Second Sunday of Easter

 

A woman recounted her experience of Christian camp. Each summer the camp counselor challenged her and her friends to confess Jesus Christ as Lord and savior, and thus receive the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of heaven when they died. She and her friends did what their counselor told them without hesitation.

 

But really, when you think about it, how could it have turned out otherwise? Who of them wanted to stand out from her peers as the odd duck? Peer pressure is enormous, especially during our adolescent years. We are terrified at the social consequences of nonconformity. We will even compromise our convictions to secure the acceptance of the group to which we want so badly to belong.

 

But then, if peer pressure was the motivation, how genuine was the woman’s confession? Indeed, we could ask this question concerning each one of her friends.

 

What happens when they are together with their classmates at a high school party? When they are pledging the sorority at university? When they meet for drinks with their co-workers after their shift? These people may not care about the confession they made at summer camp. Indeed, they may even pressure them to betray it, especially if it keeps them from the kind of fun they have planned.

 

The apostles have been through an ordeal. The events of the last few days have profoundly shaken them. Their teacher and friend was condemned at the hands of the Roman authorities and sentenced to a violent death on a cross. And then, the women told them news which also upset them. They insisted that Jesus, once dead, appeared to them alive.

 

This was the theme of last Sunday’s celebration. “He is not here; he has risen!” (Luke 24:6).

 

Now at first the apostles were skeptical; they regarded the woman’s report as an “idle tale,” as you will remember. But today they are together in a locked room. Does the fact that they are together suggest that they were willing at least to entertain the report of the women?

 

But not all of them are there. Thomas is missing. No doubt the disciples tried to persuade him to join them. We’ve already mentioned how difficult it is to stand on our own convictions in the face of peer pressure. But Thomas is firm. Following Jesus was meaningful while it lasted, but it’s over now. The dead are not raised. Of this much at least, he is sure. And he will not surrender his convictions for the sake of loyalty to the group.

 

Just who does this man think he is? This man—so impervious to peer pressure!

 

About Thomas we don’t know very much. He speaks only twice before now in John’s Gospel. In the first instance, he is together with the disciples east of the Jordan River. Jesus announces his intent to go to Bethany, in Judea, where his enemies were lying in wait to harm him. The threat is not only to Jesus but also to his disciples. Recognizing this fact, Thomas speaks up: “let us also go, that we might die with him” (John 11:6). 

 

In the second instance, he’s again together with the disciples in the upper room, where Jesus is teaching them before his departure. Jesus talks about the place where he is going and assures the disciples that they know the way. Certainly, Thomas speaks on behalf of them all when he asks: “Lord, we don’t the place where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5).

 

Thomas gives us no reason to doubt his sincerity. He shows himself to be courageous and faithful. And even if he misunderstands Jesus and his teachings, he is no different in this respect than the rest of the disciples. The disciples never understood Jesus when he told them that he was going to be delivered into the hands of evil men, be crucified, and in three days rise from the dead. And when the women returned from the empty tomb to tell them the message about the resurrection, they dismissed it as nonsense, as we have already mentioned.

 

If we heard the witness of the women to the disciples then, today we hear the witness of the disciples to Thomas: “We have seen the Lord!”  

 

But Thomas is unmoved. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).

 

Preachers through the centuries have given Thomas a hard time for his stubbornness. That is why he has become known as “doubting Thomas”—a title that certainly isn’t meant to flatter him. But consider that Thomas is using a faculty that is the distinguishing trait of human beings: his reason. Man is the rational animal, as Aristotle famously defined him. The apostles bring forward a claim. And Thomas wants evidence sufficient to support that claim.

 

So let’s give Thomas the benefit of his doubt. Let’s not interpret it as defiant resistance to the claim. Of course, this is always possible. We know that if the mind is already made up, there’s no amount of evidence that’s ever going to change it. But let’s instead interpret Thomas’ doubt as sincere. We’ll assume that he’s willing to be proved wrong, if the disciples can furnish the evidence that he demands. The very fact that he is with the disciples in the room the following week suggests that we are right in making this assumption.

 

Thomas’ response to the disciples provides the occasion to pause here and ask about the role of reason in faith. Are faith and reason opposed? Some seem to think so. But are they really? When we arrive at faith, does the church require us to check our reason at the door? 

 

In 2018, author and Christian apologist Dr. J.P. Moreland observed that record numbers of Christians—especially those thirty-five and under—were leaving the church and rejecting belief in God and Jesus Christ. And why? It wasn’t because the worship services were uninspiring. It wasn’t because the church was failing to love and enfold people into community. Nor was it because of scandal and corruption. In a Barna poll, researchers tried to determine why the Millennial generation was leaving the church and rejecting the faith. (The Millennials are those born between 1984 and 2000.) The researchers discovered six reasons. (1) The church is overprotective and fails to expose people to anti-Christian ideas. (2) The church’s teaching is shallow. (3) The church is antagonistic to science and fails to help believers interact with scientific claims. (4) The church treats sexuality simplistically and judgmentally. (5) The church makes exclusivist claims. (6) The church is dismissive of doubters.

