A sermon on John 20.19-31
1. Thomas as doubter?
Thomas heard from the disciples: We have seen Jesus. He said, Unless I see the print of the nails in his hands, and can put my hand into his side, I will not believe.
Does that make him a Doubter? Are you a doubter if you ask questions? Do you deserve to be dismissed as not really a believer if you specify conditions which should be fulfilled? Or is it a sign of wanting to be a believer who understands what faith in Jesus is?
Thomas was a devoted follower of Jesus.
See John 11.16: he was going with Jesus, and determined to stay with him wherever he went – Jesus said he was going to Judea, against advice of disciples, who were afraid. Thomas rallied them: Let us go with him, that we may die with him. Thomas accepted Jesus as Lord, even on the way to dying… he had come to know and love Jesus in life….he was in for the long haul with Jesus…
Now after Jesus had been taken away by crucifixion, he would sooner mourn in his bereavement than find comfort in a report of an appearance…which might be imagined, wishful thinking.
Jesus risen does not leave behind Jesus alive in the flesh. Jesus risen is one with Jesus who went around doing good, who signed the nearness of the kingdom of God, and showed what living with God was like – Jesus risen is one with Jesus who was died, shamed by the world, faithful to God, and forgiving sinners.
Thomas does not want a Jesus who has no scars, whose earlier history has been wiped away, cosmeticized, in resurrection. He wanted the one whole Jesus.
Thomas wanted to know, as surely as possible, that the One who appeared to his fellow disciples was Jesus, the Lord, he had walked with from Galilee to Jerusalem.
They all lived in a culture where there were lords and gods in heaven and earth, as Paul reminded the Corinthians (I Cor 8.5; Acts 17.Athens). People saw apparitions, they had concepts like ghosts and angels . How could Thomas know they were not imagining things?
For Thomas, being sure that what they were seeing was really Jesus, the Word made flesh depended on the risen Christ being one and the same with the crucified Jesus.
Thinking, imagining, living the resurrection while forgetting or softening the self-giving, the weakness, the dying of Jesus, leads to dreaming of a God detached from our lived reality.
Thomas didn’t want to discard or belittle the Jesus he had walked with and learnt to love and honour. He didn’t want to join in making a religion out of imagination and wishful thinking
On the second Sunday, Jesus comes to the disciples when Thomas was there, and shows his hands and side. Jesus answers Thomas before he has a chance to voice his question.
And as soon as he saw, Thomas says, My Lord and my God. All his pent-up love, faith and hope, all that had built up in him when he was walking the roads with Jesus, all that had been brought into deep question by the devastation of the crucifixion, all this bursts out in this acclamation, My Lord and my God.
2. Another story about wounds and their power
Let me share a story which helps me to see how wounds not only help us to see Jesus the Lord more clearly, but have power to turn us around and guide our living.
It comes from Johanna at Daybreak, written by the profoundly sensitive, visionary Christian storyteller R.C. Hutchinson.
Tilka was a Polish woman, who in the post-war time of the novel is bedridden and dying in a hostel for displaced persons, one of many thousands in those days. Johanna, a German woman who carries soul-destroying guilt, shared a room with Tilka and came to see her life as having been ‘nothing but goodness and courage’ (p.251).
But Tilka will not accept that ideal view of herself and will not allow Johanna to work with it. It was untrue and unhealthy: thinking, or being thought, better than we actually are, is always bad for everyone.
So to get Johanna to face the truth Tilka asked her friend Lore to tell Johanna the story of the prisoners. In the war Tilka was nursing in an army hospital when she got the news that her husband, a pilot, had been killed. She was responsible for four German prisoners whose bomber had crashed. She told them that their friends had killed her husband so they would get no more nursing from her. She locked the door and left them to die. That was her revenge on the Germans and also – so the novel says – on God. ‘He had taken Wladyslaw – I meant to take four lives in return, to defy and insult Him’.
So she left them to die. As she was going away from the locked ward, ‘He met me in the passage and told me to give him the key. He said if I wouldn’t look after the airmen he must do it himself, in spite of his condition – and you could see the trail of blood where he’d come across the snow. So I had to give in and nurse them’ (p.252).
(‘He’, here, is the crucified and risen Lord – Hutchinson does not say ‘Jesus’ – he is a novelist with a delicate sure touch – but those who have ears to hear, will say, Jesus.)
Tilka wanted Johanna to know and understand this story, because in herself Tilka was nothing more – and nothing less, than a forgiven person – she was not as Johanna imagined her, ‘nothing but (self-possessed) goodness and courage’. Tilka knew in herself she could kill the Germans and defy God. She did not forget or camouflage her sin.
Johanna’s sin was so grievous she hid from it in deep amnesia, too frightened to begin to face it. Johanna wished to have the serenity and goodness she saw in Tilka, but it was a mere dream as long as she denied the wounds she and her children carried.
In the hospital, Tilka had her responsibility to care for the sick, but she was walking away from it. The wounded One, committed, in forgiving love, even to those murdering airmen, could not accept what she was doing. He would have to care for the men, if she would not – .
[We human beings are called to represent and act for God in the world – it is a shame and disorder when God has to step in and do our work with his wounded hands.]
Tilka was open enough to be shocked and turned around by meeting the God she was defying and by seeing his response to the situation –
‘She had to give in and nurse them’ – those words in Hutchinson’s story are, I suggest, the equivalent of Thomas’s ‘ My Lord and My God,’ when he was faced with the wounded Jesus again. It quite turned round his ‘I will not believe’.
3. The continuity and unity of the whole life of Jesus
And now, this is my final point, with another story
I am suggesting that the reason why Thomas set his condition for believing was that he wanted to live and think in the continuity and the unity of the whole life of Jesus, before and after the resurrection.
