This sermon was delivered by Jacob Cook, a student at McAfee and winner of the John R. Claypool Preaching Award at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, Ga., on April 28, 2009.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 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.” 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 you may have life in his name. (John 20:19-31, NRSV)
The subject of “believing” is not out of place in the seminary, but it might feel like we’ve turned the chapel into a kiddie pool. This is nuts-and-bolts stuff, and we (of all people) should have it down. After all, we are the ones who have come here to study because we believe, and we study about “believing” because − even if it’s somewhere deep down inside − we sense a calling to help others in their unbelief. We are each in this place for a great many reasons, but belief is one that we hold in common on some level.
I bring my own questions of belief. I am not questioning my beliefs as much as I am questioning the concept of belief. What does it mean to share your faith? How do you do it? We know that Jesus sends his disciples into the world just like the Father sent him, presumably to make and teach more disciples. We know that Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into his disciples, giving them the authority to forgive peoples’ sins and also to retain those sins. But how is Jesus’ commission appropriate for a post-modern world? And if we start to wonder at how it might be appropriate, then how is it still accurate for a modern world?
The question of “how to do it” doesn’t even form in the disciples’ minds. After crashing their party, Jesus leaves the house where they were meeting − he walks right through the wall − and all the disciples rush out trying to find him. Pulling a scene right out of the old cartoons, they trip all over themselves trying to figure out, “Which way did he go?” So much for, Peace be with you. By the time they have given up the ghost, they have found Thomas and can’t help but spill it on him. So excited. So hyped-up. They calm themselves to tell him the first time, “We have seen the Lord.” Thomas studies them carefully. In the silence, Peter is overcome and grabs Thomas, shaking him by the shoulders, “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas’ response is somehow less positive, “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.” No wonder he doesn’t have a speaking role in the other gospels. In this pivotal moment, Didymus Thomas receives an unfortunate new nickname: Doubting Thomas. And in this pivotal moment, the disciples fail their first attempt at evangelism after the Resurrection. These guys had been walking with Jesus for how long (?), and they cannot even convince another disciple. What does it mean to share your faith? How do you do it?
Some days I roll out of bed thinking I should fight off my doubts because faith must mean believing even when things don’t really make sense. Jesus set Thomas straight about his doubts, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Said another way, when something is true, it does not matter how you come to know it. Make a system out of this thought, and the task of Christian evangelization easily becomes an awkwardly scripted conversation based on “The Four Spiritual Laws” or “Romans Road” or some other tract plan. We pray that the Spirit will convince a person as we speak (or as they read, if we are not so bold), and we reduce success to “The Sinner’s Prayer.”
I have more personal stories about this sort of evangelism than I would like to admit. Walking “Romans Road” through the Wal-mart parking lot in Emporia, Kansas (I sometimes think I should go leave notes of apology on windshields there). Sharing my testimony at an evangelistic service in Chowchilla, California, “God saved me from looking for love in all the wrong places,” while I was in high school dating one of the girls in the youth group. My friend Wayne, who was in my class from eighth grade on in school. Wayne had a passive personality, and as we matured over the years, he did not fancy himself all that sociable; but he and I typically spent time together one-on-one, playing guitar or philosophizing. In the context of our deep, enduring friendship, I cannot begin to count the number of times that I tried (and succeeded, I thought) to trap him in his logic, to get him to believe in my God.
The basic framework of this model is Knowing. We understand the Jesus way and we should get the world onboard with us whether the world agrees or not. Jesus warns that people might not believe our testimonies, so we feel justifiably frustrated when people don’t believe us, but we have forgotten that the Spirit is the One who convicts people. When the world comes into contact with this model of evangelism, it often resents or opposes the Christian faith for narrowly trying to dominate it. The overall result is secularizing, people end up pushed further into their current beliefs (and doubts) and the dualism between “believers” and “the world” becomes more vivid.
