A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
April 27, 2014
Second Sunday of Easter
Psalm 16:1-11; John 20:19-31
If the name Frederick Buechner sounds familiar to you, it may very well be because I quote him so often. My brother Steve introduced Buechner to me through his writings when we were in seminary, and I have read just about everything since that he has published.
Buechner, like all of us who have been around awhile now, is getting on up there in age. He’s not publishing as much as he used to, but a group of his disciples have established a website on which they highlight his past writings, and have a Facebook page where, if you want to be his Facebook friend, you can read one of his quotes each day.
Last Sunday, on Easter, this was posted on Buechner’s Facebook page. It’s a bit long and involved, but that’s the way Buechner writes… long and involved.
We can say that the story of the Resurrection means simply that the teachings of Jesus are immortal like the plays of Shakespeare or the music of Beethoven and that their wisdom and truth will live on forever. Or we can say that the Resurrection means that the spirit of Jesus is undying, that he himself lives on among us, the way that Socrates does, for instance, in the good that he left behind him, in the lives of all who follow his great example. Or we can say that the language in which the Gospels describe the Resurrection of Jesus is the language of poetry and that, as such it is not to be taken literally but as pointing to a truth more profound than the literal… but in the case of the Resurrection, this simply does not apply because there really is no story about the Resurrection in the New Testament. Except in the most fragmentary way, it is not described at all. There is no poetry about it. Instead, it is simply proclaimed as fact. Christ is risen! In fact, the very existence of the New Testament itself proclaims it. Unless something very real indeed took place on that strange, confused morning, there would be no New Testament, no Church, no Christianity.
Yet we try to reduce it to poetry anyway: the coming of spring with the return of life to the dead earth, the rebirth of hope in the despairing soul. We try to suggest that these are the miracles that the Resurrection is all about, but they are not. In their way they are all miracles, but they are not this miracle, this central one to which the whole Christian faith points.
Unlike the chief priests and the Pharisees, who tried with soldiers and a great stone to make themselves as secure as they could against the terrible possibility of Christ’s really rising again from the dead, we are considerably more subtle. We tend in our age to say, ‘Of course, it was bound to happen. Nothing could stop it.’ But when we are pressed to say what it was that actually did happen, what we are apt to come out with is something pretty meager: this ‘miracle’ of truth that never dies, the ‘miracle’ of a life so beautiful that two thousand years have left the memory of it undimmed, the ‘miracle’ of doubt turning into faith, fear into hope. If I believed that this or something like this was all that the Resurrection meant, then I would turn in my certificate of ordination and take up some other profession. Or at least I hope that I would have the courage to.”1
If you’re familiar with Facebook, you will know that those who read comments such as this can either “Like” them, which suggests they approve of what is said, or write a comment of their own. One fellow did just that. He said, “I’m very familiar with all the other ‘miracles’ to describe the resurrection. I am still not convinced it is a literal physical resurrection though.”
Despite Buechner’s profession of faith in the literal, physical resurrection of Jesus, one person at least says, “ I am still not convinced…”
Well, for about a week, Thomas, the disciple known as the Twin, agreed with him. You know Thomas, don’t you? We might even think his middle name is Thomas while his first name is Doubting. It is a reputation he will never, for all eternity, be able to live down. But truth be told, had we been in his sandals, we no doubt would have reacted the same way. “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 knew what they did to Jesus on the cross. There is no record indicating he was there at Calvary, that he was an eyewitness to the crucifixion. But he knew what they did to Jesus… the nails driven through his hands and the sword thrust in his side. Somehow Thomas knew. Maybe he and the other disciples were there, watching from a distance, taking it in but not wanting the authorities to see them. Regardless, Thomas knew what occurred at Golgotha. “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.”
It is not the first time Thomas required verifiable proof before he would believe. There was another time, often overlooked, in the fourteenth chapter of John’s gospel. That’s where you will find the words of Jesus so often spoken at funerals: “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”
Then, Jesus says, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.”
Whoa, wait a minute. Not so fast, Lord. “…we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Yep, that’s our Thomas speaking. He’s not only a doubter, he’s directionally-challenged.
Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time defending Thomas. There’s a reason for that. It should be fairly obvious. It is because I find so much of Thomas in me. Do you mind if I take the risk of dissecting our friend for just a moment? I say “risk” because, when I do so, I’ll be taking the scalpel to myself.
