I was reading the bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright’s (whose works you ought to be familiar with), opening comments to his Easter sermon last Sunday. He mentioned the shopkeeper in England who said Easter eggs were there to commemorate the birth of Jesus. He also mentions how little the average person knows in terms of the differences between “Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha and the proverbial fried egg.” But one comment he made is very telling. He said, “the really worrying thing, frankly, is not that the lass in the Spennymoor omnibus doesn’t know what Easter is all about, but that many practicing Christians seem decidedly shaky on it as well.”
I need to make sure that we are not shaky about the resurrection here at Epiphany! John chapter 20 is a contrast between faith and doubt and the readers of the gospel, you and I, are brought right in. In John, Mary Magdalene sees and touches Jesus and then goes to his disciples with the words “I have seen the Lord.” Peter sees the empty tomb and wonders if it is indeed true. John, the writer of the gospel, peers into the empty tomb and the Scripture says he immediately believes. In contrast to everyone, Thomas, not only does not believe but he refuses to even consider the resurrection until he physically touches the scars of crucifixion. Thomas is important because, as one author puts it, “Thomas becomes a template for us, who read the story of Jesus from a distance.” Thomas is in many ways you and me. Thomas comes at the resurrection from the outside, we come at it after the fact, 2000 years later.
Doubt can be a powerful thing. If we let it, doubt can steal our ability to know Jesus at all. There are millions of Christians for whom the resurrection is what they stand or fall on. There are also millions who do not believe for whom the resurrection is either mythology or, as the disciples initially felt, nonsense. Did you know that the unchurched of the United States of America is now a population of 100 million people! With them the resurrection has no bearing on their life at all.
Back to Thomas. Doubt had so crept into his mind and heart that he obstinately refused belief until or unless he had empirical evidence, something he could see and touch.
Like Thomas, there are those in our world, part of that 100 million, who doubt for various reasons. I’ll characterize them a bit. First, there’s the scientist, the skeptic, this is where Thomas fits in. Perhaps you find yourself in this category. You say, “I won’t believe it until I see it. I want proof, I want empirical evidence. I have a hard time believing religion because the supernatural does not fall into the laws of nature. Miracles don’t happen, they are the illusions of a simple-minded imagination. Therefore, the resurrection is nothing more than a fairy tale.” If this is you, you are a product of the Enlightenment and modernism. This is the world many are in. Anything that cannot be tested in the laboratory is dismissed.
Then there’s relativist, the postmodern, he’s the most popular these days. Relativists would say, “Truth is relative. It is a product of one’s own culture and experience. My truth is my truth, yours is yours. I like the Jesus stuff and the resurrection stories are nice, but certainly not true in any historical way.” As Marcus Borg would say, “I now see Easter very differently. For me it is irrelevant whether the tomb was empty. Whether Easter involved something remarkable happening to the physical body of Jesus is irrelevant…it simply doesn’t matter. The truth of Easter, as I see it, is not at stake in this issue.” For the relativist, something can be true and can never have happened. These are the most squirrely doubters because they are agnostics masquerading as believers.
Every time you hear someone say, ‘I’m spiritual, but not religious,’ or like Borg, ‘It really doesn’t matter if it actually happened, whatever makes me feel spiritual is all that matters,’ you’ve got a relativist on your hands.
Then there’s the realist. This person sees the world with pain colored glasses. He or she has been hurt by life in so many ways so the resurrection is too pie in the sky to believe. This person looks at the world and says, “There is far too much pain in the world. Sickness, death, and war are the only reality I know. The resurrection is a nice story, but I live in the real world, with real problems.
I heard about a Romanian man who filed a lawsuit and delivered it to the Romanian Orthodox Church. Guess who the lawsuit was filed against? God. Why? Well, the man had been taught by the church that God was there in times of trouble and that God would give the man peace of mind. Well, the man had so many problems and felt so isolated, that he was beginning to believe more in the devil than in God. Isolation and despair brought him to a place where he thought he needed to sue the Lord. Here is a classic realist.
