedom to question, wonder, and doubt.
Here, near the end of his account of Jesus' life and ministry, the Apostle John comes clean. This is no neutral account he's writing. John has carefully considered everything he says in this Gospel. His goal in writing is that we, like Thomas, would be persuaded that Jesus is worthy of our attention, our loyalty, and our devotion. All of these things, says John, were
“... 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.”
From the soaring poetry we find at the beginning of his gospel -- transporting us back to the very creation of the universe -- to this final intimate moment of comfort and assurance with Thomas and the disciples, John wants us to know that we don't have to be there in person in order to have faith. Through our encounter with John's message, we hear God's Word and, as the Spirit works, we come to believe. And, in that believing, says John, we have life eternal. First Peter chapter 1 verse 8 says:
Though you have not seen him, you love him, and though you do not see him now, but believe in him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory. (N.I.V.)
Let's Pray -- DEAR HEAVENLY FATHER -- We thank you for breaking through the locked doors of our sins, our fears, and our shame. Thank you for sparking faith in our hearts. Enable us to share that faith so that others may be released from the bondage of their sins -- set free to live the abundant life you have promised to all who trust Your Son. In His most holy and precious name we pray. Amen.