Other days I wake up and push against that model thinking that it’s perfectly okay to doubt; uncertainty is an undeniable part of the human experience. Jesus didn’t strike Thomas dead in his doubt. Said another way, something is true when you experience it to be true. Make a system out of this thought, and the task of Christian evangelization is reduced to just that, a rote task leftover from an archaic expression of the faith. Not cut and dry as before; instead we cut and run. We seek to be more open-minded and willing to learn from a variety of unlikely sources while downplaying − or even withholding − our own worldview. The concept of evangelism is subsumed into social service and do-gooding, and conversations outside the church become passive idea exchanges.
My stories from this model of evangelism condemn me as much as, if not more than, those of the last model. I can recall times in recent history when I would avoid conversation with the people around me at all costs: walking hurriedly through Target so as to prevent any conversations or picking a seat in the empty section of the plane (you know, on the plane you have a captive audience). Once, when I was in college, I travelled from Kansas through Florida and back with my youth group on an evangelistic “musical mission.” Near the end of our performances − which happened about twenty times − I preached a sermon about our Savior identifying with our sufferings to the point of death. Yet, each night, I refused to give an altar call, a chance to respond in faith. Wayne now comes back into my mind. As we continued to mature over the years, Wayne’s social agenda changed like the night follows the day. Parties. Drugs. Attention that he had never known. Expanded community that he had always dreamed, though it came in a form he might not have anticipated. He had in me a friend who simply listened to, even laughed at, his incredulous stories.
The basic framework of this model is Being. While we have an understanding of the Jesus way, we really limit that way to relationships with other folks in our church. We quickly admit that even we may not understand the Jesus way very well. Even the Bible seems a bit confused about the Kingdom (Is it now? Is it later?), so we’re excused from other peoples’ unbelief. Lord help our own unbelief. When the world comes into contact with this kind of Christianity, it finds the faith wanting because we have forgotten that the Spirit actually convicts people. The pendulum swings to the other side of the same clock: the overall result is still secularizing. Now, we rarely engage the world to affect it.
In John’s story, we find both models hard at work (and hardly working). The first appears when the disciples’ testimony fails to convince Thomas, and the second appears in the suggestive silence throughout the week before Jesus appears again. Imagine how painful this one week must have been for everyone. Some of the disciples were pressing Thomas even harder to believe, making him more frustrated and opposed. “Come on, Thomas. Let’s run through this one more time. You have to believe us. Jesus came in, right through the wall . . .” Others felt out of place doing that to him, so they tried to just be a kind presence − obviously this is a tough time in his life. “Hey, buddy. How are you doing? You feeling alright? If you need anything, we’ll be right over there. Yea, just . . . over there . . . if you need anything . . .” Either way, patience is forced and disingenuous − peace has eluded them yet again.
Stan Harstine − my college advisor and Assistant Professor of New Testament at Friends University − compared scenes like this one in John to other ancient Greek literature. He concluded that Thomas’ story has something to tell us about the nature of loyalty rather than beliefs. It’s not hard to imagine why Thomas would question whether Jesus had really appeared. Consider the confusion at this time in the lives of the disciples. The one they have been following all this time has been crucified, and his body, which was laid in a sealed tomb, has now disappeared. Ten of the Eleven have this uncanny experience with the risen Jesus, who walks through walls. Thomas is left out. And, in an excited delirium, the other disciples come to him saying, “We have seen the Lord!” Faithful Thomas is just protecting his heart for his one true Lord and God. Thomas does not ask for something unique or special to him; the others were freely offered an experience of the risen Jesus, and they explored his wounds. He plainly refuses to believe based on the others’ experience; nonetheless, Thomas experiences the risen Jesus, who gives him life, and he exclaims, “My Lord and my God!”
