Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 4/23/2017
It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”
But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”
After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”
Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name. (John 20:19-31, CEB)
The Scriptures we read and I preach on each week come from the Revised Common Lectionary. And this story of Thomas and the disciples comes up every year on the Sunday after Easter, today. And every year, Thomas gets a bad rap for this story. We call him “Doubting Thomas,” right?
First, we hear about Jesus coming to the other 10 disciples. Judas is dead and Thomas isn’t there, but Jesus just shows up with the other disciples. Remember where they’ve been – this happens on Easter evening. They know Jesus has been crucified, they know he died, they know he’s been buried, and they know that they had abandoned Jesus when he needed them most. Now two of the disciples have already seen the empty tomb. But they’re all still huddled together on Easter evening behind closed doors scared of the outside world.
But then Jesus shows up. He shows them the scars from his execution, he shows that he’s really alive, really resurrected. And they’re all happy. I picture something like one of those reunion scenes from a movie, where friends or family are reunited and they just go crazy.
But Thomas isn’t there with the others. And we have no idea where exactly he is. Now, a lot of people throughout the last several centuries say that Thomas wasn’t there because he’d completely lost his faith; he’d abandoned the disciples; he ran away; he didn’t believe that Jesus would raise from the dead. But realize – we don’t see any of that in the actual Bible. We read that Thomas wasn’t with them, but this passage doesn’t give us any clues for where he is.
So I have a problem with this bad rap Thomas has gotten. I have a problem with the title of “Doubting Thomas” we’ve given him.
We don’t really know where Thomas was or what he was doing. Earlier in John, we read that Mary Magdalene told the disciples about the empty tomb, and then saw Jesus in the flesh and told the disciples about it. Maybe Thomas believed her and went out to look for Jesus. Maybe he was telling all his friends and family and neighbors about the resurrection, even though he hadn’t seen Jesus. Maybe he just took Mary at her word.
Remember – Mary Magdalene had already told all of the disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead and that she’d seen him. But the 10 disciples are still huddled in that room, terrified of the authorities. It doesn’t sound to me like those 10 disciples really believed that Jesus had risen from the grave. Maybe they were happy at first, but then they said “That can’t be true, right? Jesus is dead, and now the authorities are after us.” So they hide out in that room, all except Thomas. Maybe Thomas took Mary at her word about the resurrection and didn’t feel the need to hide.
Like we read together, Jesus visited the 10 disciples, showed them that he had truly risen from the dead, and he sent them out. He said “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” They saw and hear everything they needed to believe, right? If they don’t believe in the Resurrection after seeing Jesus in the flesh, I don’t think anything’s going to convince them, right?
But here’s the crazy part: 8 DAYS LATER, after Jesus showed up and gave them all this proof of the resurrection, they’re still huddled up there in that room. Thomas is with them, and they told Thomas that they saw Jesus, but Thomas doesn’t believe them. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.” I’ve heard a lot of people condemn Thomas at his word, but realize what he sees. The disciples told him that they’ve seen Jesus, but Thomas sees that they’re still huddled together in that room. Nothing about them has changed after seeing Jesus. So nothing about this situation gives Thomas any reason to believe in the Resurrection.
The other 10 disciples have already seen the scars left from Jesus’ crucifixion. Thomas just wants to see what the other disciples have already seen. He just asks for it with more graphic words.
Maybe Thomas was just looking for a sign that the Resurrection really happened. The Resurrection changed everything: the unbreakable laws of nature were broken, and the Son of God revealed himself to the world in all his glory. An event this big wouldn’t happen without leaving marks, right?
Has anyone seen the movie Bruce Almighty? I know it’s 15ish years old now, but there’s a scene in there that really works here. Jim Carrey plays this guy Bruce, and at the beginning of the movie, Bruce is having this awful day. So he’s driving around at night, after having this awful day; he’s looking for where to go, how to go forward, and in this moment of desperation he asks God for a sign. As soon as he asks, this big truck pulls out in front of him and cuts him off. And this truck has all these road signs on it, and they all say things like “Stop,” “Caution,” “Slow Down,” “Yield,” stuff like that. Perfect signs for Bruce’s situation. But Bruce didn’t pay any attention to that, he just gets mad at the truck.
