Sunday, April 11, 2010
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter (April 11, 2010)
“Lessons From a Former Doubter” (John 20:24-31)
When it comes to politics, we are doubters. We doubt whether those running for office will keep their campaign promises. We doubt whether those in office will stick to their guns or be swayed by lobbyists, special interest groups, and the lure of money. We doubt whether the politicians even know what they themselves stand for … when it seems as though some continually waffle on certain issues.
The apostle Thomas would have fit right into the American political scene. He was a skeptic. He has come to be known as “Doubting Thomas.” More than that, he was an unbeliever. Are you shocked to hear that about Thomas? Yet this is what he said after he heard that Jesus was alive: “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.”
But our Gospel lesson today shows Thomas’ miraculous transformation from a skeptical, doubting, unbeliever into a confident, believing, confessor of Christ as God, the risen Lord and Savior. We can learn some valuable lessons from this former doubter. And I pray that the Holy Spirit will move the hearts of all of us, so that we may each confess the same things as Thomas did.
The first lesson we can learn is to not withdraw our presence from the church, even when we doubt. Thomas made that mistake. At the time when he should have been gathering together with the other disciples to receive support in the midst of their grief and fear after the death of Jesus, where is Thomas? We don’t know why he wasn’t there. One thing is sure: he missed out on Jesus’ first post-resurrection appearance to the disciples. And because he missed out, Thomas succeeded in making himself miserable for another week, wallowing in his grief and unbelief.
You and I make a grave mistake when we withdraw our presence from the company of our fellow believers. Hebrews 10:25 tells us not to neglect “meet[ing] together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” It’s in the assembly of believers where we are encouraged by our fellow Christians. It’s often in the very times when we are sad or lonely or depressed when we tend to shut ourselves off from others. That is the very time when we should seek to be in the company of our Christian brothers and sisters. More importantly, it is good to gather together in the Divine Service to hear the comfort of God’s Word, to respond to God’s grace in prayer and praise, and to commune with our Savior Jesus in the Lord’s Supper. Furthermore, when you become a Christian, you become a member of a body, the Body of Christ. In the Apostle’s Creed, we confess, “I believe in … the Holy Christian Church, the communion of saints.” We are a communion, an intimate fellowship, a community … here to experience God’s grace together. There is no such thing as a “Lone Ranger” Christian. I need you. You need me. You need that person sitting next to you, behind you, in front of you. We need each other and we work together side by side for the good of our neighbor to the glory of Christ in this Holy Christian Church.
Now, you are here this Sunday, so perhaps this is preaching to the choir, as they say. But perhaps something has happened to you recently or someone has said something to you that has irritated you and got you thinking about throwing in the towel and giving up coming to church. So, hear these words to you today, and let them encourage you to remain in the fellowship. Hear these words today and encourage those you know who have been lax in their attendance in the Divine Service and receiving the Lord’s body and blood … not just because we want a big church busting at the seams, but because, in Christian love, we are concerned about the welfare of their souls.
The second lesson we can learn from our former doubter is to believe the testimony of the witnesses in the Bible to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. They had the physical evidence. They saw and touched the risen Jesus. We have their eyewitness testimony. Thomas made the mistake of discounting the testimony of his friends. They had told him, “We have seen the Lord.” The disciples had begun the process of evangelizing, with an unbeliever, Thomas, right in their midst. But instead, Thomas stubbornly sets himself against their testimony even more. In essence, he says, “I’ve got to see it to believe it.”
Even Christians have their times of doubting when it comes to believing God’s Word and the testimony that the apostles give to us in the New Testament. It really is easier to believe once we have seen. Think for a moment about a court trial. If there is little or no physical evidence to convict the defendant, both the defense attorney and the prosecuting attorney scramble to find witnesses. Eyewitness testimony becomes crucial.
