Dear Thomas – April 11, 2021

Dear Thomas

A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes

John 20:19-31

April 11, 2021

Main Idea – Jesus speaks to us.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer, Amen.

Have you ever stopped to think about the purpose of the Gospels or of any Scripture?  Why were they written?  What did the writers have in mind when they sat down to write? They were inspired by God, of course, but why? Why do the Gospels matter to us?  What is our connection to them?  I know that some of us read the Bible daily. Some come to our Monday Bible Study, some revisit the sermons online or through a paper copy.  Some read a devotional like the Advent and Lenten Devotionals we had this year or read the Secret Place or another daily devotional each day.  Still for many of us, it is a struggle to connect the biblical narrative to our daily lives.  They are interesting fables or morality tales.   Perhaps the problem is the word “stories”.  I can read a good story, think about it a bit, and then put it down and get on with my real life.   But today’s text about the evening of the first Easter Day and Jesus’ conversation with Thomas provides a great opportunity to explore why we read and study these Gospel stories from long ago.   Two reasons jump out. First, these stories are not just about long ago.  They reach through time to include the present day; in today’s text, the Gospel writer and Jesus, both speak directly to us.  Second, Thomas, despite his doubting nickname, is a great model of what faithful living is all about.

Let’s start at the end of the text.  John writes; “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are 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.” (20:30-31) John is talking to us!  The whole point of writing the Gospel of John was so that we, and others, would come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah and not only that but that through believing we might have life in his name.   This believing does not mean having an opinion on whether something is true or false.  To believe is to trust, to be in relationship, namely to have life in Christ’s name.

“The gospel writers themselves did not imagine they were telling stories about things that happened in the past.  Rather, they were making… revolutionary claims that they hoped would shape the immediate present and future of everyone who read them.” (David Lose, John was writing to second and third generation Christians who were living through severe Roman persecution.   John invites the readers and hearers of his Gospel to make the story their own.

John tells us that he chose these stories to share so that we might come to believe.  There were many other stories which were not written down.  So why did he choose this story, especially the part about Thomas?

It is the evening of Easter Day.  Mary Magdalene had come to the disciples with the amazing and wonderful news that she had seen the Lord (John 20:18).  But, as Frank‚Äôs song this morning so poignantly conveyed, the disciples don’t jump for joy or throw open their doors for a party.  They lock their doors out of fear.  They huddle together in grief, for they can’t believe Mary’s crazy story, and in fear of all those people who had threatened Jesus and anyone with him.  Perhaps they also feared Jesus!  If, by chance, he was alive, surely he would be angry and disappointed at the way they had deserted him.   The first response to the Good News of Christ’s victory over death was to lock the doors in fear and disbelief.

“Jesus, however, will not be stopped by locked doors.  He who is himself the “door” of the sheep (10:7) comes right through those locked doors and appears in the midst of his frightened sheep.  He comes not to confront his disciples with their failures but to grant them peace.” (Elizabeth Johnson, He stands among them and says “Peace be with you.”(20:19) This is not just a greeting but a fulfillment of the promise he made to them at the Last Supper when he said “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid.” (14:27). This is not a hope for peace; it is an invitation to peace beyond anything the world can offer. It is a statement of fact that the peace of Christ was with them at that very moment.  And then Jesus shows them his hands and his side so that they can be sure that it is truly him, who truly died, and is now truly standing among them.  

Finally, they can rejoice!  Jesus repeats the blessing of peace and gives them a commission.  “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (19:21) It is now their job to share the Good News of God’s love.  But they don’t have to do it alone.  Jesus had promised them an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who would be with them always (14:26, 15:26, 16:7b-11, 12-15) and now he breathes on them and says “Receive the Holy Spirit” (19:22).   Jesus’ act of breathing on the disciples echoes the breath of God moving over the face of the waters (Gen 1:2).  They are now a new creation filled with the Holy Spirit. Thus empowered, the disciples now have the responsibility of continuing Jesus’ work.  It is the disciples’ responsibility to make the love of God known as widely as possible.  All those who hear and come to faith will enter into eternal life with God.  If the disciples fail to share the Good News, the people around them will remain in the emptiness of unbelief.  This is the mission and purpose given by Jesus to the disciples.

