Sunday, April 23, 2006

Easter 2: What we need for faith

John 20:19-31

A few weeks ago a newly uncovered version
of the so-called “Gospel of Judas” hit the news media,
and caused a minor frenzy of reporting.
Seminaries, Bible scholars, pastors, archeologists, the Vatican—
all kinds of authorities happily gave sound bites to TV cameras,
declaring why this discovery was or was not significant.
Obviously, trying to restore the reputation of Judas Iscariot
presents a few major challenges,
and lots of interesting questions...
and it’s not a sermon
you’re going to hear from me anytime soon.
But in today’s sermon I am going to try
to rehabilitate another apostle—Thomas.
In fact, I’m going to try to convince us
to not only give Thomas some slack,
and stop accusing him of small faith,
but to actually lift him up as a worthy example.
We should strive to be just like him.

And to accomplish this rehab,
I won’t have to uncover any secret manuscripts.
I won’t do any wild speculation.
It’s all right here in the Gospels.

This is really a beautiful story.
You might want to turn to the Gospel of John, chapter 20,
beginning in v. 19.

This is a continuation of the Easter story we heard last Sunday,
that ended with verse 18.
It comes right after Peter and John, as you recall,
saw the empty tomb, and then turned around and went home,
while Mary lingered at the tomb,
and had a personal encounter with the risen Jesus.
Mary went back and told the rest of the disciples
what she had seen, and what Jesus had said.

Now, we see in vv. 19-20,
that the disciples all stayed huddled together,
behind locked doors,
out of fear for their lives.
But Jesus suddenly showed up among them.
And said, “Peace be with you.”
Appropriate greeting for huddled, shaking, fearful people.
And then he showed them—
all these disciples who had a hard time
believing what they were seeing—
he showed them his hands and his side.
And they all rejoiced, because they saw and believed.
They had already heard Mary’s report, mind you.
But, they saw and believed.

All except Thomas,
who had to run to the store for milk and eggs.
Okay, maybe that’s some wild speculation.
We just know he was gone at the time.
And when he got back,
the others ran up to him all excited,
You should’ve been here, Tom!
They said, “We have seen the Lord.”
Exact same words everyone heard earlier from Mary,
in v. 18: “I have seen the Lord.”
And Thomas’ response was the same,
as I suspect all the disciples were when Mary said it,
they took in the information,
but could not really wrap their minds and hearts around it.
Thomas said something to the effect,
I understand you saw something
that convinced you he is alive,
but, “I need to see it for myself.” V. 25.
Unless it’s my eyes that see his hands,
and my hands that touch his side,
it’s just too much to believe.

A week later, Thomas got what he needed. Vv. 26-28.
Jesus appeared among them again, despite the locked doors,
and said, for the third time, “Peace be with you.”
Then he turned to Thomas, and said to him,
“Look. Touch. Believe.”
And Thomas, without touching, cried out, v.
“My Lord and my God!”
And Jesus said, “You all have seen me, and believed.”
Blessed are those who don’t see me, and still believe.

Now, look carefully at that whole passage of scripture,
and see if you can find any evidence in the text itself,
that indicates Thomas was weak in faith.
See if you can find any evidence whatsoever
that Jesus was displeased with Thomas’ desire to see and touch.
It’s not there. It’s simply not there.

Years of tradition have read more things into this story
than what are written.
And we have made Thomas into a world-class cynic and doubter.
But I admire Thomas. I admire him greatly.
And let me tell you why.
Thomas was a persistent pursuer of the truth.
He didn’t just take the easy answer, and let it go at that.
He doggedly pursued truth, until he could seize it,
or until it seized him.

Thomas is mostly a behind-the-scenes kind of disciple.
In fact, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke,
the only place his name appears is in the official list of the 12,
when Jesus first calls them.
There’s no mention anywhere else of Thomas.
Except in John,
who records several incidents involving Thomas.
The first is in John 11:16.
The pressure was building on Jesus.
At one point there was an attempted stoning.
And then Jesus’ friend Lazarus died,
and Jesus announced they were heading to Bethany
to be with the family.
The other disciples objected.
Bethany was just two miles from Jerusalem,
the center of resistance against Jesus. It wasn’t safe.
But when Jesus was clearly determined to go,
it was Thomas who said,
“Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Thomas’ courage and loyalty and determination
was an example for the rest of the disciples.

The second time we hear from Thomas is John 14:5.
That’s where Jesus was telling the disciples, in a cryptic way,
about heaven.
He said he was going to go and prepare a place for them
to be with his Father,
and that he would come again, and take them with him.
And he also said, “You know the way to place I’m going.”
And Thomas, who always wanted to get to the bottom of things,
was the only one who dared to counter Jesus, saying.
“No, Jesus, we don’t have a clue.”
How can we know the way,
if we don’t know where you’re going?
That was certainly not a sign of ignorance or lack of faith
on Thomas’ part.
It was a sign that he would not be satisfied with easy answers.
He knew there was truth to be grasped,
and he wouldn’t let go until he found it.