Thomas may have been there too. Remember in John 14 when Jesus and his disciples are taking about going to Jerusalem? Thomas remarks, kind of negatively, ‘let us also go and die with him.’
Where are you in your doubt? One thing I like about Thomas’ encounter with Jesus, is that Jesus gives Thomas what he wants, though it appears that Thomas believed without touching the wounds of Jesus. When faced with the risen Christ, Thomas simply says, “My Lord and my God.” Still, Jesus was there to face Thomas’ doubts.
Jesus is not afraid of our doubts, however they manifest themselves. He is willing to say, ‘touch my wounds, see what I have done for you.’
Whether you’re a Skeptical Scientist, a Relativist or a realist, the call of Christ is for us to believe. ‘Blessed are those who have not seen, yet still believe’
John’s whole gospel is an invitation. It is about putting faith in Jesus. John’s account of the resurrection is supposed to encourage faith, not doubt. His whole gospel is written so that the reader, that’s you and I, will believe. John wants to paint a picture of what faith is all about. Jesus says, “Thomas you have believed because you saw, blessed are those who have not seen, yet still believe.”
But what does that mean? What does it mean to have faith or to believe? Interestingly, John doesn’t use the noun ‘faith’ at all, but uses the verb ‘to believe’ over a hundred times. In comparison, Matthew, Mark and Luke use the verb 35 times combined and Paul a hundred times in all of his letters. John’s emphasis is that we believe in the resurrected Lord to the point of following him in trust, not just that we believe the resurrection happened. As one scholar says, ‘Faith [for John] is more a matter of relationship than creed…it is a desire to invest all hope in him.’
In John, Peter and the ‘other disciple’ (who is John the author of the book) encounter with the empty tomb. Peter reaches the tomb and sees that it is empty, with the empty linens lying there and the linen that had been around Jesus’ head ‘not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.’ Then chapter 20 verse 8 says, “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed.” Verse 8, verse 29 and verse 31 all go together and are written for us, those who have not seen, but still believe.
But I wonder, what was it about John that he could just simply look into the empty tomb and believe? John had a special faith. He was the one reclining with Jesus at the last supper with his head against Jesus’ breast. He was the only disciple to walk with Jesus all the way to the cross. He was the disciple who Jesus entrusted his own mother with. At the cross, Jesus said, ‘Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother.’
Scripture and Tradition call John the ‘beloved disciple,’ was it because of his piety? Was it because he was a better Jew than anyone else? No, it was because he believed. His faith was not naive or simplistic, he had a front row seat of Jesus’ crucifixion. John’s faith was strong because he walked with Jesus.
This was John’s gift. He walked with the savior. He was real about life and suffering, but he did not leave room for doubt. He simply looked into the tomb, and believed. If the gospel of Mark is a challenge John is an invitation to faith.
Thomas saw and then believed whereas John believed in order to see. ‘Faith seeking understanding’ was how St. Augustine put it. Our doubts are understandable, however and whenever they arise. Doubt will probably always be with us in one way or another. But we don’t see in order to believe. We believe so that we can truly see. When John saw the empty tomb it was all he needed because he knew that the Jesus he knew could not be defeated by death. The Jesus he knew told the truth about himself–‘before Abraham was, I AM. I am the way the truth and the life.’
By believing, John, and Thomas really–who makes the ultimate statement of faith, ‘my Lord and my God,’ saw life as it truly was.
I mentioned some weeks ago about an article I read about a young lady who was a professed atheist who gave her heart to Jesus. What did it for her, was the resurrection. She says, ‘Had Jesus risen from the dead? If that were true, Christianity was true.’ She says she put all of her powers of research to study the documents. She says, ‘bit by bit, I saw how the evidence for the Resurrection added up. If I accepted this, I knew I would have to become a Christian.’ But here is the important piece. She writes, ‘I saw what was coming. It was a tremendous commitment, and it scared me.’ Then, she had a dream. She writes, ‘The details [of the dream] aren’t important. What matters is that when I woke up from it, in the stillness of the small hours of the morning, I knew with perfect clarity that Jesus really had died and been resurrected. Intellectually I’d understood it, but now the final piece fit into the puzzle: I knew it was true in my heart. I also awoke understanding why I was so afraid of becoming a Christian: I knew I’d have to say, “Not my will, but Yours, be done,” and that meant giving up control. Having realized that, I was still afraid…but now I knew I could take that step.’
