“But these things 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.”
John’s gospel begins “in the beginning was the word the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” We are told “truth and grace” came into being. We are to imagine God putting on human flesh and becoming Jesus. This creation story is ethereal and as much as it is thought provoking, it is tough to embrace and could remain an intellectual curiosity.
John’s gospel also includes long series of discourses by Jesus, explaining his mystery, the prophecy of unimaginable events, and metaphors abound with “I am” statements. “I am the way, the truth and the life…I am the bread of heaven…I am the good shepherd.”
John’s gospel also contrasts these abstractions with very tangible stories of life in and around Jerusalem, retelling dialogues between people like you and me and Jesus, which reveal passions and earthy descriptions of all types of bodily functions. A good writer knows that stories persuade and are remembered by people, more so than proclamations, lists of facts or laws. And, a good storyteller crafts plots with hindrances to be overcome and constructs conflicts between characters for readers to observe and then decide what they believe. John’s gospel includes all of this.
Through the stories we grow to learn Jesus’ message as if we were there. Through the stories, we can begin to embrace the ethereal messages they illuminate. Remember, at the time the gospel was written, papyrus and ink were as precious as gold and silver. Words were never frivolous and were chosen to carry tremendous weight.
Stories call us to be interpreters.
Jesus’ resurrection is not just a story, it happened. But, this unbelievable thing cannot be proven by anything other than the stories of those who were transformed by the experience of seeing and experiencing the risen Christ.
We seem to be fascinated with stories of near death experiences and of what heaven must be like. Many of you have recommended Dr. Eben Alexander’s new book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife, which describes his encounter with an “angelic being” during a 7-day coma. It has been on the bestseller list since its publication last December and now has one million copies in print.
This genre is exceedingly popular, with lists of best sellers, perhaps ones that you have read, authored by credentialed scientists who risk their professional reputation by describing heavenly experiences. As a skeptic, I might say these books were life changing by the income they generated – the revenues are staggering. But, with humility the authors wrote of their clinical certainty of why heavenly experiences are implausible and then described how their lives have changed so they now profess a faith in God and God’s promises.
Belief can be hard to achieve and sustain. We are blessed with reasoning minds, are taught critical thinking skills, and have five senses to experience the world. These contribute to our confidence to confirm or deny what we believe by searching for certainty to overcome doubt.
Doubt and faith have been called great dance partners. From personal experience I know if you lean into doubt, you may grow to strengthen your faith. I do not believe you can possess a strong faith without a healthy dose of doubt.
Doubt is a safe place until we can experience something with our own eyes, ears and touch. But, doubt may also be a place to hide our fears when we refuse to step out of our intellectual comfort zone or take risks in exposing our spiritual core.
You may sit here, doubting in Jesus’ resurrection. Let me suggest another approach. Put aside how it happened. Instead, ask why Jesus would have prophesied of his resurrection and ponder the events and impact to those who witnessed the risen Christ.
Distinguished theologian NT Wright, professor of New Testament and early Christianity at University of St Andrews in Scotland has written extensively on the decisive change in thinking and believing that resulted from Jesus’ resurrection. He argues, “the Jews had language for forgiveness, for great experiences of knowing the love and forgiveness of God, for continuing the work of a great prophet and even for believing in a world after death. Jesus’ followers did not use such language. They spoke of the resurrection. They knew dead people don’t get up again and it blew them away (NT Wright. Following Jesus 111).”
Let’s return to our story. That very first evening, Jesus appears among the disciples despite the fact that they are hiding behind locked doors. They were afraid. He breathes upon them saying “peace be with you,” shows them his wounded hands and side – the disciples see Jesus’ body – and the disciples accept the risen Christ as true.
Unfortunately, Thomas is absent for this Easter evening appearance.
We do not know why he missed this event. In any case, Thomas does not see Jesus, and he is therefore determined not to believe: “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” (20:25).
Honestly, the Greek words Thomas used are far more forceful; he did not want to touch the wounds but rather thrust his hand into them, into Jesus’ body. When he says, “I will not believe” he does so in an enduring verb tense that really means; “I will never believe, forever.”
Was Thomas acting like a petulant child, wanting to be included in the clique’s secret? Consider, Thomas had been with Jesus for years, devoted to following a man and a dream, and continues to risk his life by associating with the other disciples. He is also grieving for someone he saw die and dearly loves…many of us understand this grief.
