Thank You, Thomas
The Second Sunday of Easter

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
April 27, 2014

John 20:19-31 [link]


Christ is risen! 

Christ is risen indeed! 

It’s not Easter Sunday, but it is Easter season.  The church has set aside a full fifty days celebrate the good news that Christ who died was also raised, that he conquered sin and death, and that he has given us the gift of eternal life.  Fifty days may be the minimum requirement for such a celebration.  But I’ve been thinking about that first Easter Sunday, and what it must have been like for those first disciples. 

It must have been the strangest day of their lives.

Not the saddest: that would have been Saturday, when Jesus was lying dead in a stone-cold tomb.  And not the most shocking: that would have been Friday, when they saw him nailed to a cross and watched the life drain from his body.  But certainly the strangest, beginning with Mary Magdalene bursting into the room saying that someone had taken away her Lord.

Peter and that other disciple, the one Jesus loved, jumped up, slipped on their sandals, grabbed their cloaks, and headed out the door to see for themselves.  When they got back all the other disciples were wondering what was going on.  Peter confirmed what Mary had said: the tomb was empty.  Someone must have taken away the body of the Lord.  But that other disciple had a different story: he believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead.  He was just beginning to tell them about it when Mary burst in again with the news that she had seen the Lord.  “Well, where is he?” the others asked.  “Can we see him, too?”  “No,” she said.  “He’s ascending.”  “What does that mean?” they wondered.  “I don’t know,” Mary said, “But he told me not to hold on to him, but to come and tell you that he is ascending to his Father and your Father; to his God and your God.” 

They must have wondered about that all day, and they may have still been wondering when evening came.  John says the doors were locked because they were afraid that the same people who had come looking for Jesus might come looking for them.  I can picture them huddled around the table, their faces lit up by the lamplight, mostly quiet now, having asked all the questions they could think to ask.  And then, suddenly, there was his face in the circle.  And, of course, it would have scared them out of their wits.  Can you imagine?  There you are sitting at your own supper table: you look down to cut your meat and when you look up again there’s Jesus, staring at you and smiling.  At the very least you would drop your fork. 

I think that’s why Jesus said, “Peace,” the first time, because that’s just what the disciples needed.  They were terrified.  Their hearts were pounding in their chests.  “Peace be with you,” Jesus said, or in Hebrew, “Shalom.”  He may have even held up his hands when he said it, and when he did they saw the marks of the nails and knew it was him, but they still might have wondered if they were seeing a ghost.  So he stood up and showed them his hands and his side.  He convinced them that it was really him—risen—and not a ghost.  And then they rejoiced, to think this was real, that this was really Jesus, and that he was with them again!  They felt their hearts pounding but for a completely different reason: not for fear this time, but for joy!  So that Jesus had to say again, “Shalom!”

And then he did three things: 

  1. He gave them a mission.  He said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  And you almost have to stop and remember what the Father sent Jesus to do before you get it.  John 3:16 is a clue: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life.”  And then in John 3:17 we hear, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  If Jesus is truly sending his disciples as he himself was sent, then he is sending them to love and save the world. How does that make you feel?  Excited?  Intimidated?  It might help to remember that the word salvation in the New Testament often simply refers to a state of health and wholeness, a state of shalom.  Jesus may be sending his disciples to make the world healthy and whole, to bring it and the people who inhabit it into a state of perfect peace with the Father.
  2. He gave them the Spirit.  This is the Johannine version of Pentecost, and it doesn’t happen fifty days after Easter: it happens on Easter Sunday.  Jesus had told his disciples earlier that it was to their benefit that he go away, so that he could ask the Father to send them another paraclete, a Greek word that means “friend,” “helper,” “advocate.”  This one would be the Holy Spirit, and it would be with them forever: loving them, helping them, and guiding them into all truth.  I’ve been wondering lately if that’s why Jesus told Mary Magdalene not to hold on to him.  He said he was ascending to the Father.  Maybe he was on his way to ask the Father for the Holy Spirit so he could bring it back and give it to his disciples.
  3. Finally, he gave them power to forgive sins, and it’s hard to know exactly what he meant by that.  He said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  That sort of thing could make you judgmental, couldn’t it?  Thinking it was your job to decide whose sins should be forgiven and whose shouldn’t be?  You might start looking around and keeping a record of wrongs.  But it might also make you gracious, to realize that you have the power to let go of those old grudges and hurt feelings you’ve been carrying around, to open your hand and watch them fall to the ground forever.  Isn’t there some place in the Bible where we are urged to forgive as we have been forgiven? (Eph. 4:32).  Maybe Jesus is giving his disciples the power to practice such forgiveness.