It is encouraging to note that Thomas was not the only one in today’s reading who valued that continuity and wanted to promote it.
Jesus himself said to the disciples, As the Father sent me, so send I you.
That ‘as’ and ‘so’ are the links that make one continuous chain. The chain runs from Father to Jesus and so to the disciples, who stand for all who believe.
We are sent – we are all missionaries, if we are Christ’s people. We may go far away, or we may stay local.
We may live ‘Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife’ keeping ‘ the noiseless tenor of our way’ ,
Or we may go to the wildest places in the world
But wherever we are, the words of Jesus guide and inspire our living: As the Father sent me, so send I you. There is continuity and unity between Father, Son and all who believe and follow.
And now back to Thomas for the story
There are only three references to Thomas in John’s Gospel, and we have looked at two of them. But he has a big place in the history of Christian mission. While Peter and Paul went west towards Rome and Philip the deacon went down into Africa, Thomas went east and to this day, he is celebrated in the Syriac churches including in India, where there are millions of Thomas Christians in Calabar, and a shrine in Chennai marking his martyrdom.
This story has fantastic elements, that don’t fit our culture. Don’t get hooked on them. Look for evidence that Thomas knew and built on the teaching of Jesus, with its radical God-centred vision and ethic.
Thomas, traveling with a merchant into India, was brought before King Gundaphorus, who asked him his craft. Thomas said that he was a carpenter and a builder, capable of building many things, including palaces for kings. So Gundaphorus asked him to build him a palace. Thomas replied that he would wait for the winter months to build the palace; which amazed Gundaphorus, because everyone else built in the summer. But Thomas insisted, and Gundaphorus gave him a large quantity of money for building the palace, and continued to send him large quantities of money and provisions as the months went by. But Thomas took all the money and provisions he received from Gundaphorus and began dispensing it to the poor.
After a while King Gundaphorus sent a messenger to Thomas, and asked him how the palace was going.
“Everything is built except the roof,” Thomas replied. So Gundaphorus sent him gold and silver to roof the palace, and Thomas, thanking God, gave it all to the poor.
After a while the king came to the city and began inquiring of his friends and allies about the palace. They told him that Thomas had done nothing about any palace, but instead had been going about giving large sums of money to the afflicted, healing the sick, and preaching a new God. Needless to say, Gundaphorus was a bit angry and sent for Thomas.
“Have you built me my palace?” he asked.
“Yes,” the apostle said.
“Then show it to me,” the king said.
Then Thomas shook his head. “You cannot see it now; you will only be able to see it when you have departed from this life.”
The king, of course, was exceeding wroth; Thomas was thrown into prison, and Gundaphorus decided that he would flay the apostle alive.
In the meantime the king’s brother Gad had become ill and died. The king loved his brother, and with great sorrow made preparations to mourn him. However, as they were putting the burial-clothes on his body, Gad revived. The king was overjoyed and ran to his side.
Then Gad said to Gundaphorus, “Brother, I know your generous heart, and how you would give half your kingdom to anyone asked for my sake; I beg that you grant me one favor.”
And Gundaphorus said to Gad, “Ask anything and I will grant it.”
Then Gad said, “Brother, sell me your palace in the heavens.”
The king was very puzzled by this and asked, “How could I have a palace in the heavens?”
Then Gad told him that when he died, his soul was carried by angels up to the heavens, where they showed him many palaces. At length they came to one that was particularly beautiful, and Gad had begged the angels to let him live in even the humblest room of this beautiful palace. But the angels shook their heads, saying he could not dwell in that building. It had been built by Thomas for his brother. Then Gad had asked them to let him return to his brother in order to buy the palace from him. And they let him return for this very purpose.
Then Gundaphorus said to his brother, “Brother, it is not in my power to sell you that particular palace. But if you wish to buy such a palace, it is in my power to give you the means to buy it.”
So Thomas was set free in order to build a palace for Gad, just like the one he had built for Gundaphorus. The two brothers became Christians and devoted much of their lives to relieving the poor in their dominion; for it is of such stewardship that the best palaces are made.
Now there’s a lot in this story that doesn’t fit with our fact-minded culture and world-views. You don’t need to buy into it all. The key takeaway comes through clear and strong.
The story shows that Thomas took seriously the teaching of Jesus – he was a good disciple. Jesus tells us not to store up treasure on earth, but in heaven Matt 6.19-21.
Jesus told the rich young man who wanted to share the life of God, eternal life, go and sell all you have and give to the poor. Matt 19.16 Jesus told us: Whatever you do to help the least of my brethren, you do it for me Matt 25. 31.
This is the teaching of Jesus which supplied the vision and the dynamic of Thomas, this man of faith. He tricked the king, for the king’s benefit, risking his own life, gave to the poor, the whole caper was one composite act of faith.
This is the radical message of Jesus, it is no wonder there are wounds along the way of faith in Jesus. The way of Jesus cannot be followed behind locked doors for fear of what is outside. Jesus taught and lived outside, in the open; he died outside; he comes to us, in whatever lock-up we are in, and shows us his hands and side, and we have to give in and get on with his work in the world, we must take the wealth and power that comes to us in the world to invest in the poor, seeking true treasure by investing in God’s bank.
Let me finally remind you of the last words of the hymn we sang before I started talking:
Lord Christ you meet us in this hour;
Break through our sorrow, fear and doubt;
Reveal your wounds; bestow your power;
Then send us out!
And now we sing: Crown him with many crowns, including…
Crown him the Lord of love,
Behold his hands and side,
Rich wounds yet visible above,
In beauty glorified