Now at this point in the story we might expect a “happily ever after” ending.  In fact, this is how the Gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus giving the Great Commission.  But not John’s gospel; the story continues with Thomas’ story.

Dear Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus first appeared to the other disciples.  Where he was instead, we don’t know.  What we do know about Thomas is that he was deeply devoted to Jesus, being the only disciple who volunteered to go with Jesus to his death rather than try and talk Jesus out of it (11:16).  Thomas is the one who interrupts Jesus’ farewell to say, “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  (14:5-6) Thomas is a faithful believer struggling to understand the profound and wonderful mystery of Jesus as Messiah.

In today’s text, Thomas is perhaps unbelieving but not unfaithful.   He stays with the disciples despite his unbelief in Jesus’ resurrection. He is still committed to community that Jesus created and the mission about which Jesus preached.  He asks for nothing more than what the other disciples received; a concrete experience of Jesus.  Thomas is not “doubting” despite his common nickname.  The Greek word for “doubt” actually does not occur in this text, although our English translation uses it.  Jesus’ words to Thomas would be better translated as “Do not be unbelieving but believing.”  Jesus listens to Thomas and gives him what he asked for, a chance to touch his wounds.  In the end, Thomas does not touch Jesus, instead, he gives the most powerful and complete confession of Jesus in the whole Gospel:  “My Lord and my God!”   “Thomas sees God fully revealed in Jesus.” (Gail O’Day, New Interpreters p. 850) It is the one who took some time to understand who sees Jesus most clearly.  In my experience it is often the questioning people who grow the most in their faith.  Those who don’t stop to wonder often do not deepen their faith.

And, to be clear, faith does not mean “believing 6 impossible things before breakfast” as the Queen in Alice in Wonderland suggests.  Faith is trusting one’s relationship with the divine.  Faith includes questions and struggles, laments and affirmations.   Thomas, in his grief, cannot at first believe in Jesus’ resurrection but he does not abandon his faith.  He remains faithful until his grief is turned to joy and understanding.  

After Thomas’s confession Jesus speaks directly to us!  He says to Thomas “Have you believed because you have seen me?”  Then he says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (20:29) This is a blessing on all the generations of Christians who have come to faith after that band of people who traipsed around with Jesus of Nazareth. Although we cannot go back in time to walk with Jesus through Galilee and Judea, we can experience the Risen Christ.  We can know Jesus and know God through the witness of the disciples and the writers of Scripture and we can have experiences of the Holy Spirit’s power.  These Gospel stories are not just morality tales or interesting fables.  The story of Jesus and the early church is our story!   We are included!

This is why we read the Scripture.  This is why it matters.  For the will and purposes of God are revealed through the live and death and resurrection of Jesus our Christ.  God’s unending love for us and all of creation is made manifest in our community of faith; believers gathered through the power of the Holy Spirit, and in the communities of faith gathered around the world.  In our care for each other and in our care, and support, and advocacy in our wider communities, together we participate in bringing about Christ’s kingdom!  Scripture, and the Gospels in particular, guide us and inspire us.

This week I invite us to think about this Gospel story as our story.  To contemplate how Christ is present in our lives, as he was present to the disciples long ago. In our moments of anxiety and fear, Christ brings us peace.  When we have questions or doubts, Christ hears us and invites us to ponder them and deepen our faith.  Through the Gospel stories and through our experience of the Risen Christ, we can experience the Peace of Christ and we can know that it is okay to be like Thomas.  Through these stories we have come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing we have life in his name.  Thanks be to God.

Let us pray,

Our Lord and Our God, we thank you for your words to us through Scripture.  We thank you for your presence which sustains us and empowers us to do your will.  Help us to be like Thomas, faithful at all times, even in times of questioning. May our lives be witnesses to the continuing story of your grace.  Amen.