Forget About It

Delivered April 23, 2000 (Easter) by Rev. Jerome D. Cooper

Sermon Text:
John 20:24-29
24 Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the
disciples when Jesus came.
25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he
said to them, “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 it.”
26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas
was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood
among them and said, “Peace be with you!”
27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands.
Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed;
blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

On February 17, 1991, Mrs. Ruth Dillow was sitting at her home in Chanute, Kansas when she received a phone call. The person on the other end of the line identified himself as being from the Pentagon and he was sorry to inform her that her son, private first class Clayton Carpenter had stepped on a land-mine and had been killed. Of course, the news hit her like a blow and as the reality began to set in, it was as if she had lost her own life with the life of her son.

On the third day, after mourning in the depths of despair, she got a second phone call and this time the person on the other side of the phone said… “Mom! I’m alive!” At first she couldn’t believe it was her son, but as they began to talk finally it began to sink in. “This really is my son, he’s not dead, he’s alive!” She said that it felt like she had gotten her life back again when she got her son back.

How Ruth Dillow felt when she got that news is something like how the disciples felt when they found out that Jesus was risen from the dead. They also had been in the depths of despair: their best friend, their master, their teacher and Lord they’d followed for three years had been crucified. Not just that, but now they were penned up, for fear of the Jews, in the upper room. And then to find out that he wasn’t dead but alive.

But there’s one big difference between Ruth Dillow and the disciples. Clayton Carpenter had never been dead, The Pentagon had simply made a mistake – not too surprising, right? But Jesus Christ had actually died. Now if I had told you that Clayton Carpenter had actually died, and then had risen from the dead, you’d probably have said, “What magazine did you get that from, The Enquirer?” None of you would believe it, because we know that’s just not the way the world works, that’s not the way the rules of the world are played. When somebody dies, they stay dead. That was just as true 2000 years ago, the disciples knew that kind of thing didn’t happen either.

Of course, we know of one disciple in particular who held out for quite a while before believing the resurrection, don’t we? In fact, even if you don’t remember who he is, you remember the name, “Doubting Thomas.” How would you like to be known your whole life and then on into future generations, for the one mistake, the biggest mistake, you made in your life. None of us would like that, would we? Unfortunately, Thomas gets a bad rap and we remember him only as “doubting” Thomas and not as the disciple who first evangelized Iran and then went on to evangelize India until he was finally killed for his faith. We don’t remember that. We might never have even heard of that. What we have heard and do remember is him saying, “I’m not going to believe it.” So, did Thomas get a bad rap?

Please turn with me to John, chapter 20 and let’s find out. John 20:24-29. You can find this on page 769 of your red pew bibles.

Now Thomas (called Didymus, or the twin) one of the Twelve, was not with the other disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him “We have seen the Lord!” But Thomas said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my fingers where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. And even though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” And Thomas said to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” And then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed, but blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

May the Lord add his blessing to this reading from his Word. Please join me as we pray.

Lord. we do thank you for these your words to us from the apostle John telling us about your resurrection and your disciples. Lord, we pray that by your Holy Spirit that you would teach us what you want us to learn through these words and you would make us more faithful disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

So here’s the setting – Thomas misses Church that Sunday and he misses Jesus. I imagine he probably decided he’d attend from now on not knowing what would happen next. He wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to the other 10 disciples. And because he wasn’t there, when he finally caught up with them they began to tell him, “Thomas, we saw the Lord! He’s alive!” And of course Thomas’ reaction was, “Yeah right. I’m having enough trouble with it as it is without you going and making up these stories.” Now, in the Greek, the verb “to tell” is a continuous verb, in other words, they continued to tell him. So for the week that it took from the first appearance of Jesus to the second appearance with Thomas, Thomas continued to hang around the disciples and they continued to tell him, “We’ve seen the Lord! Really, it’s true! We’re not making it up. We’ve seen him!” And Thomas continued to say, “It’s not possible. It just can’t be! Unless I see the nail marks in his hand and where the spear pierced his side, I just can’t believe.”

You know, we are too harsh on Thomas, because almost none of the disciples believed at first. You remember the story: at first the women went and saw the empty tomb and they thought that Jesus’ body had been stolen, then they went back and told the disciples what the angel told them, “He is risen!” The disciples responded, “Ah, it’s just a bunch of nonsense. What’s the problem with these women?” Then Peter and John ran out to the tomb and Peter looked in and he saw the grave clothes lying there but no body, and the Bible says he still didn’t understand. Only John the apostle understood without seeing. For the vast majority of disciples it took an appearance of Jesus Christ to make them believe. So why are we so hard on Thomas? Poor Thomas. We call him stubborn, we call a skeptic, but that’s not who he was at all. I’ll tell you who a skeptic is – it’s another Thomas, Thomas Jefferson.