Thomas is a bit of a flat thinker. He operates on a concrete and objective level, and doesn’t seem to be able to deal with the figurative aspects of life. He sees things black-and-white. He is from Missouri… “show me.” When he says to Jesus, “We do not know where you are going,” Jesus responds on his level by saying directly and without any gray matter, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
We tend to hang our hats on that statement. It is, after all, one of the basic and most telling affirmations of our faith. But what comes next is just as revealing. Jesus says, “If you know me, you will know my Father also.” He is saying to Thomas, and the other disciples as well, of course, “I am the physical embodiment of the presence of God on earth. What you see of me, you see of God. What you know of God, you know in me.”
You would think that would settle it. In fact, given that this is the first century and all Galileans in that day were longing for the coming Messiah – who they believed would be just as Jesus described himself – you would think it to be easier for Thomas to believe this than it is for those of us who live in a more enlightened age… like that fellow who commented on Buechner’s affirmation of faith: “I am still not convinced it is a literal physical resurrection…”
The first time Jesus appears to his followers after the resurrection, Thomas is not with them. We’re not told why. Maybe he got restless, and since they had to eat, went to the local farmers market to get some provisions. After all, he wasn’t a member of the Big Three of the disciples… Peter, James, and John. If any of them went shopping, they stood the chance of being recognized. Thomas could go without worry, perhaps.
Or maybe he’s impatient and wants to do a bit of reconnoitering. Maybe he could get into the temple without being noticed and find out if what they have perceived as a threat was really and truly something to worry about. It could be that the authorities aren’t looking for them at all, that as far as they are concerned these matters about Jesus are settled. These are the kinds of things they need to know.
And now, since Thomas doesn’t believe that Jesus was raised from the dead as his fellow disciples have told him, they make sure he is with them from then on just in case Jesus happens to show up again. If they are going to stay in this thing together, they need everybody. If they need food, they will send someone else. They’ve already lost one disciple. There’s nothing they can do about Judas; he is dead. But they don’t want it to happen again. Their plan now is to stick together.
It takes a week. Things have settled down a bit, so they’re no longer bolting the doors. But they make sure they are shut. And Jesus appears to them again.
“Peace be with you,” he says again, just as he had done the week before. Then he turns his full attention to Thomas. “Hello-o-o, Thomas. How ya doin’? Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
“Do not doubt but believe.”
I think I know why John includes this story in his gospel. After all, you’ll not find it in the other three gospels, the synoptics. At least, I have a theory. John writes his gospel for those who did not know Jesus personally during his life and ministry on earth. It is the last of the four gospels written, some decades after the others. So John’s readers know Jesus as only you and I know him – through an unseen relationship. And John has come to know and believe that faith is not an easily-packaged reality. It is not the same, exactly, for everybody… no one-size-fits-all. There are different levels and types of faith, different layers, if you will, to one’s understanding and ability to believe… which, I would imagine, is just as true of us who are gathered here today.
He wants his readers to be encouraged in knowing that whatever level of faith is theirs, it is still regarded as true faith in the eyes of the kingdom of heaven. He wants them to believe that their faith has validity, no matter how deep or wide it may be, because they have believed even when they haven’t seen the Risen Christ.
Faith is not something you decide you will have and then – poof! – you have it. Faith is a spiritual reality that is renewed time and time again. We never have faith tied up in a neat little package for all to see all the time. Faith is often mixed with doubt, real and true and honest doubt. But even when that is the case, our faith is a growing, changing, moving reality that rises and falls with our experiences in life, both good and bad, and for that reason it needs constant care and attention.
Thomas is a perfect example of this. As is true very often with you and me, in that upper room Thomas needed to be converted to Jesus all over again.
But converted he was. He took the gospel throughout Asia and India, as well as to the eastern part of the world. That’s why you’ll find that he is held in such high esteem by our friends at the Orthodox church over on Napa Valley. And maybe that is also true because of his final recorded testimony of faith: “My Lord and my God!”
So, the next time you find yourself feeling guilty for not having what you consider to be a deep-enough faith – a full-grown faith, as strong as the person in the pew next to you or maybe your neighbor next door – consider Thomas. For him, faith can only come with evidence, with great difficulty. Why? Because there is too much at stake for him to blithely believe what he cannot see. There is simply too much at stake.
And I, for one, can’t blame him. Can you?
Lord, we believe. Help us in our unbelieving, and even in our need for proof that Jesus is raised from the dead. When we falter, pick us up. When we fail, forgive us. And in this journey of life and faith, may we find you to be our way, our truth, our life. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
1cited from Frederick Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace (New York: The Seabury Press, 1970).