Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies
Sunday 3rd April
Seeing (and NOT Seeing) is Believing
The Lord is risen! (He is risen indeed, Hallelujah!)
One senior church leader is convinced that many churches simply throw Easter away year by year. He thinks they don’t make enough of Easter as being all about the wild delight of God’s creative power. I said last week it’s probably not very Anglican, to be shouting hallelujahs instead of just murmuring them; but I like the idea that we should be continuing the festival with ‘champagne served with lots of expressions of praise after morning worship’ (well a welcome cuppa anyway – thanks to Julie – who has a well-earned week off next week!)
This past week is often the period when clergy heave a huge sigh of relief and go off on holiday (a couple of our colleagues are sadly off with depression); it’s when funeral directors read down their lists scrabbling around to find someone to cover (and yes itis hard work and rest is also part of God’s plan for us – both Julie and I are still a mite jaded after a busy time). But we even call today ‘Low Sunday’ – to indicate the contrast with Easter Sunday - as if?!!. If you think about it, we’ve spent forty days keeping Lent, pondering what it means and thinking about self-denial – perhaps being a bit gloomy – saying a self-righteous “no I couldn’t possibly”, while probably salivating over chocolate or some other treat! So then doesn’t it seem absurd that after the thoughtfulness of Holy Week we have just a single day of celebration? Is it any wonder people find it hard to believe in the resurrection of Jesus if we don’t get excited?
Well Thomas was a bit of wet rag which must’ve had a dampening effect on the rising sense of excitement the other disciples might have been feeling after John describes the first appearance of the resurrected Jesus to the assembled disciples. To be sure we can sense the fear felt by them after the events of Holy Week - even though we’re not told precisely why they were afraid of the Jews. Perhaps it was because the Jewish authorities suspected Jesus’ disciples of stealing his body and making up the story of his resurrection. Or maybe they were afraid people would accuse them of leading some kind of radical insurgency movement - there’d certainly been enough misunderstanding flying around. But into the middle of all this Jesus appears, calming their fears (as he always does) – with not a word of censure or criticism about how they’d all ‘blown it’ and left him (I so love that!) and he gives them his Spirit and a clear sense of their mission - and then, a week later, he appears again – this time to convince a doubting Thomas.
The gospel writer John uses this story of Thomas and indeed the whole of his Chapter 20 to tell us that those unforgettable opening lines of the Prologue have now been completed. This is how Tom Wright puts it:
“The story has taken its time working this way and that. We’ve met many interesting characters and watched them interact with Jesus. Some have misunderstood him. Some have been downright hostile. Some (often to their own surprise) have come to believe in him. (And) we now have another such character to add to John’s vivid collection of portraits. He, Thomas, brings the book round to where we started, with his breathtaking statement of new-found faith.
Faced with the Risen Jesus what does Thomas cry out (?) “My Lord, - my Master – and my God!.” Although it’s strongly implied throughout the gospel, Thomas is the first person to look at Jesus of Nazareth and address the word ‘God’ directly to him. Yet it’s this very fact that John has been working round to, right from the opening of his gospel. (Do you remember it?) “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word…WAS God. Of course no-one has ever seen God, but the only begotten Son, intimately close to his Abba – his Father – he has revealed him” And what does this look like when it’s actually happening? Well says John, it’s like this…and off we go “
…through Galilee and Jerusalem, back and forth, moments of glory and doom woven together until they meet on the cross. Now a week after Easter, it looks like this: a muddled, dogged disciple, determined not to be taken in, standing on his rights not to believe anything until he’s got solid evidence, confronted by a smiling Jesus who has just walked, as he did the previous week, through a locked door.”
It’s all so utterly baffling to Thomas - as I’m sure it would have been to any of us. What sort of person does that thing – coming through a locked door? The whole point of the story is that it’s the same Jesus – marks of nails in his hands, a wound in his side deep enough to get your hand into. This is no ghost, no actor pretending to be Jesus. This is he – and yet he comes and goes as though he belongs both in our world and in a different one.
Thomas’s story is how belief for him is going to be confirmed first by touching, then by seeing. In other words John is trying to create a sort of connection from those who were actually present with Jesus to those of us (today) who don’t have any chance but to believe without touching or seeing. And he does this through the instrument of Thomas the sceptic.
Jesus’ first words to the disciples on the same day as his resurrection are “Peace be with you.” I love that too – Jesus thinks first about allaying their fears – and their guilt. Haven’t we know him doing that so many times when we’re sad or angry – or feeling things are pretty hopeless, or when we’ve simply lost the closeness of the connection with him.
John is dealing with a very tangible problem—how do you convince people to believe who don’t see or who weren’t present when Jesus first appeared to the disciples. And so we have Thomas (I think much maligned over the centuries as “doubting Thomas”, because aren’t we all a bit like this?). Thomas isn’t going to get easily carried away by “appearances.” He is the questioning one; the one who only believes the evidence of the senses.
In other words he’s not just going to go along with the “mere” testimony of others. He needs to discover this for himself.
So when Jesus came back on the next Sunday (and some scholars think that these passages were among the first statements of the early Christian community for the importance of Sunday as a kind of Christian Sabbath), Thomas was present. Jesus gently chides Thomas by mimicking his own words, but graciously accommodates his (and our) weaknesses by acceding to his unusual request.
What’s so significant for us here this morning is Thomas’s response: “My Lord and my God”
Isn’t this John’s point? In the face of the revelation of the living Lord, all objections - even of the most sceptical people - melt away. So what are we left with? Well it’s simply worship - confessing “my Lord and my God”. Thomas is no longer “doubting Thomas” (poor guy, ever labelled!!) but “believing Thomas.” He fully embraces the living Christ – and maybe that’s really the message here.
Now we’re able to understand the last verse of the passage clearly. But this is 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.
We, the readers of John’s Gospel, don’t have the advantage of a physical resurrection appearance or the chance to plunge our hands in Jesus’ side. Yet, for the author of the Gospel, that’s not an excuse for unbelief and may even be an advantage. Why? Well, it isn’t said in this passage, but if we go back a little to those cracking earlier chapters (13-17), we read that those who believe in Jesus: “will also do the works that I do (Jesus says) and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (14:12).
So the benefit of believing is that by the power of his indwelling Holy Spirit, even greater works will flow. When we believe, which is what Thomas ultimately did, we not only have all that we need to live by, but we will, in some mysterious way, be able to do greater works than Jesus. And just look at the impact their relationship with the risen Jesus after Pentecost had for the disciples. (This is Acts 4:32-35 from the Message version of the Bible)
The whole congregation of believers was united as one—one heart, one mind! They didn't even claim ownership of their own possessions. No one said, "That's mine; you can't have it." They shared everything. The apostles gave powerful witness to the resurrection of the Master Jesus, and grace was on all of them.
And so it turned out that not a person among them was needy. Those who owned fields or houses sold them and brought the price of the sale to the apostles and made an offering of it. The apostles then distributed it according to each person's need. What a witness!
So this is the message of this 2nd Sunday of Easter. We believe without seeing, and it is not just for our, but for others’ – indeed a needy world’s - benefit. (I’ll leave the final word to Tom Wright)
The resurrection is not an alien power breaking into God’s world; it is what happens when the Creator himself comes to heal and restore his world, and bring it to its appointed goal – (which is??) new creation! Amen