The Disciple Thomas
April 19, 2020 John 20:19-31
Note: see this and other recent sermons on our Facebook page
During this week after Easter, you might have come across one of those YouTube videos of virtual choirs singing Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.
The United Methodists pulled one together as an Easter offering that appears to have at least a hundred singers – it is powerful to see.
But despite all the bright “He Is Risen” graphics, Easter preaching, and joyous singing, for many people nothing much changed.
They wanted to believe, they wanted to change, but, you know, wherever you go, there you are.
So, every one of us has dragged our own history of hurts, habits and emotional “hot buttons” into quarantine and they are being played out in our self-talk and relationships.
As a matter of fact, today’s uncertainty and isolation have magnified their impact on us.
Some of us are feeling pretty frayed right now.
But because of Easter, things can be different.
Jesus suffered, died, conquered death and then returned just as he had promised … so his living Spirit is close and available to help us thrive.
Some of us miss this promise because of the often repeated, mistranslation of Greek in John 20.
I’ll explain, but first, let’s go back and listen again to what Jesus told his confused disciples before his arrest:
John 14:25-27 “All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
If he’d left it there it might not be enough, but Jesus then returned to those disciples to demonstrate the fulfillment of his promise.
That’s what happens in John 20 when he appeared to the beleaguered disciples hiding behind locked doors – apparently paralyzed by fear.
Fear had overtaken them, so at the moment of the greatest miracle in human history, they had gone into hiding.
Fear does that.
The first thing visiting angels often say is, “Fear not”.
That’s because the first job of faith is to calm our fears so we can think straight.
You can’t think straight with a heart full of fear, because fear hijacks our thoughts, causes us to regress and awakens our old stories of shame, resentment and hurt.
Fear seeks safety, not truth.
Fear seeks the familiar, not hope for a better self.
Remember, the disciples had personally heard Jesus promise to return after his death, and Mary had told them that she’d seen the Risen Lord, but fear overrides faith.
After their initial shock at seeing the resurrected Jesus, they may have expected a reprimand for not having more faith, for abandoning him in the Garden of Gethsemane or for denying knowing him during his mock trial on Friday.
But Jesus changes everything.
John 20:20 Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
The gospel doesn’t tell us what the disciples did during the next week, but I suspect that if they’d gone out preaching or healing John would have told us about it.
So, chances are, they sat around trying to figure out what this all meant.
Even after we learn the truth, it takes a while for faith to take hold and for our lives to change.
During this pandemic, we can expect to go through a range of emotions.
At first, we may tackle a long “to do” list or launch an ambitious project.
A bit later we may lose our way – confusing Wednesday for Tuesday, letting the laundry pile-up, or maybe not sleeping so well.
The disciples didn’t change overnight, even after they had been face-to-face with the Risen Christ.
So, go easy on yourself.
And go easy on those you’re living with … they are going through their own stuff, too.
Right now, we are vulnerable.
Our emotions are frayed, and we’re all trying to absorb what Jesus is up to in our strange new world.
So, your “mission field” may not be in Africa but within your own mind, home and within our congregation where you learn and model compassion and forgiveness.
This pandemic could be a transformative gift for all of us.
The gospel notes that the disciple Thomas had not been present
so, when he returned he’d not had the benefit of seeing the resurrected Jesus face-to-face.
This is what John 20:25 says, The other disciples told (Thomas), “We have seen the Lord!”
But (Thomas) said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
This is where bad translations have portrayed him as “Doubting Thomas”.
Doubting Thomas implies he’d failed … he just didn’t have the same kind of faith his fellow disciples had.
But actually, he was no less willing to believe what the disciples told him than they had been to believe Mary Magdalene’s testimony after she’d returned from the empty tomb.
He just wanted the same assurances the others had gotten.
A week passed when suddenly Jesus appeared again, this time specifically for Thomas.
John 20:26 Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”
Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds and then says, Do not be unbelieving. Believe.
The Greek does not use the word “doubt” – and Jesus takes care not to shame Thomas for not believing.
Jesus’ graciousness opens the door for the climax of John’s gospel when Thomas exclaims, John 20:28 My Lord and my God.
With this, Thomas becomes the first person to profess Jesus as both Lord and God, and so he becomes the first person to believe.
In Jesus’ community, there is room for people of every stage of questioning and faith.
The tradition of translating Greek into “doubt” misleads us into thinking that doubt is the opposite of faith.
But I can think of three better ways to describe the opposite of faith.
The first opposite of faith is fear.
As we’ve already said, fear causes us to shrink, to become defensive, and to betray the truth.
Fear blinds us to God’s presence while intensifying our most destructive thoughts and behaviors.
The second opposite of faith is fury, the fury focused on a scapegoat – especially when we feel we’ve lost control.
After attacking a scapegoat, everyone feels relieved by the communal projection of the fury, as well as by the certainty of standing on the side of the just and the pure.
Our despair has led some to search for a scapegoat for COVID-19 – China, immigrants, now the World Health Organization.
Even the cool-headed, fact-driven Dr. Anthony Fauci is under attack.
The fury is the opposite of faith that resurrects fractured relationships through the power of Christ – nationally and within our household.
The third opposite of faith is certainty.
Now that may come as a surprise to you, but true faith is alive, dynamic, and growing.
Compare that to certainty that is dogmatic and brittle.
This brittle faith that has led some churches to declare that God is more powerful than a virus … therefore narrowly concluding that their faith will make them immune to disease.
It’s like the traditions that confuse handling poisonous snakes with deep faith.
They claim that snake-handling demonstrates to non-Christians that God will protect them from all harm.
But certainty is an inflexible, one-dimensional faith that will fail us.
Once we understand that this passage is not about reprimanding Thomas for doubt, then we can hear Jesus’ concluding blessing as it was intended.
John 20: 29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
So, whom is Jesus addressing?
Well, all the disciples had now seen the resurrected Jesus in the flesh, so he’s not speaking to them.
No, he’s speaking to all his later followers for generations to come.
These are Jesus’ words of blessing for us.
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed – those who are growing in trust and practicing compassion right now in this pandemic.