This is the kind of faith John has in mind. We are invited to faith in Jesus and his resurrection. We don’t understand to believe, we believe to understand that we no longer belong to ourselves but to Christ, to the point we can say, ‘not my will but thine be done.’
Many Christians consider the invitation a one time offer and once you take Jesus up on it, you’re free and clear to live life on your own terms. Just imagine if, after my wedding, I said, well, wasn’t that beautiful Sarah? We’ll get together and talk sometime. Maybe I’ll even read the wedding program once in awhile and look at the pictures!
John invites us to believe. It is an invitation to a journey, to an intimate relationship (like marriage), to an apprenticeship. We don’t understand to believe, we believe so that we will understand. And by understanding, to follow.
One last thing. If the resurrection is true, everything changes. The lives of everyone, everywhere are impacted. When Jesus was in the upper room with the disciples and he breathes on them and says something puzzling to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven, if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.’ What does that mean!?
Tomes have been written about the right and proper church government based on this passage, but that somewhat misses the point. Jesus is commissioning his apostles here. He is telling them that they now have the right, privilege and responsibility to proclaim the message of the cross and resurrection. That is, in part, what it means to give and withhold forgiveness. The power of the Spirit will accompany them in their commission–and the book of Acts is a wonderful example of what the apostles did in the name of the Lord.
Remember, we as sacramental Christians, believe in apostolic succession. That is, the church’s ordained structure can trace their spiritual lineage to the apostles. Because of that, therefore, we are an apostolic entity. In other words, the message is now ours, and every Christian too of course, to proclaim.
I read an article in Christianity Today just this week that gives a wonderful picture of proclamation. Joshua White, an American journalist writes for Christianity Today about life in Islamic Pakistan. Christians in Pakistan are in the minority and are sometimes persecuted. On occasions churches are burned down. But Josh White describes an Easter in the streets of Peshawar:
“I was invited by a young friend to participate in the annual Easter march in Peshawar’s Old City, a tradition dating back at least 40 years. I can’t imagine there are many places in the Muslim world where this happens. At three o’clock in the morning, my friend drove me to the heart of the Old City. There we joined what was an extraordinary scene–hundreds of Christians marching through dark, narrow streets, with candles lit, in a line that stretched for an entire block. At the front of the line were Anglicans and Catholics, marching in their vestments. After them came–what else?–a decorated Suzuki minibus, with the PA system mounted on top and an eager young preacher in the passenger seat belting out sermons in Urdu, then Pashto, then Punjabi. Behind the minibus came a tightly packed crowd of Pentecostals, who, much to the relief of the nervous Anglicans, somehow managed to keep moving along with the crowd. And all around this scene–around the flickering lights and the children singing hymns and the minibus creeping through the dark streets in the wee hours of Easter morning–were policemen.”
Josh White, in his article, was struck by the Easter procession surrounded by the Muslim police with machine guns.
However, I see something else in this scene. Is this not a picture of the Kingdom of Heaven? The Anglicans and Catholics doing what we do best–processing; the free church folk doing what they do best–preaching; and the Pentecostals doing what they do best–dancing.
What a way to proclaim the resurrection! I don’t know exactly what that means for us, but could you hold that vision in your head, because it is profound–proclaiming ‘Christ is Risen’ in the face of adversity but doing it joyfully and powerfully.
Remember, this is not some fairy tale. In the resurrection, everything changes. And Jesus invites us to believe—and to proclaim it !! Christ is Risen!!