Acts 2:14a, 22-32: 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
April 27, 2014
The Incredulity of Saint ThomasCaravaggio 1601-1602
The conversation between Jesus and Thomas in John 20:19-31, reminds me of a man who called himself a Christian skeptic and relished a gadfly role. Though he was active in a free-wheeling, discussion based Sunday school class, he only came to worship on special occasions. On Easter people in that congregation greeted each other with “Christ is risen!” and responded with “He is risen indeed!” This man took pleasure in responding, “So they say.” Listen to Thomas and Jesus.
When 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.
Thomas is never labeled a doubter by any New Testament writer. I think Thomas was more like a lot of us who come to worship the Sunday after Easter. Thomas was the dependable guy who was almost never missed, but his faith had become stale and fragile.
John 11:16 says that when Lazarus died, Thomas was ready to go back to Judea and die with Jesus when the other disciples were afraid. In John 14:5 at the Last Supper, it was not a lack of faith, but a desire for understanding that prompted Thomas to ask Jesus how to know the way to the unknown place Jesus was going. We don’t know why Thomas was not with the other ten disciples on Easter evening. Even though he had said he wouldn’t believe Jesus had risen until he had seen and touched him, a week later, he was there with them. (v. 26)
I think Anne Sexton’s poem Small Wire puts our starved, fragile faith in context of God loving grace.
is a great weight
hung on a small wire,
as doth the spider
hang her baby on a thin web,
as doth the vine,
twiggy and wooden,
hold up grapes
as many angels
dance on the head of a pin.
God does not need
too much wire to keep Him there,
just a thin vein,
with blood pushing back and forth in it,
and some love.
As it has been said:
Love and a cough
cannot be concealed.
Even a small cough.
Even a small love.
So if you have only a thin wire,
God does not mind.
He will enter your hands
as easily as ten cents used to
bring forth a Coke.
The other disciples had told Thomas that when they saw the risen Jesus, he showed them his hands and his side (v. 20). Thomas was only asking for the same experience they had already had. Rather than scold, Jesus offered exactly that, “Put your finger here and see my hands.” (v. 27) This makes me think of a young child who says, “Let me see,” reaching out a hand to touch and hold.
By giving Thomas this experience, Jesus included him in his mission. He was among those whom Jesus sent, just as the Father had sent Jesus. (v. 21) He was commissioned to proclaim the forgiveness of sins just as the others were. (v. 23) The tradition of the Church of South India is that Thomas preached the risen Jesus to their ancestors.
A careful look at the Greek grammar of the last line of v. 27 shows faith is dynamic, “Stop becoming a doubter, and become a believer.” Faith is not fixed. We are on the move, heading toward or away from trusting Jesus. We can starve fragile faith by avoiding discouragers and nourish fresh faith by absorbing encouragers.
If we can recognize ourselves in Thomas, we can learn what to can absorb to nourish our fresh faith. Since you’re here today, you’re one of those people who doesn't decide on worship attendance based on how you feel when you wake up on Sunday morning. You are steady and dependable.
But steady is not static. As Jesus said to Thomas, “Stop heading down the path of boring routine that sucks the life out of your faith.” Take the path that leads to enthusiasm, and excitement. Pay attention to the little clues that God is present and active. Hang out with and soak up the energy of people who are flourishing in their faith.
The text intentionally does not say whether Thomas reached out to touch Jesus. The focus is on Thomas’ exclamation, “My Lord and my God!” More than his doubts, his inhibitions vanish. Some of us are introverts and some are extroverts, and we express our enthusiasm in distinctly individual ways. However, absorbing the freedom of uninhibited expression nourishes fresh faith.
Many studies have shown that new Christians are more effective evangelists than longtime believers. In time our circle of friends shifts into the church, but new Christians still have their networks of non-believing friends. We've gotten used to faith and hang out with others who’ve gotten used to faith too. By sending Thomas and us on the mission to proclaim forgiveness of sin to those who don’t know him, Jesus also gives us two stimuli for our faith. First, we have to depend on the Holy Spirit to handle unpredictable conversations we have with those who don’t know Jesus. Second, people who are new to faith are excited about what Jesus has done for them, and by hanging out with them, we absorb their excitement.
Jesus told Thomas that those who believed without seeing would be even more blessed than he was. Over the centuries, many who have not seen have believed because of Thomas’ experience. His “doubt” made him an even more reliable witness than the other disciples. We who believe without seeing are the recipients of this blessing.
John seems to draw his Gospel to a conclusion with verses 30-31. Chapter 21 is an appendix to show how Jesus resolved the tense relationships with his disciples who abandoned him at his crucifixion. I think John ended the Gospel proper with the story of Thomas specifically for people like us with fragile faith, not so much to convince seekers to believe in Jesus. John wrote his Gospel quite late, when he was likely the only eyewitness of Jesus ministry and resurrection still alive. He wanted to nourish fresh faith among them and us who have come to believe without having seen.
By the end of the first century, the Church was already in need of some renewal. John ended his Gospel with the story of Thomas as renewal stimulus for those who had come to believe without having seen Jesus. By absorbing this encouragement, they were nourished and blessed with fresh faith. British New Testament scholar N. T. Wright has made a global splash on the Church from the definitively evangelical to the broadly mainline. In the most unlikely of venues, he was interviewed on The Colbert Report in 2008 and was asked what he wanted to accomplish. He answered, “I would like to kick-start a biblical renewal within the church – not simply a renewal of private piety, though God knows if you got the sort of renewal I am talking about, it would drive people to their knees, it would fill their hearts with joy, it would challenge them at every possible level.” Christianity Today. April 2014, p. 7
Though I am sure John wrote his Gospel to starve the fragile faith and nourish the fresh faith of all of us who have not seen but have come to believe, his purpose was not ingrown or self-contained. Jesus sent his disciples and us, just as the Father had sent him, with the message of forgiveness of sins and the hope of resurrection to eternal life. We who have believed without seeing are blessed to share in the same mission Jesus gave the disciples who had seen him. We are blessed to be participant partners with God in this great redemptive mission. We are blessed to be God’s instruments of introducing a whole new generation of those who have not seen to Jesus that they may also believe and share this blessing.
Reflect on the freshness of your faith as you listen to 1 Peter 1:3-9.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
6In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, 7so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.