THE WORD John 20:19-31
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
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.
THE MESSAGE “Fear, Doubt and Faith”
I like Thomas. He may be one of my favorite disciples. Why? Because he had doubts - and I have doubts too. Do you?
Shortly before I admitted to myself, and others, that I had a call to ministry, a couple in our church asked me if I would mentor their young teenage son during his confirmation process. I readily agreed. The night before I was to meet with him for the first time, his mother called me in a panic. He had announced to the family over dinner that he didn’t believe in God. What’s more, he believed that the world revolved around him - probably not unusual thinking for a boy his age. His little sister screamed, “Don’t say that!” Nothing like a doubting teenager to force you to look deeper into your own faith, and doubts.
How could I convince him to believe in God? Well, one can’t. It has to come from within. As small children, most of us have no trouble believing in Santa Claus, or the tooth fairy, or even God, or Jesus, if we’ve been raised in a religious family, or gone to church and Sunday School. It took a number of years before we began to doubt and question. As teens, and adults, we want empirical proof of things unseen. We want to be able to see and touch and hear what we believe to be true.
I was aware, that at his age, I began to question many things I was raised to believe in. I continue to, to this day. Before going to seminary I even questioned if I could be a Christian minister, holding the beliefs and questions I had about Jesus.
So all I could do was to affirm that doubts are a part of being human, and explore with him different concepts of God and who Jesus was, and share why I believed what I did. I worry about anyone who claims they don’t have any doubts. Without them you’re stuck. Your faith can’t grow. I’ve encountered many teens since then, and adults, some in this church, who aren’t so sure about the existence of God, or the true nature of Christ. I’ve come to think that this is a healthy thing. As Frederick Buechner once said:
Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.
The disciples, hiding behind locked doors in fear of the Jews, weren’t moving. They had just had their faith rattled to the core, along with their vision, their sense of direction and purpose in life. Their leader, the one they believed in and followed was gone, executed by the Romans in the most humiliating way. Even the empty tomb hadn’t restored their hope - that is, until Jesus appeared to them walking through those locked doors, with the comforting words: “Peace be with you.”
But it wasn’t until he showed them his hands and his side that they recognized him and rejoiced. But this wasn’t to be a reunion celebration. He was there to bring peace to his anxious and confused followers, to breathe new life into them and send them out once more into the world to forgive as he had forgiven, and continue his ministry of compassion and love.
But that wasn’t to happen yet, because a week later we find them still locked in that room, unsure what to do next. It would take the power of that Pentecost day for the Holy Spirit to fill them with the courage and vision to continue Jesus’ work.
Now it appears that Thomas was the only one among them fearless enough to leave their hiding place, because he was gone when Jesus first appeared, and just like the others, he needed to see Jesus’ wounds in order to believe that he was still with them. Maybe this story should have been titled “The Doubting Disciples” not “The Doubting Thomas.” He’s gotten a bad rep. They all wanted proof that this figure they obviously didn’t recognize was really Jesus.
We should take note that they lived in a world before the scientific revolution and the enlightenment. They believed in miracles, in miraculous healings and bodies coming back to life.
But Thomas saw Jesus in a new light when he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” Perhaps that was the first time he saw more than the physical body of Jesus. He saw who Jesus really was to him.
So often we believe that the truth lies only in what we can see with our eyes. The first time I drove past my last church, I saw a physical structure in need of repair. Thank God I looked beyond the buildings and grew to know a loving community, filled with God’s spirit and faithfully working to build the kingdom. Our eyes can be deceiving. How often do we judge people by their appearance without really getting to know them? It’s about seeing with our hearts, not only our eyes. It’s how Jesus viewed the world.
Jesus responded to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This was a message to the community John was writing for - a generation or two later. Their faith was based on what they heard, not what they had seen. That’s us, sitting here today.
Like the disciples living in fear behind closed doors, many of us today live in fear at one time or another. Fear produces doubt - doubt that problems can be resolved -that we can overcome addictions, or beat cancer - doubts that there is the perfect job waiting for us - that another life is possible - that we can create the kingdom despite the obstacles - doubts that there is a God who cares for us - who suffers with us.
Fear and doubt - fear of what the future may hold, keeps us trapped, like the disciples, not knowing how to move forward. But amid that fear, if we are listening to that still small voice, the voice of God is saying “Peace be with you.” It’s a peace we need to calm our fears. Jesus knew that when he walked through that door into their fears.
Faith moves us beyond our fears and doubts. We can’t see into the future. But Jesus tells us here (and I’m using Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase) “Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing” - those who believe that Christ is alive working in and through us to make a better world. It’s a message of hope.
In the United Church of Christ it’s not essential to believe in a specific creed or doctrine that someone wrote centuries ago. But we acknowledge that Christ is the head of the church. Christ is the one who unlocks the doors of our hearts, filling them with God’s love. As God sent Jesus, Jesus sends us, out into the world fearless, to do his work.
I look out among you and I see faith in action. You teach me about faith - those of you who show up Sunday after Sunday because there is no other place you’d rather be.
Faith that takes you visiting our homebound members, bringing meals for those who are ill, or grieving over the loss of someone dear to them.
Faith that compels you to march and sign petitions to demand a more just world. Faith that leads you to a motel in Waltham to brighten a child’s life.
It’s not a heady kind of faith. It’s a faith we’re here to teach our children, not how God is some theological concept or doctrine, but how God is alive in relationship with each of us. Maybe then, too, they’ll be able to see with their eyes and their hearts, how God is working in the world through each and every one of us.