Blessed are Those Who Doubt – A Sermon for Easter 2014

Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, 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 in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.’

Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, 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; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, 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 believed.’

 John 20.24-29 

Several years ago, while sitting in a taxi, stuck in London traffic, N.T. Wright, the former Bishop of Durham, had the following conversation with the taxi driver—

“So, what do you do for a living?” asked the cabbie.

“I am a bishop in the Church of England,” said Wright.          

‘Is that right?’ answered the cabbie. ‘I’m Roman Catholic myself.’ And then to show he was up on current events, he added, ‘You Church of England people are still having all that trouble about women bishops, aren’t you? The way I look at it, is this:’ he said, ‘if God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, all the rest is basically rock’n’roll.’ 

[From Resurrection & Rock’n’Roll, a sermon by N.T. Wright, Easter, 4 April 2010]

If Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, then God has won the decisive victory over the forces of darkness, and He will win the final victory that results. In course of time and human history, God will work out everything else. And since God has it all sorted out—all the rest is, well, basically rock’n’roll.

But what if you happen to be tone deaf? What if everyone else around you “gets it” except you? What if everyone else seems not only to know the tune, but the words, too. And they all seem to be having such a good time listening to music you just can’t quite seem to hear.

This is likely how Thomas felt when all the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” They heard the music, but Thomas could not. He may have wanted to sing the lyrics, but without seeing Jesus that wasn’t going to happen.

This may seem like an odd story for an Easter sermon, but something drew my attention to it. As important as it is, I am not drawn to this story because of Thomas’ confession, “My Lord and my God!” As important as it is, I am not drawn to this text so much because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and miraculously appears in the upper room in the same way he appeared to the disciples directly after his resurrection. As important as all these elements of the story are to our faith, I am drawn to this story is because of the grace Jesus Christ shows to Thomas.

John tells us Thomas was not there when Jesus appeared to the disciples on the evening of His resurrection. Despite the eyewitness accounts of Peter and John, despite the witness of the two disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus and despite the testimony of Mary Magdalene and the other women who saw Jesus on the morning of the resurrection, Thomas would not believe they saw Jesus alive. And he was emphatic about it.

“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

That is a strong statement. In fact, it sounds like an ultimatum. And it’s all the more remarkable because it is spoken by someone who spent three years following Jesus from Capernaum to Jerusalem, from Galilee to Gethsemane. More to the point, as one of the apostles, Thomas would have heard Jesus talk about His death and resurrection on three separate occasions. So it is surprising to hear  Thomas say, “Unless I see . . . . I will never believe.”

History tends not to be kind to Thomas. “Doubting Thomas” he is called. But it is unfair to stick that label on him. It’s unfair because in John 11, when Jesus is making plans to visit the tomb of his friend Lazarus in the town of Bethany, the other apostles warn Jesus that if he goes there the Jews will stone Him. The only one of the twelve who shows any courage is Thomas. While the others warn Jesus not to go, Thomas stands up and says, “Let us also go with Him that we may die with Him.”

Now I ask you: Is that the kind of statement made by a man who is prone to doubt? Is that the kind of courage you’d expect from a doubting man? Is that the kind of fearless bravado you’d expect from someone prone to doubt? More often than not, a man given to doubt is the last one man willing to step up and risk his life when no one else will.

Yes, Thomas and the rest of the 11 did all run away when Jesus when he was arrested. But if you remember, they all ran away so that the Scripture could be fulfilled. As soon as the Shepherd was struck down the sheep all scattered, Thomas among them. The desertion of Jesus by Thomas and the rest had as much to do with the fulfillment of biblical prophecy as it did cowardice on their part.

So what do we make of Thomas’s ultimatum, er declaration, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe”? Is it an ultimatum spoken by a man wracked with doubt? Or is it the statement of a man who is still in the grip of grief?

Judging by his willingness to die with Jesus in Bethany, Thomas was a passionate man. Passionate people grieve passionately. And when passionate people grieve passionately they say passionate things. They say things such as, “Let us also go with Him that we may die with Him.” They may also issue absolute statements like, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” Passionate people say passionate things because they are passionate. Thomas is a passionate man.

Thomas wants to believe Jesus is alive. More than anything he wants to believe what his friends are saying is true. And yet, why did Jesus appear to them and not to Thomas? Was he being punished because he was not with the others when Jesus appeared to them all on the night of His resurrection? Grief and pain can make a person believe things that are not true. But as we will soon find out, things are not what they seem.

How are to understand Thomas? What are we supposed to think about a man who walked with Jesus, who labored with Jesus, and who followed Jesus for three years – yet issues to what amounts to an ultimatum regarding his belief in the resurrection? What do we make of a man who is as passionate, as devoted and as willing to die for Jesus as was Thomas? What do we make of a man who wants to believe yet issues an ultimatum, that unless he sees Jesus, and His wounds, with his own eyes he will never believe?

Remember. Thomas is no late-comer to faith. He is a believer. He is a Christ follower. And yet he lays down these very specific terms. More curious is that no one in that room, no one among the disciples stands up to correct Thomas. No one accuses him of not having faith. No one criticizes him for issuing his ultimatum. No one reprimands him for his impudence. Perhaps no one says anything because they recognize his words are motivated more by grief than by doubt.

What would it take for you to believe Jesus is risen from the dead?

There may be some reading this post who believe Jesus rose from the dead. You accept the resurrection as an historical reality. No explanation is required. No proof is needed. Like me, you believe the testimony of the apostles. We believe the Bible when it tells us that Jesus Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.

