Sunday the 23rd of April 2017
John 20: 19-31
Our readings from God’s Word in the season of Easter focus on Jesus’ appearance to his disciples after his resurrection. As I was thinking about this during the week, I was thinking about how for many people in our world the resurrection of Jesus is a stumbling block. It is okay to recognise that Jesus existed; it is okay to recognise that Jesus’ teachings have wisdom in them; it is also okay to recognise that Jesus actually died on a cross at the hands of Romans. But to say that Jesus actually rose again from the dead, well that is a different story. Many people have doubts about Jesus’ resurrection, including many people who claim to be Christians. It is one of those things that are very difficult to grasp, particularly in our modern scientific world.
This morning I am going to be looking at the account of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples, but more particularly his appearance to Thomas. Most people know the story of Thomas and that he doubted the resurrection; even non-Christians will use the phrase: “Don’t be a doubting Thomas”. The more I thought about Thomas’ reaction the more I began to think about what kind of person Thomas was.
We hear of Thomas earlier in chapter 11:16 as Jesus was about to head to Judea to raise Lazarus, and the disciples were trying to talk him out of it, since it was a dangerous place for Jesus to be. Thomas is the one who said: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” I don’t know how you hear him in what he said, but I wonder whether Thomas was resigned to the fact that Jesus was heading for trouble, and so Thomas, showing his loyalty, was going to go with him. Perhaps it shows us his bravery.
We hear of Thomas again in chapter 14 when Jesus is specifically talking about his impending death and ascension to heaven. You get the idea from Philip’s response that the other disciples have not got a clue about what Jesus is saying and perhaps remain silent, as they often did. Thomas however speaks up and says: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”(5)
I can see that maybe Thomas was a straight shooter, get to the point, practical type of man. He may not have much imagination or sense of mystery, but he does have an enquiring mind. And Thomas shows us that he is capable of asking the tough questions that maybe the others won’t because of their fear or embarrassment. The impression I get is that Thomas is a no-nonsense type of person. I suspect that many of us are like Thomas in this way. We take no nonsense, like to know what’s going on, want to have answers to our questions and are not afraid to ask them.
In today’s Gospel where Jesus appears to the disciples in a locked room, the disciples are there, all except Thomas that is. The bible does not tell us where he was, only that he was not with them. We don’t know where the disciples find him, but obviously they do and they tell him the news. And how does Thomas react to this news that Jesus has been raised from the dead? Perhaps we would expect him to be overjoyed, maybe shocked; maybe overwhelmed, but no, he does not react like this at all.
I believe that there is a real lesson here for us. As Christians who know the joy that we have because we know who Jesus is, I wonder whether our expectations of the people who do not know him when we speak of him are not realistic. Perhaps we expect others to react to the good news of Jesus with joy and happiness, and when they don’t it may leave us flat. It struck me that the way that Peter and other disciples reacted when Mary told them she had seen the Lord, was similar. They were not overjoyed, they did not run to the garden to find Jesus, rather they went back to where they had come from. There is something about their reaction that tells us, that in reality Jesus the risen Good Shepherd is the one who goes and finds his sheep, rather than them coming to find him.
Thomas, being the type of person he is, says: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”(25) Thomas is saying here that he will not believe until the conditions that he has set down have been met. I wonder if you and I have conditions on our faith. I will believe in Jesus if he does this… or if he shows me this… I will trust in Jesus when he does things to show me that he is real. Thomas was a man who wanted hard evidence, unquestionable eyewitness fact that Jesus is risen, before he would believe in the risen Lord.
A few years ago while we were living in Adelaide the local paper, The Advertiser, had a journalist ask: “Show me where God is then I will believe,” as a challenge to the Christians leading up to Easter weekend. Some clever person sent in a picture the following week of a group of Christians together worshiping, with a caption that said: “Here he is.” There are lots of people in our world that are like Thomas; they want hard evidence before they will believe.
Thomas was a man who did not put faith in people’s words, but wanted a solid sign before he would believe.
For Thomas, he only had to wait eight days for his wish to come true. Jesus appears and speaks directly to Thomas. It is interesting to me that today’s reading doesn’t tell us that Thomas ever even touched Jesus’ wounds. I get the impression that once Thomas got a look at and felt the presence of the risen Lord, that he forgot all his conditions that he had made. Maybe in that moment when he saw Jesus the only thing he could says was, “My Lord and my God.” In other words, perhaps the presence of the risen Lord erased Thomas’s petty scepticisms and proofs and arrogant arguments. Perhaps Thomas was put in this place as he faced the glory of the risen Lord, and the only appropriate response was to confess him as Lord and God.
I don’t know about you, but I am envious of Thomas, because he had the opportunity to see for himself. I wish that I could have been there in that place to see. But then I hear Jesus’ words: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
It is not lost on me that the challenge that Jesus gives Thomas is the same challenge that he gives all of his followers, including you and me. Are we going to let our conditions that we put before God, stop us from believing? Sometimes we have to wrestle with this question, just as Thomas did. But just as Jesus came to Thomas, as he came and sought Thomas out in the midst of his unbelief, Jesus does the same for you and me. In the midst of our struggles, doubt and ‘conditions’ Jesus the Good Shepherd seeks us out.
In Thomas, I believe we see how Christian discipleship comes about. It starts at the beginning of John’s Gospel and goes throughout. One person encounters Jesus. Then they share their experience with the next person, who may express some reluctance. Then that person experiences Jesus on their own, directly, and becomes convinced about him and then shares the news about Jesus with the next person. For example Andrew tells Peter. Philip tells Nathanael. The Samaritan woman tells the townspeople. “Come and See.”
After the resurrection, our resurrected Lord Jesus first appears to Mary Magdalene. She encounters Jesus, shares the news; the others don’t really believe it until they have their own experiences so that they can own the experience. They become convinced and then share it with Thomas. Like the other disciples, Thomas doesn’t come to faith until he has his own experience. The same is true for you and me.
It is okay to wrestle with faith in Jesus; in fact a part of growing in faith needs times of struggle and doubt. When these times come in your lives, I encourage you to look for Jesus the risen Good Shepherd as he comes to find you in the midst of them.