Sunday 27 April 2014 – Doubting and believing Thomas

Text: John 20:19‑31

Sermon

Children aren’t afraid to ask questions or even to express some doubts.

David Heller in his little book, DEAR GOD: CHILDREN’S LETTERS TO GOD, has some questions children have asked…

 Dear God, What do you think about all those movies made about you around Easter time? I think they’re kind of corny, myself. Your buddy, Charles (age 9)

 Dear God, When Jonah was in the whale, was it a he whale or a she whale? Mike (age 7)

 Dear God, What do you do with families that don’t have much faith? There’s a family on the next block like that. I don’t want to get them in trouble, so I can’t so who. See you in church, Alexis (age 10)

 Dear God, When I grow up will I have to fight in the army? Will there be a war? I’m not chicken or anything. I just want to know in advance. Terry (age 10)

 Dear God, I have doubts about you sometimes. Sometimes I really believe. Like when I was four and I hurt my arm and you healed it up fast. But my question is ‑ if you could do this why don’t you stop all the bad in the world? Like war. Like diseases. Like famine. Like drugs. And there are problems in other people’s neighborhoods too. I’ll try to believe more, Ian (age 10)

 Dear God, Want to hear a joke? What is red, very long, and you hear it right before you go to sleep? Give up? A sermon. Your friend, Frank (age 11)

Today’s Gospel reading  is about a man who was like a child when it came to questions. If he had one, he asked it. If he had a doubt, he expressed it. His name was Thomas. Most of us know him as “Thomas ‑ the Doubter” or “Doubting Thomas.”

I want us to take a little closer look at Thomas, for I think he’s not always been treated fairly. In fact, I think we who live in an age that questions everything can learn something from Thomas about how to handle our questions and doubts. And we have them. It’s not always easy for us to believe. We are more like Thomas than we know or care to admit. And I suggest to you that that’s not so bad. For if we can use our doubts and questions like Thomas did ‑ to help strengthen our faith ‑ then we will be better disciples of Jesus Christ.

If we had only the first three Gospels, the only thing we would know about Thomas is his name ‑ for that’s all they tell us.  Thomas is often paired with Matthew as one of the twelve disciples Jesus chose. “Thomas” is the Hebrew word for “twin.” He is also called “Didymus,” which is the Greek word for “twin.” Obviously Thomas had a twin brother or sister who is never named. (One tradition says his twin was Lydia of Philippi, the seller of purple cloth who was converted by Paul).

So we have to look at the Gospel of John to get real insights into just who Thomas was.

Turn with me to John 11. This is the first time Thomas is mentioned and we get some real insight into the kind of person he was.

This is the story of the raising of Lazarus. Mary and Martha had sent Jesus word that their brother Lazarus was close to death. They lived in the small village of Bethany very close to Jerusalem. Look at verse 7. Jesus tells his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”

Look at what the disciples think of this idea in verse 8. “Teacher,” the disciples answered, “just a short time ago the people there wanted to stone you and are you planning to go back?” (We can read about these stoning attempts in chapter 8 and 10 of John).

They thought he was crazy to even consider going back there. Perhaps they were on the verge of deserting Jesus. But then Thomas speaks out in verse 16:

Thomas (called the Twin) said to his fellow disciples, “Let us go along with the Teacher, so that we may die  with him!”

Thomas rallied the wavering disciples here, convincing them to go with Jesus to Jerusalem.

Whatever else we may say about Thomas, he was not a coward. He was willing to go with Jesus to Jerusalem knowing full well that it just might cost him his own life. Thomas loved Jesus and was ferociously loyal to him. How many of us have been willing to follow Jesus, to let it be known that we are one of his disciples even if it might cost us greatly?

We also see here that Thomas leaned toward pessimism. “Let us go along with him, so that we can die too!” Thomas tended to expect the worst.

Someone said: pessimist is someone “who can look at the land of milk and honey and see only calories and cholesterol.”

Thomas instructs us even in this. It was difficult for him to follow Jesus for he was a natural born pessimist. It’s easier for an optimist for he always expects the best. But for Thomas, certain as he was that disaster awaited them, this was a tremendous act of faith and loyalty. Just because he was pessimistic, that was no reason to stop following where Jesus led. We, too, must not let a pessimistic attitude keep us from following Christ’s lead, even if we have grave doubts about just where we’re gonna end up.

Now turn to John 14.

Jesus tells his disciples that he’s going away to prepare them a room in the Father’s house. “You know the way that leads to the place where I am going,” he says. But notice what Thomas says in verse 5: “Lord, we do not know where you are going; so how can we know the way to get there?”

Thomas  wasn’t afraid to ask questions, even to Jesus, when he didn’t understand something. And I’ll tell you this, Jesus never put him down for it or anyone who came to him with an honest doubt or question. For such a person is seeking to believe. The honest doubters and questioners did not bother Jesus as much as the know‑it‑alls, those like the Pharisees who would not open their hearts and minds to the truth he taught.

