Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on Apr. 19 2009.
Psalm 133:1-3; John 20:19-31
We’ve had a week to pretty much let the Easter event soak in and make its way into our collective memories. Evidently, judging by today’s attendance, there are those who have had enough time to get it completely out of their system! The passage we read from John’s gospel reveals a different story, however. This is all still very fresh, very raw, to the people in our narrative.
The disciples are huddled in their house on the very evening they have gotten word that Jesus’ body was not in the grave. John is very clear about that. “When it was evening on that day,” he says, “the first day of the week.” The day Mary of Magdala discovered the tomb empty. The day she ran to the house where the disciples were staying and told them of what she had found; actually, of what she had not found. The day Jesus spoke her name in the garden. That day. That’s the day John is talking about. The first day of the week, after Jesus died on the cross.
He is also clear about something else. “The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.” This is still very much a new and fresh – not to mention frightening – experience for them. Truth be told, they don’t have a clue as to what is going on and they don’t know what to do. The only thing they are certain of is that Jesus is no longer where they knew him to be buried.
Oh, there is one other thing of which they are also dead certain. They are afraid. They are very much afraid. On one hand we can understand why, on the other we can’t. After all, why should they be afraid?
Do you mind if we explore that for a moment?
After Mary has encountered Jesus in the garden, and with the sound of his voice calling her name, she realizes he is her Master and not the gardener. Her first inclination is to touch him, to reach out to him, to embrace him. A perfectly natural reaction, I would think. Around here, especially when we haven’t seen each other for awhile, a lot of hugging takes place. But Jesus doesn’t let her do it, does he? “Do not hold on to me… Go to my brothers,” he tells her, “and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God.’”
She, the dutiful believer and friend of Jesus, does just that. And still, even with this exciting news, they are fearful. Boy, Jesus really picked a bunch of losers, didn’t he? Well, let’s not rush to judgment. Instead, let’s put ourselves in their place and see if we would have reacted any differently.
“Peace be with you,” he says to them when he enters the house. Just a casual greeting, like when you see a friend or acquaintance? “Hey, how you doing?” You don’t really want to know how they’re doing, do you? You couldn’t care less that he woke up that morning with his back hurting again, or that she just broke a fingernail. It’s just another way of saying hello. “Hey, how you doing?” Is that what Jesus means when he says, “Peace be with you”? Just another way of saying hello?
Don’t think so. It is a very deliberate way of presenting himself to these frightened, cowardly followers who, at that point, are probably wondering why they ever got into this mess in the first place, why they ever decided to pitch their lot with one who was so intent on running headlong into the collusioned forces of Rome and the Jewish religious leadership. They’re sitting there in that house – no doubt in the dark – cowering like a bunch of frightened puppies, with the door locked tight and the only sound heard being the knocking of their knees.
And Jesus just appears. Just like that, as if walls and locked doors meant nothing to him. It’s no wonder the first word out of his mouth is peace. Imagine what it would have been like if he had said, “Boo!”
“Peace be with you.” If he doesn’t say something affirming, something positive and soothing, they’re going to jump right out of their skin.
And without another word he shows them his hands, he hikes up his tunic so they can see where the soldier’s spear had been thrust in. Or, as one commentator has cleverly put it, he invited them to let their fingers do the walking.1
I doubt, however, that they took him up on his offer. Now Mary… that was her first inclination, wasn’t it? To touch him, put her arms around him, to welcome him back into the land of the living. But not the disciples. They’re not sure the one standing before them is alive at all. He could be a ghost for all they know.
I imagine they backed off at least step or two, don’t you? Out of fear, remember. Out of abject fear. They are, to use King James language, sore afraid.
It was that first Sunday night, just three days after he had been put on that cross. Remember, John has made that very clear. How long does it take wounds like that to heal? Deep wounds. Well, who says they were healed? He’s not inviting them to touch old scars like the one I have on my left knee or maybe the one you’re carrying from that appendectomy of so many years ago. Not like the one on your chest, if you’ve had by-pass surgery. No, he’s inviting them to look and touch fresh, raw, deep wounds.
But wait a minute. What kind of man cheats death and then walks around with fresh wounds and enters rooms without bothering to unlock the door? Put yourself in their place. You would be frightened too!
And doubtful. You would also be doubtful. Especially if your name is Thomas; especially if your name is Thomas and you weren’t there that first time and were told about it by the others only after the fact.
