Grace United Methodist Church
April 11, 2010
John 20: 19-31
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.’
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.’
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.
Doubting Thomas. Upon hearing this passage from John, and recalling the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, we often remember the story of “Doubting Thomas.” But did you know that the word “doubt” is not even used in the original Greek of this Scripture from John. Rather, John used the word “unbelief.” Jesus did not say to Thomas, “Do not doubt but believe” as our New Revised Standard Version suggests; this is just an easy translation in English; it simply flows better. Jesus’ words to Thomas probably went something more like this: “Put your finger here and see my hand. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not be unbelieving, but believe…Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” As Jesus speaks to Thomas and the other disciples, his emphasis is not on doubt, as we so often make it, but on belief. And when we look at this passage as a whole, we see that Jesus is giving us a message not just about our own belief, but about helping others come to belief as well!
Yet, even when we “believe,” I think we still often find ourselves filled with unbelief. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism struggled with this himself. One morning, at 36 years old and living as an Anglican priest, Wesley found himself crying out: “Lord, help my unbelief!” And he wrote in his journal that morning that “he felt dull within and little motivated to pray for his own salvation.” But that evening a friend persuaded Mr. Wesley to attend a meeting on Aldersgate Street. It was a Bible study of some sort, and at about 8:45 p.m., while someone in the meeting was reading Martin Luther’s preface to the Romans; while this person was reading Luther’s words “describing the change which God works in the heart through faith,” John Wesley records in his journal, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” In other words, the Risen Christ had appeared to Wesley and Wesley’s faith had finally become a true conviction, a living, breathing reality. And Wesley spent the rest of his life living that out, seeking to grow in his love of God and to share the love with all around him.
Such life-altering belief is the kind of faith that Jesus asks of his disciples, of Thomas, and of us. We are to believe with every ounce of our being, beyond every shadow of unbelief. And even as Jesus shows the disciples his hands and his side, he commissions them saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you…If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Somehow in Jesus’ words, we understand that we, too, are being commissioned, and that we will have to go forth knowing that we will not have the benefit of seeing Jesus’ hands and side for ourselves. Do we have such faith? And are we prepared to share it with others? These questions, more than any others, get at our commission as the disciples of Jesus Christ; a commission first given to the scared disciples and Thomas in that locked room. And a commission that now comes before us, carrying with it the weight of Jesus’ continuing work in the world.
As Jesus stands with his disciples following his resurrection, his words to them in this room become a sort of charter of the church. As the Father sent Jesus forth, so Jesus sends us forth. With this commission comes great meaning and significance. It means that Jesus needs the church, needs us. Now, we might be hesitant to think that Jesus, the Savior of the world, needs us for anything. I debated just this very question with some friends soon after entering seminary. Does God need humanity? After going round and round, we decided that God does not need us like we need water, in order to survive, but God does need us like women need chocolate! Because, in fact, God in Jesus Christ really does rely on us and has chosen us to spread his love in the world.
Jesus came from the Father with a message for all humanity, and now he was going back to the Father. His message could never be taken to all humanity unless the church took it. Jesus disciples, what we now call the Body of Christ or the church, are to be a mouth to speak for Jesus, feet to run his errands, hands to do his work, and arms outstretched in an unconditionally loving embrace. By loving one another as Jesus loved, we reveal God to the world. By revealing God to the world, you and I make it possible for the world to choose to come into relationship with our infinitely loving God. It is in choosing or rejecting this relationship that sins are forgiven or retained. Though Christ is counting on us to continue his work in the world, our task is never to be the judge of right or wrong, but only to constantly bear witness to the love of God in Jesus. Jesus has lived and taught, has healed and forgiven, has hung on the cross and been resurrected – all for us – and now as he sits at the right hand of the Father, our call is to make sure that message gets out to all the world!
Certainly, we cannot do this alone! Jesus needs us, but we need Jesus so much more. A person who is sent out needs a person to send him, a message to take, a power to back that message, and someone to turn to in times of doubt and difficulty. As we all know, we would not be here without our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ! Without Jesus, we have no message, no power. Without Jesus, we have no one to strengthen us, no one to encourage our hearts when we get discouraged. This is the promise of the resurrection, and it is the good news we are commissioned by Christ to share. When we go with Christ, Christ goes with us through it all!
While this may seem awfully difficult to believe at times, we have the Holy Spirit with us; a promise which stands at the heart of this message from John. “Peace be with you,” Jesus says as he stands amid the frightened disciples. Then he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” How often, like Thomas, have we needed to know, really, really know, that Christ is real? How often have we stood frightened and alone, longing for peace and the comforting presence of Jesus? How often have we been afraid to share the gospel message with friends and family, for fear of being mocked or rejected? Even then the Holy Spirit washes over us. And Christ gives us the Holy Spirit because we need Christ and because Christ loves us. And through this gift, we are strengthened for the work which Christ has commissioned us to do; and we serve Jesus, even as Jesus empowers us.
The breath of the Holy Spirit recalls God’s breath of life to humanity in creation, and the revival of the dry bones in Ezekiel. Jesus’ gift to his disciples is like new life in the midst of death, and when the Holy Spirit comes upon us, we are recreated for our mission in the world. Faith comes alive when the risen Christ appears among us and breathes his Spirit into our lives. No matter how inadequate we may feel; no matter how much unbelief may stalk us; we are a called people, commissioned by Christ and empowered by the life-giving Holy Spirit!
The point of receiving the Holy Spirit, it’s clear, is not just to give Jesus’ disciples new “spiritual experiences,” nor is it intended to set us apart from ordinary people like a sort of “holier-than-thou” club. We are, indeed, called to live the rich, full life of devotion and dedication that is modeled on Jesus’ own life. The point of Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit is so that we, the church, can do in and for the whole world what Jesus had begun through his life, ministry, death, and resurrection. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” We have to continue Christ’s mission in the world. That’s why the disciples needed the Holy Spirit then, and it’s why we need the Holy Spirit now; to enable us to do a job that we could otherwise never even dream of doing! Doubt cannot reign; unbelief cannot overshadow belief. To proclaim life, we have to have life; such life has been made possible through Christ, and it is sustained by the Holy Spirit! But if we are to know this life fully, we can do nothing less than respond with a bold proclamation of our saving Lord!
Thomas may have been a doubter. Thomas may have been filled with unbelief, but that doesn’t change the fact that he was the first person in John’s Gospel to look at Jesus of Nazareth and address the word “God” directly to him. “My Lord and my God!” Thomas made a faithful proclamation even when it seemed he was filled with unbelief. Thomas pointed to Christ even when it appeared as though he was only doubting. There will be times in our lives when we feel like Thomas; times when we are uncertain not just of Christ, but of even our ability to share his good news with the world. Even when Christ has appeared to us, bringing peace and mission, we still have times of doubt and unbelief. But in such times we cannot forget the breath of Christ’s Spirit which fills us, giving us a new hope, a new promise, a new life. It is easy to accept something blindly with no real conviction, but such “faith” only drains us, emptying us to the point of death. Yet when we fight our way through doubt and unbelief to a full conviction that Jesus Christ is Lord and God, then we have attained a certainty of belief which nothing can defeat. This is true faith; this is life; and during this Easter season and beyond, life is what we are called to proclaim the world over!