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.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so 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 20:24-31 ESV)
I think I may have preached on this text more than any other – I haven’t actually checked – but today’s final scene in John 20 is the reading for this Sunday in each year of the three year lectionary and the traditional one year lectionary – so it actually might be better to say that this text is one that you have heard almost as much as any other.
I think the Gospel writer, John, very much wants his readers to learn and know – and to have hope if he is the last apostolic eyewitness – that ‘you don’t need me to guarantee the Faith for you or your grandchildren’ because it is not seeing is believing but believing is seeing.
So he records in the first scene of Chapter 20 when Peter and the other disciple – I believe it is John himself – run to the tomb and Peter leaves scratching his head – grave clothes there but no body – but John sees the same thing and believes – something falls into place for John – and it has to be words because words always give meaning to sight and then John says that they should have remembered the Scriptures!
For Mary – the next scene – she sees Jesus – thinks he’s the gardener – yes, no one has been able to explain this satisfactorily to my liking – but her eyes are opened when he calls her by name. She then rugby tackles him and he tells her that’s not necessary because he’s not going anywhere – and when he has gone to the Father he will be with her always – and then when he asks her to do something, she does, leaves him and goes tells the disciples.
For many years, I have preached aspects of the Thomas account and have said that I don’t think he’s doubting or unsure but for his own reasons – which we are not told about! – he rejects the 10 disciples’ message ‘Thomas, we have seen the Lord’ and sets up his own criteria for proof – the rather gruesome sticking fingers into wounds. I also think – and yes, this is not in the text so it is an hypothesis from me, an argument from silence if you will – that the 10 disciples didn’t ‘give up’ on Thomas but for the week are talking to him about seeing Jesus and they will have already made links and conclusions from Jesus’ deeds and from Jesus’ teaching to back them up. I can imagine – again it’s an argument from silence – someone saying, “Thomas, if Jesus can raise Lazarus, why can’t he rise from the dead?” and it is in this context, I think, that Thomas becomes ‘doubting Thomas’ because now he’s not so sure, so definite, so resolute – so that when Jesus appears and challenges Thomas to do his gruesome checking, Jesus says, “Do not disbelieve, but believe” and there is a recognition here of Thomas’ choice, his will, his pushing against the message, “Thomas, we have seen the Lord!”.
Thomas concedes and acknowledges Jesus “My Lord and my God” when he could have said, “Very funny, who is the impersonator?”.
What has convinced Thomas is the same as how others come to faith – through the Word of God. When I imagine this scene or if I was directing this scene on stage I think Jesus’ next words to
Thomas are factual, true, and also sadly ironic – “Have you believed because you have seen me?”. Thomas’ experience, then and there, would probably say ‘yes’ but on reflection he’d come to see how he stopped disbelieving because the words made sense of what he was seeing. This, of course, is the Gospel writer John’s point to whomever hears this chapter and this story, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed”.
And then John gives us the purpose of his writing – listen – Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so 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 20:30,31 ESV)
This isn’t a picture book. This isn’t live streaming from the past. John is pointing out to those at the end of the first century and I am doing the same at the beginning of the 21st century that words are so important. The words about the Word made flesh who tabernacles among us, about the Son of God whom we are told ‘Listen to him’ by the voice from the cloud on the transfiguration mountain, and from Jesus himself who said that if we heard him we hear the Father and that all of the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms point to him. Words about his deeds – the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Words that he said – I am the resurrection and the life; I am the light of the world; I am the bread of life; In this world you will have tribulation but take heart, I have overcome the world; I am with you always to the end of the age. Words about him – eyewitness words, researched words, words in letters, hymnody, song, sermons, teachings – all draw people to the hidden one – he is close but beyond our senses and he uses masks which our senses acknowledge – words (ears), water (touch), bread and wine (taste) – and our eyes see ordinary things – fellow sinners, water, bread and wine – but mysteriously we are drawn to Jesus and our faith grows and we believe.
But there are many Thomas-es around – those who for many reasons put up barriers – often they are claims for proof but they will still be problematic because what do you do if the miracle you wanted as proof happens and someone says, ‘That’s a fluke or chance’, then you’re back to square one again!
It is a mystery that people can push Jesus away. People who saw Jesus did it so we shouldn’t be surprised that people who don’t see Jesus do it! But why? Well, those who saw Jesus did it because Jesus didn’t fit into their version of a good rabbi, a good Pharisee (remember Jesus socially is best categorised as a Pharisee – a zealous layman desiring the Kingdom of God), a good Messiah. In fact Jesus goes too far – he’s too extreme – especially about being God.
Why do people push Jesus away today? For the same reason! He doesn’t fit into their idea of what he should be – of what God should be. And here, often, not always, I think there can be a deep personal story of hurt and betrayal, or grief and pain – and Jesus is pushed away because something happened in that person’s life that is traumatic, cruel, hard – there is suffering – and the logic at the time said, “Why? Unless I can get an explanation, drill you, Jesus, for the reason why … whatever happened happened, I will not believe!”. Jesus should have helped, should have been loving and kind and he was not and people hold onto that. There is no magic formula answer here but the tools are the same for us all – faith comes from hearing and that involves words about Jesus and he is capable of handling any rage or rejection that comes his way with his steadfast love, his patience, and his mercy.
And the message we come to from this cross and empty tomb is that God loves us.
The cry ‘Christ is risen!’ (He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!) is not trite or a happy liturgical response for 7 weeks but is a declaration and a promise that whatever we go through, we are not alone. We are reminded that God loves us! Yes, it is cry that can be met with scorn or mocking or deep sadness because it can remind people of things not going well – often of loss, I think – but this cry should never be silenced and it can never be silenced because the story of the cross is the key message and the grave is empty. And so Jesus keeps coming to people through his Word and offers himself to us all – to serve us, to save us, and to remind us that he hasn’t abandoned us even when we feel he has, even when we find it hard to believe and when it is hard to follow him.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!
- John 20:24 - 31