And then he’s gone—just like that.  The next thing John tells us is that Thomas, who was called “the Twin,” one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus appeared.  We don’t know where he was.  I’ve often suspected that he was out buying groceries at the time.  But there is another option, and that is that Thomas was so overwhelmed by grief he didn’t want to be with the others.  People grieve in different ways, you know.  Some like the comfort of being around others.  Some want to be alone.  Thomas may have been one of those.  And there are hints in the Gospel that Jesus and Thomas were especially close.  One of them is in chapter 11.

When Jesus learns that his friend Lazarus is sick he doesn’t go to him right away.  He stays where he is a couple more days.  But then, when he makes up his mind to go, his disciples try to stop him.  They say, “Lord, the religious leaders in Jerusalem were just now trying to stone you to death.  Are you sure you want to go back?”  But Jesus says he has to go, that Lazarus has died and he has to go raise him from the dead.  And that’s when Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  And he’s not talking about Lazarus; he’s talking about Jesus.  He means that if they’re going to kill Jesus they going to have to kill him, too. 

And then in chapter 14, when Jesus says that he is going to prepare a place for his disciples so they can be with him where he is he says, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.”  Thomas says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  It seems clear that he wants to know the way.  He’s trying to get directions so he can get to the place Jesus is going.  And that’s when Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father but by me.”  I’m not sure Thomas understood what he meant by that, but even in that brief exchange you can sense his determination to go wherever Jesus is going, to follow him anywhere.  Keep that in mind when come to the next part of the story because this is where Thomas has gotten a bad reputation.

When the disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord,” Thomas said, “I don’t believe it, and furthermore I won’t believe it, not until I put my fingers into the marks of the nails in his hands and put my hand into his side.”  We call him “Doubting Thomas” because he couldn’t believe that Jesus had risen simply on the testimony of those other disciples.  But maybe he just didn’t want to get his heart broken again.  And think about it: those others didn’t believe at first either, not when Mary Magdalene told them she had seen the Lord, not when Jesus himself appeared in their midst.  It was only when he showed them his hands and his side that they rejoiced.  Thomas isn’t really asking for any more than anyone else has received.  Well, maybe a little more.  He really does want to touch as well as see the risen Lord.

But you can hardly blame him.  At least, I can’t blame him.  I would want to see Jesus with my own eyes, wouldn’t you?  And I’m not sure about putting my fingers into the marks of the nails or my hand into his side, but I would want to be reassured in the most tangible way possible that it was really Jesus standing in front of me and not just me, hallucinating.  I can’t blame Thomas for asking.  In fact, I’m glad he did, because if he hadn’t what would we have?  In this Gospel at least we would only have Mary’s testimony that she had seen the Lord and the disciples’ testimony of the same.  It may have been a dream or a vision they saw, no more!  I don’t know about you, but I’d like some proof!  So, I’m glad that Thomas asked for it, and I’m glad that somewhere Jesus heard that request.

Because a week later they were gathered together in that same place.  Once again the doors were locked.  And then, once again, there was Jesus.  Shalom,” he said, holding up that wounded hand.  And then he said, “Come here, Thomas.  Put your finger in the mark of the nails.  Put your hand into my side.  Don’t be an unbeliever any longer; become a believer.”  And here’s what we sometimes miss.  Thomas didn’t put his finger into the marks of the nails.  He didn’t put his hand into Jesus’s side.  At least, not that John tells us.  The next thing that happens in this story is that Thomas says, “My Lord and my God!”  It is the highest Christological confession in the Gospel, and it comes from Thomas’ lips in a rush, even before he has a chance to touch Jesus.

“Have you believed because you have seen me, Thomas?  Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”  And he’s talking about us, about all of us who have become believers on the testimony of others, on the testimony of Scripture, or through our own limited experience of the living Lord.  We haven’t seen him, we certainly haven’t touched him, but somehow we have come to believe—like Thomas—that Jesus is both Lord and God.  And it may have been that return appearance that did it for us.  We may have decided that if it was that important to Jesus that Thomas become a believer, then it might be that important that we become believers, too.

The author of John’s Gospel says as much.  He says, “There are many other signs that Jesus did that aren’t written in this book, but these things are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing you may have life in his name.”  In other words, the whole Gospel has been written so that you might become a believer, and if that hasn’t happened by this point, the Gospel has failed!  And you wouldn’t want that to happen, would you?  So do it: look on Jesus with the eyes of faith.  Don’t be a doubter any longer.  Be a believer.  But if you find that you can’t do that yet, take heart.  Those other disciples made a place for Thomas at the table; we’ll make a place for you, until Jesus himself whispers in your ear:

“Don’t be a doubter any longer.  Be a believer.”

Jim Somerville 2014
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