Friday, May 6, 2011

Loving Thomas

As the Bible tells us about Jesus, we also learn about the men and women who were his students, friends, followers and apprentices when Jesus was on earth.  God has chosen to tell us about them so we will know how "normal" they are.  They had some successes but they failed so often--and though many of their failings were transformed by the Holy Spirit, we can see and relate to them and their personalities.

One of the disciples is named Thomas.  Thomas is an honest man who, like me, isn't easily convinced or swayed by what other people tell him.  He wants to investigate, know the evidence, and judge the truth for himself.

On the Sunday after Easter, Christians often highlight this particular follower of Jesus because of the Bible story I'll quote below.  As I've preached sermons related to this story for twenty-five years, I normally highlight Thomas as a good example instead of shaming him as a "doubter."   I've often noted how Jesus deals with Thomas, how he offers Thomas what it is he needs in order to believe and trust in him as his Lord and God.  Jesus is so remarkably patient with all of his disciples.  And I'm so thankful for that!

As I was praying over what to share in my sermon last Sunday (May 1) three additional factors came to mind.  First is the fact that the other disciples, who had already received what they needed to believe -- the other disciples did not do anything to remove Thomas from their group.  Second, Thomas stayed around even though he didn't believe.  Third, and this is just so cool, the scripture passage below makes it seem as though Thomas' need for "evidence" is the one and only reason Jesus came back to see the disciples the Sunday after Easter!

In this encounter with Jesus, who died and rose again for us, we see him dealing personally with this one--Thomas gets all of Jesus' attention.  Jesus is loving Thomas!  What a gift!

Here are the notes I prepared in advance of preaching May 1, 2011.  Unfortunately we don't have any audio recording to share.

John 20:19-31
     19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
     21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
     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.”
     30 Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Believing, trusting, living without anxiety… those are very good things.

But what do you do if you honestly have a really hard time with believing or trusting God?

Maybe there have been times in your life when you have felt like you were left out when something important happened. Maybe others have had advantages that you haven’t. Maybe you’ve been hurt or ignored when others have been blessed. And, maybe, not having been there, you just aren’t able to be as excited and enthusiastic as others. Maybe you just can’t believe.

That’s what happened with Thomas. Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus came and showed himself alive. And because Thomas was honest, he just couldn’t fake it. He couldn’t just go along with the crowd.

What’s remarkable, though, about this Bible passage, is what Jesus and the other disciples do with their doubting and honest brother. And, the other thing that’s remarkable, is what Thomas does.

The disciples don’t reject Thomas. We know that because, a week after Jesus had risen from the dead, they still had Thomas with them.

It would be good for us to think about what that would mean for us. What does it mean for us to have someone “with us” even when they have problems believing and trusting God, when they seem stubborn or too strong willed or difficult?

Our tendency, I think, is to let people go.

How do we do that?  It's different for us than it was for the disciples way back then.  They were together not only once a week, but every day.  The disciples lived in close community with one another.  Today, we're more isolated in our homes and apartments and cars.  For us, letting someone "go" is so easy.  For us, letting someone go can mean simply not going out of our way to call them or visit with them.  Instead of ushering or pushing someone out the literal door of the church--instead of "excommunicating" or actively shunning someone, we simply let them go by just letting them slip from our minds.  We "respect their privacy" and let them go by simply letting them drift away.

So, since the result of keeping Thomas with them was so amazing, that is, Thomas received what he needed to believe in Jesus as his Lord and God, I ask this: What would it mean for us to keep someone “with us” today?  What would it take to keep someone close to us even when they are having a hard time in these days when people aren't constantly seeing one another on the street?

This is something we need to think about and especially pray about!  Galatians 6:1 speaks to us about restoring a person who has fallen away in a spirit of gentleness. “Carry each other’s burdens,” it says in the next verse, “and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” What is the “law of Christ?” To love others as He has loved us! And in First Thessalonians 3:10, we find this: “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.”

Do we do that?  Do we "pray most earnestly" that we may restore someone who is drifting? 

The disciples don’t reject Thomas. They keep him close. That’s the first thing that’s remarkable here.

For Thomas’ part, he doesn’t leave. He stays with the believing disciples. He admits his doubts and stays in the group.

My daughter Naomi has a friend who, like Thomas, has been honest enough to say what it is she has a hard time believing.

Last fall there was a time at her church where they encouraged people to get up and share what God is doing in their lives.

I think we should be having those sorts of days too. Instead of a sermon, we could do some sharing… maybe people could pick a Bible verse and then share what it means to them personally.

Naomi’s friend Melissa’s verse could have been John 20:24-25… Here’s what she said last November… her testimony is actually on line, on the internet, if you want to hear it for yourself.  (Click the following link to go directly to the mp3 audio file from the Church of All nations: -- the testimony below is found, as I recall, a little less than half way through.)
A lot of people get stage fright, but this is really scary for me because I spent most of my whole life learning how and practicing to hide myself from other people, especially people in the church.

I'm here at this church to unlearn that and it's terrifying… it’s so terrifying that I ran away from this church before because it's a place where people really do want to get to know you. But...

I'm committing to being here. Fully. With myself.