That’s the backdrop for John 20,
and this wonderful exchange between Jesus and Thomas.
And you know, this passage is more about Jesus than Thomas, anyway.
This passage proclaims good news for all of us
about who Jesus is,
about his character,
about his love and mercy.

Think about the bigger picture here.
Jesus had every right to absolutely lay into his disciples.
He could have been a football coach
in the locker room at halftime confronting his players
for the most miserable, pathetic, lackluster, cowardly,
and downright despicable performance
he had ever seen on a football field.
Jesus spent two years preparing them for this very time.
Preaching about the demands of the kingdom,
about taking up their cross and following,
about denying themself,
about laying down their lives.
He had predicted everything that had just happened,
and urged them to watch and pray and stay strong.
But they all ran away.
Every last one of them deserted.
And now, even after his resurrection,
they were hiding their faces behind locked doors.
But when Jesus showed up...
instead of yelling and screaming
and throwing things around the locker room,
he holds out his arms and says, “Peace be with you.”
He breathed on them, and gifted them with the Holy Spirit,
and said again, “Peace be with you.”
And when he returned a second time to meet Thomas,
he said the third time, “Peace be with you.”

This is a story of the amazing generosity of Jesus,
in the face of human frailty.

Jesus gave to each one of his disciples
exactly what they needed to come to faith.
When he appeared to Mary in the Garden,
he called her by name, “Mary.”
When he first appeared to his disciples,
he showed them his hands and side,
and pronounced peace.
And when Thomas missed out on what the other disciples got,
Jesus came back a second time just for Thomas.
Jesus wanted nothing of his followers except deep and genuine trust.
Faith. Trust. Belief.
In v. 27 of John 20, Jesus says to Thomas,
“Do not doubt but believe.”
But there’s a better way to translate that.
Jesus wasn’t talking only about what goes on up here
(in the old noggin).
No, in the original Greek, it says, literally,
“Do not be faithless, but faithful.”
Faith in Jesus is about active trust in Jesus,
trust in his person, his teaching, his mission, his character.
The deepest desire of Jesus for Thomas and the other disciples,
was that they would trust him, completely.
Because the future would be even more uncertain,
more demanding, and more dangerous,
than what they had been through already.

Jesus wanted them to trust him.
Trust that he knew what God wanted of them,
that he knew the way to the Father,
that he would be with them in a different way from here on out,
but they shouldn’t be afraid.
They should be at peace.

And it was then, out of the mouth of Thomas,
that came the most personal and heart-felt expression
of this very trust that Jesus was wanting to see.
It was the fullest confession of faith
uttered by any disciple up to that point.
Peter earlier made the confession,
“You are the Messiah, son of the Living God.”
But Thomas took it a step further,
“My Lord and my God!”

To bring the disciples to this place of deep trust and faith,
Jesus gladly, generously, provided what they needed.
And for Thomas, it was the same thing the others needed—
a personal encounter.
Mary got it at the tomb.
The other disciples got it in the upper room.
Why shouldn’t Thomas also receive the grace and gift
of a personal encounter with the risen Jesus?
So Jesus gladly provided it.

Contrary to what we might like to think sometimes,
God isn’t trying to make it difficult for us to have faith.
If some of us have a hard time finding faith,
maybe we’re looking in the wrong places.
God is generous and gracious.
God is ready to provide whatever we need for faith.
God wants us to relate to him in trust and faith,
so why would God play hard to get?

Some of us are like Thomas, and God bless us.
We are persistent seekers.
We are dogged pursuers of the truth.
We’re not easily satisfied with pat answers.
The message of today’s Gospel story is that God honors that.
And in due time, God will provide what we need for faith.
Some of may be more like Peter,
a passionate disciple, who lives more by the heart than the head.
God honors that.
God will provide what we need for faith.

No matter how we go about seeking Christ,
God honors our seeking.
And gives us what we need for faith.
Faith is still, ultimately, a leap.
I’m not suggesting that all our questions will be given answers
in our lifetime.
We are human. Our line of sight cannot go beyond the horizon.
We still have to make a decision without seeing everything.
But God gives us enough.
God gives us a faith framework,
in which we can continue our journey toward deeper faith.

So this morning, thank God for Thomas.
He’s a great example for how to seek God persistently,
and to confess faith fully.
And let us worship the Lord,
who gladly gives us what we need...all we need...
for a life of faith.
Let us trust in this Lord.
Let us put our lives in his hands.

And let us sing our confession, #29 in Sing the Journey.
You are all we have.
You give us what we need.
Our lives are in your hands, O Lord,
Our lives are in your hands.

—Phil Kniss, April 23, 2006

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