In the midst of their own thickening chaos, what might have been good news to the disciples? In the wake of Jesus’ first appearance, what might have been good news to Thomas, who was now fundamentally at odds with the other Ten? Arguably, the most critical aspect of Jesus’ model of evangelism comes in his first words each encounter: Peace be with you. The traditional Jewish greeting, shalom. He passes the peace three times in this passage. That’s half of the times it’s used in the gospel. Three times, Jesus passes the peace. Bringing a new depth to this common language, Jesus orders the personal chaos of each disciple in their own time. He gives them peace. Two times, he does this in the first encounter with the Ten. One more time in the second for Thomas’ sake. Could this inform our vision of evangelism? What does it mean to share your faith? How do you do it?
I think it’s easy to lose track of how we came into the fold of faith, the process by which we have come to believe, and how that process now affects the way we approach evangelism. No living soul has touched Jesus’ wounds like the first disciples did. Experiences are not transferrable or hereditary. As life goes on, we resist people who try to help us learn from their mistakes, or who push us to enjoy life the same way they have (maybe in a career or hobby), or who try to invalidate our experiences because they’ve gone through something else. What I’m suggesting requires us to doubt both a faith that imperializes knowledge of the gospel about Jesus and a faith that will not directly engage the world. As we have seen in the Thomas episode, faith is not containable in our own stories. Still we cannot marginalize the significance of a solid confession − something true even when someone has not yet experienced it. All of these things considered, how often does peace go ahead of us in our efforts? Some here today know what it means to heatedly debate the articles of faith with another who does not believe. Some here know what it means to vibrate with nervous energy in anticipation − getting ready to put ourselves out there.
These days I wake up testing my doubts against my own history with God − much like the disciples who were constantly reminded to remember. Remember what the Lord had done to deliver. Make a system out of this thought, and the task of Christian evangelization becomes − forgive my metaphor − an Easter egg hunt. We must look for places where God is already at work in the world, especially in peoples’ lives. This means we must have tender hearts, willing to discern the spirit guiding a person’s life and expecting to catch glimpses of the Resurrection in any given person’s story. God may very well be loving and caring for someone who cannot yet confess, My Lord and my God! This is sharing our faith in the God who is in others.
We must do the things Jesus taught us to do so that, when others see these things, they may glorify God. This means we must have trained hands, experienced in the real, physical work of God in redeeming this world. If what we do reveals the presence of God (or glorifies God), then the people around us genuinely experience the One we’re hoping they will believe in. Diligent in prayer for our broken and hurting world, we acknowledge that our presence just may be a Spirit-filled, life-giving experience for another person. This is sharing our faith in the God who is in ourselves.
We must train seeking people to make an orthodox confession. This means we must have tough minds, steeled in the fires of good dialogue, and a deep respect for the holy tradition of the church. In the winds of experience, we cannot neglect the importance of genuine intellectual engagement. In the seminary. In the church. And in the world.
Over the last few years, I have kept in touch with Wayne on the telephone. We have made amends for time lost, and I have expressed to him my deep care for him and also my passion for the ministry of reconciliation. Last we talked, he had started to clean up the mess of his more outrageous days, yet he continued in unbelief. I listened a lot, to be sure, but I also asked questions of him, trying to help him find purpose, God’s design in his passions. After jotting down his address, I sent him my copy of Anne Lamott’s book Traveling Mercies. In it she tells some of her own wild stories, much like the ones I’ve heard him tell, but she finds in her stories pointers to faith. While I would love for the faith elements of her story to mean something to him, I mostly wanted him to see some well-written memoirs, like he might enjoy writing himself.
For the time, Wayne’s story must remain open-ended because, well, I don’t get to write his ending. Sure, some days I wish a two-minute conversation would have made this so much easier. Other days I wish I could retreat into the silence. But God writes each chapter. While I may sow, water, or weed the garden, God grows the seeds. While my words may flounder, God’s word will not return void. While my hands may falter, God’s hand remains steady. While my heart may fear, God’s love casts out fear, bringing peace.
Assistant professor of religion at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas. His first book, Evangelicals and Identity Politics, is in review with Fortress Academic, and he has published chapters on Christian identity, peacemaking and ecological theology.