On 3 April, the Second Sunday of Easter, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 150, Acts 5:27-32, John 20:19-31.
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.” John even says it later at the very end of his Gospel: “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” I read these words and I wonder why John didn’t at least give the task a try. How can he tantalise like this, saying that there’s a whole lot more to the story and then keeping it to himself? I want to read the missing bits, I want to know all the extra things that Jesus did, I want a blow by blow account of every miracle, every piece of teaching, every confrontation, every journey of Jesus. But I am denied that. However, John says that what he has written is there to allow us, his readers, to believe that Jesus is the Messiah and to have life in his name as a result.
Despite my frustrations, which you may share, John obviously thinks he has given enough of the story of Jesus to achieve what he set out to do. John’s gospel seems to be the one that has been the most carefully structured to bring about the desired teaching. It’s John who builds much of what he writes around the seven ‘I am’ statements of Jesus, where he effectively uses the name that God uses for himself and so declares that he is the Son of God. John is a careful and thoughtful editor of the vast amount of material at his disposal. He chose to include this story about the disciples meeting Jesus in a locked house on two occasions. These are among the signs that are written so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.
Jesus arrived in a house that was locked up to keep out all that the disciples feared. No doubt they expected at any moment to be found by the authorities and arrested, perhaps suffering the same fate as Jesus. In the midst of this fear Jesus offered his disciples peace. He also offered them evidence of who he was – the marks of crucifixion in his hands and his side. That was enough to turn the disheartened and fearful band of disciples into a rejoicing group. They were so full of joy that they were bursting to share their news when Thomas, who for some reason had been absent, returned. “We have seen the Lord!” I imagine they told Thomas all the details, how Jesus had appeared and what he had said and done, including showing his hands and side. Thomas wasn’t so easily convinced. Perhaps he thought this group had gone mad with grief. Or maybe he was just saying that he wanted that same opportunity to check that Jesus had truly risen by seeing the evidence. If the others could have it, why couldn’t he?
A whole week passed. I imagine it could have been very uncomfortable for Thomas being in the company of the other disciples who were absolutely sure that Jesus had risen while he resolutely refused to believe without evidence. It seems that nevertheless Thomas continued to be in the company of the others. In the same house, with the doors still locked, Jesus appeared again and repeated what he had done the week before. He came and stood among them and wished them peace. Thomas was able to witness exactly what the other disciples had already seen. Then he received his own special showing of the marks of crucifixion. He had demanded to touch these marks, though we are not told that the other disciples did so. For them it seemed to be a case of seeing and believing. Perhaps it was the same for Thomas also, once faced with the reality of the risen Christ. John doesn’t tell us that Thomas actually accepted the invitation to touch. What we are told is that immediately he worshipped Jesus as Lord and God. Whatever Thomas had asked for had been more than adequately fulfilled and he responded with belief.
Thomas needed to really know for himself that Jesus was alive, that the resurrection wasn’t some delusion shared by the other disciples. Thomas was the one who said the disciples should accompany Jesus and die with him when they headed to see Mary and Martha after Lazarus’ death. To be prepared to die with Jesus, Thomas must have really been convinced that Jesus was the Son of God. Yet the horrible events of the past few days, the mock trial, the brutality, the terrible death of Jesus, had rocked the faith of the disciples. The same happens to us at times – our faith is rocked by things that happen to us or to those whom we love. We need something concrete to prove to us that faith is reasonable, that it’s not a fairy tale or a delusion.
Jesus was prepared to answer Thomas’ need and I believe he will still answer similar needs today from those whose faith needs strengthening. I don’t even think it’s a bad thing to struggle with our faith in difficult times. I’ve known what it’s like to have my faith almost disappear and I’ve experienced it being rebuilt by God in many powerful ways. I know for me the faith I have now is greater than the faith I had in the past.
When we witness the apostles standing up to the authorities in the passage from Acts, it’s hard to remember that they were the same people trembling in fear behind locked doors after Jesus’ death. However, once they had their faith strengthened by meeting the risen Christ, no threats could stop them speaking of what they knew. Before the council and all the people who would listen, the apostles did as the psalmist said to do:
Praise him for his mighty acts;
praise him according to his excellent greatness.
I pray that for any whose faith is currently struggling, they will encounter the living Christ afresh, be filled anew with the Holy Spirit, and go out as witnesses to the truth of the resurrection.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor