Easter 2A — April 27, 2014

The Benefit of the Doubt 

Guest Preacher: Mark Shannon

Audio can be heard by clicking this link:  https://soundcloud.com/emsworthup/april-27-2014-11-17-32-am/s-1ENlf

John 20:19-31
19When 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.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So 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.” 26A 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.” 27Then 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.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But 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 Bible tells us what we need to know, but it doesn’t always record what we want to know.  Down through the ages theologians and laypeople alike have reflected in universities and gathered in places like our mini-meeting room to pore over the conversation Jesus has with his disciple Thomas.  All of us want to know the answers to a few basic questions about this passage.  Namely, what tone of voice did Jesus use in his comments to Thomas and do his doubts make Thomas somewhat less than devout in his love for his Lord and his God?
            It’s safe to say that most of us at one time or another have wished for amplification when it came to our study of Scripture.  What was it like to live in the time that’s depicted in the Bible?  What did people eat?  How did they dress?  In the past several years our Sunday School classes have been blessed with teaching by Ken Bailey and Ray Van der Laan and other Biblical scholars who have steeped themselves in the culture of Biblical times.  These experts have given us glimpses of the things we want to know about.
            But we still have questions.  In today’s Scripture how are we to understand Jesus’s remarks to Thomas?  I invite you to put your finger on John 20:19-31 as we look at this passage together.  There are a few insights I gleaned from this passage that I’ll present to you today and you may want to read the passage for yourself as we pore over the text.
            To set the scene:  the disciples are gathered together in a locked room.  The risen Lord has appeared to a couple of women but the disciples have not seen Him yet.  It was as though the Lord’s resurrection wasn’t officially recognized unless a man had witnessed it.  They were huddled together behind a locked door because they were fearful of the Jews that had pushed for the crucifixion of Jesus.  Maybe they themselves were next on the hit list.  Perhaps they were also angry at the Jewish officials.  Remember in the garden when Peter responded to the arrest of Jesus by taking up a sword and attacking one of the guards?  Maybe some of them wanted to mete out their own kind of justice. 
            Suddenly into this potent emotional mix there appears Jesus before them.  How did He get in?  Remember, this is the first time they have seen Jesus in his resurrection body.  Up til now, they’ve only heard a rumor that He was back from the dead.  And now, there He is in the room with them.  Surprise seems too mild a word to describe their response.  They must have been amazed and astonished at His arrival.
            Our church needs to expect to be surprised by the Lord’s presence today.  The New Beginnings project kicked off last week and many of us answered a series of questions about our experience in this church.  When we were finished the results were surprising to me, and not all of them were good surprises, either.  Some of the answers to the questions indicate that some changes need to be made.  Some people may draw some dire conclusions about the answers given in that survey.  But before we assume the worst about our church, we need to acknowledge that Jesus is capable of surprising us.  We’ve been in this position before.  Remember when the roof needed fixed, and the boiler shut down, and the organ conked out—all at the same time?  Many people thought the worst.  It didn’t look promising.  We didn’t know what to fix first, or where we were going to get the money to fix anything.  The great thing about Jesus is that He is in the midst of our dillemnas  and He is on the other side of them.  He knew the outcome of that particular series of events.  And so it came to pass that a sizeable bequest from the estate of a deceased member came into the church’s possession.  And the roof was mended.  And the boiler was fixed.  And we bought and installed a new organ.  Do you remember?  Jesus is in the middle of all that is going on now and He is fully capable of bringing us through these days.
            I’ve told this story before.  Many years ago when I was a teller at a bank, I was balancing my drawer at the end of the day.  I found out I was $20 short.  I followed the step-by-step procedures for finding outages and I couldn’t locate the problem.  So I went back to where we hung up our coats and I prayed for help.  After that I came back to my station and began the whole process again.  And I found the $20!  Was it there all the time?  Maybe.  But I’m willing to believe that God answered my prayer and provided the solution to the problem.
            I invite you this year to make a commitment in your lives to pray for our church—not just the building and how to pay the bills, although those prayers are needed too—but for the members of the congregation.  Pray for their spiritual, physical, and emotional needs.  Pray that we as a congregation will be open to hearing and understanding God when He answers our prayers for this church and its members.  Don’t pray with some foregone conclusion in mind.  Be open to the idea of being amazed at the way Jesus will answer our prayers.
