Sermon: Thomas, the voice of Lingering Doubt
Key Sermon Text: John 20:19-31
Epistle: 1 Peter 1:3-9
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And 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 withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, 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 in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, 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; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, 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 believed.”
Well, Easter is over. And I’m going to miss the special music, the palms, the lilies, the wonder of Sunrise on Resurrection morning, the family gathering, the dinner we only have once a year, the ham, the corn pudding. Even the asparagus somehow tasted better, the flavor more vivid, our grandson’s laughter more engaging, the family discussion more meaningful. As the Jews say of Passover, “What makes this night different from all other nights?” And yet it seems best not to examine it all too closely for fear it will lose its wonder.
When we dissect any recent event in our lives, especially the mountain top moments where we felt something really life-changing had happened, most of us are left a little deflated actually. That’s normal. It is the process of going from “Oh Wow!” to feeling a little embarrassed that you had such a huge reaction. And it is a rare and profound event indeed where, years later, we are able to put ourselves back in the moment and remember the feelings we had; the way the event struck our senses, or what we felt in the moment we would take away from the moment.
I got an email late yesterday afternoon from my sister Sally, who is an inveterate Anglophile, and who has taken her spring vacation this year to London to coincide with the wedding of William Arthur Philip Louis to Catherine Elizabeth Middleton, the prince marrying the commoner and, making her his princess, the Cinderella story come true. Sally wrote,
“What a day this has been! I got up at 6:00 and left for St. James’ Park and the Mall at 6:45. I found a place right across from Clarence House on the Mall, right behind the people who had camped out all night. I was about 4 people back in the crowd. I saw everything! (I saw) the Queen, William and Catherine, the little kids in their attendants outfits, Prince Harry, the Middletons, Charles and Camilla - everyone. I saw the flyover by the two air squadrons. It was incredibly impressive. Where I was located for the majority of the time I was right near a wonderful speaker tower - so we all heard the service from the Abbey. The crowd was incredibly respectful. The entire crowd sang 'Jerusalem,' the unofficial British National Anthem, at the top of their lungs! I just had fish and chips for dinner. The streets are still full, and the atmosphere is that of one huge street party.”
I can almost hear the crowd singing the immortal words of the poet William Blake,
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green & pleasant Land.
Doubtless my sister will recount that moment again and again over the next few days as she milks the last drop of excitement from those hours and as she tries in vain to help the rest of us poor souls, who weren’t standing in front of Charles and Camilla’s house on the Mall yesterday morning, understand a little of the thrill she had at watching the whole of British Monarchy pass by in regalia.
And even after all the retelling, it is simply human nature not to be able to sustain enthusiasm over time. This process is what takes people like Jesus’ disciples from saying, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us?” after meeting Jesus on Resurrection Day afternoon to “Did our hearts really burn within us?” only a few hours later.
One of the disciples especially has gotten singled out in history as being the Voice of this kind of Lingering Doubt. Thomas is generally seen as the Missourian in the group; the kind of person you just hate to have on any team because they’re always taking the scientific approach and saying, “Show me,” as if the motto should be on a sign over their desk. Next to Judas, most Christians would probably nominate “Doubting Thomas” as the most likely candidate among the disciples not to be one of the five people you meet in heaven. How can a person who is a chronic doubter be saved?
There is a period of fifty days in the Jewish calendar between the Feast of the Passover and the Day of Pentecost. For forty of those days, from the Day of Resurrection to his Ascension into heaven, Jesus appeared in flesh-and-blood bodily form to his disciples and to other people on numerous occasions. As Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15, “he appeared to Cephas (that is, Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.”
Somehow we imagine that Thomas went through the whole of the Resurrection experience, stood there on the hill when Jesus ascended into heaven, was present for Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, and personally saw first 3000 and then 5000 people come to Christ at the same time and that his reaction each time was, “Go ahead… impress me.”
The problem is, that simply isn’t true to what we know of Thomas. Theologians, in trying to nit-pick the very worst possible connotations out of Thomas have said there is something there when the list of the Apostles’ names pairs Thomas with Matthew, the tax collector, as if these two guys definitely had something greater to live down than the normal levels of sin the rest of us have to deal with. Did I miss something, or didn’t Jesus party with tax collectors and sinners? Oh well, you know in a couple of days the tabloids are going to start ripping Princess Catherine to shreds. Why not tear apart Thomas and Matthew?
