Perhaps you heard in the news about the Nigerian prince who died recently. It’s a very sad story. He had millions of dollars, but no heirs. And so he tried to help out random strangers. He sent out emails to people offering them money, if they would just provide their bank account information and pay a transaction fee. But sadly, no one would take him up on the offer. Apparently no one believed him, because the news seemed too good to be true.
Of course there is no Nigerian prince like this, and the description is a spoof of the “Nigerian prince” email scam in which criminals try to get bank account information and money out of people who are tempted with the possibility of easy money. We have learned to ignore anything like this because if it sounds too good to be true, it most certainly is.
In the Gospel lesson today, the risen Lord Jesus appears to the disciples apart from Thomas. When they report this too him, he refuses to believe it because it seems too good to be true. But while this text has saddled the apostle with the moniker “doubting Thomas,” the focus on Thomas fails to take account of the way the disciples themselves have already reacted in the exact same way.
Our text begins by telling us that on the evening of Easter, the disciples were gathered with the doors locked for fear of the Jews. On the surface this does not seem unreasonable. After all, the Jewish religious leadership had engineered the death of Jesus on Friday. It was certainly possible that they weren’t done, and would be looking to wipe out Jesus’ followers as well.
But in order to think about things in this way, we have to ignore what has happened in the previous verses – in the Gospel reading we heard on Easter. There the risen Lord revealed himself to Mary Magdalene and said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” The John tells us, “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’--and that he had said these things to her.”
Mary Magdelene has announced that she has seen the risen Lord Jesus. She even delivers words from Jesus to them. And yet, on the evening of Easter we find them in a locked room because they are fearful of the Jews. They have been told that their Lord is alive – that he has risen from the dead – and it doesn’t seem to have made any difference.
The fact that the messenger was Mary Magdalene – a woman – may have had something to do with it. In the Jewish culture of the first century, a woman could not serve as a legal witness. They were looked down upon. The fact that women are presented as the first witnesses to the resurrection in the Gospels certainly is a mark of their authenticity and truthfulness. No one would have made up women as the first witnesses. It makes no sense if you are trying to convince a Jewish population. Instead, we find that it was a truth that simply could not be avoided. In various ways the women were the first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, and so that is what the Gospels report.
The disciples had been told that Jesus had risen from the dead. But they were in a locked room because of fear. Maybe they didn’t believe the news because it came from a woman. Maybe they just thought it was too good to be true. Whatever the cause, hearing about the resurrection had not made a difference. They sat there in fear.
And then Jesus Christ changed all that. Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The marks on his body from the crucifixion served as the proof that the Jesus standing before them was the same person they had seen die on the cross.
We are told, “Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” Our translation probably understates this. The Greek word can also be translated as “rejoice.” I am glad when Amy finds steak on sale for us to grill. I rejoiced when the Cubs won the World Series for the first time in more than a hundred years. The disciples rejoiced because their Lord who had been crucified was now alive. He had risen from the dead.
Once again Jesus said to them, “Peace be with you.” This was not a wish. It was a declaration of fact. Jesus – crucified and now risen from the dead – stood before them. On the night of his betrayal Jesus had said, “These things I have spoken to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage, I have overcome the world.” Now Jesus stood before them after he had conquered death. Death no longer gets the final word and so Jesus has given us peace.
And he has given us peace through the forgiveness of sins. Our Lord said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” Then he breathed and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” Jesus died on the cross as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Now he has sent those authorized to speak forgiveness in his stead and place. He just did that at the beginning of this service. And because it is the crucified but risen One who speaks through his called servants, we know that his words do what they say. They free us from all sins, and allow us to stand before God as those who are holy in his eyes – as those who are saints.
We learn that for some reason, Thomas was not with them on the evening of the first Easter. The other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” Thomas replied with his now well known words: “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.”
Thomas didn’t believe the other disciples when they said, “We have seen the Lord.” Of course, the disciples themselves had not reacted in faith when Mary Magdalene said the act same thing to them: “I have seen the Lord.” And this leads us to consider our response to the resurrection. Do we act like people who know that death has been defeated by the risen Lord? Do we react to the experiences of life with confidence and trust, or with uncertainty and worry? Do our lives show that they are guided by the fact that Jesus has risen from the dead?
Eight days later the disciples were together again, and this time Thomas was with them. Again the risen Lord appeared in the midst of a locked room. Once again Jesus declared, “Peace be with you.” The prior reaction by Thomas did not change what Jesus had won by his death and resurrection. It did not change what he had to give. Jesus had won peace. Jesus gave peace. All that was needed to receive it was faith.
Jesus called Thomas to a firm faith by saying, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” And Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” No doubt, a week earlier Thomas had failed when he refused to believe the witness of the other disciples. His refusal has forever labeled him “doubting Thomas.” But at this moment, he is the first person in the Gospel John to get it exactly right.
John began the Gospel by telling us about the Son of God: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And then he tells us about the incarnation: “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.” We learn in the prologue that Jesus is the God-man – God in the flesh. But we wait and wait for someone in the Gospel to confess that Jesus is God. And finally, when we hear the confession, it is from the lips of Thomas. In Thomas we see that past failures do not have to place us forever on outside of faithful Christian life. Instead Jesus continues to call us with this Gospel and invites us to confess him as our Lord and God. He calls us to this faith by which he gives us the forgiveness of sins and peace.
We recognize that we cannot have the same experience as Thomas and the other disciples. Yet in our text today we are assured that we are not thereby cut off from faith and its blessings. After Thomas’ confession Jesus said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
First, Jesus says those who have not seen and believed are blessed. It was not necessary to be there in order to receive the blessing of forgiveness and peace with God. Instead, this is received by all who believe in Jesus – by all who confess that Jesus is their Lord and their God.
And second, the end of our text tells us that we have been provided the means that lead to faith and preserve us as believers. 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.”
In the Gospel we behold the signs that call forth faith. As we will hear in the coming weeks, these words of the Gospel are not just words written by John, but they are Spirit given words by which the Spirit takes what belongs to Jesus and makes it known to us. They are the Spirit of Christ revealing Jesus our Lord and God to us.
It is the testimony of God himself, for as John says in our epistle lesson today, “If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son. Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.”
By this witness – by this testimony – Jesus our Lord and God calls us to be his own. He calls us to faith and sustains in this faith. He gives us the forgiveness and peace, because sin and death have been defeated. As John says in the epistle lesson this morning, “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world--our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”