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The Rector’s sermon for April 8, 2018    


                                                                                                                    

Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1—2:2; John 20:19-31



 

For some Christians, believing everything you’re expected to believe, is easy.  I remember growing up in parochial schools and we didn’t question anything.  We weren’t allowed to question anything.  The existence of God, Jonah and a big fish, water into wine?  Oh course we believed.  And Jesus’ resurrection from the dead? Just one more thing we were taught to believe.  And we did believe it—all of it!

           

But for some believing all the things we’re told we should believe is difficult.  For some it’s a struggle to deny doubt yet keep on saying “I believe.”  How do you keep on believing that the universe was created in six days after you’ve taken a class dealing with earth history or astronomy? Truth be known, a day for God and a day for us are surely different, but that’s a subject for another day.

 

Today we consider a saint who was himself a doubter.  His name is Thomas.  He was one of the chosen twelve, one who walked with Jesus for three years, who heard all of his promises and predictions.  Yet when the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord,” his answer was, “No way! I’ll believe it when I see it.” Actually, Thomas has gotten a bad rap because of this story.  For all time, he’s labeled “Doubting Thomas” because of that statement.  And the story itself leads the reader to believe that all the rest believed and he was the only one who didn’t.  But in reality, the other disciples had locked the doors because they were afraid, even though Mary Magdalene had told them, “I have seen the Lord.”  To the two on the way to Emmaus who had heard reports about the empty tomb, Jesus said, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!”  And at the end of Matthew’s gospel, when the risen Christ appeared to the eleven, we’re told that “some doubted.”  So what do we learn for all this?   Thomas is not unique!  He’s just a representative of all those who doubted.

           

Thomas wasn’t ignorant. He knew what he was asked to believe: that Jesus had risen from the dead. He just didn’t think that was true.  That’s how the difference between Christians and non-Christians is often seen: Christians think that certain things, like Jesus’ resurrection, are true, and non-believers don’t.  And if that had been the case with Thomas, he wouldn’t have reacted to Jesus’ appearance quite the way we read in our gospel. If it were simply a matter of being convinced of the truth of a claim, Thomas might have said, “Wow, you guys were right.  Jesus really is risen from the dead!”  He would have had a new piece of information—surprising, maybe even exciting information—but simply a new fact.  But that’s not how Thomas reacts.  Without even stopping to accept Jesus’ offer to verify his wounds, he cries out, “My Lord and my God!”  That statement includes the truth that Jesus is risen, but it says a lot more.  Jesus’ resurrection is more than just an amazing “believe it or not” fact.

 

After they got over their initial surprise, Mary Magdalene and the other disciples were glad when they knew that Jesus was alive. Their friend and teacher, the one they thought might be the Messiah of Israel, was back with them. It was a great miracle. They believed that Jesus really was “the one” whom God had sent.  But as far as we can tell, they didn’t realize that he had not simply returned to ordinary earthly life… but had overcome death, something possible only for God.  Thomas sees that, as Paul would later write, “Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.”

           

As we have this story in John’s gospel, the statement “My Lord and my God” identifies Jesus with the God of Israel, the one whom Jews referred to as “the LORD” to avoid uttering the divine name which they were forbidden to do.  It brings us back to the very beginning of the gospel, when we were told of the Word who “was God,” “was in the beginning with God” and “became flesh and lived among us.”

Don’t think that the apostle Thomas, on that evening a week after the first Easter, had fully worked out doctrines of the divinity of Christ and the Trinity.  It took something like three centuries for Christians to figure that out… how Christ, the Father and the Spirit could all be one God.  But we can see the root of that idea in this simple, but magnificent confession of one who believed in the God of Israel…the one we call “doubting Thomas.”  And what Thomas is saying goes deeper than a doctrinal statement.  You can find a discussion of the dogma of the Trinity, or that Jesus is fully divine and fully human, in a theology book. You could learn those things without even believing them to be true, just as you can with details about all other ancient religions.  And even if a person believes that Jesus really is one of the three persons of the Holy Trinity, that could be considered just an interesting and puzzling fact, like some aspect of any other scientific theory.  Thomas’ statement, “My Lord and my God,” goes much deeper, and forces us to think about our own beliefs.  Who is your God?

 

When the LORD in the First Commandment says, “You shall have no other gods before me,” what does it mean to “have a god”?  Explaining the commandment, Martin Luther answered that question this way: “To have a God means properly to have something in which the heart trusts completely.”  People can and do put their deepest trust in many things—wealth, knowledge, family connections, their country or ethnic background and so on. Those are false gods, idols.  What the commandment says is that we are to trust completely in the LORD who brought Israel out of Egypt.  Thomas’ statement was an amazing confession—surely coming from the Holy Spirit— that somehow Jesus Christ was one with that Old Testament LORD.

           

The Christian message that we are justified, put right with God, by faith, for Christ’s sake, doesn’t mean that a person is saved simply by believing correct doctrines….let me say that again:  The Christian message that we are justified, put right with God, by faith, for Christ’s sake, doesn’t mean that a person is saved simply by believing correct doctrines.   Knowing who Jesus is and what he did is, of course, important.  But it is trust in the God who has been revealed in Jesus Christ that is essential!  Thomas doesn’t just believe some things about Jesus; he believes in Jesus. Here’s the difference:

           

Suppose you’ve been having some health problems and your doctor, having had some tests done, refers you to a surgeon. He tells you that he’s very good.  So you go to the surgeon’s office, and while you’re waiting, you look at the certificates on the wall:  a diploma from a famous medical school, a certification in several specialties alongside other honors, properly framed and hung on the wall. You’re convinced that he’s a good surgeon.  Then you go in to see him. He tells you that your condition is probably critical, and that you’ll need surgery right away. “This is a difficult operation,” he says, “and there is some risk.  I’ve had a lot of experience with this procedure, and I’m confident that we can get you through this.”  Would you put your life in his hands?

           

When Thomas saw the risen Lord, he knew that he could put his life in Jesus’ hands. He could trust in Jesus … in life… and in death.

           

That doesn’t mean that all Thomas’s doubts were gone forever.  And it certainly doesn’t mean that in our modern world we will be free of all doubts about the claims of Christianity. We are only human.  We should face our doubts honestly and consult the resources of the Christian tradition in thinking them through.  But the basic question isn’t whether or not we have any intellectual doubts.  The question is about what our hearts trust in completely.  And if your answer, in spite of doubts, is “Jesus, my Lord and my God,” you get it!  He is Lord; he is risen from the dead, and he is Lord. Every knee shall bow, every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord!



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