What we really know about Thomas comes from two earlier statements he makes, recounted for us in John’s gospel. In John 11 when Jesus tells the disciples their friend Lazarus has died, Thomas immediately says to the other disciples, ““Let us also go, that we may die with him.” There’s no lingering doubt there. Perhaps absurdity, but not doubt. In John 14, when Jesus tells them that he is going away to prepare a place for them, Thomas wants to know which road to take so they can follow after he is gone.
Thomas’ moments are not, “Oh wow” moments. They are “Huh?” moments.
Thomas is not so much a skeptic as he is clueless. He really doesn’t get what has happened to Lazarus. He also doesn’t get where Jesus is going. What did happen to him on Resurrection Day that backed him into the particularly embarrassing corner of history where we find him?
There are three things we can discover from the text in John 20 about the Voice of Lingering Doubt. Because we have the witness of Thomas so baldly portrayed for us, we know The Effects of Lingering Doubt, we know the Causes of Lingering Doubt, and we know the Losses of Lingering Doubt.
The Effects of Lingering Doubt
When Jesus appeared to his disciples in the upper room, the first thing he said to them was “Peace be with you.” This is more than Jesus just saying “hi!” The Hebrew word, “Shalom” is both a greeting and a blessing. And while it does translate roughly into English as “peace”, the gospel account is in greek originally, and the word favors the blessing, not the greeting. That’s why our English translators put it this way. Jesus is setting the bar for the whole experience of the early church. Nearly all of the letters of Paul begin with some version of the words, “Grace to you and peace from God the Father.”
Peace. Peace in all its meanings is our chief inheritance from Jesus. In Christ we have peace with God. We have peace in our hearts. We are called to relationships of peace among ourselves and in the world.
Lingering Doubt blocks peace. There’s nothing more un-peaceful than that unsettled feeling that tells you things are will never do.
Lingering Doubt also blocks joy. The text says that after Jesus showed the disciples his wounds, they rejoiced at seeing him. At that moment, the Ten were sure it was he. As long as you have that lingering doubt you’ll never really rejoice in the Lord. You’ll always wonder as your hands are raised in praise whether what you are doing is just a fake.
Jesus reiterates his greeting after showing them his wounds. But this time he says, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”
Lingering Doubt blocks sending. Jesus cannot send those who doubt that they have really encountered him. You’ll never tell someone about an experience you’re not sure you’ve had. You can’t and you won’t tell anyone about a life-changing person who really hasn’t changed your life personally.
Lingering Doubt also blocks the Holy Spirit. Once everything was settled and the ten disciples who were there knew that it was Jesus and knew that he was about to send them out, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Jesus didn’t give them a run-down on what the ministry of the Holy Spirit is or even how to recognize his work when they saw it. But they knew that’s what happened to them because they had no lingering doubt in their hearts about Jesus. You cannot know the power of the Holy Spirit in your life until you know Christ.
Finally, Lingering Doubt blocks forgiveness. Now, let’s not get all caught up in whether you’ve been granted the power to literally forgive the sins of others. That’s for evangelical scholars to parse out along with whether angels can dance on the head of a pin. Those who doubt Christ live unforgiven, and often unforgiving lives. That’s what we need to know. The rest is theological window dressing.
Those are the effects of Lingering Doubt. The ten disciples who were in the Upper Room that evening had something Thomas did not have. They had Peace. They had joy. They knew Jesus was sending them out to complete the work he had begun. They now had the Holy Spirit, and they knew they were forgiven.
The Causes of Lingering Doubt
But we still don’t know what caused Thomas his lingering doubt. There are four causes demonstrated to us here in John 20. The first is so obvious you could trip over it: Thomas simply wasn’t there with the other ten when Jesus appeared at first. So naturally, he doubted. We don’t know where he was or why he hadn’t yet shown up. That really doesn’t matter to John and we shouldn’t sit around trying to figure out Thomas’ motive for not coming. But Not being with Jesus was the primary reason for Thomas’ lingering doubt just as not being with Jesus, not spending time with Jesus, is for you and me.
Thomas also received Second-hand information. Just hearing about the Resurrection is nothing compared with seeing the Resurrected Christ, just as being told about the Royal Wedding is nothing like being there. That’s why an estimated 2 Billion people tuned in to see it yesterday. And if you don’t think it is possible for “every eye” on earth to see the return of Jesus when he comes in glory, realize that yesterday’s event was nothing more than a wedding, and by all accounts, one third of all the people on the planet saw it. Being told “we have seen the Lord” and actually seeing him are two completely different things.
