18th April 2016
A Sermon by Rev Dr Max Champion, Easter 2, 3rd April 2016
Lessons: Psalm 150; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
But Thomas said to them, 'Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails and place my finger in the mark of the nails and place my hand in his side, I will not believe (v25) ... Then he said, ‘My Lord and my God’(v28)
Today's Gospel reading reminds us that hope only becomes real when we face the awful power of evil!
Doubting Thomas’ are not well liked. They challenge popular wisdom, unsettle accepted standards and undermine public confidence. They are negative, gloomy and backward looking. We prefer people who are positive about the future, know where they are heading and look on the bright side of life. We may be uncertain about many things and wonder whether life has ultimate meaning but we don’t like cynics!
Committed atheists are likely to understand doubting Thomas better than those who, as in Monty Python, 'always look on the bright side of life.' They know what it is to seriously doubt God. The first part of the story should appeal to them. … But their cynicism stops them joining Thomas in his adoration of Jesus. They don’t see that it is a story of peace for all who have experienced severe doubt because of the absence of God.
When every door seems ‘closed,’ as it was for disciples after the crucifixion (vv19&26), and we are deeply sceptical about the endurance of love and goodness, the story of doubting Thomas who comes to faith is a source of hope and comfort.
Hope is not the same as wishful thinking. And peace is not the same as ignoring conflict. Neither hope nor peace is easily won. They come unexpectedly and only after reality is faced. Unlike some sceptics, who couldn’t care less about God and doubt everything except themselves, Thomas suffered extreme doubt because he believed that God’s goodness and mercy had been supremely displayed in the remarkable life and ministry of Christ.
Remember! Thomas was one of the twelve disciples called by Jesus to share-in God’s mission to preach, to heal and to forgive (v23). Because his high hopes had been dashed, and peace had not come, he cannot lightly accept improbable reports of a crucified man being restored to life. In view of the depth of Christ’s love for people, in which he had glimpsed the very being of God, Thomas thinks that talk of resurrection is nonsense. He refuses to be consoled by glib, pious answers.
That is why he issues a fearsome challenge to the other disciples – and to God. ‘Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe’ (20:25). ... Prove to me that God has not been overwhelmed by evil! Show me that God’s goodness and mercy, which I saw embodied in Jesus, has defeated the dread powers of sin and death. ...
All of us can identify with Thomas’ scepticism! In a world where people suffer terribly because of evil and death – the real world within which Jesus was crucified – it is very hard to believe in the enduring goodness of God. In such a world, as Thomas knew, it is foolish to believe in Jesus' resurrection. He does not shrink from drawing the logical conclusion from the horror of crucifixion. Hope is dead! Peace is an illusion!
In his scepticism, however, he is not completely closed to the possibility that God has defeated evil. Instead of resigning himself to fate Thomas demands proof of the crucified one’s presence. He reasons that, if God has destroyed the powers that crucified Jesus, it could be known only by seeing the marks of crucifixion. Any other kind of ‘presence,’ say a ghostly vision common in spiritual circles, wouldn’t take seriously the power of evil which had ended the life of the One in whom God’s power over evil in all its forms had been so clearly demonstrated. ‘Unless I see ... I shall not believe.’ ...
There is much to admire in Thomas, not least because, in doubting the resurrection, he risks becoming a hardened cynic. He doesn’t do what many of us do – push doubts to one side and stoically get on with life. He demands answers. If there had been no answer to his ultimatum, he would be justified in turning his back on God. If Jesus were only a courageous moral teacher who came to an abrupt and tragic end, there would be no hope and no peace - for him or for humanity. Evil would have defeated good – and God!
But evil does not win and his cynicism is overcome. He is so overwhelmed by the unexpected presence of the crucified Jesus that he exclaims ‘My Lord and my God!’ (20:28). Unlike many "Christians" today, he does not simply call Jesus ‘teacher,’ ‘friend’ or ‘prophet.’ He doesn’t say that 'Jesus’ teaching lives-on' or that ‘the human spirit triumphs over adversity.’ No! In the presence of the Risen Christ Thomas exclaims ‘My Lord and my God!’ He credits Jesus’ resurrection to the Creator and Ruler of the universe. ...
Such an event defies easy comprehension. It is the reversal of everything that we have come to expect in life. This is splendidly expressed in Together in Song 649. It is gritty, earthy, physical. It is not pious. It does not spiritualise what happened. It portrays Jesus’ humanness, the horror of the cross, the grim burial (vs1). ... It also tracks the incredible change in Thomas from scepticism to faith - thus speaking to those of us referred to in vv30-31 and 1 Peter 1:8 who, unlike Thomas, have not seen the crucified marks of the Risen Lord.
As the fine poem by William Rush says1, we all need Thomas’ bracing realism! If we are to be a people at peace in a strife-torn world, we must face the horror of evil. When we see things, not in the light of our ‘small world of fact,’ but in the light of the 'large fact' of Jesus' resurrection, the world and the future are seen in a completely different light. In Christ crucified-and-risen, God radiates hope in the midst of darkness, faith in the midst of doubt, love in the midst of hatred.
Yes! The world and the future look different when we see things in the light of the 'large fact' of the resurrection of the crucified Jesus.
Thomas compels us to see that, in order to arrive at hope, and to live in peace, we must face the horror of the cross! When we see the resurrection in the light of the crucifixion, and the crucifixion in the light of the resurrection, we, too, will be able to stammer 'My Lord and my God.' Then, and only then, we will be empowered to be a community of hope and reconciliation in a world where sin, evil, suffering and death cause so many people to doubt the power and splendour of the resurrection.
For those of who still have doubts - and who doesn't (at least from time to time), ask yourself: Is it 'inconceivable' that the God who has created us to live lives that are full of good things should let bad things - like idolatry, inhumanity, affliction and death - ultimately thwart his loving, reconciling purpose? In view of Jesus' remarkable ministry, wouldn't it really be 'unbelievable' if such terrible things meant the end of mercy for those who have done wrong, the end of reconciliation between enemies, the end of justice for innocent sufferers? ... It would not make sense!
When life is desolate and we have serious doubts about the resurrection of the crucified Lord, we should turn to Thomas. In facing the horror of Jesus' death and experiencing the absence of God, Thomas' 'small world of fact,' like ours, is no match for this 'large and unexpected act' of grace. Let us then pray,
May we, 0 God, by grace believe
and thus the risen Christ receive,
whose raw, imprinted palms reached out
and beckoned Thomas from his doubt. (TiS 649, verse 4)
Frankly, I could not bear to watch what
they did to him - the whips, the insults,
the hammering of the nails. So I snuck off
Here, hopes shattered, to lick my wounds.
Now they beg me to go back to see him -
surely something beyond belief. At least
mine. I'm a realist, not into sentiment or
apparitions. There needs to be a body.
Today the clouds hang heavy with doubt.
The others may be deluded. But if - and it's
a big if -I see him, touch actual wounds,
then I will kneel before him, and adore.
Rev Dr Max Champion is the Convenor of the ACC's Theology and Ecumenical Relationships Commission