Second Sunday of Easter
April 27, 2003
The Gospel: John 20:19-31
The Rev. Dr. William H. Morley
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." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, 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 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." A 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." Then 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." 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 come to believe." Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But 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.
Second Sunday of Easter - April 27, 2003
From the words of our Patron Saint:
“Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
Like many of you, I receive emails from friends who like to share jokes, stories, and interesting commentaries. Not long ago, I received one entitled: The First Annual “Duh” Awards. Here are just a few notable award winners:
From singer Mariah Carey, we hear these sensitive words:
“Whenever I watch TV and see those poor starving kids all over the world, I can’t help but cry. I mean I’d love to be skinny like that, but not with all those flies and death and stuff.”
Princeton graduate, Brooke Shields, during an interview as a spokesperson for a federal anti-smoking campaign:
“Smoking kills. If you’re killed, you’ve lost a very important part of your life.”
Lee Iacocca, the former Chairman of Chrysler:
“We’ve got to pause and ask ourselves: How much clean air do we need?”
In recognition of today as NFL draft Sunday, here’s one from Joe Theisman, a former NFL quarterback and now TV analyst:
“The word genius isn’t applicable in football. A genius is a guy like Norman Einsten.”
One cannot avoid excluding politicians, and historically, the best candidate would have to be Vice President, Dan Quayle: here are just a few:
“I love California. I practically grew up in Phoenix.”
“The loss of life would be irreplaceable.”
“It’s wonderful being here in the great state of Chicago.”
Finally, my favorite “Duh Award” winner is: the Dept. of Social Services in Greenville, SC, who sent the following notice:
“Your food stamps will be stopped effective May 1stbecause we received notice that you passed away. May God Bless you. You may reapply if there is a change in your circumstances.”
Now, some of you may be asking yourselves: why did he start this sermon with the “Duh” Awards and how does that apply to the Gospel lesson? Some people have suggested that Saint Thomas should not be called “Doubting Thomas”, but “Thomas? Duh!” Here you have a disciple who heard the women tell how they had visited the tomb, seen it empty, and while in despair the Risen Lord appeared in their midst and spoke to them. Now, you have his fellow brothers speaking to him about Jesus’ appearance before them, and he still didn’t believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. “Duh!”
It is perhaps unfair to single out one moment in the life of a person and remember them only for that one point in time. For we read from the 155 words written about him in John’s Gospel, he emerges as a distinct biblical personality. In the 20th Century we had a similar figure in Governor George Wallace of Alabama: for during much of the last two decades of his life in working diligently to heal the wounds between the races. He admitted that he was wrong for his earlier actions. Yet, history will forever remember him for one moment in time, when he stood at the door of the University of Alabama and barred black students from entering the administration building to register.
The same is true for Thomas. When Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem the disciples thought that it would be certain death for all of them. Surprisingly, it was Thomas who said: Then let us go so that we may die with him. It was a courageous statement, yet we don’t remember him for that.
What we do remember him for is that scene where the resurrected Christ made an appearance to the disciples in a home in Jerusalem. Thomas was not present and when he heard about the event he refused to believe it. Maybe he was the forerunner of modern day cynicism. Maybe the news simply sounded too good to be true. Thomas said: Unless I feel the nail prints in his hands I will not believe.
Now I cannot help but notice that Thomas has separated himself from the disciples and therefore, in his solitude, had missed the resurrection appearance. I think that John is suggesting to us that Christ appears most often within the community of believers that we call the church, and when we separate ourselves from the church we take a chance on missing his unique presence.
The second time Jesus made his appearance Thomas was present with the disciples and this time he too witnessed the event. This time he believed. What can we learn from this event in the life of Thomas?
First, Jesus did not blame Thomas for doubting. So often the church’s handling of doubt is to couple it with disbelief and squash it. But Jesus never condemned Thomas. I think he understood that once Thomas worked through his doubts, he would be one of the surest men of faith in all of Christendom.
I must admit that I am somewhat dubious of people who say that they have never had any doubts. I would suggest to you that any person who places himself beyond doubt, places himself above Jesus himself. For even Jesus on the cross cried out to His Father: Why have you forsaken me? At a given time in history, even Jesus had doubts.
Authentic faith always begins with intellectual honesty, and doubt is the bedrock of honesty. Put it another way: Faith is not the absence of doubt; it is the overcoming of doubt. I have had my doubts. I’ve stood by a graveside on an icy winter day when a bitter cold wind chapped my face. I’ve heard the cries of families who had lost a young child, and thought silently to myself: Is it all true? Was the resurrection for real? Are the scoffers correct? Is it all simply an ancient myth designed to get us through the tough times?
Alfred Lloyd Tennyson once said: “There lives more faith in honest doubt than in half the creeds.” So we find ourselves crying out, as did the disciple off old: Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief.