A practical mind is also a cause of Lingering Doubt. I have known many people who had that initial “Oh wow” moment with Jesus who later talked them selves right out of believing because they used what they called “common sense.” While common sense makes Thomas’ statement that he wants to see and touch Jesus’ wounds seem reasonable, it also makes true faith impossible. The gospel isn’t about exercising common sense. It is very much about believing what you haven’t seen.
There is also a possibility that Thomas really did have a history of having A Double-minded Nature, and that is why he comes off as kind of clueless earlier in John’s gospel. There’s an intriguing word play to be done with Thomas’ nickname. Jesus gave many of the disciples nicknames. Simon he called “Peter,” James and John were “sons of Thunder,” and Thomas ended up being called “didymus,” which means “twin”. James tells us that a double-minded man – someone who doubts -- is like a wave of the sea, tossed about by every wind. Double-minded, in the Greek language of the New Testament is “di-psychos”. “Di-psychos.” “Di-dymus.” Double-Minded. Twin. Could it be his nickname was a piece of good-natured ribbing on the part of Jesus, and that Thomas was always “wavering” back and forth in his thinking?
The Losses of Lingering Doubt
But before we write Thomas off in the history books simply because he doubted, we need to ask ourselves exactly what he lost because of his Lingering Doubt. It is very important that we understand what the Losses of Lingering Doubt are and what they are not.
First, Thomas missed out on some very precious Time with Jesus. As we already saw, Thomas wasn’t there on Resurrection Evening, and it wasn’t until a week later when Jesus appeared to the assembled disciples in the upper room again. Thomas missed out on exactly 8 days of the 40 in which Jesus was alive again after the Resurrection. But he didn’t miss out on the whole thing, nor is there any mention later on of Thomas’ absence that first week. You may believe you have missed out on so much time you could have spent with Jesus in your life because of wavering, Lingering Doubt. But don’t believe the lie that therefore it is too late and you are somehow disqualified from a life of discipleship. Don’t let past wavering keep you from coming to him today. You have not missed it all.
Perhaps a more important loss Thomas had to grapple with has to do with a missed opportunity. Like I said, we don’t know why Thomas wasn’t there that first night, but his Lingering Doubt robbed him of a special Blessing from Jesus. You see, because he wasn’t there, Thomas could have been the only one of the 11 remaining disciples to believe without the physical proof. When Jesus appeared to the Ten on Resurrection Night, he immediately showed them his hands and side. It wasn’t just Thomas who needed to see before he believed. All of them did. But it could have been Thomas alone who believed even though he hadn’t seen. He alone missed out on that particular blessing.
You and I have been granted the same opportunity that was given to Thomas. The question is, what will you do with it? That’s what Peter was telling us in the Epistle reading this morning: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” “Blessed are those,” Jesus said, “who have not seen, and yet believe.”
Jesus’ invitation to Thomas also gives us a word for the ultimate loss of Lingering Doubt, which fortunately, Thomas does not end up experiencing. The word is “Disbelief.” The unbeliever is not without faith. But it is a faith of a different quality. It is unfaith. Rather like looking at the negative of a picture, someone who disbelieves forever sees the world backward and has no way of correcting their vision. Jesus beckons to Thomas, “Come. Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side.” He won’t beg you. But he will invite you, just as he will invite you to The Table in just a moment. Come. Touch. Know. Have peace. Rejoice. Go out and be sent. Receive the Holy Spirit.
In the end, Thomas’ confession is very like Peters (Mark 8:29; Matthew 16:16) Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”
Thomas said, “My Lord and my God!”
A person who doubts, who wavers back and forth, has not settled who is in charge of him or who is God. But note that doubt is not damnation. It is not unfaith or disbelief to waver. It is what it is. It is double-mindedness. Nor did Thomas miss out on salvation. His loss was not permanent. Nor does yours need to be. As we come to The Table this morning stop for a moment and settle, or settle again if you need to what the Voice of Lingering Doubt has been whispering in your ear. That voice has been saying it is not all as amazing as you first believed it was. That voice has been saying Jesus is not alive, that he does not change lives today.
Come. Touch. Know. Have peace. Rejoice. Go out and be sent. Receive the Holy Spirit.