Easter 1 Sermon – April 19, 2020

Canon Claude Schroeder (John 20. 19-31)

Today we are continuing our celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Easter, in the Church calendar, is not a day, it is a season that lasts 50 days. Easter is for us a season of joy, of spiritual joy, in the restoration of our Communion with God through the forgiveness of our sins, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is eternal life. Easter is the celebration of the victory that Christ has won for us over Satan, sin, and death. 

What is it that defines our faith as Christians? It is not some vague ‘belief in God,’ but rather the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, by virtue of which we declare that this crucified, risen, ascended is the Divine Son of God.           (Romans 1.4)  By His Resurrection from the dead, Jesus shows us who God is. This, for us, is where theology begins. We know of no other God apart from the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ, and we know of no other way of speaking about Him, apart from Him as the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1.3)

IN his Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul underlines the centrality of the Resurrection when he writes “ If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.  If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.” (1 Cor. 15. 14-16,18).  Take the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead out of the equation, and the whole structure of Christian faith and living comes crashing down. This helps us to appreciate what was at stake when in today’s Gospel St. Thomas declares, “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.” (John 20.25)

Thomas does not believe Jesus rose from the dead. Or, to put it perhaps more accurately, Thomas has doubts concerning the testimony of the disciples  how “in the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”  When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.”  (John 20. 20). 

Doubting Thomas. Isn’t that what we call him? Nobody likes a doubting Thomas. And yet some of the greatest champions of the Christian faith started out as skeptics, and even enemies of the faith. Think of St. Paul, who made a career out of beating up and persecuting the first Christians. Think of St. Augustine, who wrestled mightily with the Lord both in his flesh and in his mind. And in our own time we can think of C.S. Lewis and Malcolm Muggeridge. And far as St. Thomas goes, it’s a terrible irony and injustice of history that we should remember him as ‘doubting’ Thomas, because after his encounter with the risen Jesus, Thomas declared, “My Lord, and my God!” You can’t have a greater confession of faith than this.  It was in the strength of this faith that Thomas travelled all the way to India to preach the Gospel and plant churches, where he was eventually suffered and was martyred for his faith. Doubting Thomas? I don’t think so.  After St. Paul, Thomas was probably the greatest missionary evangelist of all the apostles!

It’s why today I don’t think we can find fault with Thomas for having these doubts, can we? Doubt is a natural, and normal ‘first response’ to the Good News of Jesus’ Resurrection. In the iconography of the Church, (on the front cover of today’s bulletin) Thomas is portrayed, as a young man, a teenager, who has yet to come to mature faith.  Doubt plays an important role in our coming to faith. In fact, we might even say it is an element of faith.  The famous Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, wrote, “ I do not believe as a child does; my Hosanna has passed through the crucible of doubt.” You all know what a crucible is. A crucible is a container used for melting metals at very high temperatures.  When it comes to faith in Jesus Christ, a crucible is an extreme situation or difficulty that calls our faith into question, but from which faith actually emerges. St. Peter, in our epistle for today, writes of having to “suffer various trials, so 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.” (1 Peter 1. 6b-7)

 “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.” That’s fine for children in Sunday school. But as an adult if you are still going to sing that song, that are some pretty tough things you are going to have to face up to.

However, it’s important to distinguish between doubt, on the one hand,  and unbelief, on the other. Doubt says, “I am open to believing, and perhaps would like to believe, but right now I struggle to believe, and I have got questions…”  That’s  just fine.  Unbelief, on the other hand, also known as ‘hardness of heart’ says, “Even if Jesus was to break down the walls and appear before me, I would still not bend the knee before Him.” This is something in our struggle to believe, and our failures to believe, that the we need to pray to be delivered from.

What can we learn from St. Thomas about dealing with our doubt?

The first thing we learn from Thomas is to take the Gospel with absolute seriousness. For Thomas , the  Resurrection was an “either/or” question.  You sometimes hear people say things like, “It’s just a story the disciples made up to keep the memory of Jesus alive.” Or, “If it works for you,  then go for it”, or, “All religions are basically saying the same thing.”  We don’t hear anything like that coming out of the mouth of St. Thomas. This is because the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ isn’t just an interesting religious “factoid.”  The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the singular revelation of the universal truth of existence, of God and of ourselves. As Stephen Freeman writes, “The death and resurrection of Christ contain the utter and complete emptiness of hell, the threat of non-being and meaninglessness, the absurdity of suffering and of injured innocence. They also contain the fullness of paradise, the complete joy of existence and the ecstasy of transcendent love. Everything is there.” (1) To believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus is to be in touch with reality. 

