Scripture readings: Acts 4:32-35; Ps. 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31 Sermon by Martin Manuel (from John 20:19-31)
A Fantastic Story
Perhaps you like fantastic stories—ones about UFO sightings, strange events in the Bermuda Triangle, the lost city of Atlantis, or the Loch Ness Monster. The word fantastic has a dual meaning in our culture. It can mean something that is made up and thus not to be taken seriously. It can also mean something that is exceptionally good.
Today, on the second Sunday of Easter, our gospel reading takes us to the story of the disciple Thomas’ encounter with the risen Lord Jesus. To Thomas, the story of Jesus’ resurrection told by his fellow disciples was fantastic in the sense of being unbelievable, too good to be true. In an increasingly skeptical world, Jesus’ resurrection is often viewed as even more fantastic than it seemed to Thomas.
Our Scripture readings today paint a different picture. They tell of a Christ-centered spiritual family, embracing together the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. In Acts 4:32-35 we read of that family sharing life together, and of the apostles proclaiming the story of Jesus and his resurrection to the world. In Psalm 133: 1-3 we read of the blessing of family unity and togetherness, and in 1 John 1:1-2:2 we read of the apostles’ witness to Jesus and of the reality of Christ. The people in these readings share a common belief in a story that outsiders tend to view as being fantastic. Today’s sermon from John 20:19-32 is about that story and its effect on one apostle in particular who begins doubting and ends up believing and worshipping.
Jesus’ astonishing appearance
The story begins in the evening, as the Sunday on which Jesus was resurrected drew to a close:
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. (John 20:19-20)
You will recall that Jesus’ tomb had been found empty early that day, and reports of his appearances had circulated among his disciples, who now were assembled in the Upper Room where they had met with Jesus on Thursday night for the Last Supper. Since Jesus’ arrest late Thursday night and his crucifixion on Friday, they had lived with the fear that the enemies of Jesus might come after them. Now, as they were cowering in fear in the Upper Room, Jesus appears.
Have you ever been startled by someone suddenly, unexpectedly, appearing close by? The surge of adrenaline can cause sweaty palms, goose-bumps, and even hair standing on end. The sudden appearance of Jesus in the midst of these already nervous disciples might have drawn such a reaction.
Jesus acted quickly to calm them with his greeting, “Peace be with you.” Just a few days earlier, these “friends” had abandoned him; one even denied him. Yet, the first thing Jesus said to them was full of grace and forgiveness. His next actions—the showing of the crucifixion wounds— would have reassured them that the person talking to them truly was Jesus. Instantly, they flipped from shock to joy!
Words are inadequate to describe this experience. Imagine someone you believed was dead, now standing before you alive! Consider the agonizing death of a loved one, now reversed into life! Visualize your joy when a devastating loss turns into an indescribable victory! All of these thoughts, feelings, and more were overwhelming the disciples at this moment. With emotions filling the room, Jesus spoke profoundly:
“Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:21-23)
The repetition of “peace” was deliberate for emphasis. With it he quelled any uncertainties about his attitude toward them. He relieved them about their standing with God, despite the failures and fears of the previous few days. How gracious is our God! In the person of Jesus, he stood among them with a loving, patient and friendly tone. Then, he got to the point: they were to go on mission, just as the Father had sent Jesus on mission. Jesus had sent them out on mission temporarily before, but this time was different. They were now going on mission with the help of the indwelling Spirit.
Jesus had spoken to them about the Holy Spirit a few nights earlier at the Last Supper. He said,
I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. (John 14:16-17)
The Spirit of Truth, the Advocate, who would be with them and in them forever, would provide the guidance and power they would need to fulfill the mission on which they now were being sent. In breathing on them, Jesus demonstrated that he was a flesh and blood, breathing human. At the same time, his breathing was symbolic—acting out what would be fulfilled almost 50 days later on the day of Pentecost, when the sound of a rushing wind would accompany them being filled with the Holy Spirit.
Jewish words and thought depicted the Holy Spirit as the breath of God, which imparted life to Adam and prophetically to the dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision. As recorded in John 14 and 17, Jesus had explained that the Spirit would come forth from the Father and be sent by Jesus.
What did Jesus mean by his statement concerning the forgiveness of sins? Referring to Jesus, Paul wrote this: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (Eph. 1:7, ESV). Paul was not contradicting Jesus’ words to his disciples. Jesus himself had said to his critics, “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:10). Clearly, forgiveness of sins is through Jesus. Neither the apostles nor anyone since has been given that role. However, through the gospel, forgiveness of sin is proclaimed. Note what it says in Acts 13:
Let it be known to you therefore, my brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. (Acts 13:38-39)
The mission on which the disciples were being sent involved proclaiming the gospel, which means proclaiming the forgiveness of sin in and through Jesus. If the message is not delivered or not received, the forgiveness is not experienced and thus has no power in the person’s life. Paul reiterates this in Romans 10:
How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? (Rom. 10:14-15, NRSV)
Thus we see the vital role of the proclamation and reception of the gospel.
