It is very hard if not impossible sometimes to keep faith in the face of death. Think of what those parents who lost children in Newtown, Connecticut went through and are still probably going through. When faced with the loss of what you hold most dear, it is not only difficult to believe in life after death, it is difficult to believe that your own life here on earth can go on in any meaningful form.
Thus, I think that we should not be too hard on Jesus’ disciple Thomas for not believing at first in the resurrection. It is a lot to believe after all. You and I might have responded just the same way if we were in Thomas’ shoes.
However, we are not in his shoes. We are in our own shoes. Thus, our task today is to see what we can learn from Thomas and his encounter with the risen Christ in John 20:24-31….
Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “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 it.”
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.Have you ever felt like you were in the wrong place at the wrong time? Or perhaps you feel like you were born into the wrong family, or born into the wrong time-period. We all probably tend to feel like this from time to time: “If only I were in that person’s shoes, had that person’s experiences, then my life would be different and everything would be all right.”
I imagine Thomas felt a little bit like that. He was not there to see Jesus on the first Sunday when Jesus appeared to his other disciples. We do not know where he was. He simply was not there, and that was not his fault.
I wonder what the first thought or feeling was that went through Thomas’ mind or heart when the other disciples told him: “We have seen the Lord!”
I am sure he had many questions like: “What are you talking about?” However, when he received the disciples’ explanation and saw the look of hope and joy in their eyes, Thomas must have realized that something strange had happened to them.
Maybe for a moment, he felt a flicker of jealousy: “Why wasn’t I there to see what you saw?” Perhaps we have all felt the same at one time or another. Do we not all wish we could have been there and witnessed the events of Jesus’ life, and especially his resurrection? We tend to think: “If only I could have been there, then I would know for certain, then I could really believe.”
Thomas was much closer to all of the events of Jesus’ life than we are, but he still missed out on the most important event of all, and it changed his entire perspective.
Thomas did not want to be “taken in” any longer. He had already come to believe in Jesus once, and then all his hopes were dashed. The one thing Thomas did not want was to get on that faith rollercoaster again. I think that is why he said: “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 it.”
There are plenty of people like Thomas in today’s world: people who have difficulty believing in God let alone in his Son Jesus Christ.
As recorded in World magazine, interviewer Larry King once said:
I can’t make that leap that a lot of people around me have made into belief that there’s some judge somewhere. I have a lot of respect for true people of faith…. I’ve done so many interviews on it. I’ve always searched. But as someone said, “Did you ever sit down and read the Bible cover to cover?” The answer’s no, because I don’t know who wrote it. I’m too in my head to be into faith. Faith is a wonderful thing. I envy people who have it. I just can’t make the leap.
I remember as a kid, my father died when I was young, and that was unexplainable to me. The God of the Old Testament, I didn’t like things he did. “Abraham, sacrifice your son.” That always bothered me as a kid. I remember thinking, Why would he do that to Abraham? As a test? So I said to myself, I don’t know. I just don’t know. That’s still true to this day.I can understand and even sympathize with people like Larry King. Some things in the Bible are hard to understand and accept. Furthermore, when one faces great loss in life such loss is often unexplainable and makes faith difficult, if not impossible.
I think Thomas was a lot like Larry King … but with one big difference. Thomas had an encounter with the risen Lord Jesus Christ … and that changed everything.
It was one week later … another Sunday. The disciples were gathered in the same house. Once again, Jesus stood among them. Once again, the locked doors could not keep him out. Once again Jesus said, “Peace be with you.”
The only difference was: this time Thomas was with them, and Jesus spoke to him. “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
It was the same Jesus: the same one who had the nails driven through his wrists, the same Jesus who had a sword thrust into his side. The same Jesus whom Thomas had known in life: now he was meeting him on the other side of death. What Thomas asked for, he received: the opportunity to put his finger into the nail holes and his hand into Jesus’ side.
How would you have responded, how would I have responded, if we were in Thomas’ shoes?
I do not know what I would have done or said. However, Thomas did not need any more proof. Seeing was enough. He did not have to touch Jesus to believe. He simply said, “My Lord and my God!”
