A sermon preached by Bob Keller on April 11th, 2010 based upon John 20: 19 – 31.
We all have our favorite Bible stories and the one that was just read for us from John’s Gospel is one of mine. It’s also one of the very few scriptures that always appears in the same place in the lectionary year-after-year. But its familiarity is not why it’s one of my favorites.
For me, it embodies the very nature of my walk with Christ. In the next few minutes I hope to tell you why.
Let’s go back 2,000 years. Imagine yourself to be one of Jesus’ disciples. You followed this man for the past three years. You witness the wonders, the miracles, and the signs. You had hoped that he would establish God’s kingdom on earth. But it ended. It ended horribly. Something went terribly, terribly wrong. Your faith was shattered. Even Jesus’ faith may have been shattered as you remember him crying out as he hung on the cross – “Father, why have you forsaken me?” The blood drained from his body and, in the disciples minds, so did the hope for God’s kingdom. It is finished.
They were afraid, very afraid. People had seen them with this man. Would they become victims, too? Now imagine yourself in this position. Go ahead and close your eyes if you have to – it’s early enough in my message that you won’t fall asleep. You run. You have to hide. You gather with your co-conspirators as you were likely being called, and you hide. You find a room and you seal the door. You cover the windows, if there are any, and you tremble. “What if they find us? Will they crucify us, too?” One of the 10 urges the others to “shhh”, we might be heard.
Then in the quiet they hear “Shalom,” “Peace be with you.”
If you had your eyes closed, open them now, just as the disciples would have to see Jesus standing before them. None of them heard the door open, yet here was Jesus standing before them. They knew it was Jesus because he showed them his hands and his side.
Then he said again, “Shalom.”
Thomas wasn’t there for any of this. We don’t know where he was or why he wasn’t there, but we know he joined the disciples sometime after Jesus appeared to them. They were excited to tell Thomas what they had seen.
A little background on Thomas: Contrary to popular belief, Thomas’ first name was not ‘doubting.’ Though his skepticism is what he seems to be remembered for. Remember it was Thomas, ever-faithful Thomas, who, when Jesus heard of Lazarus’ death, said let’s go and die with him. The other disciples didn’t want to go back to Bethany. They feared the crowds that wanted to stone Jesus.
Remember it was Thomas who asked Jesus one of the most famous questions. “Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’ Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'”
But Thomas is remembered for saying “Unless I see it for myself, I will not believe it.”
We’re told that a week goes by. I can’t imagine what that week was like, so maybe some of you can help me out with this.
Imagine being cooped up with 10 people for a week – all of them telling you that they saw Elvis, no, really, it was Elvis! He was at Dunkin’ Donuts. We saw him – right there with the cream-filled donuts!” Would you have doubts about the sanity of your friends? Would you go mad? The disciples, meanwhile, were likely just as crazed as Thomas for they had seen the risen Christ. HE IS RISEN!
Notice how Thomas deals with his doubt. He shares it. He tells them that their tale is unbelievable – unless I see for myself. He also stays with the group. He is willing to stay to see how things work out.
Let’s play a little game. I’ll say a word, and you tell me its opposite. Don’t be shy, just say the answer.
The response took a little longer on that one, didn’t it?
What exactly is the opposite of faith? Faith – a confidence, belief or trust in someone or something without proof. I’m not sure what the best answer is. Maybe the opposite of faith is unbelief. Often it seems that the opposite of faith is fear – You of little faith, why are you afraid?
One thing that I am sure about is that doubt is not the opposite of faith. Many people of faith, I’d venture to say all people of faith, have times of doubt or areas of doubt in their lives. We hush that up tough, don’t we? We prefer to say that we are confused or that we don’t understand, but, in our hearts and minds, we have doubts.
Thomas’ doubts had a purpose. Thomas hung in there because he wanted to know the truth. Thomas is consistent in his character. He struggled in his faith despite what he may have felt. He didn’t hesitate to follow Jesus to Bethany with full knowledge, and belief, that Jesus and all of them might be killed.
Have you ever struggled with doubt? I mean REALLY struggled? I know I have. We doubt ourselves. Am I making the right decision? We doubt others. We likely doubt our faith.
But doubt has a purpose for us, just as it did for Thomas.
The heroes of the faith all had doubts. Abraham laughed in disbelief when God promised to make him the father of nations. David, the man after God’s own heart, was guilty of adultery and murder. Doubt that much would come of him! And there is that famous story in Mark that tells us of the father of a troubled child who cries out, “Lord I believe, help me overcome my unbelief.”
Doubt encourages re-thinking. It sharpens the mind rather than changing it. Doubt asks the questions, gets the answers and pushes for a decision. Doubt is like lifting your foot. You’re poised to either move forward or backward. But there is no motion until you put your foot down.
Let’s play another game. Guess what I’m holding in my hand. Do you have any idea? What if I told you that I am holding a coin? Do you believe me? Do you have faith in what I say? Now I have opened my hand and you can see that I was holding a coin. Now you have sure knowledge that I was holding a coin. Does that mean that your faith in me has diminished? No, in fact you may see me as a tiny bit more trustworthy than before.