The idea behind this is that if God wanted Bruce to do something, there’d be some kind of sign.
Now, that’s not necessarily the best way to ask God for guidance or to look for God’s guidance. The sign we want might be a simple passage from Scripture that helps us or some other simple part of our lives that might not be that obvious. There might not even be any kind of discernible sign for a long time, leaving us to continue on pure faith.
But here’s the deal: Thomas needed to experience the Resurrected Jesus for himself. He couldn’t just rely on the hearsay of the other disciples. Remember – the other disciples have seen Jesus resurrected, and there’s no discernible change in their lives. So they don’t give Thomas much of a reason to believe them.
But then Christ came and provided what was necessary for Thomas to believe. He showed the scars in his hands, the marks left by the nails, the wound from the spear in his side. These were the same signs of the reality of the resurrection that the other disciples have already seen. Now Thomas gets to see them for himself.
And Thomas had eyes to see this sign. He put himself in a place to see and experience this sign of the Resurrection. And Thomas gives us the only confession of faith here. When Jesus first showed up, we read that the other disciples were “filled with joy.” But when Thomas sees Jesus, he says “My Lord and my God!” That’s a confession of faith and trust in Jesus that we don’t hear from any of the other disciples. So with this, Thomas’ faith becomes his own faith, not just hearsay from the other disciples.
So there’s a clear message for us here today at Alger First United Methodist Church. Jesus says “Happy are those who believe and don’t see.”
Often, that’s read as a kind of scolding of Thomas. But that’s not how I read it. I think this is a moment where, if this was a movie, Jesus looks straight at the camera, looks straight through the camera at us, into our souls, and says to us here today, from the 1st century to the 21st century, “You won’t see me. But I’ll still be present with you; I’ll still extend these signs to make it possible for you to believe. You’ll have the witness of these Scriptures, but I’ll give you so many other ways to experience the reality of my Resurrection.”
We as human beings operate out of our senses. If we can’t hear, taste, smell, or feel the Gospel and the Resurrected Jesus, there’s not really any possibility for us to believe. The disciples saw Jesus’ literal scars and were able to believe. That probably won’t happen today, but Christ will still send us signs and experiences and ways that make it possible for us to believe in the Gospel confirmed by the Resurrection. It might be through Scripture, it might be through someone in our lives, it might be through a song, it might be simply looking out your window at the outside world created by God out of love for us. In some way, Christ has given us a way to experience the truth of the Gospel and the truth of the Resurrection for ourselves.
But like Thomas, our eyes, ears, hearts, and minds must be open. We have several people getting confirmed, baptized, and joining the church today. By doing that, they’re opening themselves to Jesus like this; they’re putting themselves in a place to experience the Gospel, to experience the Resurrection for themselves so that their faith will be confirmed.
So there’s a calling for us here. May we ourselves be the signs of the Resurrection. May we ourselves show each other and our community and the world that the Resurrection happened and it still makes a difference in our lives.
You who are being confirmed, baptized, and joining the church today – by doing that, you’re rooting yourselves in a place where you can be open to an experience that will make your faith real, that will make your faith you own.
And church – that’s what we’re called to do. As the church, we’re called to show what faith looks like in real life. We’re called to show the world that Jesus’ resurrection has truly made a difference in our lives. We’re called to show that our lives have been changed by the Gospel.
In this way, Christ is using us to give each other, and especially those being confirmed, baptized, and joining the church today – Christ is using us to give them what is necessary to believe in the Resurrection and the Gospel.
That way, their faith can be their own and not their parents’. Their faith can be their own and not just what the church tells them to believe. They’re faith can be a faith they’ve experienced for themselves and have taken on themselves.
To you who are being confirmed, baptized, and/or joining the church today – today, this faith can become your own and not your parents’ faith. Today, your faith can becoming your own and not just what the church or your pastor tells you to believe. This can become a faith you’ve experienced and taken on yourselves.