John 20: 19-31: 19When 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.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.25So 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.”
26A 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.” 27Then 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.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
A moment of truth: there are many reasons why pastors take the Sunday after Easter off, and one of them is that the sermon for the Sunday after Easter is one of the hardest to write. We’ve put a lot of time and energy into Holy Week, and then to turn around and write a sermon for the Sunday after Easter feels like pulling teeth. Inspiration is low, the creative juices aren’t flowing as well, and motivation is lacking. So when I sat down this week to do my preparations and saw that the text was about doubting Thomas, my first thought was, “Do I really want to preach on this again? What more can be said about this story?” You’ve heard me preach sermons about how doubt is healthy for our faith and challenges us to grow and ask questions. You’ve heard sermons about how Thomas lacked faith and needed to see in order to believe, and how we need to push ourselves to be ok with believing in the things that we cannot see. You’ve heard sermons about how perhaps Jesus was too hard on Thomas, and that we tend to side with him because we all like to have tangible proof to see and believe that which is difficult.
But this week I got to thinking about this story in terms of the resurrection. We celebrated it last week, we proclaimed it, we found hope and life within it, and now we get this story of Thomas needing to see the pierced hands and feet of Jesus in order to believe that he is really alive. A new question arose for me in this text. Was Thomas ready to deny the resurrection? If Jesus had not appeared and invited Thomas to reach out and touch him, would Thomas have given it all up, thrown up his hands and said, “You all are crazy. I cannot believe that he is alive since I have not seen him as you have. Therefore, I deny the resurrection.”
There are plenty of good reasons why Thomas, and people today might deny the resurrection. In fact, there’s even a website that I found that had several reasons why some deny it: 1) There are people who deny that Jesus ever existed and believe he is a fictional character around which the religion of Christianity was created. 2) The Bible is not a reliable source for historical information. It’s not meant to be a history book, but a book about theology, and God’s relationship with humankind. 3) Some people believe that miracles have never occurred and have never been proven.
4) Even if miracles are recorded, there is usually a scientific or natural explanation for them. So for the resurrection, perhaps the women went to the wrong tomb and jumped to conclusions. But that wouldn’t account for the stories of them meeting the Risen Christ, and nothing in the texts suggests that they went to the wrong tomb. Some suggest that the disciples were having hallucinations, but that would be a lot of hallucinations to try to explain! And some deny the resurrection by saying that Jesus actually survived the crucifixion, but was thought to be dead, and later walked away by his own accord. This would have been highly unlikely.
And those who deny the resurrection might say that it was a big fraud or scheme made up by his disciples who stole Jesus’ body in the night, or that the whole account is a made up legend as a way to keep Jesus and his teachings alive. Perhaps his resurrection is a metaphor for the fact that he lives on through the biblical writings and his followers still today. And finally (5), since the gospels are not firsthand accounts, those who deny the resurrection might say that it’s nothing but hearsay and not worth putting any faith into.
For all these reasons and more, Thomas might have been ready to deny the resurrection. He was like many of us, needing proof of something in order to believe it. When he got the proof he needed and proclaimed with confidence to Jesus, “My Lord and my God,” Jesus challenges him with these words, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” At first this looks like an insult to Thomas, but I like to think of it as a challenge from Jesus. This challenge wasn’t so much about whether or not Thomas needed proof, but about whether or not he was willing to live out the realities and challenges of believing in a resurrected Christ. Because when we proclaim Jesus as Lord and God and as the Risen One, we proclaim ourselves to be those who follow him with our hearts and lives. This can be messy and hard. Maybe sometimes it’s easier to deny the resurrection than to affirm it. If we deny it, then our lives just go back to the way they were before as if nothing has changed. If we affirm it, then we must move forward and not look back. We must let the resurrection of Jesus change us. If it doesn’t, then what are we doing here?
As a pastor, I get a lot of questions about the big things in the Christian faith that are hard to believe. Was Jesus really born from a virgin? Did he walk on water? Did he really raise Lazarus from the dead? Did he really come back to life? Pastor, do you actually believe in the resurrection, or do you deny it? Take a look at this response from this speaker and theologian, Peter Rollins.
So, any confessions in here? Do you deny the resurrection? I know I’m guilty of it, and I’m venturing to say that we all deny the resurrection from time to time. But there are also the times that we affirm the resurrection: when we stand up for justice, when we love, when we are kind and compassionate, when we help someone in need, when we feed the hungry, when we don’t turn a blind eye to those who are excluded or hurting. Perhaps the story of Thomas isn’t really about him needing the proof to believe that Jesus has risen from the dead. Perhaps it’s really about the ways in which Jesus challenges him to decide whether he will deny the resurrection or affirm it based on what Thomas will do now that he has seen and believed for himself. It’s a choice that he must make, and it’s a choice that we must all make as well. Are we willing to continue to live our lives as if we deny the resurrection? Or will we be witnesses to it and let it change us as we go out into the world as disciples of Jesus Christ?
Thomas needed proof in order to move forward- to see and feel the pierced hands, feet, and side of Jesus. Perhaps some of us still need proof today, but perhaps not. At the end of the day, love is why Jesus bears his scars, and love is what brought him back to life. We don’t need proof of his sacrifice, because we wouldn’t be sitting here today if we didn’t each share an experience of the grace, peace, and love that only Jesus can give. We know that’s real, without needing any proof. But the resurrection is the real challenge in what we affirm or deny. It marks a difference in the way that we choose to live out our lives.
Are there any Dancing with the Stars fans in here? If you are watching this season, you can’t help but be inspired and amazed by Noah Galloway, who is a former United States army soldier who lost his left arm above the elbow and left leg above the knee while serving in Iraq. He is now a model, athlete, and motivational speaker who is competing on the show. His body bears proof of his service to our country, and the trials he has had to overcome. One of my clergy colleagues shared that seeing him on the show brought up good conversation with her two children when they asked, “What’s wrong with that man?” She was able answer some tough questions and to explain to them what some people sacrifice and give up to keep people safe. You can’t help but be inspired by him, especially this particular dance.
We look at this man and know what he has given up. We don’t need proof of his service or the fact that he has overcome serious injury and was close to death, and now is able to inspire millions around the world. However, we also know that there are thousands of other men and women who have given up just as much, but do not bear scars such as his. We still honor them just the same.
But when we are fresh off of Easter, are we able to look at the Risen Christ and still ask for proof of his victory over death? Are we willing to deny the resurrection and continue to live lives that do not honor what Jesus has done for us? Or are we willing to be included in those who are blessed who have not seen and have yet believed? The resurrection is meant to change us. We are not meant to walk away unchanged. Like the disciples on those days after he is risen, we are to greet Jesus as he comes through the closed doors of our churches, our homes, and our hearts to the places where justice, peace, grace, healing, and love are needed the most. Like Thomas, we struggle to believe or understand, and we ask for proof. We doubt, we ask, we learn. But above all that, we are asked to deny or affirm the resurrection. What will it be? Which choice will you make?
May the Risen Christ be with you as we continue the journey together. Amen.