Sermon, Quasimodo Geniti, 2017
NT, John 20: 19-31
After Jesus rose from the grave on Easter morning He appeared first to the women who had come to the tomb to finish dressing His body for burial. Then, later, He appeared all of the apostles over the next eight days, as well as many other followers later– over 500 people at one appearance. Then He ascended bodily to heaven in the sight of the apostles. After His ascension, the apostles and a small group of followers of Jesus–probably His mother and brothers,, Mary Magdelene and the other women, John-Mark and others, gathered in Jerusalem to pray and to support each other as they prepared to receive the Holy Spirit in power and take the Good News of the Resurrection to the whole world. But before they did that, they needed to find a replacement for Judas, the betrayer. The qualification for the replacement would be that he must be, as Saint Peter said, “one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” (Acts 1: 21-21, ESV). It was of first importance that the new apostle be one who witnessed first hand the resurrection.
For these apostles would be sent throughout the ancient world, exposed to resistance from the established religions, skepticism, persecution, imprisonment, and even death. They would also face the persecution of their fellow countrymen, the Jews. They needed to be able to tell people that they had seen with their own eyes, heard with their own ears, and touched with their own hands, the Risen Lord Jesus Christ. They had a calling as apostles that was unique, for their generation only. For that they needed unique testimony.
So we should not be so hard on Thomas, called the doubter, for insisting on seeing Jesus with his own eyes and touching His wounds with his own hands. All the apostles needed to do this, to equip them for their daunting apostolic mission.
Let’s also remember that Thomas wasn’t the only disciple who doubted, who needed to touch the risen body of the Lord. All of the apostles were doubters to some degree before seeing the risen Lord. None of them were at the tomb early on Easter morning waiting for Jesus to rise. Evidently none expected it, even though Jesus had promised them repeatedly that He would rise on the third day. They all doubted. And when Jesus came to the ten disciples in the locked upper room on Easter evening, they were afraid at first, for they thought they were seeing a ghost, not even then thinking it might be Christ resurrected, although they had the reports of the women and the men who walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and Peter. It wasn’t until Jesus spoke peace to them and invited them to come and touch Him and eat with Him that their doubt disappeared. They needed to see and touch Jesus every bit as much as Thomas.
So when Thomas 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.”, let us not judge him to harshly. This was what he needed to do, to prepare for His apostolic witness. He needed to witness the Resurrection.
Furthermore, Saint Thomas’ absence from the group on Easter evening, and the account of his meeting with Jesus the following Sunday evening gives Jesus the opportunity to speak words of great comfort to all of us who have not witnessed the Resurrection the way the apostles and the hundreds of others did in the forty days that Jesus walked the earth between Easter and Ascension.
Jesus said these words for you and me, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20: 29, ESV). Jesus is speaking about those believers yet to come, through the centuries and millennia, who would believe that He is the Son of God, come to take on human flesh, to die for the sins of the whole world, and who rose from the grave bodily on Easter morning. They would be blessed, because their faith would be a sign that the Holy Spirit dwelled in them, who was given to them in their Baptisms and through the hearing of the Word. They would be blessed in the same way that Peter was blessed when He confessed to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus replied to Simon. “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 16:16-17, ESV) Simon’s blessedness lay in the fact that God had chosen to reveal to him that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ. Peter hadn’t figured it out himself, through weighing the evidence, although he had plenty of it: the healings, the casting out of demons, the Lord’s speaking with authority, His fulfilling of the prophecies of the Messiah in the writings of the prophets. For there were others who likewise witnessed the very same things but had not been convinced–the Pharisees, and scribes and elders that followed Jesus and observed Him and tried to catch Him in blasphemy.
But Peter did believe, although still imperfectly and incompletely. Therefore it was a sign that he was blessed, as Jesus said. His faith was a gracious gift from God, a blessing. As is ours, created in the Word and in the water, sustained and strengthened by the Word and the Body and Blood in our journey from font to grave. We are blessed, not just because through faith we can recognize and proclaim Jesus as Lord and Messiah, like Thomas and Peter, but we are blessed because through faith we have received the glorious gifts of God distributed in His Word and His Sacraments–forgiveness of sins, salvation, and eternal life. Jesus won these for the whole world in His all-atoning sacrifice for sin on the cross. And the benefits of that victory are distributed through Word and Sacrament, in His Church.
Martin Luther explains it this way concerning forgiveness of sin for the world. He writes, “Christ has achieved it on the cross, it is true. But he has not distributed or given it on the cross. He has not won it in the supper or sacrament. There he has distributed and given it through the Word, as also in the gospel, where it is preached. He has won it once for all on the cross. But the distribution takes place continuously, before and after, from the beginning to the end f the world…If Now I seek the forgiveness of sins, I do not run to the cross, for I will not find it given there. Nor must I hold to suffering of Christ…in knowledge or remembrance, for I will not find it there either. But I will find in the sacrament or gospel the word which distributes, presents, offers, and gives to me that forgiveness which was won on the cross.” (Martin Luther, “Against the Heavenly Prophets,” pp. 213-24, vol. 40, Luther’s Works, American Edition)
Through faith, belief, given to us by grace, we receive all the blessings won by Christ and distributed through His Word and Sacrament.
Of course, we identify with Thomas. We, too, would like a concrete, visible, tangible proof that our faith is not illusion. Our sinful flesh resists the inspired prophetic and apostolic Word, the way Thomas did, when told by the apostles of their encounter with the risen Savior on Easter. Thomas stubbornly replied to their apostolic witness, “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.” (John 20: 25, ESV). Do we not also put conditions on our belief? “Unless it can be proven to me scientifically, empirically, rationally, I will never believe in the story of Creation, or of the flood, or of the miracles of the Old and New Testament, I will never give weight to the apostolic witness of St. Paul. I will never accept the true presence of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and water, or of the power of Baptism to save, or whatever else impedes our full faith in the Word of God.”
Jesus has a word for you and me and our doubting flesh. The same word He gives to Thomas the Sunday after Easter, “Do not disbelieve.” That is, do not put obstacles and conditions on your believing. Do not resist the Holy Spirit. Quiet your doubting within and just listen–to the Word from outside, which gives life and light. “Do not disbelieve.” Let the Word do its work on you, creating faith, strengthening faith. Let your rational mind serve under the Word of God, rather than rule over it. And if there are things that you cannot understand now, cannot reconcile with reason, so be it. Accept that you will not get all your questions answered this side of heaven. But you have been given what God needs you to know and believe for your salvation and for living a God-pleasing life, one that serves Him and your neighbor.
The verses immediately following our Gospel text today say, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 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 20: 30-31, ESV)
Before I close I do not want you to leave with a misunderstanding about Thomas He believed in Jesus. He followed Him, bravely. He just didn’t think he could believe the miracle of the Resurrection without physical evidence, with his own eyes. His rational mind was at war with his intense desire to believe a miracle. Jesus simply commands him, “Do not disbelieve, but believe.” And Thomas, who scripture does not say that he actually touches either Jesus’ hands or sides, lays down his disbelief forever at Jesus’ feet and says, “My Lord and my God!” And Jesus says, (I picture the Lord saying this with a gentle smile), “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20: 28-29, ESV). That’s you. That’s I.
Blessed are we who have not seen and yet have believed.
In + Christ’s name. Amen.