Getting back to the text the Lord’s first words to His followers are:  “Peace be with you.”  Even if they couldn’t believe their eyes at first when they saw Him, His words should have reassured them.  Didn’t He bring peace to a raging storm when they were all in a boat together?  Didn’t He say in their presence:  “Peace I give to you, not as the world giveth, give I unto you”?  Perhaps His words did much to calm them down on this occasion, too.
            At that first meeting after His resurrection, Jesus showed His disciples the wounds on his hands and in his side.  And they were all overjoyed and astonished.  Maybe until then they didn’t realize it was Him.  Maybe they thought it was someone who resembled the Lord—never mind how He got through a locked door.   But when He showed them His wounds, then they were overjoyed.  They knew it was the risen Savior come among them.
            Before that first encounter ended Jesus said again “Peace be with you”.  Now any English major worth his salt can tell you that when a character in a story says the same thing twice, the author is trying  to emphasize those words.  Jesus is saying again:  “Calm down, relax, don’t be afraid.”  Those are good things to remember today.
            Now Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples.  The Bible doesn’t tell us where he was.  Maybe he was out doing good works.  Maybe he was trying to gain some intelligence about what the Jewish authorities had in mind for the disciples.  We don’t know where he was.  But at some point he comes back to be with them and hears their story.
            But their testimony doesn’t impress him.  Even though he’s traveled with them for three years and gone through many trials and triumphs with all of them, he is not persuaded by their experience.  And to the disciples credit they allow him to remain unconvinced.  They don’t bully him into believing them.  They tell what happened to them and let him decide for himself. 
            When we talk to skeptics about our faith, we would do well to behave the same way.  All we have when it comes down to it, is the truth of our own experience.  People can choose to believe us or disregard us, but whatever their reaction may be, they can’t take away the fact of our own experience.  And we don’t need to be overly concerned about their response to our testimony.  Our job is to tell what we know, allow the Holy Spirit to work in their lives, and recognize that others may need to hear more than just our own stories to be persuaded.  We’re all just links in the chain of faith and we only need to do what we are able.
            Remember too that the disciples and Thomas really don’t have any assurance that they will see the risen Lord again.  When He was in the flesh, they counted Him as a member of their group and could probably say with reasonable certainty that they would see Him throughout the day and at meals together.  But in His resurrected state, everything’s up for grabs.  Anything could happen and there was no telling when or where Jesus would show up again.  There must have been a new excitement among those first disciples when they reflected that they had seen Him appear instantly among them—just like that thief in the night He talked about—and He might be back with them at any moment.
            Once again it behooves us to expect to see Jesus doing unexpected things in the coming year.  We don’t know how He will bring about what He intends for us.  And so we have a choice:  We can walk around with our heads hung down waiting for some dire pronouncement of doom to come upon us.  Or we can look ahead with expectation knowing that Jesus cares for us and has a plan for each of us that will be the best for us when the time comes. Remember in your prayers to be in agreement with one another and not to harbor a pre-determined outcome that may not be true.
            Now when Thomas heard their news he issued his requirements in order for him to believe the Savior was risen.  He itemized what he wanted to see and do that would allow him to relinquish his disbelief and worship Jesus.  Thomas must be the ancestor of the United Nations inspectors who go into a country looking for nuclear weapons with the motto:  “Trust—but verify!”
            Now a word about doubt in the life of a Christian.  Years ago several of us were sitting in a Sunday school class just off this sanctuary and the subject of doubt came up.  A dear saint named Ruth Higgins who has since gone to her reward said that everybody has doubts about his or her own faith.  We all agreed with this statement.  Yet as we talked we came to the conclusion that doubt can serve to strengthen our faith.  When we go to the pages of Scripture and to good friends who are believers we can put our doubts to the test and see if they are really worthy of our concern.  Often our own experiences and those of our friends, as well as the truth of the Bible, can serve to conquer the doubts that loom large in our minds.
            So, in that light, Thomas does not appear to be the shady character that some have suggested.  His doubts and how he resolved them can serve as an example to us when we encounter dubious speculation.  Open the pages of your Bible, consult Christian friends, and see if your doubts continue to pose a problem.
