Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Lesson in Trust and Evangelism: A Sermon on Doubting Thomas

     Years ago, my dad and I were discussing the fact that the Sunday after Easter was one of the worst attended in most congregations--obviously this isn't the case here this morning!  :-)  Most folks show up on Easter and then say, "Well, I'm good for the next six weeks."  But that wasn't good enough for my dad and I, and as we talked dad recognized the fact that every Sunday after Easter, the Gospel lesson is always "Doubting Thomas."  Dad reasoned, "No wonder folks don't want to come to church the next Sunday.  They go from hearing that Jesus is risen from the dead to doubting."   There might be something to be said for that.

   However, the more I have preached on our Gospel lesson in my years of preaching, the more I have come to appreciate this text.  There are so many layers of rich material to probe and learn from.  Like a many faceted, beautiful diamond, this text reveals more and more as you read and look at it.  This morning, I would like to approach this text from the standpoint of evangelism and where any one of us at any given moment might fit given the circumstances.

    First off, the text begins with the disciples huddled in a room for fear of the Jews.  Actually, if we were a little more honest with the Greek, we would probably make the word fear a little stronger.  We would probably use the word, “terrified.”  The disciples were terrified; scared; dazed and confused.  I think it interesting to note a couple of points.  First, they had already discovered the empty tomb at this point.  Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved had been there and seen it.  Secondly, they had heard the report of Mary Magdalene who had seen the resurrected Jesus.  But despite these two things: the empty tomb, and Mary’s report, they were not filled with rejoicing.  They were not filled with hope.  They were not filled with excitement and abundant joy.  They were huddled in fear.  Why?

    Well, if Mary’s report were true, that Jesus was actually alive and resurrected, then their whole view of life would be turned upside down.  It could no longer be business as usual.  They couldn’t just return to their semi-normal lives that they had before encountering Jesus.  They couldn’t go back to being fishermen, tax collectors, zealots, or what have you.  Their entire lives would be changed.  Their response to this was expected: fear. 

    Why do I say the response is expected?  Well, think about how many of our lives function.  Think about how comfortable we tend to get in our lives.  Sure, we may be busy.  We may be stretched thin.  We may feel unfulfilled, dissatisfied, hungry for something more than we are getting now, but we are reluctant to change.  We are reluctant to say no to all the things we are pursuing.  Why?  Why can’t or won’t we change?  We are afraid.  We know that the moment we begin saying no to the pursuits we have engaged in, we will face anger, we will face retribution, we will face the loss of our investments of time and energy and money.  We will face the loss of the small feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment that we currently receive.  And even though these small feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment only leave us wanting more, we dread the thought that even this will be taken away.  And so we fear change.  We fear walking away, even though we too have heard the good news.  We have heard Jesus is alive.  We have heard that when Jesus is the center of our hearts and the pursuit of our lives, we will be at peace; we will be filled.  When Jesus is the end goal of that which we seek, all things will be added.  We have heard this, but we too sit in fear and trembling.  We too sit in terror, not for fear of the Jews, but for fear of having our total world turned upside down.  The thought of taking that risk is simply too unbearable.

    But then Jesus enters.  Into the midst of that locked room; into the midst of that group of terrified people, Jesus arrives.  He stands before them and says, “Peace be with you.”  He breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit, as the Father has sent me, so I send you.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.  If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  When the disciples were incapable of overcoming their fears, Jesus came to them.  Jesus instructed them.  Jesus put them at peace.  Can Jesus do the same for you who are terrified?  Can Jesus enter into your life at an unexpected moment and change your heart?  Absolutely.  Do you expect Him to?  That is another question totally, but one worth asking yourself, I think.

    Of course, this encounter changed the disciples.  They went from terrified to peaceful, joyful, and satisfied.  Their lives now had meaning and purpose.  They were to spread the news of Jesus Christ, and who do you think they would first tell?  Who do you think they would first run to with the news of Jesus’ appearance?  Of course, you know, at least by the story–they would go to one of their closest friends; one who saw Jesus’ miracles; one who at one point was willing to die for Jesus: Thomas.  For some reason or another, Thomas wasn’t with the rest of the disciples when Jesus appeared, and I am sure those who saw Jesus believed that Thomas would accept their testimony.  Boy, were they wrong.  Completely and utterly wrong.  Thomas would not accept their witness.  Thomas would not accept what they saw.  He doubted.