The second thing we learn from St. Thomas about handling doubt is instead of making doubt the reason for checking out of church, to make it the reason for checking into church.  Thomas, was not there that evening on Easter Sunday when Jesus appeared to the disciples. Where on earth was he?  Having witnessed in the crucifixion of Jesus the complete obliteration of all his hopes for a better future, Thomas had probably crawled back into the little hole that had been his life before he met Jesus.  When the sun went down on Good Friday, and the body of Jesus laid into the tomb, as far as Jesus is concerned, Thomas was finished.  

But then the disciples come to Thomas with the news, ‘We have seen the Lord!” Now Thomas has to make a decision, “Am I going to stay in my little hole, or am I going to crawl out of my hole, and, even though I have not seen, and do not believe, I am going to come to church, and keep company with those who have seen the truth and do believe. In the face of doubt, it’s important that you look at whose company you are keeping: the “naysayers,” who drag you down, or the “faithful,” who lift you up?

Who knows, something might happen. As it turns out, something did happen! Thomas encounters the Risen Lord, and his doubts are transformed into faith.  

Thomas said to the disciples, “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.” What we see here in Thomas’s declaration is that, contrary to what we often think, the problem of faith is not principally intellectual. While it is possible for us to sit down and talk about the reasons for and the reasons against the Christian faith, and to give reasons for our faith, it’s a big mistake to reduce faith to a matter of intellectual argument. The reasons people give either “for” or “against” whether it’s the Christian faith, or something else, usually occur “after the fact.” 

In the case of faith, “the fact” is often a matter of prior “belovedness.” If, for example, as children we learned to trust our parents, it was because they loved us.  We had the experience of being loved, and this gave birth to faith and to trust.  And so it is with God.  We are loved into believing. What we believe is that God loves us!

If  a prior ‘belovedness’ is the fact gives rise to  faith, what is the fact that gives rise to unbelief?

The ‘fact’ often has to do with a prior hurt, a wounding of the heart and of the mind, if not the body. 

And so the key to faith is not rational argument, bur rather the healing of the wound. It’s why arguing with people about the truth of the Gospel is often so pointless.

How are we ever to believe in the face of the deep wounding we often experience in life?

On Good Friday, we read the passage from the prophet Isaiah where it says, “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53.5)

By his wounds we are healed.

Thomas wanted to see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put his finger in the mark of the nails and hand in his side. What Thomas wanted to know was, “Could all that Jesus suffered on the Cross have been for me?”

That next Sunday at the evening service, Thomas was with them. And it was at that evening service that he experienced the break through to faith, where in an encounter with the Risen Lord he discovered that all that Jesus suffered on the Cross had indeed been for him. Jesus 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.”  (John 20.27)

Although the appearance Jesus made to Thomas was a singular event, the discovery that Thomas made and the breakthrough to faith that Thomas experienced is something that is available to us all. It is here in the fellowship of the Church, where we discover how ‘love covers a multitude of sins’,( 1 Peter 4.8) where the Gospel of the Crucified and Risen Saviour is proclaimed and believed, and where in the Holy Communion, we participate in and share with each in the  body and blood of Christ ( 1 Cor. 10.16) , we discover, that what He did, He did for me, and that Jesus is  “my Lord, and my God.” 

If in the Church it has been given to us to explore with our hearts and minds, the ‘wounds of God’ in Christ, it has also been given to us to explore our own wounds. This virus has wounded us terribly. It has touched us all on a physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and relational levels. In addition to the obvious and most serious wounding of those who have been infected and are suffering and dying as we speak, there is the wounding of those who care for them. There is the wounding of those who have been deprived of the care they need, those who are grieving the losses of various kinds, those who are anxious and fearful over the future, and those for whom “self- isolation”, and “social distance” is particularly painful.  Those of us who are more or less “O.K.” and wonder “just how long this is going to last”, bear the wounds of our impatience with each other, and have been made painfully aware of the importance of the ordinary but now absent routines, like coming to church on Sunday morning, to join together in ‘the apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.’ ( Acts 2.42)

This hurts. And well it should. 

But now perhaps we might be given to see like never before “that he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53.5) For us to know and acknowledge this, is to know and acknowledge, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that Jesus Christ is Risen from the Dead. No further “proof” is needed. 

In these times of doubt and uncertainty, we need to hold each other in prayer and in love, understanding what has happened here has been given to us as an opportunity to grow in our salvation, so that our 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.  “( 1 Peter 1. 7,8) Amen.

(1) https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2020/04/16/good-friday-and-unbelief/