Today the Easter story continues in John’s Gospel as more of Christ’s followers encounter him, alive, back from the dead. John the Gospel writer especially wants to tell us about two occasions, for it allows him to bring us into the story. We hear of how, on the evening of the resurrection, the disciples meet together. They are furtive, secretive- they have locked the doors, afraid of the Jewish authorities. This is a frightened group of people, people of the world is suspicious, people who are unsure what the future holds for them. Perhaps they are not very unlike us, in this congregation, today.
But somehow, the risen Christ appears among them, offering them peace, and the gift of the Spirit. This must have been an intense experience for those who gathered there. No doubt, afterwards, they would have gone around speaking of it to other people, excited and glad because the one who was dead has come back.
One of those who they tell the story to is one of the Twelve, one of the leading disciples, who, for some reason, was not there. With great excitement, his fellow-disciples tell Thomas, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But this is too much for Thomas:
‘Unless I see the scars of the nails in his hands and put my finger on those scars and my hand in his side, I will not believe’.
Because of these words, he’s been called ‘doubting Thomas’. But I rather admire him, for he is looking for proof for something which is inherently unlikely- that his friend, Jesus, is back from the dead. If he is going to put his faith in Jesus, he wants to be on sure ground.
The following week, the disciples gather again- still behind locked doors. And this time Thomas is with them as Jesus again appears with the words, ‘Peace be with you’. And then there is this wonderful dialogue between Jesus and the disciple who wanted to know more:
Then [Jesus] said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look at my hands; then reach out your hand and put it in my side. Stop your doubting, and believe!” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Do you believe because you see me? How happy are those who believe without seeing me!”
There’s three parts to this dialogue, and it’s worth thinking briefly about each one.
Firstly, there are the first words of Jesus to Thomas. Thomas wanted very concrete evidence: he wanted to see the scars of crucifixion on Jesus’ body, to see the wound in his side where the Roman soldier’s spear was plunged in. And Jesus answers his questions: touch my wounds, he says to Thomas- here are my scars. Thomas encounters the risen Christ, and realises that Jesus knows what his questions are, understands why he would not believe.
I think it is rather wonderful that, when the risen Christ meets with the disciples the second time, he has words especially for Thomas- the one who was left out, the one who lacked the confidence of the others, the one who had the questions. When Jesus shows Thomas his wounds, it is not to poke fun at him- he’s taking Thomas’s questions very seriously, and giving him an answer. The Church has to learn from Jesus, and have a special care for those who don’t find it so easy to believe, and be willing to hear the doubts of the Thomases among us.
And secondly, there is Thomas’s reaction. It is not the cry of a beaten man: ‘OK, you win, I was wrong’, but the cry of someone who has found what he was looking for. ‘My Lord and my God!’ is a beautiful, simple confession of faith. Thomas had understood that if Jesus was, indeed, back, that had incredible implications. When he said to his friends, ‘Unless I see I will not believe’, he was indicating just how important this issue was. And not that he does see, he believes with all his heart. Because Christ is risen, Thomas understands that his friend Jesus can be none other than his Lord and his God. Thomas gets it! We ought not to call him doubting Thomas, but faithful Thomas, the one who first realised just what the implications of Easter were, and summed it up in a confession of faith and loyalty to Christ: ‘My Lord and my God!’
And thirdly, there is Jesus’ reply to Thomas:
‘Do you believe because you see me? How happy are those who believe without seeing me!’
In fact, these are the words which draw we who are listening to the story, into the story. These words are addressed not so much to Thomas- who believed because he saw- but to us, today.
We cannot see. We can never experience quite the same experience of the first disciples. We can only listen to them as they say, ‘We have seen the Lord’. Or rather, hear those words come down to us through many generations, until they are spoken to us. John the Gospel writer says in our passage that
these have been written in order that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through your faith in him you may have life.
Sometimes this is called the ‘apostolic tradition’- what has been handed down to us over 2,000 years- the memories of those who first knew Jesus, gathered and written up in the New Testament, and then handed on and preached and taught down the generations.
Every generation of disciples of Jesus since the first Easter have believed without seeing the risen Christ. And yet, like Thomas, each of us has heard as special word for us from Christ has a special word for each of us. We have inherited an apostolic tradition, passed on down through the centuries, which has been heard and lived out by Christians in bad times and good, in times of sadness and times of joy, by people of great faith, and those with lots of questions: the faith that the risen Christ still stands among us, and blesses those who, through faith, believe in him.
At our meeting yesterday with the Presbytery’s Local Church Review team, the team Convenor, the Rev Ian Manson, told us we would have to think about what the Church really was. I think that the Church is not a building, or an institution. The Church is, first and foremost, a group of people. And to today we heard from the First Letter of Peter that the Church consists of a very special kind of people.
For the apostle begins his letter with a greeting to the folks in the churches he’s writing to:
From Peter, apostle of Jesus Christ- To God’s chosen people who live as refugees, scattered across [various provinces of the Roman Empire].
And he says to them:
You were chosen according to the purpose of God the Father and were made a holy people by his Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ…
So when people ask who we Christians, we who are part of the Church, here is an answer- we are God’s chosen people, people made holy by the Spirit of God, people who are committed to obey Jesus Christ.
And then the apostle reminds his readers (and us) what it is they believe: he thanks God the Father
‘who gave us new life by raising Jesus Christ from death’.
These are great promises to a special people. For you and I in the Church are part of a holy, chosen people, whose faith is that we are receiving new life because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. So Easter is at the very heart of our faith: Christ’s resurrection gives us our identity as Christians. Ours is an Easter faith.
This weekend we have thought a lot about what the Church is, and what the Church is for. Shortly, we will ordain a new elder, to help lead us as we go forward- and we do go forward, even although, like those first Christians, we are not sure what lies ahead, even although we are sometimes tempted to lock the doors against a hostile world. But the faith that has been handed on to us is that Christ is risen, death is defeated, love has triumphed, and we are promised new life.
The author of the Letter of Peter says to his fellow believers:
You love [Christ], although you have not seen him, and you believe in him, although you do not now see him.
And the risen Jesus promises that, if we believe when we cannot see, we will be blessed indeed.
Ascription of Praise
To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.
1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2019 Peter W Nimmo