Sermon: April 16, 2023

“Believing Without Seeing” | John 20:19-31

The late Johnny Carson (young people are asking, who?) once visited Harvard University to receive an award and after the ceremony he agreed to answer some questions for members of the press. One reporter asked, “What would you like to have inscribed on your tombstone?” Carson thought for a moment and then answered with the words he used on his show for every commercial break, “I’ll be right back.”

If Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus would have placed a tombstone at the entrance to the cave used for Jesus’ tomb this could have been the inscription written on it: “I’ll be right back.” On that first Easter morning, just like He had promised, Jesus walked from His tomb (Jesus never ran anywhere—He covered the known world at the pace of three miles an hour) and went right back to work. But for unknown reasons—people didn’t recognize Him.

In what is a continuation from our Easter text, John writes that our group in the Upper Room on that Easter afternoon were there for “fear of the Jews.” These disciples might not have feared to go out in public individually, but they feared the Jews learning that they were meeting together as a group. To be quite honest, I always thought that their fear stemmed from the Romans—those responsible for crucifying Jesus. But it was the Jews that they feared because it was the Jewish authorities who initiated everything.

John shares with us that Jesus came into the room, stood among the disciples and said, “Peace be with you.” The word for peace here is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word, shalom. Jesus spoke to them before His death when He said, “Peace I leave you; my peace I give you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).

A few years ago, there was a contest to judge the funniest joke in the world. The winning joke went like this:

Two men were out hunting in the woods. Suddenly, one man clutches his chest—gasps for breath—and drops to the ground. His friend immediately gets out his cell phone and dials 911. He tells the emergency operator, “My friend just died. What should I do?”

The operator says, “Take it easy sir. First, we must make sure that he’s dead.” There are a few seconds of silence followed by a gunshot. The man gets back on the phone and says, “Okay, what’s next?”
That’s one way to make certain someone’s dead.

Certainty is very difficult to attain in this world. There always seems to be room for doubt. But then again, I think I would worry about someone who said to me, “I never doubt anything.”

Woody Allen once said that he would have no difficulty believing in God. All God would have to do would be to deposit $1,000,000 in a secret Swiss bank account in Woody’s name.

I have to wonder if the greatest doubters aren’t also the greatest believers because their powers of perception are more penetrating than those of the average believers. The key to the whole thing is for us to become “doubters of doubt.”

You may not want to hear this but there are some who believe that God intends for us to struggle with the greatest questions of life. It may be that such a struggle is essential to a strong, mature faith. Never to have doubted is never to have taken the walk of faith seriously.

One of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner puts it this way, “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith; they keep faith alive and moving.” Doubt is one of God’s most effective tools for producing mighty men and women of faith.

Jesus used His scars to prove His identity to His disciples huddled together in the Upper Room. Ernest Hemmingway said once, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” Our scars may be ugly and remind us of great pain but it’s those same scars that build our character; they remind us of what we went through and remind us that someone went through it with us. (Would you change your life if you could?)

If I were to mention the names of certain disciples and ask you to write down the first word that comes into your mind it’s unlikely that you would all come up with the same words. If I were to mention the name Judas many of you might write down the word “betray” but maybe not all of you. If I were to mention Simon Peter, some of you would write down the word “faith,” but not all of you. If I were to mention the names of James and John, some of you would write down the phrase “Sons of Thunder,” or as I like to call them, the Zebedee’s, but not all of you. But when I mention the name Thomas, there is little question about the word most everyone would write down. It would of course be the word “doubt.” Indeed, so closely have we associated Thomas with this word that we have coined the phrase to describe him: “Doubting Thomas.”

You may be interested to know that in the first three gospels we are told absolutely nothing at all about Thomas. It’s in John’s Gospel that he emerges as a distinct personality, but even so, there are only 155 words about him. There isn’t a lot about this disciple in the Bible but there is more than one description.

I believe that often times we spend too much time trying to categorize people, even those of us who are Christians. Some are referred to as liberal, or conservative, right wing or left wing. Thomas is considered a doubter because of our scripture for today; but should he be called Thomas the doubter or Thomas the absent? Did he doubt any more than the other disciples?

When Jesus turned His face toward Jerusalem the disciples thought that it would mean certain death for all of them. But it was Thomas who said: “Then let us go so that we may die with Him” (John 11:16). It took great courage for Thomas to make that statement, yet this isn’t what he is remembered for. In this story that gives Thomas his nickname is the same story where Thomas makes an earth-shattering confession of faith. Without even touching the scars of Jesus he claims, “My Lord, and my God!” It’s the only place where Jesus is called God without any kind of qualification. You are my Lord and my God; are these the words of a doubter?

We don’t know why but for some reason Thomas has separated himself from the other disciples and thus misses Jesus’ first appearance. Maybe he’s made a Dunkin run or just stepped out for some air. Maybe John is suggesting to us that Christ most often appears within the community of believers that we call the church, and when we separate ourselves from the church, we take a chance on missing His unique presence.

After his confession of faith, Jesus says something to Thomas that should be very encouraging for us: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen yet have believed.

I have never been to the Grand Canyon, but I believe that it exists. I’ve seen pictures and heard firsthand accounts of folks who have been there in person. I’ve never seen the Risen Christ, but I believe He exists, and I believe that when I do see Him, like He did with Thomas, He’ll show me His nail scars and the hole in His side. Though I’ve never seen Him with my eyes I have felt His presence on many occasions.

Have you ever wished you could actually see Jesus, touch Him, and hear His words? At times, do you wish you could sit with Him and get His advice? Thomas wanted Jesus’ physical presence. But God’s plan is wiser. He has not limited Himself to one physical body; He wants to be present with you at all times. Even now, He is with you, and you can find His words to you in the pages of the Bible. He can be as real to you as He was to Thomas.

Jesus didn’t blame Thomas for his doubting. So often the church’s handling of doubt is to couple it with disbelief and squash it. But Jesus never condemned Thomas. I think Jesus understood that once Thomas worked through his doubts as we sometimes must work through our own doubts that we can them become some of the surest in all the Kingdom of God.

I heard a story about two men who shared a hospital room. One of the men was in the bed by the window and being able to get out of bed spent most of his time in a chair by that window. The other was very sick and unable to get out of bed so his roommate would tell him about all the things going on outside their window. He told him about the trees and flowers blooming, the water fountain in the courtyard and the children playing in the park just across the street.

One day the man by the window was released from the hospital and the other man requested he be moved to the bed by the window and eventually he was well enough to be able to sit in the chair by the window. He had waited so long to be able to enjoy the sights he had been told about but when he looked out the window the only thing there was a brick wall. He asked the nurse about the wall, and she said that his roommate was blind, that he couldn’t have seen those sights he described but probably told him to make him feel better.

What Jesus told Thomas that day should make us feel better. To believe without seeing is important to us. But if you are waiting until you see to truly believe it may be too late when you finally do.

Some people think they would believe in Jesus if they could see a definite sign or miracle. We have several accounts in Scripture of people in the presence of the living Jesus who asked Him for a sign or a miracle to prove who He was. But Jesus says we are blessed if we can believe without seeing. We have all the proof we need in the words of the Bible and the testimony of believers. A physical appearance wouldn’t make Jesus any more real to us than He is now.

May you, this day, be able to say like Thomas, “My Lord and my God” without being able to see Him; and for it you will be blessed! Jesus said “Peace—Shalom” to His disciples; yes, for some, to see is to believe; but for us, as Christians, we believe without seeing and for it we are blessed.

Peace be with you—Shalom!

Thanks be to God!

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