    At this point, I want to stop for just a moment and make it clear about what Thomas doubted.  I mean, think about this for just a moment.  Who did Thomas doubt?  Did He doubt Jesus?  Did Thomas doubt the existence of God?  Thomas doubted the resurrection, of course, but he also doubted his friends.  He doubted those whom he had lived with, walked with, talked with, ate with, and bonded with over the years.  He doubted those who were witnessing to him about what happened to Jesus and what they had seen.

    I think this is such an important lesson for those of us who have found ourselves transformed by Christ’s presence in our lives.  I mean, when we have been captured by the grace of God; when we know that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life; when we know that God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but to save it; when these things are held deeply in conviction by us, we share that news.  We want others to know down deep what it means to have Christ as the center of our lives.  We want others to know the inexpressible peace, joy, and satisfaction this brings.  But we too are often met with skepticism. We too are often met with doubt.  And the temptation is to keep hammering and hammering and hammering away.  The temptation is to keep bugging and bugging and bugging others until they either walk away or give into our rambling just to shut us up.  But this does not bring anyone to faith.  It didn’t bring Thomas to faith.  Once again, Jesus steps into the picture.

    Jesus appears to the disciples once again, and rather than chide Thomas from the get go, Jesus goes straight to him.  Jesus tells Thomas, “Hey buddy, look, put your finger here in these nail marks.  Touch my side.”  Jesus comes to Thomas and brings him to faith.  It is only then that Jesus chides Thomas.  It is only then when Jesus says, “Do not doubt.  Believe.”  Of course, we must ask, “Doubt what?”  Is Jesus saying we shouldn’t have doubts about the resurrection?  Is Jesus saying we shouldn’t have doubts about God?  Is Jesus saying we must have absolute conviction in our hearts and that any fleeting thought to the contrary is sinful?  I don’t believe so.

    Remember what Thomas doubted.  Remember who Thomas doubted.  He doubted the testimony of others.  He doubted that they had actually seen Jesus.  He didn’t trust anyone else, and he only relied upon himself.

    In my estimation, there is a two-fold lesson here.  The first lesson has to do with those of us who truly want to engage others with this faith we have received.  We simply cannot bring someone else to faith through argument; through coercion; or bribe.  Faith comes from Christ Himself, and we can only plant the seeds and be patient.  We do not need to be frustrated when our efforts at evangelism fall upon ears that seem deaf.  We must do our work and then wait for Christ to do His.  This is a very, very important lesson.

    The second lesson I think we must learn has to do with trust. “Do not doubt, but believe.”  There is an element of trusting God that is implicit in this statement, but given the circumstances of this story, I think there is also an element of trusting one another.  There is also an element of Jesus saying, “Trust one another’s testimony about how God is working in your life.  Trust one another when you share your stories about how I have worked in your life.”  This sometimes is hard.  This sometimes is extremely difficult because we oftentimes doubt one another.  There is so much in the world these days which purposely seeks to divide us and cause us to distrust each other.  We also know that there is an element of selfishness which drives us.  How can I know that you aren’t trying to take advantage of me?  How do I know you are believable and not just trying to manipulate me?  These are good questions.  Tough questions.  Questions which I think we must wrestle with together.

    And that is where I think I will begin to end this sermon–by asking you what it means to develop trust.  How does a group of people come to trust one another?  How does a group of people let down their guards and become vulnerable enough to listen to one another?  How does a group of people find some sort of common bond so that they can share stories and testimony about how God has worked in each other’s lives?  Have we come to the point in our society where such a thing is forbidden?  Have we come to a point in society where we can keep people at a digital distance so that we never, ever have to truly engage another’s spirit as we communicate?  Why is it now so hard to get a group of people to really sit down and talk after worship?  Why don’t we strive very hard to establish deep, lasting relationships with someone outside of our comfort zone?  Maybe Jesus has a lot of work to do on each and every one of us.  Maybe we all are somewhat huddled in fear for fear of being hurt.  How long before Jesus appears to us to give us peace?

    Well, the good news is that the grave is empty.  Jesus is alive, and His Spirit is present right here and right now.  He does not want you to feel alone and isolated.  He does not want you to sit in fear and doubt.  He has shown His love for you on the cross and has shown you the hope you will experience in the resurrection.  And He has given you a community to connect to.  I don’t care what society says being connected means. True relationships are not built digitally.  They are built upon human flesh and blood. They are built upon trust.  Can you trust each other here this morning?  You may find it difficult, but think of this: Jesus trusts you, doesn’t He?  Jesus trusts you enough to give you His story, trusts you enough to share that story and pass it on to others, and trusts you enough to give you the Holy Spirit as your comfort and guide along the way.  Do not doubt, believe.  Jesus comes to you.  He will come to others.  Just be patient.  This is the lesson of evangelism.  Amen.

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