But, to thrust his hands into a mortal wound? Thomas needs to make a life or death decision, fears being deceived and we know what it feels like to be lied to or betrayed. Jesus’ wounds were as real as any other human body might endure and if Jesus were raised from the dead, it represents God’s ability to give life amidst mortal wounds.
We cannot belittle him for his doubting Jesus escaped death. We also know how uncomfortable it is to stand in the shadow of doubt. If you lose faith in one idea or person, it can become contagious. Perhaps Thomas doubts not just the risen Christ, but everything his life has stood for. This doubt is terrifying.
John writes a compelling story. Thomas’ name means “the twin” yet his relationship to others remains vague. We can only wonder; did the writer position Thomas to be our twin, representing our need for proof, our fear of this truth?
We know how it turns out. Jesus returns, again passes through shut doors, again says “peace be with you,” and invites Thomas to inspect his wounded body. It is easy to overlook what is missing. Despite professing such a forceful inspection, we never know if Thomas actually inspects Jesus’ wounds. John does not tell us.
Upon seeing Jesus, Thomas just believes – “My Lord and my God” (20:28).
In this story, doubt is harshly juxtaposed with belief. Either you believe or you don’t. Some interpreters of this story will hold it up as evidence we are to simply trust others, put aside our intellect, and blindly believe in the church, scripture or particular theologies. I disagree. We each come to faith through our doubt and this is often a painful journey.
In Uncommon Gratitude: Alleluia For All That Is, Joan Chittister and Rowan Williams name doubt. They write: There is simply a point in life when reason fails to satisfy our awareness of what is clearly unreasonable and clearly real at the same time — like love and self-sacrifice and trust and good. Data does not exist to explain these unexplainable things. Then only the doubt that opens our hearts to what we cannot comprehend, only the doubt that makes us rabidly pursue the truth, only the doubt that moves us beyond complacency, only the doubt that corrects mythologies not worthy of faith can lead us to the purer air of spiritual truth. Then we are ready to move beyond the senses into the mystical, where faith shows us those penetrating truths the eye cannot see.
Jesus tells them, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (20:29) and in doing so includes all of us. If we believe, it is without seeing or touching Jesus’ risen body. The author of John goes on to share the Gospel’s purpose. It is written “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).
As we celebrated the sacrament of baptism this morning, we recall how we are joined into the body of Christ, proclaim belonging to Jesus, and by doing so, are we are baptized into his death, also to share in his resurrection. Too often we don’t like to think of holding an innocent child and focusing on being baptized into death, but this intimate relationship with our savior is what truly saves us.
It is not so much a story of Jesus’ resurrection that John tells as it is the story of Thomas’s rise to faith. And, as Jesus suggests, anyone can do it. You don’t have to put your fingers in his hands or your hands in his side. Thomas did not reach into the wounds, rather God reached into his heart with a life sustaining confidence. And as John has explained, these things are not written so that you may have the facts, but so that you may believe.
I have spent most of my life affirming my faith by reciting The Apostles’ Creed during worship. It is the earliest known statement of faith within our Christian tradition. I am confident some of you know all or parts of it. “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” It is short, includes only the basic tenets of Christian theology and ends with: “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”
It is so engrained in me it is my meditation in times of stress. While meditation may be a misnomer, since it is more of a reflex action when troubled or anxious, I will admit, I have struggled with how to believe in the resurrection of the body. I am Thomas at times. I’d like to hear Jesus say “peace be with you.” But, the entire creed builds from God as our creator to Jesus as savior, so I can believe in a resurrection of a body created and love by God, my body.
It is not easy to put aside all of our doubts. NT Wright claims “Living by faith rather than fear is so odd for us, so scary for us, that it takes a lot of learning”….and it sometimes it is only in moments when we face these fears.
Then, and only then are we able to move from believing in a God who sits in the clouds, barking commands to one who cares for our bodies and souls. Either Jesus rose from the dead or he didn’t. If he didn’t, this whole Christian thing is a waste as the apostle Paul states. But if Jesus was raised, there is nothing ultimately to be afraid of. We can trust in God to uphold us in our marriages, our jobs, our families, even when these relationships don’t work out as we planned and we can trust in God for our eternal life (NT Wright, Following Jesus 71).
The disciples hide in a locked room, only whispering of the resurrection for fear of their lives. It’s been two thousand years. One of two things needs to happen, go and claim this resurrection story for what it means – God loves you and will keep all of you, the broken and messy parts as well as the good. Or, keep doubting, but do so with your heart open to receive and give love. You may doubt the resurrection, but do not be afraid to know you too are loved by God as we are told by the Gospel of John “for God so loved the world.”