            The second time the Lord appears to His disciples occurs when Thomas is gathered with them.  There is no record that Jesus appears among them again before Thomas returns.  We don’t read anything resembling one of the disciples saying:  “Aw, Thomas, you just missed Him!” 
            An interesting fact I discovered in the text caused me to be surprised at this familiar story.  When Thomas meets with the disciples in the room, before Jesus appears to all of them, the door to the room is locked again!  See for yourself.  Every disciple except Thomas has met Jesus and been convinced that He is back from the dead.  You might think that they would be excited about this and that they had no reason to be afraid of a Jewish mob bent on persecution.  Since Jesus came back from the dead, He must be powerful enough to deal with any physical threat they might face.  But they lock the door again.
            Fear is a powerful emotion.  It can drain us of hope and strength as well as confidence.  The disciples must have still been afraid of what might happen.  This fear caused them to bar the door even though they knew about a stone rolled away in front of an empty tomb.
            We have seen the Lord do wonderful things in this congregation, on a corporate level and in the lives of individual members.  But instead of relying on our experience of God’s saving presence in our midst, we fall back on fearful speculation about what might happen next.  Take heart, believers!  God is still in the business of surprising us when we least expect Him.  He has seen us through tough times before and He is fully capable of doing so again.
            We can infer from Jesus’s encounter with Thomas that the Lord heard each of his wayward disciples’ conditions.  Jesus specifically points to His hands and His side and invites Thomas to give Him a hands-on examination. 
            The Bible warns us not to put God to the test.  We have no business daring God to act on our behalf.  But in the book of Malachi God encourages His people to examine His faithfulness to them by tithing their income to His service.  So Jesus meets Thomas’s conditions in order to bolster the disciple’s faith.
            Thomas finishes his examination and declares his allegiance to the Lord.  It is then that we read the Lord’s words:  “Don’t doubt and believe.”
            There is no indication about how Jesus delivered these words.  Did He raise His voice and proclaim those words in a thunderous command?  Or did he speak in softer tones that stirred in Thomas’s heart?  We don’t know.
            I once had a teacher in college who said that he formed an opinion of a person based on what that person would not do.  He befriended an individual based on the things that individual refused to participate in.  Using that as our point of reference, what do we know about the character of Jesus when He came in His resurrection body?
            We know He didn’t appear in front of legions of Roman soldiers and dare them to take their best shot. 
            We know He didn’t materialize in the middle of the temple grounds and shout to the Jewish authorities:  “It’s payback time!”
            We do know He first appeared to two women, counted among the lowest members of first century society, and proclaim His victory over death.
            We do know He met His followers on the shore and prepared breakfast for all of them.
            We know from our text today that the Lord graciously waited for Thomas to come back so that He could be included when Jesus shared His good news again.  He didn’t exclude Thomas and tell the others to shun him.  He waited and welcomed Thomas with open and outstretched arms—just as He did to the whole world from the cross.
            So in what tone of voice did Jesus tell Thomas to stop doubting and believe?
            What effect did those words have on Thomas?  Was he mortified and did he flee from the room and seclude himself from the new-found group of believers?
            The Lord’s words assured Thomas and galvanized him for further service.  No matter the tone of voice Jesus took with Thomas, remember that the Lord chastises those whom He loves.  Scripture also tells us that a wise man accepts discipline and benefits from instruction.
            And so it must have been with Thomas.
            I knew a man named Tim in college at Slippery Rock.  Tim was in his mid-twenties and came to the Lord during his college years when the girl he proposed to shared her faith with him and caused him to believe and be saved.  Tim told me that in the early days of his new-found faith he wanted to share his good news with other people.  One day Tim met a person from India.  During their conversation Tim learned that this person was a Christian.  With excitement Tim told of his recent conversion and asked when the person from India had accepted Christ.
            That person told Tim that he was raised in a Christian home in India and that his family contained a long line of ancestral believers. In fact the first person in that family came to salvation a couple thousand years ago when the man we know as Doubting Thomas came to preach in that family’s village.  Tim reeled back in wonder, then he told me that the last name of the person he talked to was in fact, Thomas.

            So rejoice everybody!   Even though we may find ourselves in a valley of doubt and apprehension, Jesus is right here with us and he has a plan for all of us and for our congregation.  May we have the grace to listen to Him and to obey Him as He reveals it to us in His good time.