April 28, 2019, Dare to Be a Thomas (John 20:19-31) – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000133
Today, this second Sunday of Easter, is traditionally called Thomas Sunday, because we read this account of Thomas, who needed proof before he would believe the wild stories of his friends that they had seen Jesus alive. And traditionally we focus on his doubt – Thomas has become “Doubting Thomas” for all the ages. But if we read closely, the story of Thomas has much more to say about faith than it does about doubt. In fact, the Greek word for faith occurs seven times in seven verses. And strangely enough, the Greek word for doubt isn’t in there even once.
The English word faith wasn’t in the gospel reading we just read, either, because the translator chose to use the word belief instead. The Greek word can be translated faith, or belief, or trust. And in English each of those words means something slightly different. And here’s where this is a very important point to notice – not just interesting for English-major people like me who get excited about word facts that other people find boring – but really important for our day-to-day life as Christians. So bear with me. Because when John used this word, he meant something bigger than we might realize – something that encompasses the whole range of faith and belief and trust.
We believe with our minds. Belief is about ideas and facts and truth. I believe you if I am sure that what you say is true. I don’t believe you if I think you are lying, or just mistaken.
We have faith in our hearts. Faith is about character and dependability. I have faith in you if I am sure you will keep your promises, that you will do what is right, that you won’t let me down.
And we trust with our will. Trust is about acting on our belief and our faith. Because what you say is true, and because what you do and are is right and good, I choose to take a risk on you.
And the Greek word that John uses here means all of those things, altogether. In verse 27, after Jesus has shown Thomas the scars in his hands and the wound in his side, he urges him, “Don’t disbelieve, but believe.” Jesus is asking Thomas to believe the witness of his own senses, his eyes and hands, to trust that it is in truth the living Christ standing there in front of him. And he is also asking Thomas to have faith in the person he knows. Thomas had a long, close relationship with Jesus, as his teacher, and his friend, and his leader. “You know me Thomas. Have faith in me.” But even more, Jesus was definitely there in that room to ask Thomas, and the other disciples, to make a commitment, to take a risk. They weren’t just being informed, they were being called. And all of that belief, all of that faith, all of that trust, is summed up in Thomas’s answer to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”
And then Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you believed, have you come to faith, have you put your trust in me, because I am standing here in front of you? Blessed are all those who have not seen, and yet have believed.” Here, Jesus turns from talking about Thomas to talking about you, about us, about all the generations of his people who would come to faith. We don’t have the witness of our senses to see and touch Jesus in the flesh. Have you ever wished you could have been there when Jesus was still here, to see and hear and touch him, to talk to him face to face? But just like Thomas, Jesus hasn’t left us without a witness. And that’s why, in verse 31, John says he wrote all these things down for us. “I wrote these things so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in his name.”
We have the witness of John, the disciple Jesus loved, and we have the witness of Matthew, who also walked and talked and ate with Jesus. We have the witness of Mark, who sat at the feet of Peter, Jesus’ right hand man. We have the witness of Luke, who traveled with Paul and wrote down the memories of all the eye-witnesses to the life of Jesus that he could find. And we have the witness of the prophets, like Isaiah, who foresaw the coming of Christ centuries before his birth, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
But we don’t only have the witness of words and facts about Jesus. We also have the inner witness of his Spirit. Jesus promised, on the night before he died, “The Father will send the Holy Spirit, the Helper, in my name. He will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said.” The still, small voice of the Holy Spirit is an active presence in our lives when we take care to listen, teaching us, guiding us, correcting us, inspiring us. That’s why Paul can say what seems kind of unbelievable – “We have the mind of Christ.”
But we have something else as well – we have the witness of the community of Christ, the Church. We remember often, as a small Church, that Jesus promised us he would be with us whenever two or more gathered in his name. We see him in one another. And more, we incarnate Christ when we gather together around his table. And in the bread and the wine we have the witness of our senses, as we taste and touch his Presence among us.
Like the writer to the Hebrews says, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. We can believe the truth of what they write and speak to us. And we can have faith in the person of Jesus Christ as he reveals himself through all these witnesses, in all his goodness and humility and mercy and holiness. But there is one more step, if our faith is to be whole and complete.
Imagine that you are an engineer, standing in front of a brand new footbridge that crosses a wide ravine over a rushing river. You have read the plans for this bridge, and since you’re an engineer, you can actually understand them. And you believe that the construction is sound and that the materials that were used were good quality. And more, you know the people who worked on the bridge. You have faith in their abilities to do the construction, and also you have faith in their integrity, that they will have done their work with great care. The one more step is exactly that – a step. You know in your head that the bridge is safe. You feel in your heart that the construction is sound. But when you take your first step onto that bridge, when you take that risk, that is the fulness of faith.
That is what Thomas did on the eighth day after the first Easter Sunday so long ago. He believed the witness of his eyes and his hands. He had faith in the man he knew and loved. And then he took the step of faith. Remember the Centurion at the crucifixion, who saw the way Jesus died, and said, “Truly this man was the Son of God?” The Centurion, the Roman soldier who had been actively involved in putting Jesus to death, recognized the truth of who he was in the end. And that is huge. But Thomas went one step further. He didn’t just say, “You are the Lord, you are the Son of God.” He said, “My Lord and my God.” This man we think of as doubting Thomas was really Thomas the man of faith.
The fullness of faith doesn’t require that we stand on street corners and preach, or offer ourselves as martyrs, or go off to become missionaries in Africa, or rattle off eloquent prayers at the drop of a hat, or any of those things we might think a person of great faith is supposed to do. Remember Jesus told his disciples, when they asked him to increase their faith, that all that was needed was faith the size of a mustard seed. Full faith just means taking that one step, taking the risk, and like Thomas, going from believing in God to saying, “My Lord and my God.”