Secondly, we can learn from the life of Thomas that the most endearing things in life can never be proven. Jesus said: Thomas, you have believed because you have seen. Blessed are those who have not seen yet still believe?
I don’t know how that makes you feel but it is of great comfort to me. Jesus is talking about me. I will never see Jesus in this life. I will not have the chance to put my finger in the nail scars. I will not get the chance to touch his pierced side. It will never be proven to me that he was raised from the dead. Jesus understands it’s harder for me to believe than for Thomas and he counts me blessed.
But let me ask you: How can you conclusively prove the qualities of love, friendship, or faith? How can you establish beyond a shadow of a doubt your devotion to your children? Where does the verifiable evidence that love your exist? The cynic can always dismiss acts of love on your part as attempts at self-love, or the need to control people. How can you prove to someone that you love your children, your spouse, your friends, and the church?
If the goal of your life is for someone to show you a photograph of God, then you will be forever disappointed. I recall the disappointment for many when, through Carbon 14 dating of the Shroud of Turin -- believed to be the actual burial shroud of Jesus --turned out to be nothing more than a fake, a medieval painting. We criticize Thomas for wanting to reach out and actually touch, yet are we really so different from him? I remember from my seminary days when a reporter asked the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, if the discovery of the Shroud of Turin made his faith more real and the existence of Jesus more certain. He said without hesitation: “No. A cloth would not change or impact what I believe to be true though faith: that Jesus lived, died and was raised from the dead for me and the forgiveness of my sins.”
I believe we must understand a simple truth: that we had better leave some room for mysticism in our worldview. It does not preclude science nor preclude intellectualism. What it does mean is that the most important things in your life you will never be conclusively proved. You will, on daily and even momentary bases, need to lie by faith.
We learn from the life of Thomas a third lesson: We must move beyond doubt to faith. It is all right to doubt, but in our discipleship we should move beyond doubt. Jesus admonished Thomas, “Stop doubting and believe.” Unbelief is a normal part of life but it is not healthy to remain in unbelief. In the early days of John Wesley’s ministry he was racked with doubts and uncertainties. So he went to his old friend and mentor and laid his soul bare. His mentor responded to John Wesley with these words: “Preach faith until you have it, and because you have it you will preach it.” In other words, act as though you have already moved passed doubt to faith and because you are acting it out it will eventually come to you.
When we gather in worship, we come to see into the heart of God. To all the doubters who come here today, including me, I want you to remember this: from time to time in our lives we will face grief, disappointment, pain, or depression. It is often during these times that our hold on God falters. When these moments of true, deep doubt come upon you, hold onto these words written to me by a friend:
NEVER DOUBT IN THE DARK, WHAT GOD HAS TOLD YOU IN THE LIGHT.
NEVER DOUBT IN THE DARK, WHAT GOD HAS TOLD YOU IN THE LIGHT.
In moments of spiritual light, God shows us His true reality. These moments of spiritual light are so very important, because they allow us to get through many dark nights of doubt and despair, which come into the lives of every single one of us.
In moments of light, God has told you that he will never desert you. Don’t ever doubt that.
In moments of light, God has told you that resurrection is reality. Don’t ever let the darkness cause you to doubt that.
In moments of light, God has told you that the very hairs on your head are numbered. Don’t ever doubt that in the darkness.
Faith is walking to the edge of all the moments of light you have and taking one more step."
Faith is coming to that point where you are standing on the edge of doubt and can see no clear path ahead, but go on in faith. Go on in spite of doubts. Go on in the faith that God is with us. When the history of the 20th Century is written, there will be the names of many prominent men and women. However, there is one name that will never be forgotten -- Winston Churchill.
Hitler had conquered Europe and was on the verge of conquering England. Churchill had doubts that England would be able to survive, but he could not permit his doubts to show. His task was to rally the British Empire and help the British people to act to save themselves. With a marvelous ability to lead and inspire people with his words, Churchill helped to translate the doubts of the British people into acts of faith. On one occasion, Churchill said:
"When I look back on the perils which we have already overcome, and upon the great mountain waves through which the ship has been driven, when I remember all that has gone right, I am encouraged to feel we need not be afraid that the tempest will overcome us. Let it roar. Let it rage. We shall come through."
I think the Lord must have loved Winston Churchill. He translated his doubts into actions of faith. He helped his people see beyond the doubts in their minds and begin acting on the faith and hope of overcoming the storm.
Doubts are a reality in our lives. We all have occasional doubts. We all have questions which need answers. We would all like to have absolute proof. But, sometimes, we need to respond as Thomas did. We need to look at the hands of Jesus Christ and act on our faith by falling on our knees and saying as he did: "My Lord and my God.”