Sermon for the First Sunday after Easter, April 12, 2015, Quasimodo Geniti, Gospel, St. John 20:19-31
Were you by chance on one of the Apollo missions that went to the moon? Have you been to Egypt and seen and touched the pyramids? Did you see the Spanish Armada sunk, or Alexander the Great defeat the armies of Persia? And I’m not talking about in movies or on tv. How do you know that these places are real, or that those persons really happened? Of course, there are still people who think the moon landings were staged in a studio in the Nevada desert, but leaving that aside, why do you believe that Alexander the Great existed? The first biography of him wasn’t written until almost five centuries after he died. I imagine the reason you believe is that you trust the testimony of those who told you about him. You trust the teacher who first taught you about him in history class or the books written about him. You believe that their testimony is trustworthy. In fact, almost all of what you believe about the world and its history is based on someone else’s testimony. Very little is based on your own first hand experience. Your worldview has been shaped by whose testimony you. believe. Today’s Gospel text is about testimony and belief.
The Gospel of John ends not with Jesus meeting with the disciples in Galilee, or with the Ascension into heaven, but with the confession of Thomas, forever known as “Doubting Thomas” for his stated refusal to believe in Jesus’ resurrection unless he felt the place where the nails went in Jesus’ hand and the put his fingers in the wound in Jesus’ side. The others had already touched the risen Jesus when he appeared to them on the evening of Easter the week before. They were gathered behind locked doors, talking about how the Lord had appeared to Simon, that the two men on the way to Emmaus had spoken to Him and broken bread with Him, that Mary Magdalene had seen and touched Him. But when Jesus suddenly appeared to them they were frightened and were not sure they were not seeing a spirit, perhaps the angry spirit of Jesus. But Jesus put their doubts at ease and said, “Peace be with you.” He had not come in anger, but in forgiveness. He invited them to touch him to see that He had a physical body. In the Gospel of Luke we learn that He ate fish with them. (Luke 24).
But Thomas was not there. Why not? Of course we can’t be certain. But I think it was not because he was afraid and in hiding. When Jesus had said to the disciples after Lazarus died, “Let us go to him. “ Thomas said to the other disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Thomas was not a coward and no more a doubter of the resurrection than the other disciples. No, they were all doubters, doubting Peter, doubting John, doubting Matthew, doubting Andrew and all the others. They had all forgotten or doubted what Jesus had told them predicting his death and rising from the grave. Jesus knew they needed to actually feel His nailed and pierced body and eat with Him to overcome their fears and doubts. What set Thomas apart, perhaps, from the other disciples was his stubborn, bold refusal to believe the testimony of his brothers and sisters.
They told him after that meeting on Easter evening that they had seen the Lord. . They said they had touched him and ate with Him. They told him that Jesus had appeared to Peter, and the men on the road to Emmaus, to Mary Magdalene. But that wasn’t good enough for Thomas. The testimony of these brothers and sisters with whom he lived for three years wasn’t reliable enough for him. In fact, he wouldn’t even trust the testimony of his own eyes. For he said that unless he touched, not just saw, but touched the wounds of Jesus he would never believe in the bodily resurrection. He had his own set of standards. Faith had to be on his terms. This is what set Thomas apart from the others, literally. It kept him apart from them.
For he refused to be persuaded by the testimony even of his trusted friends. And so he avoided their company. Maybe he thought he would be a hypocrite to join with them in their joy. . Perhaps he thought he was just being honest. He needed hard facts. Testimony was not enough. Maybe he wanted to believe but his reason wouldn’t allow him to. Reason told him that crucified, dead, and buried people don’t rise again to life. Whatever it was, Thomas no longer met with the others. What was the point of pretending to believe any longer? The only reason to be with the other disciples was that they shared a common hope, a common faith. Now that that was gone, there was no longer any compelling reason for him to gather with them anymore.
But the disciples didn’t give up on Thomas. Somehow they talked him into meeting with them again a week later in the place where Jesus had appeared to them. And Jesus appeared again as before, even saying, Peace be with you.” again, saying this to all, including Thomas. But this time, instead of inviting all the disciples again to touch him, He says to Thomas alone, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Jesus condescends to Thomas’ demands to touch Him, in fact He commands him to touch him. Then Thomas proclaims, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas has finally believed. He has proclaimed Jesus, this risen human being of flesh and blood as also his Lord and his God.” Jesus forgives Thomas his doubting of the apostolic testimony, but says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Jesus is now speaking to all who have not seen Him but who believe the testimony of the prophets and apostles, who believe the Word of God found in Holy Scripture and preached and taught in the church.. He says that they, meaning we, are blessed. And so we are.
For we have heard the words of Jesus through the written testimony of those He sent and entrusted with it. Our eyes have not seen Jesus face to face. Our eyes have seen many things, but not Jesus face to face yet. We have seen baptisms and funerals, marriages and confirmations, new members joining and old members staying away. We have seen the church full and the church half empty. But not Jesus face to face.
But God has not left us blind. He has given us testimony which opens our eyes to the ultimate truth. The Word of God, the testimony of the prophets and the apostles found in Holy Scripture is different than all other testimony. It is not human testimony, but divine testimony written through human beings. Breathed out by the Holy Spirit, it is the means by which the Holy Spirit creates faith, and not just any faith, but faith in the One who gives life eternal, Jesus Christ. The testimony of the prophets and apostles creates, sustains, and builds faith through the hearing of the Word of God, not once, or in one period of our life, but throughout our whole life. We who have not yet seen the Risen Christ walk by faith and not by sight. (2 Corinthians 5:7). We have this faith as a gift that keeps on giving. For every time we hear the Word of God the Holy Spirit is using it to work repentance and forgiveness in us, the way it did with the apostle Thomas, urging him to join once again with his brothers and sisters in the faith. Like Thomas and the disciples, when we as a church gather together, we encourage each other in the faith, we share the cup and the bread in Holy Communion, we confess our sins together, and receive absolution together, we sing together, and share the peace of the Lord with each other. We sustain each other in our prayers. We grow in faith and knowledge in study of the Word of God in our Bible classes and Sunday school.
Don’t worry that you would be a hypocrite if you come to church with doubt, for this is the place where doubt meets the invincible Word of truth. This is the place where faith grows. This is where weak faith meets the Risen Lord and God, Jesus Christ, invisible to our eyes and untouchable to our fingers, but just as present with His body and Spirit as He was in the room 2000 years ago. How do we know He is here with us today? How do we know we will see Him face to face someday? How do we know that we can trust what we read in the Bible? Reliable testimony. God has told us so. He has given us His testimony and His prophets and apostles have relayed it to us in This testimony is trustworthy, more trustworthy than any testimony in the world. It is the testimony of God and His Holy Spirit. Saint Paul says in Second Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God, and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. “(2 Timothy 3:16) The Spirit is the One who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.” (1 John 5:6). “What is truth?” Pilate asked Jesus. Jesus said , “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples. and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” And it has set you free. “Blessed are you who have not seen and have believed.” For you have eternal life. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!