Sunday, 19 April 2009

Doubting Thomas

St Mary Mentmore – Easter 2

Reading Acts 4 (NIV)

The Believers Share Their Possessions

32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God's grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

Gospel John 20 (NIV)

Jesus Appears to His Disciples

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21 Again Jesus said, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of anyone, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven."

24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus) one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord!"
       But he said to them, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe."

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" 27 Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."

28 Thomas said to him, "My Lord and my God!"

29 Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.


It remains unclear in Christian tradition how many times after his resurrection Jesus appeared to his disciples. Paul says 5 times: once to the 12; to more than 500 people; to James; to the apostles; and lastly to himself.

In the Gospels, Mark says Peter and the other disciples would meet Jesus in Galilee. According to Matthew, this is a farewell scene when the 11 disciples are sent out on their mission to the whole world. In Luke, Jesus appears to them in Jerusalem, wishes them Peace, shows the disciples his hands and feet, and eats the fish they gave him. He promises them the gift of the Holy Spirit for their mission to all people.

As we have just heard, John’s account is similar to Luke’s, but John mentions that the room in which the disciples were hiding was locked. Jesus had previously promised his disciples the Holy Spirit to be their Helper. Now he breathes on them his Spirit. It’s like a baptism.

Thomas is listed as one of the apostles in all 4 gospels, but only in John does he have a starring role. He’s one of my favourites, not only because he is honest enough to doubt, but also because when all doubt is removed he makes a more positive affirmation of the nature of Christ than any other of the apostles.

Thomas’s first speaking role comes just after the Lazarus is gravely ill, and the disciples are resisting going back to Jerusalem because of the danger of arrest. With heavy irony, Thomas says Let’s go back, so we can die with Lazarus too. Then in The Last Supper Thomas protests that he has no idea how to follow because Jesus has not told the disciples where he is going. But his best known appearance is in John 20 when he doubts the risen Christ, and says he will not believe Jesus has risen until he sees with his own eyes, and perhaps more unreasonably touches him with his own hands. So he went down in history as Doubting Thomas and was immortalised by Caravaggio among others for his incredulity.

Once Thomas sees for himself and has the opportunity of touching (even though John does not explicitly say he does) all doubt is removed. Thomas bursts out with My Lord and My God. Pretty strong stuff for any Jew to call another human being My God.

But then we come to Jesus’ message to us. He tells Thomas: Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.

I always think these few words of Jesus – almost the last he speaks – give comfort to us at times of doubt and when our faith is challenged. We don’t know how we would have behaved had we been Jesus’ disciples at the time. We would have seen and heard many wonderful things. We would have had a personal relationship with the Lord over a long period. But only if we had been prepared to give up everything we ever owned, and put ourselves entirely in his hands. Just like the early church, as we heard in Acts. They pooled everything they had, sold their houses, and shared their possessions with each other. Would we have been prepared to do that?

Then there were times of extreme danger. Would we have stuck with it, or made ourselves scarce when our lives were threatened? What about at the very end, when all the disciples except some of the women deserted him? Would we have done the same?

Lastly, what about after Jesus was executed and was buried in secret. How would we have reacted when some women came and told us they had seen Jesus walking about in the flesh?

All we can say, I suppose, is that all the encouragement we would have received by being one of his followers for a few months would have helped, but may not have made us strong enough to put our lives or livelihoods on the line for Jesus when we were called upon to do so.

So this is the message to us. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. We will never know how faithful we would have been had we been there at the time, though we are probably all honest enough to have our own suspicions, which may not be very flattering I suppose. We will never know, but we do have the chance of responding in faith to the words of Christ aimed fairly and squarely at us – those who have not seen. His blessing is on all of us who have believed, without the benefit of sight or touch. For we are blessed indeed, if we believe, yet have not seen. Amen

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