Thomas had questions. He asked them because he wanted to understand. I can identify with that. All my life I have been full of questions and even some doubts from time to time..

Doubts, questions does not have to be the enemies of faith, but can be an allies. And I tell you something else, if someone has never had any doubts or questions, I wonder if they have ever really thought about their faith or know what they believe. Often we do not really understand what we believe until some question, some doubt arises that makes us pray, study, talk, search for answers.

And I’ll tell you something else. A person who asks questions and even doubts doesn’t mean he or she has no faith. To the contrary, I think it shows that they take their faith seriously, so seriously that they want to understand and grow ‑ just like Thomas.

Now turn with me to John 20.

It’s the first Easter evening. The disciples had gathered behind locked doors out of fear of the authorities. Suddenly, Jesus is with them in the room. They see his hands and side. And they are filled with unspeakable joy. But look at verse 24. It reads,

One of the twelve disciples, Thomas (called the Twin),  was not with them when Jesus came.

I think Thomas wasn’t with them because his heart was broken. He was in deep pain. Just as he thought ‑ it had ended in a disaster even worse than he had imagined. Jesus had been arrest, tried, crucified and been dead three days. It was over. The man he had followed for three years, the man who he loved more than his own life, was dead. To gather with the others was just too painful a reminder of all this. So Thomas chose to withdraw and suffer alone.

Seems to me, my friends, that when we are hurt or in deep distress like Thomas, we have a tendency to do one of two things ‑ withdraw and suffer in silence, cut ourselves off from others, or reach out and embrace our family, friends.

Thomas chose to withdraw. And because he did, he missed out on the one thing that would have turned his sorrow into joy ‑ the presence of the Risen Christ!

In Matthew 18:20, Jesus says, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

To withdraw from the fellowship of the Christian family is to miss out on that special sense of the presence of Christ that gives us tremendous peace and joy. And, I think, as Thomas discovered, it is only within that fellowship that we begin to have our questions and doubts resolved.

The disciples, so excited, rush out and find Thomas. They use the very same words that Mary and the other women had used, “We have seen the Lord!” And Thomas makes that reply for which he has become famous or infamous, “Unless I see the scars of the nails in his hands and put my finger on those scars and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (verse 25).

Thomas gets a bad rap because we think he’s the only one who felt this way. Wrong! Luke 24:11 says that when the women came to them and said, “We have seen the Lord!” that no one one believed them. The disciples thought it was nonsense! And here in John 20 we see that they did not believe until they had seen the Risen Lord, his hands and his side. THEN they believed. Thomas was acting no differently than they had. In fact, he’s just more upfront and honest about his doubts.

A week later the disciples gather again and this time Thomas is with them. Like before, Jesus appears to them, “Peace be with you,” he says. Then Jesus turns to Thomas and offers to allow him to touch his hands and his side. We’re not told if Thomas did this. I personally do not think he did. He fell on his knees and said, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas openly admitted his doubts, he faced them, and worked through them to the greatest confession of faith in Christ in the whole New Testament!

Tradition says that after the ascension of Jesus, the disciples divided up the world for evangelism. Thomas got India. There is a church in India that traces its roots back to Thomas. And I understand there’s a Saint Thomas Mount where, I believe, tradition says Thomas was killed while praying. We don’t know if any of this is true, but such faith, loyalty, courage and love for Christ would certainly be in keeping with what we know about Thomas.

So don’t let anyone tell you to stop asking questions or to suppress all your doubts. Ask them. Talk about them with those you trust. Don’t let them drive you away from the Christian fellowship but to it, for chances are the Risen Lord will help answers your doubts and questions as you gather with his people to worship, share, pray and serve. Make your questions and doubts lead you, like Thomas, to a greater faith.

Amen.

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About robinpalmer

I am a Presbyterian Pastor living and working in Browns Bay on the North Shore of Auckland in New Zealand. We moved here at the end of March 2011 after spending five years in Wellington the capital city. I am passionate about what I do - about communicating and writing. I also enjoy my counselling work, especially with young people.

Posted on April 29, 2014, in Archive sermons, Sunday Morning Sermons and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Pastor Robin,

    Indeed the declaration of Thomas, “My Lord and my God” is the highpoint of the Gospel of John in the New Testament Scriptures. It is also the acknowledgement of, and the re-presentation of, the core of Jewish foundation teaching, ‘The Shema Yishrael’.

    When we read that Thomas identified Jesus with the expression of the Shema, he was declaring Jesus to be the fulfillment of the Old Testament Torah and Hap-Torah Scriptures.

    We may also reflect that Thomas was very much conscious of the deeper significance of Who and What Jesus is and what He had accomplished, i.e. Jesus, in Himself, is the Way, the Truth and the Life, the Messiah and only begotten Son of God, etc., etc., etc.

    I really enjoyed this presentation and would that I had heard it in Church. Bill Davey – Elder.

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