by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts March 27, 2005
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2005 by Mark D. Roberts
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Scripture Reading: John 20:24-29 (NLT)
24 One of the disciples, Thomas (nicknamed the Twin), was not with the others when Jesus came. 25 They told him, "We have seen the Lord!" But he replied, "I won't believe it unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand into the wound in his side." 26 Eight days later the disciples were together again, and this time Thomas was with them. The doors were locked; but suddenly, as before, Jesus was standing among them. He said, "Peace be with you." 27 Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don't be faithless any longer. Believe!" 28 "My Lord and my God!" Thomas exclaimed. 29 Then Jesus told him, "You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who haven't seen me and believe anyway."
A Name to Remember?
"Doubting Thomas." If you look up this phrase in the dictionary, you'll find something like: "one who habitually or instinctively doubts or questions." A "doubting Thomas" is somebody who always lags behind in matters of faith. A "doubting Thomas" always needs more proof, more time. A "doubting Thomas" has a hard time trusting others.
For years I've felt bad for Thomas. I mean, how'd you like it if your name went down in history attached to "doubting"? How'd it feel to know that every time someone uses your name it had a negative connotation?
Of course Thomas isn't the only person in history whose name is married to some depressing connotation. Consider the name "Bill Buckner." Now I'll bet that a whole bunch of you immediately associated this name with something awful. If you're not a baseball fan, let me explain.
Bill Buckner was one of the better players ever to play the game. In a 22-year career that began with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Buckner collected over 2,700 hits, had a career average of .289, and won a National League batting title. Yet he will always be remembered for one terrible moment in the 1986 World Series.
At that time Buckner was playing for the Boston Red Sox, a team notorious for its failure to win the World Series (something finally overcome last year, I might add). In the '86 series against the Mets, the Sox took a 3-2 game lead. The sixth game went into extra innings, where the Sox scored two runs in the top of the tenth. Twice in the bottom of the tenth the Sox were one strike away from winning the series. But the Mets were tenacious, fighting back to tie the score at 5-5. With Mookie Wilson at the plate for the Mets and a man on second, Red Sox pitcher Bob Stanley was struggling to end the inning. On a 3-2 pitch, Wilson hit an easy little grounder up the first base line towards Bill Buckner. Scoop up the ball, step on first, and the inning would be over. But Buckner didn't get his glove low enough. The ball rolled through his legs, and the Met runner on second scored. So the Mets tied the series 3-3, and went on to win in the seventh game.
From that fateful moment on, the name "Bill Buckner" has been forever tied to his "slow roller between the legs" error that lost the series for the Sox. In fact I did a bit of Internet surfing to discover that, sure enough, people talk about "pulling a Bill Buckner." It's synonymous with making a really bad, obvious mistake. You know, whatever else comes of my life, I really hope that by the end of it my name isn't synonymous with something bad. I hope our children aren't someday warning our grandchildren, "Now whatever you do, don't go and pull a Mark Roberts."
Part of my point in today's sermon is to come to the defense of "doubting Thomas." I'd like to suggest a new phrase for this disciple, not "doubting Thomas," but "honest Thomas." Hey, it almost rhymes! But, more importantly, I think it accurately portrays the character of the one who was willing to be honest even when it wasn't pretty, and even when others were not quite so truthful.
More importantly still, when we really understand what's going on with Thomas, we'll find new freedom to be honest about our own faith, or, as is sometimes the case, lack of it. Believe it or not, I'm going to suggest in this sermon today that you and I need to be more like Thomas, not by doubting more, but by being more honest with God and with each other.
The Context for Thomas's Admission
Before we examine the story of Thomas in detail, we need to remember the context. The historical setting was Jesus's mission of proclaiming and enacting the kingdom of God. He assembled around him a group of close followers who came to believe that he was the Messiah who would save Israel. Through Jesus, they thought, Israel would finally be set free from the heavy hand of Rome and God would once again rule over his free people.
But all of these hopes came crashing down when Jesus was arrested, tried before a kangaroo court, and sentenced by the Roman governor to death by crucifixion. For the disciples of Jesus, his death wasn't merely a horrific execution of a dear friend. It was the end of their vision, the passion in which they had invested years of life. The death of Jesus must have felt like a giant betrayal, not only by Jesus, but even by God himself. Why, after all, did the Lord back up Jesus's ministry with such mighty miracles if, in the end, it was all for naught? For Thomas and his friends, the death of Jesus must have seemed like a cruel trick.
But then, on Easter morning, some women claimed that the tomb where Jesus had been buried was empty, and that they had even seen him alive. "Nonsense," Thomas must have figured. "Nothing but delirium. Wishful thinking!" Yet that evening, while Thomas was away from the group, Jesus appeared to the other disciples. When he returned, they excitedly reported to him : "We've seen the Lord."
But Thomas didn't share their joy or confidence. He said to his fellow disciples, "I won't believe it unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand into the wound in his side." There you have it: doubting Thomas.
