Sunday, 17 May 2020

Sermon on John 20:19-29 — Doubting Thomas

Sermon I delivered 17th May 2020 on John 20:19-29, Jesus' famous appearance after the Resurrection to the other disciples and then St Thomas, 'Doubting Thomas'. As a bonus you can listen to me delivering it as well, since our Church's services have migrated to Youtube since the lockdown. Listening to yourself speak to just horrendous, but I hope you are challenged and encouraged by the Sermon (it's 15 minutes long).



Hello everyone, it's good to be here with you. I hope you're coping well with another unusual week. The reading we've had today contains one of the most famous passages in the Bible. Jesus passed through death on Good Friday, and now has risen to new life that will continue forever. Across this chapter of John's Gospel, the realisation that Jesus is risen ripples out through the disciples as they come to understand what has happened.

Mary Magdalene was first to the tomb in the garden, early in the morning, followed by Simon Peter and John. Then that evening Jesus appears to the gathered disciples, and shows them the wounds in his hand and side. But Thomas, alone of the twelve disciples, was not there. I can't imagine how Thomas felt when the rest of the disciples caught up with him, and all told him that Jesus is risen. Have you ever gone into a room and everyone was talking about a piece of news you hadn't heard? Have you ever been the last person to learn something? 

A friend recently asked me, "Why did Thomas not believe what his friends told him?". Perhaps in one sense he should have. After all, this was his entire community, everyone he trusted, all telling him they had experienced the same thing, something he wanted more than anything in the world to be true. But still he held back. We don't know exactly why. His famous name, Doubting Thomas, always suggests that he was more cautious than the rest. But I don't know if that is right. After all, he only asked for exactly the same proof the other disciples received.

I wonder if it was the shock of it all, you know. Thomas and the others had already been through a very challenging emotional journey. They had been with Jesus day and night, they believed in him, they followed him, they left everything for him, they saw him not only as a leader and teacher, but as God's promised Messiah, who would transform the world and turn everything on its head. And when Jesus rode into Jerusalem welcomed by a cheering crowd on Palm Sunday, it must have been the most exhilarating, hopeful experience of their lives. But then it all turned into darkness, Jesus was taken and killed, and the dream, the beautiful sparkling dream, collapsed into ash, and fear, and regret. Not just the loss of a friend or leader, but literally overnight, the loss of the whole focus of their lives. To process and accept that, in only a few days, would have been mentally and physically exhausting.

Hardly though, have they processed their tragedy and loss, than their world is turned on its head, yet again. And they are faced with the reality that Christ is indeed risen from death. Mary weeps brokenly by the tomb when she thinks Jesus' body has been taken away. But then she basically walks into Jesus, and knows the truth. We don't know what state the other disciples were in, but they are faced that same day by the physical presence of Jesus. Thomas must have been just as devastated as the rest of them, but there is a difference. He is the first person asked to accept Christ's resurrection without being immediately faced by Christ himself in the flesh. He is the first person we see hearing the news from someone else and needing to respond to it. I think having gone through an incredible emotional journey to accept the fact that Jesus had died, the news of his resurrection was just too much for Thomas. Because to accept that Jesus is risen, would be to change everything for him, emotionally, personally, and spiritually, and to accept the enormous consequences for his life, and for the world.  

Thomas knew what Christ's resurrection meant, that God had indeed turned the world upside down, not just for him, but for everyone; and in a manner far stranger and more profound than they had imagined; not through force and conquest and triumph, but through weakness, and love, and God allowing himself to suffer death as we suffer, and so to take on the grief and sin and suffering of humanity, and then through his Resurrection to give back the Grace and Freedom and Power of God. Because you can always use force to solve a problem, like smashing a bulldozer through a wall, but as it turns out with every politician and King, you just create more problems. But Christ laid down his own life, so that through him we all may live, filled with God's hope and love, and in turn be inspired to lay down our lives for others, in many different ways. For as the disciples knew, this truly transforms the world in a way that lasts.

Thomas knew what it meant if Jesus is risen, and after everything he could not accept it at first, good news though it may be. His words in response are echoed, at one time or another, in every one of us who was not there to see the risen Jesus in the flesh. Who has not ached to "see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side", and so to have the ultimate proof. Thomas asked for what the other disciples had already been given, he is not particularly skeptical or untrusting compared to the rest, but he is the first who has to hear the news of the Resurrection from another fallible human being, and respond to that. But Jesus did not leave him with less assurance. He came and showed them the wounds in his hands and side again, so Thomas knew this was the same Jesus who had hung on the cross, and Thomas responded powerfully with that ringing declaration of faith, "My Lord and My God".

