Risen. Renewed: Thomas
Rev. Michael F. Bailey
April 3, 20126
Scripture: John 20:19-31: 19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin[a]), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe[b] that Jesus is the Messiah,[c] the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Can you remember the most interesting character you’ve ever met? As a pastor, I’ve met my share! I remember Vance and Shug, parishioners at a church I served early out of seminary. They would greet you at the door of the church with a warm welcome and blow a cloud of Marlboro smoke in your face at the same time! I remember Boris when I served overseas. Boris was of Russian persuasion and had some “issues” that caused him to think he was a spy for the USA. Once at worship, he thought the head of our Habitat team was the head of the CIA and made a grand speech to him in the middle of the service. I remember Heck who claimed his nickname originated when his mother looked at him after birth and said, “what the Heck is that?” I’ve met some characters. Who are some un-forgettable characters or personalities you’ve met? Turn to a neighbor and share together for a couple of minutes.
Today, we begin a lectionary based sermon series entitled, “Risen. Renewed.” Over the season of Easter, we’ll look at how the risen Christ renewed lives. We begin with one of the most un-forgettable Biblical characters I’ve studied: Thomas. While the synoptic gospels only list him, St. John gives us great insight into Thomas and we’ll consider what John wrote in a minute.
The impact of Thomas on the early Christian community is saliently shown by the many books about him in early Christian literature. These manuscripts, at times, tell almost fairy-tale like legends about Thomas. One is that after Pentecost, the disciples cast lots to divide up the world for evangelism purposes. Thomas was to go to India and he balked. And in the ancient literature, it would seem that Jesus rather tricked him! Jesus came back once more in human form and sold Thomas as a slave to an Indian royal architect who was charged with building a palace for the King of India. When the architect met Thomas, a re-appeared Jesus walked up and the architect asked, “Is this your master?” Of course, Thomas, looking at Jesus said, “Yes, he is my master!” And the deal was made. Moreover, Thomas (a builder) drew on the King’s construction line of credit and gave it all to the poor. The King threw Thomas into prison until the King’s brother died, went to heaven, and came back to earth to tell the King that the greatest mansion in heaven was his because Thomas had given to the poor!
Many stories abound in legend of Thomas irking royalty by making their wives take vows of chastity, and there is even a story of donkey’s preaching the gospel; and you thought Mr. Ed and Francis the mule were original! One book that bears Thomas’ name purports to tell of the lost years of Jesus between the ages of 5 and 12; years where Jesus did some rather odd things.
But what can we make of Thomas, this most unforgettable character of the Bible from the Bible itself? What about Thomas and his character inform us about Christian discipleship, meeting the Risen Christ and being renewed? Let’s explore together Thomas and his journey to renewal through Christ and how there may be parallels in our faith walk.
Consider first, how Thomas’ discipleship was marked by great courage.
Do you remember the conversation between Jesus and the disciples just before Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead? The background of that conversation is the religious authorities in Jerusalem had already decided to put Jesus to death. It happens that Bethany, where Lazarus, Mary and Martha lived, is just outside Jerusalem. For Jesus to head to Jerusalem seemed to the disciples foolhardy and besides that, Lazarus was already dead, so in their mind, why go? The tenor of the passage seems as if Jesus is about to lose the disciples; they balked seriously. And then Thomas spoke up, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
What a courageous statement and a rather pessimistic one! One scholar notes that it’s easy enough for an optimist to be courageous, they always believe things will work out! But real courage is shown when a pessimist is ready to move ahead, and that was Thomas. That same scholar said, “For Thomas there might be death, but there would never be disloyalty.” The lesson for us is that true discipleship, a true following of Christ in all dimensions of our lives, takes courage! If we are to “dare to be different,” if the grace of the Christ is, “setting us apart,” it will take courage. But moreover, it also takes a special courage to allow Christ to renew us! This is the courage needed to face one’s self, squarely and honestly, and to seek the soul and life repair that only Christ offers. Thomas had that type of courage and by God’s grace, so may we.
Consider second, that Thomas was a person of transparent, open, honest inquiry.