But do you blame him? Remember, he had been burned before, big time. He had gone way out on a limb for God, and the limb broke off. What had that got him? Discouragement. Defeat. Devastation! Thomas wasn't going to fall into that trap all over again. No way. This time he was going to be sure before he invested all that he was in some spiritual Ponzi scheme. (By the way, Charles Ponzi deserves to have his name associated with a fraudulent get-rich-quick scheme.)
Can you relate to Thomas at all? I know some of you can. You went out on a limb. You trusted God. You tried to live as a good Christian, to do the right things, when all of a sudden your life fell apart: your marriage disintegrated, or you got cancer, or you lost your job, or your teenager got heavy into drugs, or . . . you name it. No matter how you try to rationalize what happened, the truth is that you have felt burned by God. And no matter how much others try to encourage you, you're just not sure you're ready to trust him again. There are some of you in this room right now who know exactly what I mean. So you can relate to Thomas.
Or maybe you connect with Thomas because, like him, you don't believe in Jesus. You've heard your friends and family members tell you how great it is to be a Christian. You hear preachers like me talk about God's love in Christ, but you're still not sure. So you can relate to Thomas as one who stands on the outside of faith, peering in.
To be candid, if I had been in Thomas's shoes, I'm not sure I would have been able to accept the testimony of the other disciples. You see, I'm rather a skeptic myself. I think a lot, maybe too much. I don't find it easy to put my faith in anything. So put myself in Thomas's place I wonder: Wouldn't it have made just as much sense to suppose that the disciples had had too much to drink, or that they'd seen some sort of ghost, or that their grief had overwhelmed their reason?
Whether Thomas should have believed or not, at any rate he was bluntly honest about where he was. He didn't pretend. He didn't fake anybody out. He told the truth. Was he "doubting Thomas"? Well, perhaps. But even more clearly he was "honest Thomas."
Thomas in fact turned out to be more honest than some of the other disciples. As far as we know, none of them admitted to having any doubts about Jesus at this time. They were happy to go along for the Resurrection ride. But if you turn over to Matthew 28, you read something quite startling. The disciples have followed Jesus's orders to go to Galilee, their home turf, and meet him there. This is what it says beginning with verse 16: "Then the eleven disciples left for Galilee, going to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him-but some of them still doubted!" Did you catch that? "But some of them still doubted." As far as we know, these disciples had been willing to play along as if they truly believed, but in fact their doubts persisted. Unlike Thomas, however, they weren't honest. They pretended to have unhesitant faith when all along they weren't quite sure.
If you're struggling with doubt today, don't pretend. And don't judge yourself. Doubt is a natural part of the faith journey of many, many Christians. If you're doubting, be an "honest Thomas." First, tell the Lord about it. Don't hold back in your prayers. God can handle your doubt. (If you're not quite sure about this, I have a new book out called No Holds Barred: Wrestling with God in Prayer. It makes the case from Scripture that God wants you to be completely honest in prayer. So if you need help in this regard, you can check out the book.) Second, if you're struggling with doubt, you can be an "honest Thomas" by sharing it with others whom you can trust. Get them to pray with you, support you, and walk with you through the dark valley of doubt. They'll help you get through.
Eight Days of Waiting
Let's take another look at John 20 to see how Jesus responds to Thomas. It says, "Eight days later the disciples were together again, and this time Thomas was with them." Wait a minute! Think about that: "eight days later." For eight days Thomas was left in his doubt. For eight days he stood around watching the celebration of his colleagues while he was stuck in indecision. Don't you think Thomas began to wonder if Jesus had forgotten him? Maybe he began to fear that he would never get to see the risen Jesus, that he would be mired in doubt forever.
The fact is that Jesus chose to let Thomas wait. He didn't show up right away to relieve Thomas's fears. We don't know why. We don't know what needed to happen in Thomas before Jesus appeared to him. All we know is that Jesus made him wait.
Friends, there will be times when you're struggling with faith and doubt, and God will make you wait. It won't seem fair at the time. In fact, it might seem mean. But God knows what he's doing.
My most intense time of doubt in my whole life was when I was a freshman in college. Having left the safety of home, I went 3,000 miles away to "godless Harvard," and godless it was. Soon my faith wavered. Before long it seemed to disintegrate completely. The harder I tried to make myself believe, the less I was able to make it happen. In the past I had always been able to use my mind to assure me that Christianity was true, but in those dark days of my freshman year, my mind just couldn't do it.
For days I cried out to God for help. And for days God was silent. For days I begged to see God. And for days the eyes of my heart were blind. It was one of the most desperate, terrifying, and empty times of my entire life. And God seemed to have abandoned me during that time, my "eight days" of waiting, if you will.