There may also be some reading this post who, at one time, believed in Jesus. And maybe there are some reading this who have never believed in Jesus. Perhaps you you’re reading because you are curious, you want to believe but there is this pain, there is some hurt, there is a scar from some wound inflicted long ago. It is hidden from others, yet it hurts. It hurts so much that when you hear people talk with vitality about Jesus, when you hear them talk with joy about this Christ who is risen, when you hear them talk with such certainty about His resurrection you want to believe, but like Thomas you are still gripped by grief. And maybe internally you have given God an ultimatum. You have decided that, like Thomas, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

And thus far God has not met your terms. You have not seen. You haven’t experienced the joy Thomas did. You want to, but you have not. If so, maybe today is the day that is your “eight days later.” Maybe today is the day, when Jesus will come and stand before you.

It is worth noting that eight days pass between the time Thomas makes his comment and Jesus appears a second time to the apostles and to Thomas. And he does so in the very exact same manner as he appeared to them on that first Easter Sunday.

“The doors being locked and Jesus came and stood among them,” (20.19, 26b)

Jesus just appeared. At that moment Thomas was aware something was different. Here is Jesus just as he demanded. Just as he insisted. Just as he ordered. Jesus showed up.

What do you suppose was going through Thomas’ mind at that moment? Do you think he was afraid of Jesus? Do you think he was preparing to be scolded by Jesus? Do you think he was afraid Jesus would smite him for his impudence? Whatever fear Thomas may have had, Jesus put him immediately at ease by His greeting: “Peace be with you.” Jesus greets him simply, calmly, lovingly, graciously. And then he does something incredible. He looks straight at Thomas and says, “Put your finger here and see My hands and put your hand and place it in My side. Do not continue disbelieving, let’s start believing and keep on believing.”

This is Grace. Jesus agreed to Thomas’s terms. He agreed to Thomas’s conditions. He agreed to Thomas’ demands. Jesus submitted Himself to Thomas’ ultimatum! This is Grace. Thomas had said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails and place my hand into His side I will never believe.” And here is Jesus saying, “All right Thomas. Here I am. Put your finger here and see My hands and put your hand and place it in My side. Do not continue disbelieving, let’s start believing and keep on believing.”

John does not tell us how Jesus knew the exact terms of Thomas’ ultimatum, nor does he tells us whether or not Thomas indeed put his finger into the mark of the nails or placed his hand into his side. What John does tell us is, Thomas answered Jesus and said, “My Lord and my God!” The moment Jesus appeared to him, Thomas was overwhelmed by grace. And his response was to confess his trust/obedience in Jesus Christ and call Him “My Lord and my God!”

So what will it take you to believe Jesus is risen from the dead? What are your terms for believing Jesus is alive?

Jesus graciously appeared to Thomas. Jesus did not rebuke. He did not scold. He did not correct. He simply appeared and met Thomas on his terms. And He did so lovingly, compassionately, peacefully and with grace. Disbelieving Thomas is not Believing Thomas. Grace is why He agreed to meet Thomas’ conditions. Grace is why He invited Thomas to make his own examination of the facts. “Go ahead,” says Jesus, “Make your examination. Poke. Prod. Test. It really is Me. I AM real. I AM genuine. I AM true. Do not continue disbelieving, but start believing and keep on believing.” Grace is why Jesus received Thomas’ worship.

So what are your terms for believing Jesus Christ is risen from the dead? What requirements must He meet before you will believe He died to rescue from your sins? What conditions must He meet in order for to make the same confession as Thomas?

Some of you have established your terms not because you doubt, not because you question the validity of whether Jesus is risen or not, not because you question the sincerity of your good friend who talks so passionately Jesus. On the contrary, perhaps the reason you want Jesus to prove Himself is because somewhere in your past God or someone you trust let you down. And it hurt. And you got angry and you’ve stayed angry all these years.

If that’s you, here is good news. The war between you and God ended on Good Friday. It ended when Jesus died on a cross that was placed on a hill overlooking the town garbage dump. It ended with the death of the Son of God and the sign and seal of that truce, the evidence of that treaty, the proof of that covenant of love and faithfulness and loyalty and of peace, is Jesus Christ who died then three days later was raised from the dead. Here is more good news: Jesus is alive. He says, “Peace be with you.” He offers you this invitation, “Make your examination. Poke. Prod. Test. It really is Me. I AM real. I AM genuine. I AM true. Do not continue disbelieving, but start believing and keep on believing.” I AM as Thomas confessed. I AM your Lord and God.

One more thing. Immediately after Thomas makes his confession Jesus says something very puzzling:

“Have you believed,” he asks Thomas, “because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Here is the amazing comfort offered to us by this comment: there is an old saying, “The ground is level at the foot of the cross,” meaning that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” In the same way, “The ground is level at the foot of the empty tomb.” Everyone who believes Jesus is risen from the dead is blessed. Everyone who puts their trust/obedience in Jesus is blessed. Everyone who relies and depends on Jesus to rescue them is blessed. Those who saw Jesus immediately after His resurrection are no more blessed than we who believe but have not seen Him with our eyes or placed our hands in His wounds.

We do not have to see Jesus Christ to believe He is risen. We do not have to see Jesus Christ to know He is alive. We do not have to see Jesus to be blessed by Him.History may give Thomas the label, Doubting Thomas, but we know better. And even if he did doubt, well there is grace for that, too. In fact, you might even say–

Blessed are those who doubt for they will receive grace to believe. Blessed are those who doubt for they will receive mercy to trust in Christ. Blessed are those who doubt for they will be blessed by God with faith to trust in Jesus now and forever.

Each year at Easter we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We rejoice and we say, “He is risen!” And as we who worship Him, Jesus issues the invitation to experience the wonderfully gracious, powerfully majestic, and awesomely peaceful moment when, like Thomas, Jesus stands before you and you say as he did, “My Lord and my God.”

After that, all the rest is basically rock’n’roll.

 You think about that.

 

 

 

 

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