A sermon on John 20: 19-31 by Nathan Nettleton, 19 April 2009
The Apostle Thomas is more famous for his alleged doubts than he is for anything else. So much so that we give his name to anyone who raises serious doubts about what everyone else is believing. It is a bit unfair on him though, because he was the only one of the disciples who hadn’t been there when Jesus first appeared to them, so who knows how many of the others would have reacted just the same if they had similarly only had the word of others to go on. The others had heard the testimony of Mary Magdalene before they encountered the risen Christ, and there is very little evidence that they reacted to her word any differently from how Thomas reacted to theirs.
And yet, it is the case that even after Thomas falls to his knees before Jesus and confesses him both Lord and God, Jesus contrasts his need of physical proof with the blessedness of those who believe without the need of such proof. Of course, the gospel writer is emphasising this point because he is writing to the next generation, the believers who have no such opportunity to see and feel the physical wounded hands for themselves. This, he is saying, does not put you at any significant disadvantage to those who did experience such things. Blessed are you if you hear the testimony and believe and follow Jesus. Indeed, says John at the end of the reading we heard, this is precisely why I have written this account of the story of Jesus, so that you may believe and have life in his name.
But I want to note something else here. The harshest judgement we could make of Thomas is that he is the first person to refuse the testimony of the early church. The disciples testified to their encounter with the risen Christ, and Thomas rejected their testimony. Some church people would have you think that he should have therefore been kicked out of the community of the believers. They would say that the presence of such scepticism and resistance to the truth is a contaminant that threatens the health of the body and must be expelled. But that is not the message of the gospel. A week later, with all his doubts intact, Thomas is still with them, still an accepted member of the community of disciples. And it is among them that Jesus makes himself known again, and although the offer to touch the wounds is made, Thomas no longer seems to need it. He just falls to his knees and confesses Jesus both Lord and God.
It is a real mistake to reduce faith in Jesus to believing certain doctrines or facts about him. Faith in Jesus is about following him, about trusting him and living the life he gives us. Like Thomas, many of us do that with all sorts of unresolved intellectual doubts about the historical or doctrinal content of the stories about Jesus. Jesus is not the least bit threatened by such doubts, and neither need we be, as his church. In a few minutes we will be welcoming Jan into the membership of this congregation as she renews her baptismal vows and pledges herself to living them out with us. Those of you who have gotten to know know her will know that she did not come here full of certainty about us or about Christian faith. And while her confidence in both us and Jesus has grown, the doubts still get plenty of airplay in her head. But Jesus is not threatened by that, and neither should we be. What Jan is doing here tonight is precisely what the Apostles were telling us in this story and others like it. Faith in Jesus is not about eliminating doubts, let alone about ridding ourselves of the doubters. Faith in Jesus is about honestly facing our doubts and choosing to commit ourselves to following Jesus anyway. John did not close this passage by saying I have written this down “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and be accepted for the correctness of your doctrine.” Rather, he said I have written this down “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” It is the living of the life that counts, and like Thomas and Jan, the doubters are welcome to come and live the life with us, for in the midst of that living, the risen Christ is seen and known.
The reading tonight about Thomas – the one who doubts – is one of many readings from this last year that I can relate to. Being a science student, I always doubted what could not be proven, although it didn’t have to be a first-hand proof to convince me. My relationship with Christianity had waxed and waned. In my book, it couldn’t be proved, so I doubted it was really true. There was always the feeling that there was something, but whether it was God or something else, I wasn’t sure. Nothing in any of the multitude of churches I have been in gave me any feeling that God was real, or that his love and compassion was freely available to all. Until I came here.
I don’t think I will ever be allowed to forget my first visit. To say I was rude would be an understatement, and to offer my apologies now a little late. But, better late than never, as the saying goes. The one memory which still overwhelms me was the feeling of honesty, integrity and sadness that prevailed in this building. I had my own grief over the death of our two unborn daughters, Sarah and Fiona, to deal with. Garry seemed to have found somewhere that, deep inside, I yearned for, too. The offer of healing drew me here. I still doubted, though. Was this what I was searching for, at last? Would I be acceptable as a part of this group? Were they acceptable to me? Could I dare to take the risk, yet again, of turning to Christ for help: of turning to the God I had rejected so many times before for the forgiveness I so desperately needed to close the book on parts of my life that I could not forgive myself for? To find the security that I constantly rejected from those I thought I loved most, because I doubted their sincerity and motives? To know I am accepted, not for what I do, but just for being? Or am I going to be mistaken yet again, and end up feeling used, abused and burnt out by the hypocrisy that masquerades as religion?
It seems like every week during the last twelve months (okay, thirteen months and three days, but who’s counting?), there has been something – a song, reading, sermon, prayer or conversation after the service – something which touched me. Sometimes it was only the feeling of overwhelming grief, not just for me, but also for those around me. But there was always something that confronted me, made me grow within myself; further eliminating the doubts I had, and usually creating a few new ones on the way. I have had my dark days, but nothing like those I have previously experienced. And I have learnt to appreciate those days – for those are the days when I feel that I am being taught to understand and accept myself, and thus understand and accept the people around me. ‘Lead us into the darkness, that we may find what lies concealed, that we may confess it toward the light’ – not my favourite prayer, but the one I seem to use most often. I have been reading many books which Nathan has been gracious enough to lend me, and to discuss with me when I had finished them. They too, have confronted, reassured, eliminated and created doubts. But the overall feeling of peace, of wanting to be alive in this environment, made the doubts secondary to the belief. I can live with doubt, because with each day I become more secure in the love I feel for and from Christ. I also know now the security of the love of my darling husband, Garry, and our precious gifts, Daniel and Matthew, and I am learning to love and trust again. My wall is coming down – I no longer feel the need to hide behind a façade of falseness. Each time I look at the cross behind me, I feel an awe that is unsurpassed for the sacrifice made for me, for us. Each time I look at the cross, the figure of Christ hanging there becomes more visible, the love more palpable, the forgiveness more real, and the joy more overwhelming.
don’t know if these words are my own, or I have sub-consciously
adapted them from elsewhere, but each day, my personal prayer goes
Lord of my life,
God of my heart,
Redeemer of my soul,
In you I find truth,
In you I find peace,
In you I find my destiny,
In you I find myself.
Guard my lips, that I may speak only truth,
Guard my heart, that I may withstand the hurts,
Guide my heart that I may walk in Your light.
Open my eyes to see the beauty of Your creation.
Open my ears, that I may hear and learn Your word.
Open my mind, that I may understand Your wisdom.
Open my heart, that I may receive Your love.
Open my soul, that I may know Your Holy Spirit.
Open my arms, that I may offer myself to others,
that I may embrace them with the love and compassion You have shown to me.
Help me to understand, that all I have, all I am, and all I will be,
Are gifts from You, because of Your endless grace, infinite forgiveness and boundless love.
Even tonight, I am still in doubt. Is this the right thing for me to be doing? Do you really want me here? Is this whole God thing a delusion? Are the peace and joy I have found now a momentary thing which will eventually fade and pass? I doubt it. This time, I am among genuine, passionate people; who know the truth about the love of God; who are willing to teach, comfort, help and support me. You have become my family. This is my home. All I need to do is, like Thomas, reach out and touch, and find that even in doubt, there is certainty. This is what you have taught me. The risk is worth it. I have no doubt.