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04.07.13 For those of us With Doubts John 20.19-31, Sermon Summary

by on April 8, 2013

It’s ironic that many doubters feel unwelcome in the church, since John’s whole purpose in writing his Gospel, is to make sure the doubter is welcome in church.


Summary Points

  • Appreciating “doubting” Thomas anew
  • Receiving God’s Word after the resurrection
  • Three reasons Thomas and we have doubt
  • The scope of Christ’s resurrection and true hope for this world


No one wants to be labeled a “doubting Thomas.” We would prefer to be known for our unwavering faith. The token doubter in the Newer Testament is Thomas, but I think he has been misunderstood and unjustly maligned. Thomas only wanted what everyone else got: a personal appearance. I, for one, am thankful for this episode in the gospels, for without it, I don’t know that I would feel welcome in the church.


To better understand Thomas, we have to place this scene in the whole of John. The context for Jesus’ appearances is important. John is careful to tell us that darkness has returned. This, coupled with the information that the disciples are locked away in fear of the Jewish authorities (NB: John says “the Jews,” but he is surely referring to the Jews of his original audience, who by his time had more fully separated from the Christian movement), lets us know that the church, John’s audience, is struggling in faith.


When Jesus appears, he brings peace and joy. He gives the Spirit for this peace and joy, for illumination, guidance, and the ability to testify before others. Just a few chapters before, beginning with chapter 14, Jesus’ “farewell discourse” makes all these promises. We often read these promises at funerals, suggesting that they are fulfilled upon our death and resurrection. But for John, these promises are fulfilled by these appearances, not by our resurrection, but by Jesus’ post-resurrection presence.


So for John, the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus are less about an empty tomb and more about how to see Jesus 40-70 years after, when John was writing and for his audience, and for us today.


John grounds the faith community in the book, in the hearing of God’s Word, especially the Gospel of John. That’s his purpose in writing. This hearing occurs in the gathered assembly, and this is essential as we’ll see below. John testifies about God’s “Word made flesh” from the prologue (chapter 1). But now, after Jesus’ death, John give hints that the Word continues to be present through physical indicators: the empty tomb, the grave clothes, the testimonies of the women, and the encounter with Thomas. And now, in John’s day and in ours, John offers assurance that those who come after Thomas, who haven’t seen all these, are equally blessed.


In John’s day and ours, these testimonies come when God’s Word in scripture is read. When this Word is proclaimed in sermons, the resurrected Christ is present. When we celebrate baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Christ is present. The resurrected Christ is present when we offer praise and prayer. The most substantive contemporary incarnation of God’s Word is through the transformed lives of Christ’s followers (see 2 Corinthians 3:1-3).


All these testimonies lead Thomas, and John’s readers, and us to confess faith in the most explicit words we find in the entire Newer Testament: “My Lord and My God!” And it’s only thanks to Thomas, that we know this. Where would my faith be without “doubting” Thomas?


What were the reasons for Thomas’ doubt? That’s a helpful question for when we doubt. One obvious answer is that he wasn’t part of the assembly. If for John, the risen Christ appears in the gathered assembly, then to encounter him you have to be in the assembly. Thomas wasn’t there that first night, but he was a week later (by the way, this suggests that John’s contemporaries met for weekly worship on Sunday night . . .). Part of the reason we doubt is that we are not part of the assembly regularly enough.


Another cause for Thomas’ doubt is that he dismissed the assembly’s testimony. All the disciples did this when the women testified. But Thomas continued to be dismissive through the entire week—refusing to listen to his closest friends who testified to him that Christ was alive and present. When we refuse to listen to Christians from the past, or Christians from other denominations, or Christians from other parts of the world, we do what Thomas did, and that could lead to doubt.


But I think one of the most powerful reasons Thomas doubted is that he didn’t like the implications of suffering messiah. His hopes for a vanquishing messiah were disappointed so profoundly that he doubted and couldn’t believe again. What Thomas didn’t realize is that there is more hope in a suffering messiah than in a vanquishing one.


Where would we be if Jesus had been the kind of vanquishing messiah Thomas and others hoped for? If Jesus had instigated a successful revolution and purged the Holy Land of Rome, where would we be today? Haven’t we seen the results of ethnic cleansing over and over?


Instead of vanquishing Rome, Jesus vanquished death. In doing so he transformed the world, giving us real hope, but to do so had to suffer death. For God, salvation of a nation too small. Despite our joy, personal salvation of an individual is too small for God. God wants it all.


This is why the Psalm says, “Let everything that has breath praise the LORD.” God wants all creation. This is why Revelation says, “Every eye shall see him, even those who pierced him. All the tribes of the earth. God is alpha and omega, beginning and end, Who was, and is, and is to come.” God wants it all.


And, Revelation says, God has made us, the church, the gathered assembly, to be the kingdom of God on this earth and priests serving the earth as God’s temple. This is why in Acts Peter and the other apostles boldly live out their calling before all authorities, for they recognize that there is only one authority and it is God, because God wants it all and has it all through the suffering messiah who vanquished death.


Thomas doubted, but his hope was restored through Christ’s presence in the assembly. So let us be a congregation that welcomes all doubters. Let us be a place where hope is restored, where God’s kingdom is manifest, where the resurrected Christ can appear again.


Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • What impressions do you have about “doubting” Thomas? What were you taught about him? Is it possible he is more a model to follow than one to be avoided?
  • Where is your hope related to the promises of Christ to his disciples? Do you think these are fulfilled only after you die, or have you already died with Christ and now live in the peace and joy of these promises fulfilled?
  • How do you receive God’s Word today, and is it inspiring of faith? What other means does God use to communicate his Word to you?
  • If God does want it all, and have it all in Christ, then what difference does that make in the way you view your life, your possessions, your past, your future?
  • Jesus sent the disciples into the world with peace, his Spirit, and the ability to forgive. In what ways can you embrace and exercise these powers this week?


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