We next encounter Thomas in the Upper Room where Jesus is painting in words the picture of the cross and what comes after. And Thomas reveals himself to be one of those pure souls who can’t live with unanswered questions. You remember the scene and dialogue: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’
I can almost see the other disciples nodding their heads in agreement as if they totally get it! Some of you teachers and students have seen this happen in the classroom. Thomas would have none of that! Now I see Thomas raising his hand and saying, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ And Jesus giving Thomas that timeless answer, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Honest inquiry and asking questions marks a life of discipleship and faith. Honest inquiry is a hallmark of United Methodism. And in our connection, what a great example we have before us this morning by the presence of the chamber singers of our own United Methodist High Point University. Education and inquiry have their roots in the earliest days of the Methodist movement. Consider Charles Wesley’s hymn at the dedication of the Wesley’s school, Kingsbridge; it describes us well:
Unite the pair so long disjoined, Knowledge and vital piety;
Learning and holiness combined!
Knowledge and vital piety are the result of open, honest inquiry. Knowledge and vital piety describe us connectionally and is why we have 122 United Methodist institutions of higher learning in our nation. Knowledge and vital piety is the hallmark of fine United Methodist congregations. You see, Methodism at its best is the wedding of scholarship, faith and service. When we remember such individually, congregationally and connectionally we may be risen and renewed.
Let’s turn to the cause of Thomas needing to be renewed by his encounter with the living Christ. Over the years, doubt has been attributed as the cause of Thomas’ need for renewal by the Risen Christ. I’d like to suggest something different: Thomas needed renewal because he was absent from the community of faith! In our passage, all of the others gathered in the Upper Room except for Thomas. There, Christ came to them, offered them peace, the Spirit and a commission. And Thomas missed it all! And now, what has been labelled doubt is really nothing more than Thomas wanting the same kind of experience the others had. Think of it: Peter and John experienced the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene met Jesus in the garden, and the whole crew met him in the Upper Room and Thomas was absent. What a lesson to be learned! Even in our tradition, national worship attendance is down in the last two years statistics have been kept, by nearly 3%, which is close to 70,000 people a week. If we are to be renewed by the living Christ, gathering to worship him is crucial.
And you know the story. Jesus gracefully came to Thomas. And when Thomas received his request, he uttered the greatest words of devotion and confession in the scripture: My Lord and My God.
That coming to Thomas says so much about Jesus. It informs us that Jesus is ok with honest, intellectual inquiry and questions. Jesus never said we should never have questions and doubt. Indeed, doubts and inquiry lead to great faith; a genuinely owned faith.
And let’s learn too, from this passage, where Jesus is encountered in the fellowship of believers he said, “Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am also.” The congregation of Christians is where we share, live through, and own our doubts in order to own our faith. It is the primary arena for meeting Jesus. And meeting Jesus is what renewed Thomas and can renew us as well.
Note that Thomas wasn’t renewed by a creed, theological formulation, or agreeing with a set of propositions. He was renewed by Christ, encountered in the community Christ had gathered. And the same is true for us, those whom Jesus called blessed because we believe without seeing. In John Irving’s novel, A Prayer for Own Meany, the narrator John has a number of conversations with his friend Owen about the meaning of belief. In one scene at the schoolyard, Owen illustrates his faith in God by pointing to a gray granite statue of Mary Magdalene as the twilight falls. When it has become so dark that the statue is no longer visible, Owen asked John if he knows that the statue is still there. John says that of course he knows. Owen keeps pushing:
“You have no doubt she’s there?” Owen nagged at me. “Of course I have no doubt!” I said. “But you can’t see her – you could be wrong,” he said. “No, I’m not wrong- she’s there, I know she’s there!” I yelled at him. “You absolutely know she’s there – even thought you can’t see her?” he asked me. “Yes,” I screamed. “Well, now you know how I feel about God,” said Owen Meany. “I can’t see him – but I absolutely know he is there!”
One scholar wrote: “Because Owen believes so fully and completely in God, he stakes his life on his conviction. He does not need to see; he doesn’t need signs and wonders; he believes and orients his whole life around this belief.”
That’s our faith! A faith evidenced by our transformed lives and the transformed lives of millions upon million over the millennia. A faith that one has written is “Believing in advance in something that will only seem logical when seen in reverse”. And someday we trust, welcomed into eternal life, we can ask all the questions we want–if there, they really matter to us anymore.
Share with your group the most unforgettable character you’ve ever encountered.
Share with your group anything you remember about Thomas besides his “doubting.”
Share with your group the role of courage in following Christ.
Share with your group the role of honest inquiry in strengthening faith.
Share with your group about a time Christ grace came into your life and strengthened your faith.