A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on May 1, 2011.
Jesus Appears to the Disciples
19 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.’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
Jesus and Thomas
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin*), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So 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.’
26 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.’ 27Then 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.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
The Purpose of This Book
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But 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.
On the first Sunday following Easter the lilies are either drooping or gone. Fewer people show up for worship. Lent is over. Holy week has ended. Some churchgoers decide to take a holiday. Some people have given this Sunday the title “Low Sunday.” But this is a great time to talk about resurrection faith, and the passage from John’s Gospel puts that kind of talk in good perspective. Two scenes are narrated in that passage. The first scene occurs on the evening of Resurrection Sunday. The disciples are still hiding. Suddenly Jesus appears among them. He speaks. They hear him. He breathes on them and blesses them. Now Mary Magdalene’s report about his resurrection has been confirmed. You see, they really didn’t believe her.
Thomas, one of the original disciples, wasn’t present. Despite being told by his comrades that Jesus had risen and been seen, Thomas demanded proof that he could see and touch.
The second scene in this passage occurred a week later. Again the disciples were gathered behind closed doors. This time Thomas was with them. Again, Jesus appeared. And Jesus spoke with Thomas, invited him to touch his crucifixion wounds, and believe in the truth of his resurrection. The passage doesn’t tell us whether Thomas accepted the invitation to touch the crucifixion wounds. We learn, instead, that Thomas proclaimed his belief that Jesus had risen.
At John 20:29 we read: Jesus said to him [Thomas], “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Jesus introduces Thomas, and the rest of us to two kinds of resurrection faith. Thomas is an example of the kind of faith based on personal observation and experience. Contrary to what has often been said about him, Thomas wasn’t a “doubter.” He was a skeptic. Truth for him consisted in what he could validate. All that Thomas said was that he wouldn’t believe Jesus had risen until he was able to validate it personally. Thomas wasn’t going on what someone else said, heard, or believed.
Thomas doesn’t deserve to be criticized any more than the other disciples. Mark’s Gospel reports that the disciples would not believe Mary Magdalene’s report of the resurrection (Mark 16:11), that they refused to believe two others who reported that Jesus had appeared to them as they were walking in the country (Mark 16:12-13), and that Jesus later chastised them “for their lack of faith and stubbornness” (Mark 16:14). So Thomas doesn’t deserve to be singled out as a “doubter.” He was a questioner.
Jesus didn’t criticize Thomas for being a skeptic. Jesus didn’t call skepticism the enemy of faith. Neither should we. We shouldn’t view skeptics as being anti-religious, anti-spiritual, or anti-truth, because that isn’t what they are. Skeptics are simply concerned about truth to the point that they aren’t willing to say something is true until they have tested its validity. Skeptics aren’t “anti-faith.” They just come to faith a different way. Thomas professed his faith in the resurrection after he was able to confront the evidence. He didn’t rush to a conclusion simply because he wanted to believe Jesus was alive. He didn’t believe in the resurrection based on his confidence in what the other disciples told him. Thomas wanted to verify the resurrection claim personally.
Jesus didn’t criticize Thomas—nor should we—because there’s nothing wrong with that approach to faith or life. People should care enough about truth to ask hard questions and engage in serious thought. We should be willing to exercise our minds and withhold conclusions about new ideas, strange situations, and other matters until we’ve given the matter serious consideration in a fair-minded way. A lot of problems in life, personally and publicly, might be avoided if people were more like Thomas. Fox News commentators would be less influential if people were more like Thomas. Claims about “weapons of mass destruction” wouldn’t have resulted in the wrong-headed U.S. war in Iraq had people been more like Thomas. Jesus didn’t criticize Thomas because there’s nothing wrong about being a critical thinker.
Instead, Jesus reminded Thomas that faith in God’s resurrection power can exist even without the kind of objective verification Thomas demanded. That appears to be what Jesus meant by saying “Blessed are those who have not seen and have come to believe.” Objective faith is based on what we can observe. But resurrection faith can also be based on the character, attributes, purposes, and promises of God. That kind of faith is based on different questions.
• Is God truthful?
• Does God exist independent of all I can personally verify?
• Is God the source of life itself?
• Does God have the power to create life?
• Has God promised and failed to deliver?
• Is God unscrupulous, deceitful, incompetent, or a fraud?
The people who haven’t seen the resurrected Jesus—people like you and me—but who’ve come to believe in the resurrection anyway base our faith on these and similar issues. We’re not opposed to the kind of skeptical faith Thomas demonstrated. Our faith is based on what we understand about God’s nature, character, power, and purposes, particularly as God demonstrated those things in Jesus.
• We believe God can create life.
• We believe God is faithful because God has been faithful.
• We believe that God’s love is stronger than death because God will not die.
• We believe God has a purpose for the world that’s bigger and stronger than all evil.
• We trust God’s love to be more powerful than sin, injustice, greed, hate, cruelty, and even death.
Based on what God has already done, we believe in what God will do. This is faith based on historical experience, and it is what has inspired people across time. That’s the kind of faith that says, “Because of what God has done, I believe in what God can do. Because of how God has loved, I believe God will forgive. Because of the deliverance God has done, I believe God can deliver. Because of who God is, I believe God, trust God, and will honor God by my obedience.”
Jesus told Thomas that people who can come to believe in God’s resurrection power based on who God is, what God desires for the world, and God’s power and determination to have that happen are blessed.
• Yes, people who believe in God’s love despite the evidence of hate, cruelty, the greed of our materialism, and everything else are blessed.
• Yes, people who believe in peace despite having lived their lifetimes in a war zone are blessed.
• Yes, people who believe in forgiveness even for the people who don’t seem to deserve forgiveness are blessed.
• Yes, people who believe in hope despite the darkness of their own situations are blessed.
Jesus said that skeptics and visionaries can share the same faith in God’s resurrection power. That’s mighty good news to live by. Let’s do so. Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.