The Rev. Tim Zukas summarized that little exercise by saying: Many of us treat faith and knowledge as mutually exclusive. We think like this. In the universe of everything that might be, some of it we know for sure and we accept the rest by faith. Therefore, as knowledge increases, the need for faith declines. Because we have heard scientific accounts of the beginning of the universe, we feel that we no longer need God as an explanation of the event. As we unravel the chemistry of life, we assume that we have diminished the divine mystery of life. We think that faith and knowledge are mutually exclusive and we replace one with the other.
That is a profound misunderstanding of faith. Faith has more to do with relationship than with ideas. Faith is more concerned with the purposes, the why’s of life, than it is with the mechanisms, the how’s of life. Learning about ourselves or our world should increase our awe and bring us closer to our creator. It should not push us apart.
There are other common misunderstandings of faith.
Faith is not a feeling. Those who are in search of religious experiences can become nothing more that religious junkies looking for the next high.
Faith is not performance. It is true that as we develop in our relationship with God we will evidence the fruits of the spirit. However, the fact that we sometimes fail is not an indication that our faith is not real.
Faith does not mean that we get everything right. We can have a genuine relationship with God and still have serious errors in our understanding. Discovering that we have an error someplace in our understanding does not invalidate the relationship we have had with God.
So what if you find yourself with serious doubts. What should you do?
Think about this. It is often said that human beings have deep psychological needs for assurance and acceptance. It is argued that a common response to those needs is to imagine the existence of God who satisfies them. But isn’t the opposite more rational. Couldn’t it be that we have this need for God because God does exist and created us to live in a relationship with him? Imagine a three-year old child lost and alone in a store crying for his mommy. Now a store clerk comes and tries to calm the child. “I know that you have insecurities and a desire for a nurturing presence in your life. Those feelings, while real, have caused your psyche to create this imaginary mommy figure. It is time that you realized that there is no such thing as mommy and that you learn to address those needs in other ways.” That is nonsense, of course. Just because mothers meet real psychological and emotional needs does not mean that mothers don’t exist. In fact the opposite is true. We are wired to seek a nurturing relationship with our mothers, and mothers have a maternal instinct, precisely because the mother-child relationship is real. The needs wouldn’t make any sense if no such relationship existed.
Thomas had needs. He needed proof positive that it was the risen Jesus that the disciples saw. Jesus knew this. He didn’t say, “Too bad, Thomas. You’ll just have to go on faith that I rose from the dead.”
Instead, Jesus appeared again. The doors to the room were again locked, yet Jesus stood among them. He said, “Shalom – Peace be with you.” Jesus offered his hands and his pierced side for Thomas to see and touch and he told him “Stop doubting and believe.”
And Thomas’ eyes were opened, his doubt dispelled. He said, “My Lord and my God.” The first time those words were spoken, the words that recognized the deity of Jesus, the ‘oneness’ with God, they came from Thomas’ lips.
Be encouraged by Thomas. Doubt is OK. But don’t stay in your doubt. Thomas allowed Jesus, he required Jesus, to bring him to belief.
Be encouraged by the countless others who have struggled with their doubts. The answers that God gave them may help you. Remember, Thomas had doubts because he was alone. He wasn’t there to see originally. Move on to decision and belief through faith.
We’re all kind of scarred and lumpy in places. And Jesus, though in His resurrection body, kept the scars that Thomas might see them and believe. He keeps them today
These scars became part of the fabric of evidence that the Resurrection was not a rumor or a figment of imagination brought about by grief and denial. The Resurrection was real.
What do these scars mean to us?
For us, they serves as a reminder of the humanity of Christ.
There is something about our scars that makes us real, believable, trustworthy. Maybe it is because we know that life hands out its damaging blows to all of us.
It is sometimes easy for us to accept the divinity of Christ, and to forget the humanity of Christ. But Christ was both divine and human.
In Philippians, Paul said (2:6-7), “Jesus, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”
Those scars remind us that Jesus remains human, just as he remains divine.
Those scars remind us that Jesus felt pain, just as we feel pain.
Those scars remind us that Jesus suffered, just as we suffer.
To Thomas, the scars meant evidence of the Resurrection.
Here is Jesus, the man, appearing to his friends and showing them the scars that his life, his suffering, and his death, inflicted on him. Isn’t it amazing that, in whatever occurred at the time of the resurrection, the scars were NOT obliterated? They remained.
We have a permanently scarred God. And he comes, scarred, to be with us with whatever scars we bear, with whatever wounds we carry, and with whatever doubts we harbor.
That’s an amazing demonstration of God’s love for us! That he would continue to carry the scars, the reminders of the pain and humiliation he went through.
Thomas needed those scars and maybe we do, too.
God breathed the breath of life into Adam. Jesus breathed the spirit of God on the disciples and charged them with delivering God’s word to the world. And we are God’s disciples. God’s chosen. All of us. Doubts and all. God loves us.
Please sing with me:
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me,
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me,
Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me,
Let us pray:
Heavenly God, we thank you for breathing life into us and we thank you for the gift of your son that that life might be eternal. Help us with our doubts when they arise that we may move closer to you and proclaim you as My Lord and my God. AMEN