SERMON – for the Second Sunday of Easter, April 11, 2021
TEXTS: Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133, I John 1:1-10, 2:1-2 & John 20: 19 31
Opening prayer: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts together be acceptable in Your sight O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen
“Seeing and Believing”
One of the things I love about spring is that it means that I soon will be able to cultivate my garden plot and put seeds into the ground. I like to get my hands in the dirt, I like the feel of the texture of the garden soil, and I like to scratch out a furrow and carefully place my seeds there and then cover them up and tamp the ground firmly. To me it is like putting them to bed and tucking them in firmly so that they will be surrounded by moist soil and ready to respond to the warm sun.
The next step is always a little difficult for me; I have to now wait for the seeds to germinate and for those first tiny shoots of the plants to push their way to the surface. I have no choice, I have to wait because I simply cannot make them germinate immediately, in fact I can’t make them germinate at all – the best that I can do is hope that I have put them in the right environment so that they can come to life.
But what makes me think that they will in fact do that? What makes me think there will actually be new bean plants with their first broad leaves or carrots with their tiny stems or beets with their characteristic green and wine coloured leaves? Why do I think they will sprout?
Well, I think they will sprout because I have seen this kind of miracle happen again and again – the seeds that I planted have come out of the ground, each according to their kind of plant. And I believe they will do so again.
This idea of believing on the basis of seeing evidence is integral to the Gospel Lesson this morning. If you have the Bible text in front of you, you will see that the lesson as we find it in John quite naturally divides into two paragraphs. These two paragraphs are a recounting of two different times, two events that are similar in some ways and different in other ways. I found it helpful when I looked at the details and the descriptions of what happened in each case, to compare and contrast the two stories so let me take you through the process.
Let’s begin with a look at when these two stories take place: in paragraph one the text says that the first story took place on the evening of that day, the first day of the week.This story is a continuation of what is described in verse 1 of the same chapter where it says that “Early on the 1st day of the week… Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been rolled away…” So our first story takes place on that same day only now it is evening.
It has been a busy day for the disciples; Peter and John have run to the tomb, Jesus has appeared to Mary Magdalene and no doubt the word has spread very quickly to all of the followers of Jesus. I am sure that what happened in those 12 hours since the news had come that the tomb was empty and that He was possibly alive, is something that was exhilarating for some and frightening for others: “how could this possibly be true”.
So, this first story takes place on the day of the resurrection of Jesus; that is important to know and it helps us to understand what John says next: “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.” What the disciples no doubt were remembering was that Jesus had been arrested and that the crowds had been very worked up the day before and angrily cried out “crucify Him, crucify Him.” The disciples felt threatened, they knew that they themselves might well be treated with great suspicion and face arrest or violence if they voiced their support for Jesus. And for this reason, the first story tells us, they are in a house and they have locked the doors. There is comfort in being together and yet there is fear – the text says they were afraid of the Jews.
So much had happened on this day though and I have no doubt they were sharing stories of what they had seen or heard, someone perhaps had talked to Mary Magdalene and someone else saw Peter and John run to the tomb and a third person may have noticed a lot of action around the home of the High Priests with temple police officers milling about. It was bewildering and as they tried to calm themselves down suddenly Jesus Himself came and stood among them and said “Peace be with you.”
Now I think it unlikely that they all reacted the same way to the appearance of Jesus – some probably were immediately overjoyed while others were simply bewildered, afraid, uncertain and even in shock. Jesus had come into the room with the doors locked which, if they had time to think about it was incredible and unbelievable. So the first thing that Jesus does is say “Peace be with you.” And at this point their shock might still have had them thinking this might be a ghost or an apparition or something other-worldly so Jesus does something very human: He shows them his hands and his side. Now we don’t know how much time passes after he shows them the marks on his body – at few minutes at least before they do what the Gospel says they do: “they rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”And well they might have once they got over the shock and surprise of seeing Jesus in person.
Jesus does three other things now, all of which are meant as signs and truths that will later be better understood and experienced in a deeper way. 1. He says “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” This sounds like the great commission which the Gospel of Matthew records as the words of Jesus on the Mount of Olives when he vanishes from their sight. 2. Jesus then breathes on them and says “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Again this is experienced in a much deeper and fuller way later, actually on the day of Pentecost but here it simply is a foreshadowing of what is to come, something that reminds them of the life they are to lead in the future.
The third thing Jesus does is talk to them about forgiveness and how important it is to practice this discipline. Why does Jesus do these 3 things? I think perhaps it helps to keep the disciples from turning this appearance of Jesus into a mystical and other-worldly experience. Jesus didn’t appear to them as a show or a spectacle; he came as their saviour and as one who is sending them off to live lives of faith.
So far then in today’s Gospel Lesson, John has given us a brief but powerful story of one more appearance of Jesus on the day of His resurrection. But the Gospel writer has another important detail to tell us about this event; a detail that leads into a second story and that detail is this: Thomas, one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, was not there – we are not told why he wasn’t there the text simply says he wasn’t there.