A lot of conjecturing has gone on in the last two thousand years as to where Thomas might have been that night, why he wasn’t with the other disciples. Let’s not add to it this morning because, while it might be interesting to think about, it doesn’t do a whole lot of good. Let’s just accept that, for some reason, he wasn’t with his compatriots. But let’s do this… let’s admit there is at least a bit of Thomas in all of us.
Over the years I’ve been something of an apologist for Thomas, not wanting to be too hard on him. I’ve been willing to cut him some slack, take it a bit easy on him, not rush to judgment about his inclination not to swallow easily what his fellow disciples tell him to be the truth. You want to know why? Because there is a good bit of Thomas lurking in me, and if you were willing to admit it, I bet the same is true of you.
We all have that in us, that we want to – that we must somehow – resist the easy answers, especially when it comes to the harder questions of life and faith. We’re all always looking for just a little more proof, 2 aren’t we?
When Thomas does show up again the others tell him the incredible news. It is the same message Mary had given them. “We have seen the Lord.” And Thomas snorts right back at them, telling them that while they are his friends and they’ve been through a lot together and no doubt will still have a great many experiences together as they travel down life’s road, he doesn’t believe 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.”
Thomas wants to touch Jesus too, just like Mary. But not for the same reason and not in the same way. Mary wants to embrace Jesus, Thomas wants to inspect him. All she had to do in order to believe was to hear the sound of Jesus’ voice calling her name. Her desire to touch him was an emotional response to her belief. Thomas’ reason was quite different. He wanted to see the proof, and because of that, unfortunately, he will, for all eternity, be known as the Doubter.
Just like Judas will forever be the traitor, Thomas will be the doubter.
It’s easy for us to be critical of Thomas… until we come to that point we are willing to confess that doubt is always there in us as well, stalking the edges of our faith with those tempting uncertainties, poking at the edges of belief’s soft spots, stirring up the still waters of life and faith that we are always seeking.3 Doubt is as real and ever-present as our own heartbeat, and the sooner we admit to it the sooner redemption can begin.
Thomas was there with the others, as we all know, a week later. A week later. Just like today, a week later. Were the other disciples as fearful a week later as they had been on that first Easter day? Probably not. No doubt the heat had settled down a bit in those few ensuing days, and that is not a reference to the weather. There didn’t seem to be a need for the authorities to go after the followers of the Nazarene the way they had done so with their leader.
The idea of a risen Christ has had time to sink in by now. And unlike our church today – and no doubt just about every church in our city – their attendance wasn’t down. Thomas’ presence has increased the number of those who are together to witness Jesus’ coming to them again.
It doesn’t mean that they have been any less careful as they made their way around the city during the week. But when Jesus whispers the word peace in your ear, and when he breathes his Spirit into you, fear is taken away. So what we see on that second Sunday night of the first Easter is ten disciples who are confident they have been in the presence of their Lord, whose lives have been transformed by his breathing into them his Spirit. And then there is the one disciple whose doubt still has a very real claim on his heart.
Thomas must have been a very lonely man that night, a minority of one, in the presence of these other believers. But, at least he was there.
Jesus has already lost one disciple in this enterprise. He doesn’t want to risk losing another. Like the shepherd who has left the ninety-nine sheep and gone looking for the one that is lost and alone, Jesus comes to make his claim on Thomas. In other words, Jesus refuses to let Thomas’ doubt be the last word. Thrusting out his hands, once again pulling up his tunic, Jesus exposes to Thomas his wounds. How long does it take for wounds to heal?
“Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
Do you know what Jesus is doing? Well, this at least is what I think Jesus is doing. He is acknowledging that not everybody comes to faith the same way. Some people – like Thomas, and I’d venture to guess, like you and me – require a bit more proof. We’re not big on hearsay and not easily disposed to taking someone else’s word for it. We want to see it for ourselves.
We ask Jesus to come to us and show us his wounds, to prove to us that he is alive and is willing to invest himself in who we are and what we do. We want to know for certain that Jesus will walk with us and encourage us in our faith and in the journey of life. We ask for Jesus to do this, and because he is One who loves us beyond all human abilities to measure, he walks up to us, shows us the wounds in his hands, reveals to us the gash in his side, and in his woundedness he says to us, “Follow me.”
The only thing we are left to consider, when Jesus stands before us showing us his hands and his side – how long does it take for wounds to heal? – is that we better be careful what we ask for.
Forgive us, Lord, our doubts and show us the way to follow you. In the name of our risen Christ we pray, Amen.