Did you know that the United States Congress once published a bible? The Thomas Jefferson Bible. Of course, it doesn’t look quite like the one you find in front of you in the pews today. You see, he changed his a little bit. He decided he couldn’t believe in miracles, so he just took them all out. And you know how the Gospels end in Thomas Jefferson’s version of the Bible? “And they laid Jesus in the tomb.” Period. End of story. What a sad story.

You see our Thomas wasn’t like that at all, it wasn’t that he wasn’t willing to believe. In fact, I would bet you that he wanted to believe with all his heart that Jesus was risen from the dead, but just couldn’t.

My brothers live in Alaska. My grandmother, who as you know recently passed away, went up to visit them in Alaska two years ago and my brothers decided to do something very special and have a celebration. So they rented a limousine and they got their two families together and my grandmother and they decided to drive to the local ski resort about 30 miles away to have dinner. It’s a beautiful drive between the ocean and the mountains on a nice winding highway. But they never got to dinner, because on the way the car in front of them lost control on one of the curves and ended up turning over and flipping and crashing over onto the side. So they immediately stopped and tried to help them and see what they could do. They tried to turn over the car so they could get one of the doors open and begin to help people. Unfortunately one of the little girls had been actually thrown from the car and she was thrown onto the rocks. One of my brothers went over to get her and see if he could help, but he found out that he was not able to help her. And so all he did was he held her, and she died in his arms. He saw her take her last breath. He had her blood all over his own suit and clothing.

That reality hit my brother hard and if you’d come to him two days later and said, “Hey you know what? That little girl, she’s alive and she’s running around now!” My brother would say “There is no way that can be true. I saw her die. I held her in my arms as she took her last breath.” In fact, he would say “Unless I see her, unless I see the wounds where her blood flowed out, unless I see her crushed arm, unless I see her wounds, I will not believe that it is the same girl and that she is alive!” And you and I would be the same way wouldn’t we? We would require proof, in the same way that Thomas wanted more, he wanted proof.

You know, Thomas’ doubting, if we want to call it that, or his questioning, his desire for more proof, actually ought to be an encouragement to you and to me that the first disciples were not just simple dupes who would believe anything. They were people who wanted to know that the Jesus of history was the same as the risen Christ. That it wasn’t just some fantasy or fancy of the mind, but it was true.

A week later, Thomas was gathered with the other disciples when Jesus reappeared. Just think about that week – what that week must have been like for Thomas who didn’t believe, to be with the other disciples who did believe. How awkward that must have been in many ways. But the wonderful part of that picture is how obviously the disciples, the other 10, accepted the questions of Thomas and didn’t kick him out of their fellowship because he didn’t believe, but rather were willing to accept Thomas, questions and all. And so when Jesus reappeared 7 days later, Thomas was there. It is interesting to see Jesus’ reaction to Thomas. Does Jesus rebuke Thomas for his questioning? Does he say, “Oh how terrible you are to require proof?” No. In fact, what he does, in such a gracious wonderful way, is he actually accepts Thomas’ question as a valid one, and says, “Look, Thomas. Come, look at my hands, put your finger here where the nails were. Look Thomas. Here is my side, put your hand here.” What a gracious gift of Christ to his disciple. He knew that Thomas was in pain, he knew the questions that Thomas had, in fact he repeated back to Thomas almost verbatim his demand. Jesus knew Thomas’ heart. Jesus knows our heart and our questions as well. He doesn’t put us down for them, he wants to meet us where we are.

It’s also interesting that Jesus goes on to say, “Stop doubting and believe” which actually isn’t the best translation. A better translation would be “stop becoming an unbeliever.” “Stop becoming an unbeliever but rather become a believer.” You see Thomas wasn’t a believer but he also wasn’t an unbeliever, he was simply a person who had not yet been convinced but who desired to be and now he was confronted with the truth and now he had to make the choice: would he move on down the path to become an unbeliever or decide to believe in the truth of the resurrection. Thanks be to God he went the right direction and he believed.

In fact, his response was, “My Lord and my God.” You know, those are the words we should remember Thomas for. He is the very first disciple to admit, to proclaim Jesus Christ as God. I can imagine Thomas after Jesus’ crucifixion throughout that time from Good Friday through Easter and on until he was confronted with the risen Lord, that he was probably thinking “Where is the Lord in all this? How can the Lord possibly allow his servant, Jesus, to be betrayed, to be judged, to be crucified? He was innocent. How could God allow this? Where was God? Where is God?”

