‘Unless I see’

I don’t recall whether I’ve told you this before, but in my 25 or more years of pastoral ministry, I have sometimes suffered from what I call PED. That stands for Post-Easter Depression. It’s the malady that befalls pastors when on Sunday they preach excitedly about the Resurrection of Jesus and on Monday they realize that most of the world simply does not care.

We say, “Christ is risen!” The world says, “So what?”

It’s deflating. It’s depressing. And I suspect that pastors aren’t the only ones who suffer from it. So today we’re going to start addressing the “So what?” question in a series of messages titled Living the Resurrection. It’s about how we can live out some of the implications of the Resurrection in our daily lives.

I’ll follow a lectionary-based outline from Discipleship Ministries, which provided the nifty graphic you see here, but as you may guess, I’ll pursue several rabbit trails of my own choosing.

We begin today by returning to the Easter story on the evening of the first Easter day. It’s been a very busy day, so let’s review the story so far, as related in the gospels of Luke and John.

Early that morning, Mary of Magdala and some other female followers of Jesus go to his tomb to anoint his body.

They are startled to discover that his tomb is open. The stone blocking the entrance has been rolled away. Inside sits a young man in dazzling white who tells them, “He is not here. He is risen.”

Shaken and scared, they run away. When they tell the male disciples what they’ve seen, their report is dismissed as an idle tale, Luke tells us. But Simon Peter and another male disciple are concerned enough to run to the tomb to check. They find the graveclothes lying there, but no body, and no mysterious figure in white to explain what happened.

Mary returns to the tomb with them, and she remains after they leave. The risen Jesus appears to her. At first she mistakes him for a gardener, but when he says her name, she knows immediately who he is. She returns to where the disciples are hiding and tells them, “I have seen the Lord.” This time, they believe her.

As the day goes on, Jesus makes himself known to two followers who are walking the road to Emmaus, and also to Peter, who is trying to live down the shame of denying Jesus three times.

Now it is evening, and the disciples are huddled in their safe house, probably the same place where Jesus shared a Last Supper with his closest disciples only a few days before.

We pick up the story from the gospel of John, starting with chapter 20, verse 19, in the New Revised Standard version.

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.”

Stop right there. The doors are locked “for fear of the Jews”? Whatever can that mean? They’re all Jews. The gospel of John was written at a time when Christians and Jews are not on good terms – they’re both suffering from what we might call separation anxiety – and John is notorious for referring to Jesus’ enemies as “the Jews.”

This careless wording has helped fuel 20 centuries of anti-Semitism, blaming Jews for the death of Jesus. The Common English Bible correctly states that the doors are secured because the disciples are afraid of the Jewish authorities – not all Jews, certainly, just those who are their enemies.

So there they are, in the Upper Room, and Jesus suddenly is there, too – totally unannounced, not even let in because he stood at the door knocking. He delivers a standard greeting, “Peace be with you.”

Verses 20-21: 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.”

“Peace be with you,” Jesus says when he enters the room, but his followers are hardly at peace. Far from it, they are terrified – at least according to Luke’s version of the same story, to which we’ll return next week. For now let’s simply say that when they finally accept that it really is him, they rejoice.

Now Jesus commissions them to service. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” The gospel of Matthew delays this commission until later, but John places it right here, on the evening of Easter.

Verse 22: When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Wait, doesn’t the book of Acts say that the disciples receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which is still 50 days in the future? Indeed, it does, but John seems sometimes to operate on his own chronology, totally independent of any other.

But think about the implications of Jesus breathing on them. On Friday evening, he was dead. He was not breathing at all. Now he’s alive, and he’s breathing his Spirit into them! Whoa!

Verse 23: Jesus said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

In Jewish understanding at the time, this is called “binding and loosing.” It’s the ability to allow or forbid certain behaviors, to forgive or not forgive certain offenses. In Matthew, Jesus gave his disciples this authority back in chapter 18 (Matthew 18:18). Again, John has his own chronology.

