Sunday, April 3, 2016
Sermon for Second Sunday of Easter - Quasimodo Geniti: Jn 20:19-31
Well that must have been an awkward week! As we listen to our Gospel lesson this morning it is easy to overlook the implications of the fact that the text moves from events on the evening of Easter Sunday to those that occurred on the evening of the first Sunday after Easter.
It is, of course, an account that we know well. Thomas is not present with the disciples on the evening of Easter. The risen Lord appears to the disciples. But when they report this good news to Thomas he says, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” Then we hear about what happened a week later on the next Sunday evening when Thomas is present and the risen Lord appears to the disciples again.
But in between these two events is a week. For a whole week Thomas was living in the midst of the disciples. They were filled with joy. After all our Gospel lesson tells us that on the evening of Easter the “disciples were glad when they saw the Lord” – a statement that can also be translated as “they rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”
Certainly they did not yet understand all that the resurrection of Jesus Christ meant. But their Lord who had been crucified had risen from the dead! Already now they were beginning to think back on what Jesus had said and done. As I mentioned last week, at the beginning of his ministry Jesus had visited Jerusalem and cleansed the temple. When the Jews challenged him to do something that proved his authority to do this, Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The answer seemed to make no sense. Yet John tells us, “But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”
Thomas on the other hand clung to his rejection of the very thing that now shaped and formed their life. Imagine what that was like during the course of the week. In our text we hear the disciples report to Thomas what had happened. But it seems unlikely that the disciples only mentioned Jesus’ resurrection appearance once to Thomas. Surely they tried to persuade him during the course of the week as they bore witness to what they had seen and heard.
Why did Thomas reject what they said? Our text doesn’t explain his reasons. It only reports his demand for physical confirmation – to put his finger in the mark of the nails and put his hand into Jesus’ side where the spear had pierced him. It surely wasn’t because he didn’t think a resurrection was possible. After all, apart from the Sadducees this was a common belief in first century Judaism. It was something that was a regular part of Jesus’ own teaching.
Perhaps the crucifixion of Jesus had just been too jarring for him. We now know that there was a fairly wide diversity of messianic expectation in first century Judaism. But one thing that tied all of these expectations together was that the Messiah would be a powerful and mighty figure who would defeat evil and bring rescue to God’s people. And for all of these expectations there was one absolute proof that an individual was not the Messiah: When the Romans killed him. A dead Messiah was no Messiah.
In our own day too, there are reasons why people reject the resurrection. For many the cause is a pseudo-scientific view of science. This week I sent out the link for a fascinating piece by Ian Hutchison, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT. He is also a Christian who believes in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
He addresses the fact that many people today believe that anything that does not conform to the laws of science is impossible. And he comments, “Today’s widespread materialist view that events contrary to the laws of science just can’t happen is a metaphysical doctrine, not a scientific fact. What’s more, the doctrine that the laws of nature are ‘inviolable’ is not necessary for science to function. Science offers natural explanations of natural events. It has no power or need to assert that only natural events happen.”
Unbelief is the basic challenge in our lives. The devil, the world and our own sinful nature want us to doubt. It is the resurrection and the Holy Spirit poured forth by the risen Lord that has powered the Christian faith. What sent the apostles out into the Mediterranean world and beyond in order to share the Gospel? What prompted them to bring a message to a world that sounded like foolishness – the message of a crucified Savior? It was the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus had died on the cross for the sins of all and had defeated death in his resurrection. The resurrection of the Last Day had begun in Jesus!
It is the resurrection of the crucified Savior that plays the same role in our lives. Why can we be sure that our sins are forgiven? Because the crucified Lord rose from the dead. Why can we trust that God is still in charge in the midst of circumstances we don’t understand? Because the crucified Lord rose from the dead. Why do we face illness and death in confident trust in God? Because the crucified Lord rose from the dead.
This is not what the devil wants. And so he works through the world and our own sinful nature to cause us to doubt. He works to create a disconnect between what we believe about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the way we live our lives.
Thomas didn’t just doubt. He rejected the witness to the resurrection that other disciples were providing. And so we learn in our text that eight days later, Jesus’ disciples were inside again, and this time Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and just as on the previous Sunday he said, “Peace be with you.”
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” The risen Lord stood in their midst and called Thomas to believe.
Several years ago I mentioned in a sermon that there is a great irony about Thomas. We all know the phrase to which this text has given rise: “doubting Thomas.” John’s Gospel begins by telling us: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John then goes on to describe incarnation as he says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
John begins the Gospel by telling the reader that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh. Then we wait in the Gospel for someone to confess this. We wait and wait until finally we hear it on the lips of … Thomas. The risen Lord called Thomas from unbelief to faith – a faith that confesses Jesus as Lord and God.
In response Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Our Lord’s words express a basic distinction that we can’t get around. Thomas and the apostles were there to see Jesus crucified and then to encounter him for forty days after his resurrection. We were not.
The Word became flesh and acted in a particular place and time in human history. That’s actually very good news – it is Gospel. It means that God has acted in our time and space in order to give us forgiveness and salvation – people who live in time and space. Because of his great love, in the incarnation God entered into our world and existence in order to suffer and die for you. It really happened and so it really has meaning for you.
Now it true that we don’t live there and then. But Jesus says in our text that the status of being blessed – of enjoying God’s end-time salvation – is open to us as well. It is open to us in the same way that it was to Thomas. It is available by faith.
And the last verses of our text tell us how God bears witness to the resurrection of Jesus and calls us to faith. John writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
John’s Gospel focuses our attention on the signs that Jesus did – signs that reveal his saving glory. After Jesus turns water into wine, John tells us, “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.” Jesus’ signs reveal his glory and call forth faith.
Immediately after reporting Jesus’ interaction with Thomas John says, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book.” The appearance to Thomas is itself a sign. And John tells us about it so that it can do the same thing it did in Jesus’ day. He goes on to add, “but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
We see the signs in the inspired Scriptures – words provided by the Spirit of God. On the night when he was betrayed Jesus promised to send the Spirit – the Helper. He said, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
In the inspired word of God we continue to see the signs of the risen Lord – signs that reveal his saving glory and call forth faith. Yes the signs can be rejected. But it was no different in Jesus’ day. As John tells us about Holy Week in Jerusalem, “Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him.” But just as it was in Jesus’ day, so it is now. They are signs that reveal Jesus saving glory “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”