Thus, Thomas was the first person, according to the Gospel of John, to call Jesus “God”. John has been telling us this from the beginning of his Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”
This whole encounter raises the question: what does it take for some of us to believe?
Erik Weihenmayer is a blind mountaineer who successfully scaled Mount Everest. He once wrote the following in Outside magazine:
A few days after I arrived in the Khumbu Valley for the Mount Everest climb, a rumor began circulating. Because I wasn’t flopping on my face every few minutes, the Sherpas thought I was lying about my blindness. Women would approach me in the alleys of Namche Bazaar and wave their hands in front of my face. I’d feel the wind and flinch, which only confirmed their suspicions.
Finally, I resorted to drastic measures. I asked Kami Tenzing, our climbing sirdar, into the kitchen tent. “Kami,” I said, “I want to give you a message to take back to the Sherpas.” I pulled down my left lower eyelid, leaned my head forward, and my prosthetic eye plopped into my palm. “I can take the other out if you want,” I said. “No!” he said firmly. “Not necessary.”
I imagine that Jesus’ encounter with Thomas was kind of like Erik Weihenmayer’s encounter with Kami Tenzing.
We all want some sort of proof to help us believe. Jesus addresses this desire when he says to Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Jesus promises a blessing to those of us who can believe without seeing. That’s great. But what can help us believe, we who do not have a prosthetic eye plopped into our hands, we who do not have the opportunity to put our hands into Jesus’ side? We must believe without seeing, or not believe at all. But how does this thing called faith really work?
I think an answer, at least a partial answer, is given to us in the last paragraph of our text for today….
Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
We do not have Jesus physically present with us to help us believe, but we do have something Thomas did not have. We have the record of the entire Gospel of John. We have three other Gospels on top of that. In addition, we have twenty-three other books in the New Testament. All of these documents were written at most only sixty or seventy years after Jesus death and claimed resurrection.
“But how do we know that the story they tell is true, that it really happened?” you might reasonably ask.
The most convincing argument I have ever heard is this one…. Most of the people who told this story, of a dying and rising Jesus, gave up their lives because of their faith in the resurrection.
You say, “Well, that’s fine, but there are probably many people who have given up their life for something they thought was true, but really wasn’t in the end.”
Yes, that is true. But I have never met or heard of anyone who would give up their life for something they knew was a lie. Thus, the idea that the first disciples made up the story of Jesus’ resurrection and then died for that lie, simply does not make sense to me. They must have given up their lives for something they thought was true.
Was it a hallucination? If so, it was the most unusual hallucination in all of recorded human history—fooling as many as five hundred people who claimed to have witnessed Jesus risen from the dead at one moment in time. (I Corinthians 15)
Was it a hoax? If not perpetrated by the disciples, and I have already shown how that simply cannot be, then by whom?
German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg has said, “The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things: First, it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live.”
So where does the power to believe come from, to believe in such an unusual event, to believe when the cost of change in our own lives is so great?
The power to believe, while based upon recorded human history, can ultimately come only from God. It is his gift.
Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Faith is ultimately, also, a gift we can ask God to give us, like the man who brought his son to Jesus for healing who said: “Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)
It was this very Scripture in Mark 9:24 that helped an agnostic named Sheldon Vanauken come to faith in Jesus Christ. He prayed the same prayer that the father prayed to Jesus. Vanauken realized that faith was a risk. After all, in the end, the Christian faith might be wrong. But he also realized that to reject Jesus was the greater risk: to reject Jesus and find in the end that he had rejected God. That outcome, Sheldon Vanauken concluded, would be unbearable. Therefore, he made the leap of faith. Afterwards, he wrote a poem entitled “The Gap” about his decision….
Did Jesus live? And did he really sayThe burning words that banish mortal fear?And are they true? Just this is central, hereThe Church must stand or fall. It’s Christ we weigh.
All else is off the point: the Flood, the DayOf Eden, or the Virgin Birth—Have done!The Question is, did God send us the SonIncarnate crying Love! Love is the Way!
Between the probable and proved there yawnsA gap. Afraid to jump, we stand absurd,Then see behind us sink the ground and, worse,Our very standpoint crumbling. Desperate dawnsOur only hope: to leap into the WordThat opens up the shuttered universe.