I grew up with lots of feelings of hurt and inadequacy from the church and my parents and other people in the church, but that was never something that could be shown, it was always that you had to be put together and present the best side when you come to church.

But I'm not very put together. I still have a lot of hurt and confusion.

I became an atheist at a very young age because I didn't believe there could really be a loving God. I thought atheism was a safer route than actually admitting that I hated God.

So, in college (I went to a Christian college) it became really really important for me to figure out what I believed theologically so I could believe God loved me.

I couldn't figure it out.

I still don't know what I think.


I'm gonna let people love me and learn to love them and see where that leads.

That's me.
I hope we can be a church that is willing to be with and walk alongside people… and we should pray that people who don’t believe yet are drawn, as Melissa says, to “let people love me and learn to love them and see where that leads.” Because, the truth is, because of the Holy Spirit that has been given to us, when people hang around long enough, chances are that the Holy Spirit will get a hold of their hearts and they will get the help they need to believe.

None of us have directly seen the Lord Jesus in the flesh, but God, through his Holy Spirit, has given us enough evidence of Jesus resurrection so we do believe—we have come to trust in the evidence presented in the Bible, in all the eye witness reports of Jesus resurrection and in the ways that really smart people have looked at them over the ages and have come to the conclusion that yes, no other explanation makes sense… the lives of the disciples and so many other lives since then have been changed, people have been born again, miracles have happened over and over… and so we say yes, Christ is Risen!

And we wait until others come to believe too.

Because when we are willing to love each other, and study the truth, the Lord will reveal himself to us. That’s what happened 2,000 years ago with Thomas, when Jesus himself showed up, just for him.

This is honestly the most amazing thing. Jesus showed up a week later… and, as I read John 20, as far as I can see, the only reason Jesus came to the disciples that second time was in order to give Thomas what he needed to believe.

If you have a hard time believing, don’t hold those questions inside, bring them out, and ask Jesus to give you what you need to believe and trust in him, because believing and trusting and not being anxious for anything; that’s a really good thing… but, it needs to be God who give us what we need; we ought not just fake our faith. It needs to be God himself who gives us the evidence we need.

Like it says in Psalm 16:2, “Apart from you,” that is, apart from God, the Lord, apart from Jesus, “I have no good thing.”

Other people can testify to what God has done in their lives, but you and I ought not believe just because someone else tells us to, we ought to ask God to show us himself.

And the amazing thing is, God will.

He cares for all of his smallest and weakest ones.

Back quite a long time ago, back when I was in high school or college, a man by the name of Martin Bell wrote a little story called “The Rag-Tag Army.”

I pray we, as a church, can be like this…

Martin Bell writes:
Look at God’s rag-tag little army! All he has for soldiers are you and me. Dumb little army.

Listen! The drum beat isn’t even regular. Everyone is out of step. And there! You see? God keeps stopping along the way to pick up one of God’s tinier soldiers who decided to wander off and play with a frog, or run in a field, or whose foot got tangled in the underbrush. God will never get anywhere that way. And yet, the march goes on.

Do you see how the marchers have broken up into little groups? Look at that group up near the front. Now, there’s a snappy outfit… –at least they’re in step with each other. Only they’re not wearing their shoes. They’re carrying them in their hands. Silly little band. They won’t get far before God will have to stop again.

Or how about that other group over there? They’re all holding hands as they march. The only trouble with this is the people on each end of the line. Pretty soon they realize that one of their hands isn’t holding onto anything–one hand is reaching, empty, alone. And so they hold hands with each other, and everybody marches around in circles. The more people holding hands, the bigger the circle. And, of course, a bigger circle is deceptive because as we march along it looks like we’re going someplace, but we’re not. And so

God must stop again. You see what I mean? He’ll never get anywhere that way!

If God were more sensible he’d take his little army and shape them up. Why, whoever heard of a soldier stopping to romp in a field? It’s ridiculous. But even more absurd is a general who will stop the march of eternity to go and bring the soldier back.

But that’s God for you. His is no endless, empty marching. He is going somewhere. His steps are deliberate and purposive. He may be old, and he may be tired. But he knows where he’s going. And he means to take every last one of his tiny soldiers with him.

Only there aren’t going to be any forced marches.

And, after all, there are frogs and flowers, and thorns and underbrush along the way. And even though our foreheads have been signed with the sign of the cross, we are only human. And most of us are afraid and lonely and would like to hold hands or cry or run away. And we don’t know where we are going, and we can’t seem to trust God–especially when it’s dark out and we can’t see him! And he won’t go on without us.

And that’s why it’s taking so long.

Listen! The drum beat isn’t even regular. Everyone is out of step. And there! You see? God keeps stopping along the way to pick up one of God’s tinier soldiers who decided to wander off and play with a frog, or run in a field, or whose foot got tangled in the underbrush. God will never get anywhere that way.

And yet, the march goes on.
God isn't old and tired, but otherwise this is a very sweet story.  I hope it, in some ways, describes this church.

So let’s stay together, friends, with all the others who have come to believe in Jesus and with those who have yet to believe!

Let’s stay together and pray that God would reveal himself in a convincing way, as he did to Thomas, so more and more can enjoy a life of faith and hope and unending love.

No comments:

Post a Comment