Peter and the apostles were arrested in Acts 4 for preaching about the risen Jesus. When they appeared before the Jerusalem council the next day, they were told to “speak no more to anyone in this name,” that is, the name of Jesus Christ. “But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.’” (Acts 4:19-20) And right after today’s reading from Acts 5, where they were arrested again and an angel released them from prison, they continued preaching in the name of Jesus. Brought before the council once more, they were told again to cease and desist. “But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts 5:29-32)
These are courageous words, considering they come from men who had denied and deserted Jesus in the hours before his death, men who were terrified and timid after Jesus’ death. But when the risen Jesus appeared to them and empowered them with the Holy Spirit, they went out and were witnesses of his saving power. From a rag-tag band of twelve insignificant men came words that could not be silenced by the mighty Roman Empire, no matter how many Christians they put to death. And today, we hear their eyewitness testimony when we hear the Gospel read to us on Sunday morning, when the Good News is proclaimed to us in the sermon and in the liturgy, when you read the Bible at home. We hear the apostolic testimony, and our faith is strengthened.
The third lesson we can learn from this former doubter is that we are just like Thomas and need to repent of our sinful doubt and our craving physical evidence. Thomas wanted more than just the word of his friends. He wanted evidence that he could touch and feel and see. Of course, the disciples could have taken Thomas to the empty tomb. That should have been physical evidence enough. But it wouldn’t have been enough for Thomas.
In a way, Thomas is like you and me. We wish we had more evidence. If only they could discover the remnants of Noah’s Ark. If only they could dig up some final, definitive archaeological evidence of the history of the Bible. This would once and for all substantiate the Bible as accurate and reliable. No one’s sure if that wood on Ararat is Noah’s Ark. And plenty of archaeological evidence has been uncovered to verify the truthfulness of the Biblical record. But we don’t have faith in evidence. We have faith in a Living Lord and Savior.
That Living Lord and Savior didn’t have to appear to Thomas. He could have said, “Well, Thomas, you missed me the first time. Now you’re out of luck.” But instead, out of love for Thomas, Jesus did appear to him the next time Thomas was with his friends. And just like he did the week before to the other disciples, Jesus said to Thomas, “Peace be with you.” Then, Jesus certainly must have amazed Thomas when he echoed the same words that Thomas had spoken in his unbelief: “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.”
Scripture doesn’t tell us whether Thomas actually did touch Jesus. It was enough for him to see Jesus and his wounds that brought forgiveness, and so he cried out, “My Lord and my God!” The sight of Jesus and his word of peace and forgiveness called forth faith in Thomas. I have to assume that Thomas obeyed the Lord’s words to touch him. That’s what the apostle John said they did. In his first epistle, he writes, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us – that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us.” (1 John 1:1-3) And as you heard at the end of today’s Gospel reading, St. John tells us why he recorded what he did: “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31)
Having said all this, there is one sense in which you and I are blessed like Thomas was. You and I can reach out and touch … and taste … the presence of our Risen Savior when we eat and drink his body and blood in Holy Communion. Jesus said to Thomas, “Peace be with you.” Thomas believed, as did the other disciples, and they reached out and touched the Word of Life. In the liturgy, the body and blood of Jesus is displayed to you, and your pastor says, “The peace of the Lord be with you always.” We believe those words, and then we come and kneel and reach out and touch and taste the Word of Life in response to Jesus’ invitation, “Take, eat; this is my body … Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matt. 26:26-28) Out of live, Jesus graciously came to Thomas to assure him of his peace, his presence, and his pardon. And out of love for us, Jesus graciously comes to us and does the very same thing in his Holy Supper. Here, we get to touch and taste the Word of Life.
I’ve always said that Thomas has gotten a bad reputation. Whenever Thomas’ name is mentioned, the description “Doubting” is always attached. “Doubting Thomas.” Why haven’t we instead focused on the beautiful and succinct confession of faith he made? “My Lord and my God!” Why don’t we instead call him “Confessing Thomas” or “Faithful Thomas”? Maybe it’s because by calling him “Doubting” we are trying to make ourselves out to be better than Thomas by including ourselves in the category of those whom Jesus said are “blessed” because they “have not seen and yet have believed.” In reality, though, we are not always the faithful, confessing Christians we ought to be. But just like Jesus forgave Thomas, he forgives us, too. And through his forgiving Word, he empowers us to believe the testimony of the apostles, so that we, too can worship Jesus and call him “My Lord and my God!”