Without a Doubt – Sermon on John 20:19-31

It had been a crazy day. It started early in the morning, with all that confusion at the tomb, all that running back and forth. Now it was evening, and the disciples were huddled together again, just as they had been over the Sabbath. Only now, the room was filled with fear and confusion, instead of sadness and despair. Instead of asking “What shall we do now?” the disciples were asking, “Can it be true?” Somewhere in all the chaos, Hope tried to work its way into their minds, but most of the disciples were giving in to Fear. That’s why they had locked the door. They were afraid.

Some might have been afraid of Jesus himself. After all, if he was alive, as those undependable, weepy women kept insisting, he probably would have a thing or two to say about the way they had all abandoned him. Guilt and shame at their failure might have given some of the disciples a reason to fear rebuke from the teacher they had promised to follow, no matter what.

Some were afraid of the religious leaders, certainly. If Jesus’ body was gone, the high priest’s henchmen would be scrambling to find it. The first place they’d look would be here, among the Lord’s closest friends and followers. A few remembered Jesus telling them that he would be killed, but that he would rise on the third day. Didn’t it make sense that the religious leaders would figure one of them had taken the body, to make it look like Jesus had arisen? But, if that were true, who would have done such a thing? Probably someone who was not in the room when they’d locked the doors. A quick glance around the room found the disciples in their usual little groups … but … where was Thomas? Hmm…

Suddenly, all the whispers and the talking stopped. Someone gasped. A familiar voice was coming from the center of the room. Hear the Word of the Lord, from the 20th chapter of John’s gospel, beginning in verse 19, right where we left off last week…

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.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 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.”

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.” 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.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 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.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But 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.

I think Thomas gets a bum rap. He’s been nicknamed “Doubting Thomas” because he demanded to see the evidence with his own eyes, before he would believe that Jesus was really alive. We could joke about Thomas being from Missouri, the Show Me State, where seeing is believing and the proof is in the pudding. But in reality, Thomas is no more skeptical than the other disciples, whose hopes had been dashed by the crucifixion. He just happened to be late for dinner on that first night.

Earlier that morning, Mary Magdalene had repeatedly complained, “They’ve taken him away, and I don’t know where they’ve laid him.” She thought that Jesus was still dead, right up to the moment he said her name in the garden. And when Peter and the other disciple ran to the tomb, to see for themselves, they walked away scratching their heads. None of the eleven really believed that Jesus was alive, as far as scripture tells us. All of them were filled with doubt, even after Mary had come back to say, “I have seen the Lord.” So Jesus has to put in a personal appearance, to convince them all that he really is alive.

If you compare the two appearances in today’s passage, they are nearly the same. The door is locked. Jesus suddenly stands in the middle of the room and says, “Peace be with you.” Then he shows his hands and side to prove he is the same Jesus they saw die on the cross, but who now is very much alive. After the disciples respond to this good news, Jesus says a few more words. The stories are almost identical.

But not quite.

For one thing, at the first appearance, Jesus commissions his disciples to go out and share the good news, and he breathes on them as he says, “receive the Holy Spirit.” In Matthew’s gospel, the Great Commission happens moments before Jesus ascends into heaven, and in Luke’s version of the story, the disciples don’t receive the Holy Spirit until Pentecost, but John never was much for chronology. His story is less concerned with making the dates match up, and more concerned with getting the word out: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. Believe the Good News! And keep in mind that for John, believing is always a verb, never the noun “belief.” Believing is what John is very eager for us to do. And once we believe, it is a short leap to receive the Holy Spirit and be sent out to help others see, so they, too, may believe.

Jesus tells his disciples, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (20:23). John isn’t talking about sin as moral failure so much as refusing to believe in Jesus.

Theologian Elisabeth Johnson writes, “Jesus is not giving his disciples some special power to decide whose sins will be forgiven and whose will not. Rather, he is further specifying what it means to be sent, to make known the love of God that Jesus himself has made known. As people come to know and abide in Jesus, they will be “released” (aphiemi) from their sins. If, however, those sent by Jesus fail to bear witness, people will remain stuck in their unbelief; their sins will be “retained” or “held onto” (kratéo). The stakes of this mission are very high indeed.”

And because the stakes are high, Jesus has to make sure each disciple is convinced of the truth. All the disciples must see for themselves that Jesus has been raised from death to new life.

Seeing is believing throughout John’s gospel. “Come and see” weaves its way throughout the story John presents. We find it in the first chapter, when Jesus meets the first disciples who have been following John the Baptist, and they ask where he is staying. “Come and see,” he says (Jn 1:39). A few verses later, when Philip invites Nathaniel to meet Jesus, Nate asks, “Can any thing good come out of Nazareth?” and Philip says, “Come and see” (1:46). Then the Samaritan woman at the well runs to tell her neighbors, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” (4:29) and when Jesus arrives four days too late in Bethany, he asks Mary and Martha where they’ve buried Lazarus. “Come and see,” they tell him (11:34). In fact, we find some form of the word “see” more than twenty times throughout John’s gospel, and “seeing” means everything from physical sight to full understanding[1].

But Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to his friends. Thomas did not see Jesus. The disciples tell him later, just as Mary told them last week, “We have seen the Lord.” Thomas is skeptical, just as they had been, only moments before Jesus showed up.

So, a week later, Jesus goes through the whole appearing routine again, only this time, it’s for Thomas’ benefit. While the other disciples simply rejoiced when they recognized the risen Savior, Thomas offers a confession that is profound and personal: “MY Lord and MY God,” he cries out. Not just “the” Lord. Not just “Son of the Living God,” but MY Lord and MY God. In an instant, he moves from skepticism to trust. Thomas “sees.” All the disciples see.

Because Jesus keeps showing up. He repeatedly appears to those who need some visual proof he has risen. He doesn’t judge or criticize, he just keeps showing up until they get it. He offers shalom – not the familiar “fear not,” even though they are obviously afraid – but “peace be with you” three times, twice in the first visit and then again, just for Tom.

Remember last week’s question, “What keeps us from recognizing Jesus, when he’s standing right in front of us?” Is it fear? What are we afraid of? Are we afraid of Jesus himself, convinced that he would judge us for our unbelief if he stood in our midst? Are we afraid of the people outside the door, the ones who threaten our sense of safety whenever we try to talk about our faith? Those disciples who huddled in that locked room were afraid for their very lives. Unlocking the door and going out into the world to offer forgiveness of sins would have put them at great risk. Are we willing to take such a risk as that, to put our lives on the line for the sake of the Gospel?

On Thursday, Dr. Jerry Umanos was one of three people who were shot as they walked out of the CURE International Hospital in Kabul. Jerry was a pediatrician who worked six months of every year at the Lawndale Christian Health Center in Chicago’s inner city, so he could spend the other six months of each year treating children and training local doctors in Afghanistan.

In a televised statement, Dr. Umanos’ wife said, “Jerry always wanted to serve underserved populations. Afghanistan was just one of them. He always had a desire to be the hands and feet of Christ. He was always a light for Christ, and he had a love and commitment that he expressed for the Afghan people because of that love for Christ.” Jerry Umanos put his own life on the line for the sake of the gospel. You probably know stories of others who have done the same thing, risking everything in order to share the good news of Jesus Christ’s resurrection. These are people who dared to unlock the door and step out when they heard Jesus say to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” We need to unlock the door and go out into the scary world with the peace of Christ, so that all may believe and have eternal life.

Not only do we need to see the resurrected Christ, we need to realize that the world is looking to us to see him. How are we showing resurrection to a desperate world? How are we offering shalom instead of fear? Jesus sends us out, just as surely as he sent those cowering disciples. And we don’t have to go to Afghanistan to find people who need to see Jesus. Some of them are right here in front of us, just as surely as Jesus stood right in front of Mary and Thomas, urging them to believe.

This week, a young man came here looking for help that I could not give him. He needed a place to live. The most I could offer him was a night in the New Ulm Motel, but he needed more than that. The best the county could offer him was a trip to the homeless shelter up in St. Cloud. And his situation is not unique. The school counselor at Jefferson Elementary School will tell you that there are currently about nine students who are officially classified as homeless. There are many more who do not meet the official criteria, but who are functionally without a permanent home.

How are we helping them to see the resurrected Christ? How are we helping them to know the love of Jesus, to believe in him, so that they might have eternal life?

Can we let go of our own fear long enough to unlock the doors that keep us from reaching out in Jesus’ name? Can we dispense with our own doubt long enough to see where Christ is sending us to share good news?

The final verses of today’s passage give the purpose statement for John’s entire Gospel:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But 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.”

The disciples who had lived and walked with Jesus, the ones who had watched him die and be buried, they all needed some visible sign that he was really alive again. Jesus gave it to them, as often as they needed to see it, so that they might believe. But we should not feel left out, just because we weren’t in that room on Easter night.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus says to Thomas. That’s us. We are the ones for whom John wrote his book, so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing, we may have life in his name.

As we live that life in the name of Jesus, let us show others what we have come to see, that Jesus died for our sins, and he rose again to give us eternal life. Let us join Mary and the disciples in boldly saying, “We have seen the Lord,” as we proclaim “The Lord is risen, he is risen indeed!” Let us join with Thomas in naming Jesus as our Lord and our God, so that through our witness all may see him, all may know him, all may believe and have life in his name. Alleluia! Amen.

[1] Richard Dietrich, Feasting on the Word,Year A Vol. 2,  397.

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