John’s gospel then tells us that later in the week the others told Thomas all about the appearance of Jesus in the house on the Day of the Resurrection. To this Thomas responds emphatically: “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.”
This is a fascinating comment on the part of Thomas. Obviously the other disciples had told him that Jesus showed them his nail prints and the place on his side where the spear had entered while he was on the cross. They were clear about this and expected Thomas to believe them and in turn to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But that is where Thomas stops them and basically says to them: “You may have seen Jesus, you may have seen the marks on his body but unless I see those for myself, I am suspending belief.”
Ok, now let’s move to the second story in our Gospel Lesson which we are told takes place a week later so probably on the first day of the week again. Quite a bit is the same as the first story; it appears to be the same house with the same group of disciples and with the same fear because once more they have locked the doors. And as a repeat from the week before, Jesus appears again and stands among them and says: “Peace be with you.”
But from this point on the story is different. Jesus goes to Thomas and says: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
And before we think about the response of Thomas, let’s stop for a moment. Did you notice that they Jesus uses the very same words that Thomas had used when the disciples told him of the appearance of Jesus a week earlier: word for word Thomas hears his own words. Unnerving don’t you think?
So now Thomas is confronted with his own words and his own commitment to believe if he was shown the physical evidence which the other disciples had seen. And to Thomas’s credit and true to his word, he believes: “My Lord and My God” he says.
Much has been written and preached about Thomas over the centuries and often we have heard the phrase: “Don’t be a doubting Thomas.” I want to say a couple of things about that. To doubt something without any evidence is a pretty normal reaction. We only have to look at Luke version of this same story. In Luke 24 beginning in verse 36 it says that the disciples to whom Jesus appeared “were startled and terrified and thought they were seeing a ghost.” In that story Jesus asks them why they are frightened and why they have doubts in their hearts and then proceeds to show them His hands and His side.Notice that Jesus suggests they all have doubts. And then to counter those doubts, He says: “Touch me.”
This brings me to my final point which I draw from the passage in John 20:19-29: we all believe because of something. We believe we will see the sun rise in the east and set in the west because we have seen it every day of our lives. We believe that summer will come because we have also experienced that every year of our lives. We believe that the seeds or the bulbs we plant in the spring will sprout and grow up to be mature plants because we have seen this every year. We believe this even when the seeds are hidden under the ground and appear dead to us when we placed them in the furrow and covered them over with soil and watered them.
We believe our children and our partners when they say they love us and we are convinced they believe us when we tell them the same. We believe that God loves us and sent his Son to live on the earth as a human being because we have read that in the Bible and experienced His love in our hearts.
Always there are reasons to believe as we do and always it is a choice; Thomas was given reasons to believe and he chose to believe and say most emphatically: my Lord and my God.
Years ago when I was in my early 20s I went through a period where I wasn’t sure I believed in God or in Jesus as the saviour of the world. Sure I had read the Bible from my youth and had been to countless church services and prayed diligently but at one point I wondered, is this all really true. How could I know? I was looking for something that was more sure than what I had read and experienced – it somehow didn’t seem to be certain enough for me.
At about that time I listened to a lecture in which the speaker said that we as people who look to understand God often look at evidence for believing and that the evidence we see or hear about kind of builds up in us and one day it comes to us as a gift, it kind of overwhelms us and we say, like Thomas, “I believe”.
I thought about this and still I was not sure. I explained my quandary to a thoughtful Christian worker who listened to me very carefully when I asked him “but what if it doesn’t overwhelm me? What if after all the evidence I have read and even experiences, what it even that does not overwhelm me?”
He paused and then he told me a story. “When I was courting my wife, I came to really love her and thought perhaps I might like to be married to her. But I just wasn’t sure, was she the one with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life? Did I want to move beyond just being friends with her and want to marry her for life? I wasn’t sure.”
“My girlfriend,” he said, “found this very upsetting.”
This thoughtful Christian worker then continued: “The more I thought about my experience with my girlfriend, the more I realized that I had all the evidence I needed. That wasn’t the problem; the problem was that I didn’t have the courage to act on that evidence, the willingness to simply choose to say YES.”
I think it was the same for Thomas: he had been with Jesus for a number of years, he has seen Jesus do miracles and bring people back to life and so many times he had marvelled at the incredible teaching and the insight of Jesus in regard to the things of God. And now he had seen Jesus face to face and had seen the nail prints and the wound in His side and now it was up to him to choose. And choose he did: “My Lord and my God,” he said.
I suggest then today that you consider once again all that you have come to learn about Jesus – some of it is the written testimony of those who lived with Him and saw Him and other things you have learned and experienced in your own life. Not all of it is seen or physically tangible, some of it is invisible the same way that the seeds germinating is invisible or love that has been directed towards you is impossible to put in a test tube and measure.
You have enough to go on though; the choice now is yours just as it was for Thomas. May God grant you grace to understand and the courage to proclaim your conviction. Amen