The Sunday Sermon: The Third Sunday of Easter – April 30, 2017
Scripture: John 20:(24-25) 26-29
Hearing is Believing
“A week later …”
Pray with me …
“A week later.” That’s how our scripture reading this morning begins. (Yes, I’m beginning my sermon this morning with the scripture reading, instead of waiting until I’m almost though it!)
“A week later” is exactly where we are from last Sunday, so this lesson fits nicely. Last week, the first Sunday after Easter, the “doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear” and “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” Well … he came and stood among most of them, at least. Right after we read how Jesus’ breathed on the disciples (most of them) giving them the Holy Spirit, we read that Thomas, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came … last week. We’re not sure when he did join up with the other disciples – and hour later or the next day, but he wasn’t with them when they “saw the Lord.”
Who here this morning was not here last week? (Come on now, we’ve all not been here at one point or another, no shame or guilt.) Well, you missed something, and not just “one of my favorite Sundays of the year,” either. You missed being “breathed on” by the Risen Christ and “receiving the Holy Spirit” in that breath. You missed the first charge given to the disciples-turned-apostles in the Gospel of John.
But … you weren’t the only ones. Thomas missed it, too. And just to let you know this morning what the disciples told Thomas when he did show up with them, an hour later or days, they told him: “We saw the Lord!”
What do you think of that? Do you believe that? Who was here last week? Yea … Didn’t we see the Lord last week? … Didn’t we?! (Even a few of those who were here aren’t sure.) I tell you we did. I believe we did, and it wasn’t even Easter, it was the week after Easter. We did.
You don’t believe that? Well, you’re not the only ones. Thomas didn’t believe it either. “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,” he said, whenever he did finally join the other disciples. We’ve all joined together again this morning, including a few who weren’t her last week, and you’re not sure. Unless we see … right?
Well, anyway …Listen for the Word of God (again) from the twentieth chapter of the Gospel of John … Read John 20:26-29:
A week later … (the) disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut (curiously, not locked like last week, but still “shut”), Jesus came and stood among them (again) and (again) said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas (he obviously knew of Thomas’ doubt somehow. Jesus wasn’t with them when Thomas said what he said to his friends. But, Jesus said to Thomas), “Put your finger here … and see my hands. Reach out your hand … and put it in my side. Don’t doubt … but believe.” (And) Thomas answered him (whether or not he actually touched Jesus with his finger or hands, we don’t know, but he saw them, and Thomas answered him,) “My Lord and my God!” (Exclamation point, if you’re following along in our NRSV translation. I actually looked up this verse in all the translations in my study last week, about six different ones, they all have exclamation points after Thomas profession! See is believing, right?! But,) 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.
This is, with I trust a few obvious editorial comments, the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
So, almost as familiar as the scene at the tomb two weeks ago, and maybe even more familiar to most than the resurrection appearance of last week, is this story about “doubting Thomas.” Always read a week or two after Easter with a more or less consistent message. I remember growing up, I put them in this order of “faithlessness,” or disloyalty: Judas, the betrayer; Peter the denier; and Thomas, the doubter.
Why didn’t he catch on right away? Was he an agnostic or a skeptic? He probably doubted Jesus for all the time he was with him. He was probably the one who held back at every turn, muttering something like, “I don’t know guys, this doesn’t feel right. What if he has this all wrong and we get in trouble?” The one all the other “faithful” disciples (well, other than Judas and Peter) had to reassure and cajole. “Come on, Thomas. He’s been right so far. Stop questioning and disbelieving and being so skeptical. Stop … doubting Thomas!”
The story of Thomas becomes so dramatic in our minds or in our sermon messages, and we tell it in such a narrow way, that he winds up getting scolded every year, at best, and disdained, at worst. Third on the list of disciples “not-to-be.”
But, honestly, what was his “sin?” What was his problem? He simply had been absent, beyond the sight and sound of Jesus’ presence in the experiences of the others as they gathered together on that first day, in the morning and in the “evening on that day.”
