Second Sunday of Easter
April 18, 2004
The Gospel: John 20:19-31
Sermon: "Thomas' Doubt or Ours"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
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.
Thomas' Doubt or Ours
Second Sunday of Easter - April 18, 2004
Yesterday the State of South Carolina held burial services for the crew of The Hunley. Until several years ago there were many stories and many mysteries about the first successful submarine. One of the stories and mysteries concerned the captain, Lt. George Dixon. He was a veteran of several battles in the war. One battle is of particular note, the Battle of Shiloh. At this battle he was wounded but he was also saved. He carried with him a gold piece given to him by a young lady, Queenie Bennett. The bullet hit the gold piece and caused it to deflect enough to spare his life. He supposedly carried the gold piece with him on the fateful night aboard the Hunley. Here we have the makings of a wonderful love story. The mystery actually occurs in two parts. Was Lt. Dixon really on board the Hunley? Did he actually have the gold piece?
I can tell you that as a young boy growing up in Charleston, the story and the mystery were always told as one tale. They were actually told as if the story and mystery were indeed fact. The oral tradition passed the story down as belief. When I was older the questions really came to the foreground. These questions really became prominent when the submarine was found. Indeed they did find the gold piece inside the sub. They also found some other articles that helped identify the remains in the captain's seat as Lt. George Dixon. The stories were indeed true. Material evidence had been found to corroborate the stories passed down from generation to generation of young children in the Charleston area.
In John's Gospel we see another incident concerning oral tradition. The story of the appearance of Jesus to the disciples was passed down through their sharing of the story. In John's version, Jesus appears to the disciples while Thomas is absent. Jesus gave the disciples the evidence they needed to see he was indeed real. He showed them his hands and his side. However, Thomas was not present. We don't know where Thomas had been or what he was doing. He has trouble believing their story. Whether he believes they were the product of a mass hallucination, wishful thinking, or just a bad joke, we do not know. He wants proof. He wants irrefutable proof that Jesus is alive. For this reason he has received the name "Doubting Thomas"
If the story stopped here we would spend our time talking about Thomas' doubt. We could say he was not a true believer. We could say he was over wrought with grief and was not thinking. We could expound on the various definitions of the words belief and doubt. As a result we would waste a great deal of time. For while Thomas is a major character of this story, the main point is not Thomas or his supposed doubt. The main point in the story is the action of Jesus Christ.
After Thomas' return, the disciples tell him what happened. In return, Thomas says the fateful words, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my fingers in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." Thomas needs proof. The action of Jesus is not to berate Thomas for his need of proof. The action of Jesus is to give Thomas what he needs to enhance and encourage Thomas' faith. Jesus does not appear and chastise Thomas. Jesus offers himself to Thomas. Thomas has what he needs to believe that Jesus has risen from the dead.
Thomas has what he needs to believe and he falls on his knees to worship Jesus. However, John is writing this for an audience who does not have that option available. The Gospel of John was written sometime in the 80's to 90's. If Jesus was crucified around the year thirty, John's audience was fifty years past the event. How could they relate to this story? The answer is the way John tells it. After Thomas has seen Jesus, Jesus asks Thomas if he believes because he has seen. Then, Jesus says the next line, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe." This line is directed to the followers of John's day. This line is directed to all future disciples of Jesus. It is directed directly at us today. Do we have to touch and see Jesus in corporeal form in order to believe? What do we need from God in order to believe?
Currently, there are trends in the church that question many parts of the story of Christ. Some people question the virgin birth, the miracles, and the resurrection. The story of Thomas says plainly that it is all right to question. Thomas questioned whether or not Jesus was alive. However, Thomas did one thing that many people do not. Thomas stated plainly what he needed in order to believe. He knew Jesus lived. He knew Jesus had done miracles. He knew Jesus had died. His question was the resurrection. What do we need in order to believe?
I know from time to time I have questioned whether or not God is real. If anyone else has had the same question it is alright. I have questioned what the church believes about God. One day I learned something in the questioning. I learned I was questioning something in which I truly believed. It was not that I did not believe in God. I wanted proof. God helped me with that proof. In discussions with others I have heard many stories about God proving God's presence. Some people have rationalized God is real. They need a step by step approach. God helped with the steps. Some people have had prayers answered. Some people have had dreams or visions. Some have felt God's presence through music. Some have seen the presence of God in the birth of a newborn child. Some have felt God touch them as they enjoyed the sunrise or the sunset. Whatever the manner, whatever the way, God has supplied the proof to these people, to me and to you, that we need in order to believe. God will always help us to see God's presence in our lives if we are bold enough to ask and open enough to look.
Now, I would like to offer one word of caution. Sometimes we think that if Jesus made himself known to me in this way, then Jesus uses this way for everyone. In other words, everyone has to experience God in the exact same way. Yet, this concept could not be more misleading. The story of Jesus in the Gospels teaches us that he used many ways to touch people's lives. He healed some. He taught others. He had diner with some people. Twelve he asked to be very close to him. Even among those twelve their belief in Christ varied all the way to the crucifixion. Yet, Jesus gave them all what they needed to know he was the Son of God. The story of Thomas is not about doubting. The story of Thomas is about a merciful and loving Jesus. He is so merciful that He will come to us and give us what we need to believe. I suppose the question is are we willing to ask and are we willing to look for the answer? Like Thomas and the other disciples we have to answer that question for ourselves, each one individually. No one can answer that question for us. However, from this story, we can take great comfort in knowing Jesus is ready with an answer. AMEN.