I don't know what God was doing with Thomas during his eight days, but during my period in the desert of doubt, he was breaking my pride and setting me free from my self-reliance. He was showing me the limits of my reason. He was teaching me that I could not do it alone. And he was making me ready to receive his grace, not as something I thought I had earned, but as a free gift.
Thomas's Encounter with Jesus
When, after eight days, Jesus finally appeared to the disciples in Thomas's presence, he addressed the "doubter" directly: "Put your finger here and see my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don't be faithless any longer. Believe!" (v. 27).
Do you know what's missing here? The rebuke! The guilt! The lecture on not doubting! It's not here. Jesus doesn't chew Thomas out for his unbelief. Rather, he gently and mercifully offers Thomas exactly what he had wanted. Jesus met Thomas right where he was. And he offered himself to Thomas: "Here, touch me, and believe."
Sisters and brothers, in his time and in his way, Jesus comes to us and makes himself known to us. Sometimes he does it in the way we have wanted. Sometimes he doesn't. But he always gives us exactly what we really need. And it comes, not because we've earned it, but by grace.
For a few weeks during my freshman year of college - it felt like an eternity - I struggled with doubt that seemed to choke the very life out of me. I fell into a pit of despair and didn't know how to climb out. Everything that had helped before failed me: my books, my logic, my evidence that demanded a verdict. I was mired in unbelief, helpless before God.
I cried out to God, again and again and again. One night I was up very late because I couldn't sleep. I wandered over to my dorm's common room and began to pour out my heart to God. After several minutes of prayer, all of a sudden I felt a calming presence surrounding and embracing me. My desperate doubt began to drain out of my anguished soul, replaced by the deepest peace I'd ever known. My tears of sorrow became tears of joy. It was as if Jesus himself were saying to me, "Mark, put your finger here and see my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don't be faithless any longer. Believe!" And so I did.
Thomas's Response to Jesus
Returning to John 20, notice how Thomas responded to Jesus. It's curious, isn't it, that we're never told whether or not Thomas actually touched Jesus's wounds. The silence of the text suggests he didn't. Confronted by the gracious presence and offer of Jesus, Thomas exclaimed, "My Lord and my God!" He didn't need to touch Jesus after all because the presence of his Lord had touched his heart.
Now I want you to notice something absolutely crucial here. Thomas said, "My Lord and my God!" This makes him the first person in the gospels, perhaps even the first person in all of history, to confess Jesus not only as Lord, but also as God. Doubting Thomas, or better yet, honest Thomas became faithful Thomas, bold Thomas, believing Thomas.
This is where honesty with God leads. This is the outcome of an open confession of doubt. This is not pretend faith. This is not the sort of Christianity we wear as a costume to impress others. It's a 100% genuine faith that issues from the deepest recesses of our soul. It's a faith that transforms our lives. It's the sort of faith that I want. And I expect you do too.
Notice how Jesus finishes his encounter with Thomas: "You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who haven't seen me and believe anyway." This is a word of encouragement for you and me, because we don't get to see Jesus. Someday we'll see him face to face. But that day is still a long way off for most of us. In the meanwhile, you and I are those who have to believe without seeing.
And in this we are blessed. Being blessed doesn't mean we're great, or worthy, or morally superior. Being blessed means that God has chosen to pour out his goodness upon us, to be gracious to us, to reveal his Son to us. Indeed, all who believe without seeing are truly blessed.
Have you been blessed in this way? Do you believe in Jesus, even though you haven't seen him? If so, then praise God! You've been granted a marvelous gift. So use it and enjoy it and share it with others. Let your faith in Christ be the center of your life.
I'm sure there are some of you here this morning who came not believing in Jesus. You just haven't been ready to put your trust in him. But maybe during this service you've sensed the presence of Jesus through his Spirit. Maybe you've heard his invitation to believe, even as he once gave it to Thomas. If this describes your experience, then I would invite you to say "yes" to Jesus today. Put your trust in the one who died for you, bearing your sin, and who was raised on Easter so that you might have the fullness of life forever.
I expect that there are some of you here today who still feel like Thomas before he saw Jesus. You've heard the good news of salvation in Christ. You've heard that Christ is risen. You've heard the invitation to find true life in him. But you're still not sure. If this is how you're feeling right now, then let me encourage you to be like honest Thomas. Be real. Don't pretend. Tell God exactly where you are and ask for his help. And, if I could add one more thing, keep on hanging out with God's people. If you live around here, come back and join us for worship. Or sign up for the upcoming Alpha course. Or talk with a pastor. Let us walk with you on your journey to faith.
Friends, no matter where we are in our relationship with Jesus today, the good news is that he meets us in that place. In his time and his way, he graciously draws us near to his heart so we might know his love and grace. The one who gave his life for you so that you might be forgiven, the one who was raised so that you might live forever, seeks a genuine, honest relationship with you. He wants, not just a religious performance, but an intimate friendship. So no matter where you are on the road of faith, let the risen Jesus walk with you today, tomorrow, and every day from here on.