We have been following events in John’s Gospel for the past few weeks and we continue today on the first Sunday after Easter. The end of John’s Gospel is filled with grace. After all of the human failures that take place before the crucifixion of Jesus, all this grace comes as an almost unbelievable breath of fresh air. After betrayals, denials, abandonments, indictments, and crucifixion, Jesus returns with acceptance and forgiveness, gifts and grace.
One disciple, though, is remembered for his specific failure taking place after the resurrection rather than before the crucifixion. Good old Thomas. If Jesus had recruited his disciples in America, Thomas would represent Missouri, the “Show Me” state. “Doubting Thomas” we call him. Even people who don’t know the story may say, “That person is a real doubting Thomas.” It is a very unfair rap. Everybody but John in the story comes to believe by personal experience with the Risen Christ, not through someone else’s report about it.
Serene Jones writes, “Of all the characters Jesus meets in the post-resurrection world of John’s Gospel, none has left a stronger mark on the imagination of Western Christianity than Thomas. He is the incredulous nonbeliever who hides inside every believing Christian – the questioner in us that resists easy answers to hard questions of faith, who always wants a little more proof.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, p. 400)
You know the story. It is Easter evening. In spite of the news brought by Mary Magdalene the disciples have locked themselves inside a house because they are afraid. Suddenly Jesus is standing among them. He speaks to them and shows them his hands and side. The disciples rejoice.
Thomas, one of the disciples, was not there at the time. We don’t know why, the Bible doesn’t say. Maybe he was less cowardly than the others. After all, when Jesus announced his intention to go back to Jerusalem after people had just tried to stone him there, Thomas is the one who said, “Let us go too, so that we might die with him.” When he got back, the rest of them excitedly told him what had happened. I don’t know if he thought they were playing a trick on him or what, but his response is famous: “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.”
Martin Copenhaver suggests that we remember that we were not present on Easter either, having missed it by a couple of thousand years. He reminds us that this Sunday is sometimes called “Low Sunday” because after all the crowds and hoopla of Easter lots of people seem to take a break. He writes, “To be in worship on such a day can feel a bit like showing up at a party after most of the guests have left and those who remain report on what a grand time you missed by coming too late.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 2, p. 394) So we have a lot in common with Thomas. “For most of us, every Sunday is more like the Sunday after Easter. We can hear the accounts, but we were not really there. We did not see and touch and experience it for ourselves.”
I imagine the next week was tough for everyone. A wide gulf of experience and belief separated Thomas from everyone else. But once again on Sunday evening Jesus appeared in their midst in the locked house. Thomas was there this time, and Jesus went straight to him and invited him to do those things he needed to do in order to believe – to see and to touch his wounds. Thomas no longer found this necessary and exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus could have just made one visit to the disciples. Only one was missing, and he can believe or not, as he chooses. But that is not what Jesus is like. The Good Shepherd is not willing for even one to be lost, but goes and does whatever is necessary to find that lamb and restore it to the flock. He makes another visit to the locked room in order for Thomas to have the opportunity to see and believe. Jesus is the one who seeks us where we are and is never willing to write anyone off as a lost cause. There is no lecture, no berating Thomas for not believing what everyone else reported. Just acceptance and grace.
If you were at the sunrise service you heard me talk about several episodes in this chapter of John’s Gospel which show people coming to faith in Christ in different ways. John believes just from entering the empty tomb and observing the graveclothes. Mary believes when the man she thinks is the gardener calls her by name and she realizes he is Jesus. Many of the disciples believed after Jesus appeared in the locked room. Thomas believes when Jesus returns just for his sake.
Fred Craddock summarizes these stories by saying, “The spectrum of faith in the risen Christ is now complete; the beloved disciple alone has that ideal faith which needs no proof, Mary Magdalene believes in response to a word, the disciples see and believe, while Thomas must touch in order to trust. Whether Thomas ever actually touched Jesus is not clear, but what is clear is that faith is not for all the same experience, neither is it generated for all with the same kind and degree of ‘evidence.’ For some, faith is born and grows as quietly as a child sleeping on a grandmother’s lap. For others, faith is a lifetime of wrestling with the angel. Some cannot remember when they did not believe, while others cannot remember anything else, their lives having been shattered and reshaped by the decision of faith. Given these varieties of faith experiences, it is most important to observe that not one of the episodes is made normative for everyone. What John does insist on is that the possibility for faith is not limited to that circle of original disciples nor to their experiences of Christ.” (pp. 142-143, John Knox Preaching Guide)
And that brings us to the crux of the matter for John. John wrote this gospel 60-70 years after the events he described took place. That is like being a writer today trying to help people understand the Great Depression or the Holocaust. The other gospels were already written, so John is picking and choosing the stories he will tell and the implications he will draw based on how well they will help the particular audience he is writing to come to faith. In the end of today’s passage John writes that Jesus did many other things which he has not included in this book. He says the things he has chosen to include “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.”
“Have you believed because you have seen me?” Jesus asked Thomas. Then he said to all of us who would come after, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Blessed are those who give up the right to say, “Show me.” Still, it is graciously not all up to us, this coming to faith. The Jesus who went the extra mile for Thomas is still alive and at work in the world, still seeking us, still knocking at the door of our hearts.
Serene Jones says, “When doubt crowds out hope, we can be confident that Jesus will come to us where we are, even if it is out on the far edge of faith that has forgotten how to believe. What a strange thing to hold on to – this certainty that answers to our most profound and desperate questions about life come not because we seek them with focused determination but because God comes seeking us, stepping through the walls that hardship builds around us, offering love at the very moment that grace seems nothing but a farcical ghost story told by not-to-be-believed friends.” (p. 402)
Gail O’Day adds: “The point is Jesus’ offer of himself, over and over again, to people who long to see him. With no questions asked, Jesus offers himself and gives the repeated gift of his presence and his peace.” (p. 403, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2) “He never lectured the disciples for hiding behind closed doors even after they had received the Spirit, nor did he censure Thomas for wanting a tactile experience of the risen Lord. The stories are parables of grace.” (p. 405)
But really, why would we expect anything different from Jesus? Why would we expect him to become angry and judgmental and aloof after his resurrection? Time after time he has shown that he is the friend of children, the friend of sinners, the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep, who came that all might have life and have it abundantly. He seeks us out and attempts to make himself known to us constantly, standing at the door of our hearts knocking. He comes offering grace, amazing and abundant grace. “God so loved the world that he gave Jesus, his only Son; that whoever lives and believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. God did not send Jesus to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” This is the good news for the second Sunday of Easter, and for every other day of our lives. Amen.
David J. Bailey
April 27, 2014
Central Presbyterian Church