The missing Thomas
For unexplained reasons, Thomas was absent when Jesus appeared to the disciples. Jesus knew he was absent, and remembered that Thomas, upon learning that Jesus was returning to dangerous Jerusalem, had pessimistically stated, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16). John’s account continues:
Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:24-25)
Jesus’ appearance to the other disciples was dramatic, and he showed them the same evidence that Thomas demanded. Thomas knew that an unexplained apparition could deceive people into believing that they saw something else. But he took what might have been healthy skepticism all the way to cynicism, dismissing the testimony of his closest friends. As a result he was given the nickname Doubting Thomas.
Jesus confronts Thomas’ doubts
We now fast forward a week:
A week later [Jesus’] disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” (John 20:26)
Jesus then addresses Thomas directly:
“Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.” (John 20:27, NASB).
Thomas must have felt like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Jesus gave him the evidence he demanded, taking away Thomas’ reasons to disbelieve. In doing so, Jesus rebuked Thomas for being overly skeptical and illogical as Archibald Robertson explains in Word Pictures of the New Testament:
The doubt of Thomas in the face of the witness of the others was not a proof of his superior intelligence. Sceptics usually pose as persons of unusual mentality. The medium who won Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to spiritualism has confessed that it was all humbug, but he deceived the gullible novelist. But Thomas had carried his incredulity too far. Note the play on ἀπιστος [apistos] (unbelieving) and πιστος [pistos] (believing).
How could Thomas have been disbelieving in the company of friends who believed? More importantly, how could he persist in being clueless about Jesus? You would think that all Jesus had said and done should have prompted at least a “hmm” from him. Whatever the case in the past, Jesus’ words and actions now broke through to Thomas who voiced his now-famous acclamation of faith:
“My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)
Not only did Thomas snap out of doubt and acute skepticism, his revitalized belief moved him to worship! Thomas’ dramatic turnabout shows the transformational effect of Jesus’ resurrection. Thomas had been with Jesus for three years and witnessed the power of God in all Jesus did, but all that he witnessed and experienced did not compare to seeing Jesus, who Thomas knew had been dead, standing alive before him—wounds and all. Jesus’ appearance after his resurrection so convinced Thomas of Jesus’ divinity that he worshipped him on the spot!
So that you may believe
Thomas was chosen by Jesus to be an apostle—a witness of Jesus’ resurrection. But what about the rest of us? Do we need to see Jesus and feel his wounds to believe that he is the risen Lord? Of course not! Don’t we believe all kinds of things without seeing evidence first-hand? The earth is round; the sun is 93 million miles away; the oceans are thousands of feet deep. Do we need to personally witness these facts to believe them?
Most people believe such facts because they believe in the credibility of those who told or taught them. God our Creator graciously granted humanity the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection through 12, rather ordinary, witnesses. History tells us that these ordinary men gave their lives insisting that their witness was true. Theirs is not the only evidence; others also saw Jesus alive after his resurrection from the dead. Why wouldn’t these witnesses be believed?
Evidence notwithstanding, notice what Jesus said about all who believe him without seeing first-hand evidence?
Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. (John 20:29)
For Thomas, the saying “seeing is believing” described the way he approached faith in Jesus. But as the author of Hebrews notes, real faith is believing what is not immediately visible: “Faith is… assurance about what we do not see” (Heb. 11:1). Jesus pronounced a blessing on those who believe without seeing (or touching) the evidence of the resurrection in the way Thomas did. What does that blessing entail? Peter answers:
Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Pet. 1:8)
A blessing is a gracious outpouring of good from God. The recipients of this blessing are able to love Jesus, though they have not seen him. Their grace-endowed faith and love results in exuberant joy that expresses confidence in the salvation they have been granted. This is the blessing upon all who love Jesus and trust in him for their salvation.
Here is how John concludes the story of doubting Thomas, who became believing Thomas:
Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31)
All around us is a world that views the claims of Christianity with skepticism, even hostility. They defend their skepticism as being logical and scientific. But Thomas’ story reminds us that there is hope for skeptics. Just as Jesus confronted doubting Thomas in love, so too will Jesus confront a doubting, skeptical world. In fact, he is doing so all the time, and the evidence he presents involves us—the faith-filled testimony of our lives and words.
For all who love and trust in Jesus, the fantastic, yet true promise of eternal life awaits—life in communion with our triune God in the fulness of God’s kingdom—a life filled with love, joy and peace. And so we pray, come Lord Jesus. Amen.