 

Note that each of these reasons involves a failure to engage the mind. A man shared with Dr. Moreland that he and a few others were working with 25 Millennials in a church outreach. Some were atheists, but most were Christians on the verge of leaving Christianity. They confided to the man that when they brought up their doubts in church, pastors either dismissed them or gave them weak answers.

 

This is most unfortunate. Pastors have a responsibility to help people, regardless of their age, find the answers to the questions that they have. They should never mislead anyone into thinking that the Christian faith is shallow, that it’s antagonistic to science, that it avoids honest dialogue with alternative viewpoints. Those who give people this impression are misrepresenting Christianity. The intellectual resources of the Christian faith are more than adequate to bear the weight of the questions we bring to it. One of the values of the Presbyterian tradition is education. If the results of the Barna poll are accurate, then we who identify with this tradition must continue to stress the need for an educated clergy. 

 

The God revealed in Jesus Christ is not intimidated by our questions. On the contrary, he welcomes them. “Ask and it shall be given to you; seek and you shall find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). These words contain a promise that God is always ready to fulfill. He is more than willing to point people in the direction where they can find answers to the questions they are asking, even if they are not Presbyterian! God is no respecter of persons. He does not discriminate. But they, for their part, have to be willing to ask him. God will not force answers on anyone. He wants people to inquire of him in freedom. Anyone who comes to him must believe that he is there and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him (Hebrews 11:6).

 

Jesus is aware of Thomas’ demand. When he appears again to the disciples in the locked room, he turns to Thomas. Note he does not reprove him. He is patient with him. He is gracious enough to accept his demand and help him with his doubt. Note how he accommodates himself to him. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side” (John 20:27).

 

We should find comfort in the grace shown to Thomas here. God will not hide and withdraw himself from us if we are seriously open to an encounter with him. He will show himself to us. God promised the exiles in Babylon: “You will come to me and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:12-13). On that day in the locked room, Thomas discovered that this promise applied to him. And this promise still applies to us today.

 

The doubt of Thomas is transformed into faith, which in turn leads to confession. Faith and confession go together in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul says: “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Thomas’ response, “My Lord and my God!” (20:28), is not an expression of astonishment or praise to God. It is a confession of Thomas’s heartfelt belief in the Jesus whom God raised from the dead. Thus we learn, according to the words of one Bible student, that “the most outrageous doubter of the resurrection of Jesus utters the greatest confession of the Lord who rose from the dead.”

 

Note that this is Thomas’ confession. It is his faith. This needs always to be borne in mind. Just as Peter had to enter into the tomb and inspect the grave clothes for himself, so Thomas has to come to a conclusion about the resurrection for himself. This has not changed. It still applies to each one of us today. The woman who recounted her experience of Christian camp—she has come to her own conclusion about the risen Christ. The Millennial who is ready to leave the church and reject Christianity—he too has to come to his own conclusion about the risen Christ. And each one of us has also.

 

Does our confession mean that our struggle with doubt ceases? No, this struggle will remain, to a greater or lesser degree, for all of us. But the difference is that this struggle is enfolded and contained by the peace that the risen Christ gives. This is the final observation we will make. 

 

Note that peace is the very first word that Jesus addresses to his fearful disciples. Many goods in life are appreciated most in light of their opposites: a warm fire after a cold day; intimate companionship after a long loneliness. So here peace after hostility and harassment. The risen Jesus has a peace that cannot ever again be torn from his heart by violence. That same peace he imparts to his disciples.

 

In our language the word peace means lack of conflict. But in Hebrew the word has a richer meaning, as we have noted before. The word for peace is shalom. When someone uses the greeting shalom, he or she is saying: may you know wholeness in soul, and mind and body. May you flourish as the recipient of God’s abundant blessings.

 

Imagine how that greeting from the Son of God must have calmed the fears of the disciples, if not right at that moment, then certainly later! In fact, to make sure that his disciples received his shalom, Jesus repeats the greeting a second time. And when he appears to them a week later in the same room, he again bestows on them this same peace. It is in this peace that Thomas participates after his struggle with doubt. 

 

That John adds to his account the threefold repetition of Christ’s peace ought to be a comfort to us too. It tells us that God does not will to leave us in a state of distress to which our doubts bring us. He comes to us again and again with renewed assurance because he wants us to rest in his peace. Just as he entered the locked room then, so also he enters the heart. He breaks into the citadel of fear and doubt to quiet and comfort the heart with his peace.

 

This is the blessing for us who have not seen and yet have come to believe. Let us, each one of us, make sure we receive this blessing and make it our own. Amen.

 

 

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