Doubting Thomas (4/23/06)
Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
The passage we heard read from the lectern this morning concerned an appearance of Jesus to his disciples after his resurrection. That reading came from John 20, verses 19-23. I want to take up where that reading stopped, by reading verses 24-29:
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he 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.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 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.”
I think most of us can identify with Thomas. Like him, we can understand the earthly ministry of Jesus. We can believe he showed us the proper way to approach life. We can even see him hanging from the cross, feeling forsaken, all the while forgiving the very people who nailed him to that cross.
But we have trouble believing that Jesus somehow survived the cross. Oh, we can say he lives on through his teachings, and he has lived in the memory of those who knew him and passed those memories down through the generations. But to believe Jesus truly is alive today—that Jesus Christ is more than memory, more than a figure who comes alive through the study of Christian history—well, we sometimes find ourselves in the position of Thomas, who said, “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.”
How important is this little passage from the Gospel of John? What role does Doubting Thomas play in John’s telling of the gospel story? Well consider this. This is the final story in the original version of John’s gospel. Oh, there is a 21st chapter that comes after this story, but most scholars believe that entire chapter is a redaction, a chapter that was added by a later writer to the original author’s work.
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In fact, after Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” there are only two concluding sentences in John’s original gospel. It reads,
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing in him you may have life in his name.
So the Doubting Thomas story is the exclamation point at the end of John’s gospel. Of course, Thomas was lucky. Jesus appeared to him and offered to let him stick his finger in Jesus’ pierced hands. We don’t get that opportunity. We have to be among those who do not see, yet still come to believe.
I love the Gospel of John. Even though it is the gospel most abused by fundamentalists, it is my favorite of the four gospels. It all comes down to how you approach it. I’ve found the best way to think about the Gospel of John is to envision it as a very inspired man looking back on the life of Jesus and interpreting that life in light of his own experience with the Risen Christ. John doesn’t try to provide details of the life of Jesus. John is all about the theological implications of the life of Jesus.
Of the 27 books that comprise the New Testament, five are attributed to somebody named John: the Gospel of John, three letters—1st John, 2nd John and 3rd John—and the Revelation of John. We’ve discussed the Revelation of John, and that story was written by John of Patmos, clearly a different figure than the author of the Gospel of John.
The three letters written by John remain under dispute. The language, style and ideas are similar to the Gospel of John. So they may have been written by the same person. Was the author one of the twelve Apostles? Many believe this is the Apostle John, the youngest of Jesus’ followers. If that is true, he wrote these accounts as an old man, some 60 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Most scholars agree that the writings came out of the same school, the same Christian community, whether they were written by a single author or not, and regardless of whether that author was the actual Apostle John.
Since the Gospel of John is my favorite gospel, it won’t surprise you that I also love the letters of John, especially 1st John. It has the same mystical feel as the Gospel of John, and can be spiritually inspiring if you allow the images to work on your soul and don’t get caught up too much in analyzing the words, trying to make concrete that which is mystical. I want to read the beginning of 1st John, as the author clearly speaks to the Doubting Thomases throughout the church:
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
There are two things in that passage that jump out at me. First, the phrase, “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” And second, “Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Let’s give those phrases some thought. God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. What a powerful image of God! This is not the image of God many of us conjure up in our minds when we think about God. I think many of us picture God as Zeus, a mighty warrior god with a thunderbolt in his hand and at the ready. But this God we find in John’s gospel, this God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.
What would it mean to have a God who is all good all the time? John makes us re-think our images of God. While many of us have difficulty with the language of sacrifice, consider what John’s God does on behalf of humanity. He takes the form of a human being and takes the sins of the world upon himself.
And notice what John says. Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world. The whole world! In John’s theology, all of creation is redeemed through Jesus Christ, through an act of God.
But do we believe that? Believing that is somehow tied up with believing that Jesus Christ is still alive two thousand years after his crucifixion. But for the Doubting Thomases, what proof have we of such a thing? And like Thomas, how can we believe without seeing for ourselves?
It takes a leap of faith. It really does. Theologians call it faith seeking understanding. Oh, I realize that faith seems to come easily for some people—it is as natural as breathing in and out. But for the Doubting Thomases faith is not so easy. We need to see the wounds of the Risen Christ to believe that he truly lives.
So where can we modern Christians find the wounded and Risen Christ? He does not appear to us as he did to Thomas. Where are the wounds into which we can stick our fingers and believe? Perhaps those wounds are all around us, if we only have eyes to see.
I believe we can see the wounded Christ every time somebody commits an act of evil against another person. If we are to believe John, Christ died for the sins of the world—for everybody and everything in the world. It was not a select few who were saved at the cross—it was all of creation. That means creation is holy. Creation is worth dying for. Creation is the foundation for the Kingdom of God, the only place you and I have to try to build that kingdom, the only place we have to make love a way of life and peace the natural way of things.
We see the wounded Christ when terrorists fly airplanes into skyscrapers killing innocent people by the thousands. We see the wounded Christ when bombs are dropped on neighborhoods in Iraq, targeting insurgents and killing innocent men, women and children in the process. We see the wounded Christ in the starving children of this world, children who could be saved if those of us in the western democracies cared enough to sacrifice a little of our excess on behalf of those who are born without even the most basic necessities.
We see the wounded Christ when short-term economics outweigh the long-range future of our planet, as if we were not responsible for the future generations who will inherit the mess we now create. We see the wounded Christ at the Battered Women’s Shelter, where women and children hide from those who would treat them as property, or worse, slaves. We see the wounded Christ at the homeless shelters, where life is stripped to its barest elements—food to eat and shelter from the weather—just enough to stay alive another day.
This is where we see the wounded Christ today. But it is also where we see the Risen Christ at work. The Risen Christ, seeking solutions to the world’s problems that stop short of warfare. Blessed are the peacemakers. We see the Risen Christ working to feed the hungry millions of this planet, through charity and through changes to economic policies. We see the Risen Christ in those who cry out against the defamation of our planet by economic interests who can’t see beyond next quarter’s financial statement. We see the Risen Christ financially supporting and working at the shelters, offering hope to lives that have fallen into despair.
For that is where the Risen Christ lives today, one with God, one with those who abide in God’s love. Of course, John says it best. He writes:
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
For the Doubting Thomases, it still takes a leap of faith. Soren Kierkegaard said it best. When we look at this amazing and crazy universe, we come to a point where our reason reaches its limit. We just can’t quite reason our way to real faith. It takes a leap of faith to acquire faith. And that is the irony. Only those who are willing to step out of their comfort zones and make that leap, to trust God that God really is there, and really does care—only those get to experience the reality of God.
Faith isn’t the destination. It’s the starting place. Understanding comes later. But where do we start our faith, we Doubting Thomases who too often see the wounded Jesus and too seldom see the Risen Christ? Well, a good place to start is with the beginning of the Gospel of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
That is the Jesus Christ who lives today, the resurrected Christ who overcame death itself, the very Christ who was inseparable from God from the beginning of creation, who remains inseparable from God today, and who lives in this very world through those who are willing to take that leap of faith.