Isaiah 40:27-31, John 20:19-31
April 27, 2014
As we said last week, the predominant reaction to the news of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ was – disbelief. And as I said, we have to give those disciples the benefit of the doubt – literally, the doubt! To their credit, their grief and their despair were so deep, I don’t think any of us would have believed the Resurrection either, had we been in their sandals!
I really mean that! Maybe more than ever! Had we been there at the cross, had we seen the way Jesus died, we would not have believed he could ever come back to life, either. Had we been there Easter morning and heard the story of the women who came back from the tomb, we too would have thought their words “an idle tale” – a “fairy tale.”
With that in mind, let’s remember that one of the things some people have tried to say over the years – trying to “explain away” the resurrection – is that Jesus didn’t actually die on that cross. “He only lost consciousness,” they’ve said, “and he then recovered hours later.” And then, of course, he pushed aside the great stone with his nail pierced hands and wrists, a stone that three women didn’t think they’d be able to move. He then overpowered a roman guard of half a dozen or so armed men. And then he ran to various places around the region, including Galilee, a distance of many miles – on nail pierced feet – to “appear resurrected” to various people. If you think about it, that’s a silly “explanation,” isn’t it?
No, the disciples’ disbelief, and the Jewish leadership’s fears, and the Romans assessment of the situation and their willingness to give up the body, all point to the fact that Jesus was dead. It was as Dickens said about Jacob Marley at the beginning of his story “A Christmas Carol.” “There is no doubt that Marley was dead,” he wrote. “This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” Well, the same can be said, even more emphatically, about Jesus of Nazareth! There is no doubt he was dead. “That must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of this story!”
Jesus was dead! He died on that cross on Good Friday, along with all the hopes and dreams the disciples had, for themselves and their nation! It was so devastating that, come Easter morning, they couldn’t begin to believe he was alive again. And as I said before, neither could we!
So then, “later that same day…” That’s when our story for today took place. We used to say that in High School when we were waiting for something that was taking too long. We’d be waiting, and someone would act like a narrator in a story and say sarcastically, “Later that same day…” (Yeah, we were rotten kids!)
Well this literally was “later that same day.” And the disciples were together – hiding out, cowering behind locked doors, fearing that they, Jesus’ lieutenants – his second in command – would be the next to be arrested. And, by the way, we would have had the same fears! And while they were hiding there, Jesus himself appeared. And remember, this was the first time they saw him alive again. And here he gave them this little “commissioning moment.” He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And he told them they had the power to forgive sins.
Now I know that we often think of the Holy Spirit first coming upon these men on the day of Pentecost. But John’s Easter day account would seem to say otherwise. But think about it this way. Pentecost was a day when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples in a new way! But the Holy Spirit didn’t come into existence that day. The Holy Spirit is – and was – part of God. The Spirit had been present throughout the Bible. When Moses came down from the mountain and his face was shining, that was the Holy Spirit! When the shekinah glory was seen in the temple, that was the Holy Spirit!
So, here in John, Jesus first gives the disciples the Holy Spirit. And at that point, I believe changed things! I believe the disciples’ fears were eased. I believe they were not so frightened now behind those closed doors. And I believe their belief was growing! They still didn’t know what was going to happen next. But, as Jesus would tell them at his Ascension, they were waiting until the Spirit would show them what they were to do. And boy did the Spirit show them!
So that was the story of Jesus appearing to his disciples for the first time after the Resurrection. But, as this story goess, he didn’t appear to all of them! They weren’t all there! One was missing! The most famous “doubter” of all times, Thomas, was not with them for that first Easter appearance! And so as the story goes on, he continued for the next eight days in the same frame of mind all the others had been in before Jesus appeared! And I say “all” inclusively. Because if you’ve heard me preach long enough, you’ve heard me say that I don’t believe Thomas was any more a doubter than the rest of them. He just happened to be the one who was not there when Jesus appeared. If it had been any one of the others who was missing, then we would have been calling skeptical people “Doubting Peters” or “Doubting Johns” or “Doubting Matthews” – for the last two thousand years!
This story is not so much a story about the personality of Thomas. It was about how the disciples’ disbelief was turned into belief! It’s about how their belief as well as that of the rest of the world, grew in the early days after the Resurrection. And I hope you appreciated this fun little play on words. Here we are in the springtime, with things growing all around us. Maybe you’re trying to grow things yourselves these days. And so I’m asking you to think about belief “growing” in the time of the first Easter.
I believe that’s what happened in those days. Belief grew. It started with a little seed, and it grew, and it kept growing. (And maybe Pentecost was when the plant flowered!) But we need to remember that belief would not grow for everybody! For right along with the disciples growing belief, there was a growing animosity towards them and the Good News of Easter! There were those who did not believe. And more than that, there were those who would not believe!
It’s been said about blindness, that “there are none so blind as those who refuse to see.” The same could be said about those who refuse to believe. “There are none so blind to the truth than those who refuse to believe it.”
That refusal to believe is embodied here in the story of Thomas! And please know, he wasn’t a bad guy. He was a disciple. Later he would become a martyr for the faith! There are statues of him throughout Christendom! But as we said, who would have believed this?! We can’t fault him for his words. Any one of the eleven would have said the same thing… and so would we! “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe!
So for eight days, his refusal stood! It stood until he too met the risen Christ. And that’s the way it went. Whether through actually meeting the risen Christ, or through meeting him through the lives of is people and his witnesses, the question became one of believing or not. It became one of hearing the story and being ambivalent to it, or of having a “growing belief” in it.
So in all of this story, I want us to ask ourselves, does our belief grow, too? Or are we sometimes skeptical, and wonder what to do about it, and then do nothing? Do we take the time to think about our doubts, to pray about them, and then to seek to nurture our belief? Do we say as the man said to Jesus, “I believe, Lord, help thou my unbelief.” And do we know we might be called on to help someone else as their belief is growing?
Friends, this is the difficult part of our faith! It’s far too easy simply to go through Lent and Easter and not look all that seriously at our faith. And then it is too easy to just “rest on our laurels.” It is too easy to think that whatever we believe is “good enough.” It is the more difficult step to question, to challenge, and to seek to see our beliefs for what they really are, and to seek to grow them!
That’s what Easter calls us to do. So, will we plant our feet, cross our arms, and say with Thomas – or anyone else, for that matter – “I will not believe until I can be satisfied!” Or will we take a deep breath, clear our minds, open our hearts, and say “I believe, Lord. Help thou my unbelief!”
In all of that, remember that Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.”
Lord, we believe. Help thou our unbelief. It is so hard to imagine the Resurrection. And like the disciples of old, we need the power of your Spirit in order to do so. Show us your glory, Lord, that we may be inspired and that our belief may grow. And to you be the glory and the power and the praise, world without end, Amen!