Peter and the other disciple saw an empty tomb, according to the Gospel of John. They saw empty linen wrappings arranged in a curious fashion in that empty tomb, according to John. Mary Magdalene heard her name called out and talked with the Risen Lord, according to John. And, “when it was evening on that day (Easter day), Jesus appeared to all those who were gathered, all except (as far as we know) Thomas, and he spoke to them and he breathed on them, he taught them the words of forgiveness and he told them what they were supposed to do now, according to John. I mean … right?! These guys and that one gal are the stalwart, loyal ones, the ones without a pejorative adjective to their names? They all got to see and hear, to be blessed and instructed. Why shouldn’t Thomas ask for that, too?!
Well, you get it, I trust. I’m just shedding more than a little guilt from years of blaming Thomas for simply being absent. How many times have I been absent? Not shown up. And you? We’ve all missed plenty, too.
But just and we’ve begun cutting Thomas a little slack, it begins to dawn us. As is the case with John and his Gospel at almost every turn, this story is not about the betrayal of Maundy Thursday, the denial of Good Friday, the joy of Easter morning, or the charge of that evening. This story is about what happens after all that. This story is John’s way of opening doors to new stages of faith and church life. It ends the gospel, in fact, except for a two verse epilogue. Chapter 21, which we’ll explore in the weeks ahead before Pentecost Sunday, is an appendix to chapters 1-20, written by someone else. No, this story, this ending, is a doorway for what happens next.
The brief “vignette” that features Thomas is divided into two incidents which take place one week apart, kind of convenient for any one-day-a-week Christians, not that this includes any of us. The first incident happens with the disciples after they’ve all seen and heard. The second incident happens a week later, today, our reading of a second appearance, this one Thomas is in on. He is the subject of John’s dramatizing technique.
Thomas stands for the spirit that was increasingly found in the early church community. John’s purpose with this closing story is to tell us a bit about the doubts and denials voiced in his time. Up until this story, faith came in the face of Jesus’ physical appearance. But, “seeing,” John realizes, is ending. Those who walked and talked and ate and laughed with Jesus are gone. And those “second generation” disciples who may claim to see him still are in short supply, and in any case, their stories are surely less and less credible. Here in the story of Thomas, the Jesus of the Gospel sets up a new stage of faith and church life, an experience of God not based solely on sight.
The “spirit of Thomas” that John reveals in this late first-century, early second century writing is, of course, still abroad in the church today, even more prevalent than ever before, we could argue. “Unless we see some sign, or touch some proof …” The “nones” increase, the skeptics multiply. Unless they see …
But that’s not what faith is. “Faith as the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Heb. 11:1 The Gospel of John is ended, the eyewitness accounts are over. With this story of Thomas, never again will physical eyes or noses or tongues certify Jesus’ presence. From now own, faith will come through hearing. Thomas is the one to whom it is announced first that, from now on, hearing must do it all. Remember from our reading and my commentary that we are not told that Thomas actually followed Jesus’ invitation to touch his wounds. What matters is that Thomas heard the words of Jesus and affirmed his new faith. Jesus said … Thomas answered. The Word speaks … we respond.
A few hundred, maybe thousands, came to faith in Thomas’ lifetime, we can assume. Literally, billions have come to the Christian faith in the centuries after in this way. And hearing has done it all. So we must keep speaking, in every way we can, even with words.
No, the real problem with Thomas for our own time is not his doubt. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. I hope I’ve made that abundantly clear in the years you’ve had to listen to me up here. Thomas’ problem was not that he doubted, but that he didn’t trust what he heard. He denied his friends witness, friends with whom he shared life for so long. Throughout the whole Gospel of John, love and trust within the community is a sign of Christ in its midst. The lesson we take away from Thomas is not to “never doubt,” but to trust one another, our fellow travelers, our fellow seekers, our fellow believers. We must now learn to believe not simply in the goodness of the Lord, but in the goodness of one another, in the witness of one another – even when we deliver the strangest news: “We have seen the Lord.”
How many were not here last week? That’s all right. But let me tell you, last week, those of us who were together, we experienced the Risen Lord. Do you believe me? In our gathering music and in song; in the reading, hearing, and proclaiming of the Word; in our confession; and in our charge to make every day Easter Day. Last week, we experienced the Lord with our ears. Do you believe us? (Yes!)
Blessed are all who have not seen, and yet come to believe. For here, now, in our beloved community, among all those with whom we’ve shared so much life for so long, hearing is believing. Let anyone with ears to hear listen. Mark 4:23
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / April 30, 2017