Verse 24: But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.

Whose twin was Thomas? We have no idea. We also don’t know where he was that evening. Some preachers like to scold him for being absent, for allegedly falling out of fellowship with the others. Maybe he had a perfectly good reason for being elsewhere –  as good a reason as Peter had for being alone when Jesus appeared to him. All we know for sure is that Thomas is not there at this moment. Anything beyond that is idle speculation.

Verse 25: 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.”

Thomas takes a lot of garbage because of his “unless I see” attitude. Down through the ages, he has been stuck with the title of Doubting Thomas, and he’s still pilloried with that slander today. It’s nothing but trash talk from people who ought to be above such things. If you look at the several references to him in the gospels, Thomas is one of the most supportive and resolute of Jesus’ disciples.

In John chapter 11, Jesus is ready to go to Judea even after his disciples warn him it’s dangerous. It’s Thomas who tells the others, “Let’s go and die with him” (John 11:16).

In John chapter 14, Jesus tells them that he’s going away to prepare a place for them, and he says, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” Only Thomas has the guts to say, “No, we don’t know the way.” That sets Jesus up for his famous saying, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:2-6).

Thomas is a straight talking straight-up sort of guy. He is not wrong to doubt. If you were in his shoes, wouldn’t you doubt, too?

It is no sin to doubt. Those who tell you that it’s a sin to doubt do not want you to think at all. They want you to swallow any amount of hogwash they can fill you with, and they use this story as a pretext for brainwashing you.

If you can’t doubt something, why do you need faith at all? If you have total certainty about something, faith is not necessary. Truth is, you can’t have faith if you don’t have doubt. Doubt is the door to faith. If you never doubt, you can never have faith. Faith is born in doubt.

So I call him Faithful Thomas. And here’s why.

Verses 26-29: 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. No more disbelief. Believe!” Thomas responded, “My Lord and my God!”

Thomas doesn’t have to touch Jesus to know that it’s him. Seeing is good enough for him. All he wanted all along was to have the same experience of the risen Jesus that the others had. Once he sees Jesus, he is thoroughly convinced. He is so convinced that he can see through his doubt to the deepest truth about Jesus’ identity.

He sees through the other titles – Teacher, Master, Messiah, Son of God – and he jumps to the greatest title of all when he exclaims, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus not only accepts the title of divinity. He even blesses the doubt that led Thomas to it. He tells him, “Do you believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who believe even though they have not seen.”

That’s us, isn’t it? Blessed are those, like us, who have never seen the risen Lord in the flesh and yet believe. Blessed are those whose doubts can never be dispelled. Blessed are those who can see Jesus only through the eyes of faith.

Blessed are you when you doubt and you leap over that doubt in faith, for there are some things you will never see unless you have eyes of faith. Blessed are you when you believe despite your doubt, because we will always be blind if we remain in doubt.

There’s nothing wrong with a little doubt. If we’re not skeptical, we’ll fall for anything. We go wrong only when we remain entrenched in doubt and stubbornly refuse to accept evidence that contradicts it. We have to doubt because doubt is necessary to faith, but we can’t stay stuck there.

Everyone has doubts. There may be days when you say, “I can’t understand God.” I have those days, too. There may be days when you wonder, “How could God allow this terrible thing to happen?” I have those days, too. There may be days when you question, “How can Christ be raised from the dead?” I have those days, too.

But if you have the tiniest bit of faith, faith the size of a mustard seed, Jesus says, then the Holy Spirit will take that little bit of faith you do have and work within you to move you past your doubt to a faith that is stronger than it was before.

I know because I have those dark hours, too. But I also know that beyond those dark hours there is a sunrise of faith. Doubt, if you must – and I say, you must doubt. But be like faithful Thomas. Stick around and wait. Wait for God to renew your faith. Then you will see. Then you will see and believe.

This message was delivered April 11, 2021 at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas., from John 20:19-29.

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