But where does that leave us? We have not been blessed to see the physical Jesus after his resurrection, but Christ and the Apostles knew that billions of people would follow who had not been there in Jerusalem, two thousand years ago. Jesus' words at the end of the reading reflect that awareness. “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” It is one of the moments in the Bible that makes a shiver run down my spine, because it seems in the middle of a conversation to the disciples, Jesus turns and stares right out the page and addresses us directly. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed". That's you and me, and over two billion other Christians around the world today.

This saying of Jesus reminds me of the Beatitudes, where Jesus turns around various things often seen as signs of shame and defeat in the world's eyes. Blessed are the meek, the poor, the persecuted, and more. We are blessed by God, our faith is declared more valuable than the Apostles themselves, if despite not having the advantage of seeing Christ's risen body, we still believe. And knowing God values our faith that much is a wonderful thing. Our position is different to the first Apostles, and our role is different, but no less valuble. Those who saw Christ's risen body were driven by that experience to do incredible things. Thomas travelled along the trade routes of the Middle East to preach about Christ as far as India, where the community of St Thomas Christians named after him still exists. Simon Peter and the other disciples travelled to Rome and Egypt, and beyond, and many were killed for spreading the news of what they had seen and touched, but they founded the Church we are still part of today, along with people in every country in the world. 

We perhaps have the humbler tasks, of living with faith, courage and love in the ordinary lives we have, and though we have not seen, still believing. But we can and do meet Jesus, only in a different way. We cannot put our hands where the nails have been, and touch the scar on his side, but we can really meet with the Risen Jesus in spirit through one another, and through Christians all around the world. St Paul makes clear that it is the whole community of believers who are the Body of Christ on earth. If we are being the Church right, then his words are on our lips, his love is in our hearts, his generosity guides our actions, and he is with us when we meet together. And anyone, can meet with the Risen Jesus, through us, and the testimony of the generations of believers who came before us.  

And fundamentally that is what the Bible is. It is the words of the Apostles testifying that they saw the risen Jesus, and St Paul in his letters that he in turn heard the Good News from those who saw Jesus, and that message has been carried down from generation to generation until it meets us. The Gospels are clear that they are recording exactly who saw the risen Jesus, so we might know where the truth we have comes from. But for me the greatest assurance I have, is not a paper trail leading into the past, though as a historian that is important. No, the greatest assurance comes from reflecting on the wonder of God, who created all things, coming to be born as one of us, to choose to suffer betrayal, abandonment, pain and death, in order to make us all part of God's own Family; and to see the effect that can have on other people. 

"No greater love has a man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends", said Jesus. Well, no greater Love could God have than this, that he should lay down his life, for his children; and consider it no shame, no stain on his holiness, and greatness, and glory; and teach mankind to do the same. Once I grasped this, and have seen how it can change lives and whole civilisations, no other idea of God can match up. The disciples were nobodies before they knew Jesus: fisherman from unimportant villages, tax collectors who everyone hated, and women with no status outside the home. But these men and women changed the world forever, because they met the Risen Jesus. They had been fearful and confused, but they became courageous, tireless, unafraid. The Jewish leaders could not break them, the Roman Empire could not break them.

And down the years, and still today, people are changed by meeting Jesus, though his risen body ascended into Heaven and now sits at the right hand of the Father. Occasionally, this happens in dreams and visions, like St Paul on the road to Damascus, but overwhelmingly it is through the example carried by other Christians, people in whom the words and love of Jesus live.  

This week I opened an email from Barnabas Fund to hear of a 27 year old woman in Nigeria, called Rose, whose husband was murdered by Islamist terrorists, only recently, who found the courage and grace to say about those killers, "My prayer is that [they] will get to know this Jesus I know. I do forgive them and will pray that the Lord saves their souls". She has met Jesus, and she is showing Jesus to others. In Iran, another young woman, 21 years old, Mary Mohammadi, a convert to Christianity, has been convicted by a kangeroo court for peacefully protesting against the oppressive Iranian government. After being beaten and stripped in prison, she says, "I am proud of sympathizing with human beings in the real harsh environment of the streets. This is my conviction and the cost." She has met Jesus, and is showing him to others too.

And there are of course more examples around the world every week. Those two young women stand alongside the Apostles, and like I said, we may have more simple and ordinary tasks to fulfill. But still, I know I was changed by meeting Jesus in the love of other Christians in this country, and I am still being inspired and changed more and more. And I know that's true of many people.

In these difficult times we live in I hope we can ensure more people meet Jesus, through the support we give, and in the patience we show, and the hope we share with each other and the wider community around us. Because the beautiful thing is anyone who wants to can come and meet Jesus, and join the Christian community and share in this great mission, to spread the Kingdom of God's love to everyone, until in the wonderful vision of Revelations that ends the Bible, God has "wiped away every tear from their eyes", and "there will be no more mourning or crying or pain". That may seem daunting, but with people all round the world we've come a long way since that first day in Jerusalem, when Thomas could not quite believe the news. 

And I am certain with God's Grace, one day we shall succeed. 

Amen.

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