But when he was confronted with the risen Lord all his questions were answered. Not only the question of whether Jesus had risen from the dead, but also the question of “Where is God? Where was God?” Because the answer came loud and clear, “Wow, God was with me all the time, because God was in Jesus Christ. God was not absent, he wasn’t just up there in heaven doing nothing. He wasn’t ignoring us. He was right here with us.” This wasn’t something Thomas calculated in his mind. It was a revelation – a gift from God – a truth he probably didn’t figure out fully until later.

You see, when God enters life the old rules don’t apply any more, and that’s where he had been having trouble. The old rule says “once you’re dead, you’re dead.” And even when Lazarus was raised from the dead it was Jesus who did it, right? But now Jesus had died. But the old rules don’t apply because God is with us. And since God was with us in Christ, Christ was raised from the dead: victorious over death, victorious over sin.

What are some of the rules we live life by? “You get what you deserve.” Well, I tell you, thanks be to God I DON’T get what I deserve. You see, I turned away from the God who created me, I have rebelled against my King, and I’m guilty of high treason. And what’s the penalty for high treason? Execution. Death. Every single one of us in this room has rebelled against our Creator, our Lord and our King. Every single one of us deserves death because we have gone our own way. Now we often compare ourselves to one another and we think we’re doing OK, but we need to compare ourselves to who we were created to be, to mirror God’s perfection and holiness. If I were to get what I deserved, I would get death and eternal separation from God. But what do I get? Instead, I get eternal life. When I trust in Jesus Christ my sins are forgiven and I get eternal life with Christ, not even just in the future, but a new life right now. Praise be to God I don’t get what I deserve.

Or, how about: “You get what you pay for.” Thank goodness I don’t have to earn, I don’t have to pay for, what Christ has given me. Imagine you go to a friend’s house for dinner. They invite you over and they spend the whole day preparing their home and preparing the meal. That evening they receive you into their home and you sit down and you enjoy a delicious feast and wonderful fellowship with friends. When everything is over and you rise from the table, do you take out your wallet and say, “How much do I owe you for that?” That would be an offense, an insult to the person who invited you. That dinner was a gift, a gift of love, a free gift of grace – and it’s the same with what Christ has done for us. We cannot repay God for his sacrifice on our behalf as he died on the cross and took upon himself our death penalty. It’s a gift, all I have to do is receive it, that’s all, just receive it. You see, the old rules just don’t apply anymore.

Of course we don’t have the risen Lord in front of us like Thomas did. We have to depend on the testimony of others. And for us, there is no opportunity for proof like the first disciples had. We must rely on historical probability, the reality that there is no other explanation for everything that happened other than the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. First, if he had not been raised from the dead the Jews or the Romans would have produced the body. Next, there’s no way that the disciples would have kept to a lie that only led to their suffering and death as they proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Or try to explain the conversion of Paul, the greatest enemy the early church knew, by anything other than the witness of Scripture which tells us that the risen Christ appeared to him and he came to believe. For every historical question like this, the most reasonable answer is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, if you are willing to believe.

That being true, what Jesus tells Thomas at the end is the exact opposite of what we often think. We think, “blessed were the first disciples who saw Jesus raised from the dead,” but Jesus says, “Blessed are you who have NOT seen and yet who have believed.” You see just as Jesus told Thomas 2000 years ago, “Stop becoming an unbeliever, but rather become a believer,” he gives us that same challenge. We have a choice as we are confronted with the truth of Christ. Do we move down the path toward unbelief or toward belief and trust and faith?

Of course, there are two levels of belief. The first is a level of fact. “Do I believe that Jesus Christ was crucified for my sin, that he paid the death penalty for me and was raised again to life?” That is the first step, and we need to take that step. But secondly, we need to take the step that says, “Not only do I believe the FACT, but I believe the DEEPER REALITY that if the fact is true, then Jesus Christ is alive today – and not just up in heaven, but here with you and me right now. And that means the rules have changed.” Forget the old rules, God is among us. It’s a whole new set of rules and nothing is impossible.

If we live according to the new rules, we live in the truth that eternal life, the free gift of God, has already begun for those who believe. The challenge is whether we are willing to live that eternal life right now in the power and the strength of our Lord Jesus, and, we could even say, in the courage of Thomas who followed Christ all the way.

Join me as we pray.
Lord, we do thank you for the amazing gift of you free love and grace to us in Jesus Christ. We thank you that you came to us in Christ, that you willingly suffered humiliation and death for us and were raised to life that we might live eternally with you starting now. Lord, we do thank you for your presence that never leaves us. Lord, help us to recognize that presence, to depend upon it and live confidently knowing you live in and through us. Help us to be joyful and thankful to the depths of our souls, this Easter and everyday, for we ask it in Jesus name. Amen.