Sermon, April 23, 2017 – Second Sunday of Easter, Year A
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.
Many of you will remember the controversy a couple of weeks ago when airport police dragged a passenger off of his United airlines flight when he refused to disembark voluntarily in order to give up his seat. I am sure when you heard this story, you thought to yourself “I wonder when the lawsuit will come.” I wondered that too, and, sure enough, a few days after the incident, the media reported that the preliminary steps were being taken towards filing a lawsuit.
Do you know what that preliminary step was? It was a motion by the injured passenger to require United and O’Hare airport to preserve all the evidence related to this incident. Why was this so important? Because without evidence, there is no court case.
Human beings have the need for proof and evidence hardwired into our brains. The bedrock of our justice system is evidence. Among the most important skills and lessons learned in law school is how to find out what evidence you need to prove something and how you can present that evidence to the court. Several of the amendments to the United States constitution speak to issues of proof and evidence in court proceedings – from protection against unreasonable search and seizure to the right to confront witnesses, to the right to have a jury to weigh the evidence.
This innate need for evidence spans all human cultures and time. There are rules for evidence in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 19:15 says “One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” And one of the Ten Commandments is not to bear false witness. There are many examples of such evidentiary requirements in other cultures and traditions.
We want evidence. We demand proofs before we believe things. And the more particular, strange or important an event is, the greater our need is for evidence, and the better that evidence must be. And so, if I tell you that on a given Sunday at St. Luke’s, refreshments were served after the worship service, I doubt that most of you will demand that I show you evidence. This is something that happens every week.
But suppose you made a $1,000 bet with someone that my sermon was going to be 5 minutes or less on a given Sunday. Suppose that you were not able to make it to church that day, but your friend came collecting. And you would say “No way that James ever preaches less than 10 minutes! I won’t pay out unless you show me a video of that sermon.” This is something unusual and, what’s more, you have skin in the game. You want some proof. How much more proof would you demand if the claim was that somebody rose from the dead, and that your penalty for being wrong was very possibly your very life? Yeah, you’d really want some evidence then.
And this brings us to today’s <a href=”https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+20%3A19-31&version=NIV” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer”>Gospel reading</a>, where we heard the story of Doubting Thomas. Poor guy. He has a perfectly reasonable response to the news of the resurrection of Jesus, one that I’ll bet each one of us here today would have, and we label him for life. Doubting Thomas. But the more I think of this story, the more I am convinced that it really has nothing to tell us about doubt. I think that the reaction of Thomas is simply the natural reaction that every normal human being that has ever lived would have. If they had Twitter back in the New Testament times, the relevant hashtag would be #WeAreAllThomas.
What is the point of this story? I think that the final two verses in today’s passage give us an important clue. John writes “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” John is telling us that there are many other stories that he could have included in his Gospel account. But he chose the stories that he includes so that we may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and that by believing, we may have life in his name. John chose to include the story of Thomas to encourage our belief.
When seen in this light, it all makes a great deal of sense. John includes this story of Thomas so that the hearers of his Gospel might believe. The story of Thomas is all about how he wanted evidence of the resurrection of Jesus and how he saw the evidence and was convinced by it. As mentioned, the more unusual or strange an event is, the more evidence we demand. And the greater the impact an event might have on us, the more proof we want to see.
Well, what happened to Jesus on Easter morning was just about the most extraordinary thing that we could possibly imagine. Here was a man who had been officially executed and placed in a secure tomb who apparently had risen from the dead. On the scale of the extraordinary and bizarre, this incident is simply off the charts. And there were also serious consequences for the disciples if this event were true. Jesus had been officially executed by the Roman government at the behest of the Jewish religious establishment. By publically preaching that Jesus had risen from the dead, the disciples would be challenging the secular and religious powers, and thereby courting torture and death.
Early Christians needed to be very certain that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead, and I think that this was the reason why John includes this story in his Gospel. Thomas’ doubt represents the doubts not only of all early Christians but of ourselves as well. Thomas is the credible eye-witness for all of us. Remember that the early Church was much smaller then today, and well-connected with each other. It would have been impossible for John to have included this eyewitness story about Thomas unless it were true. For us, this would be like someone saying “well, Dorothy and Joan both saw it and they are ready to swear to us that it is true.” John knows that only a handful of people were in a position to be eye witnesses to the physical resurrection of Jesus, but records the eyewitness evidence for us. Today, this would be like making a video recording of Dorothy and Joan telling their story to us, complete with a firm affirmation of truthfulness.
Why would it be important for early Christians to have such confidence in Jesus’ resurrection? For the same reason that it is important for us. It gives us the confidence to do what God is calling us to do, and it gives us confidence to persevere in this life when we face death and decay day after day. Faith does not necessarily work in the complete absence of evidence, but can work hand in hand with strong evidence. Faith and doubt are not opposites. One can have faith in the midst of doubt on the basis of strong evidence.
I recall back when I was in high school attending a confirmation class at my church. Our pastor asked us if we thought there was absolute proof that Jesus rose from the dead, and if so, what was it. Well, pretty quickly a number of students raised their hands and said that the proof was that it was in the Bible. And the pastor then asked them what proof they had that the Bible was true on this. And so it went on for a bit. Back then, I was much quieter than I am now so I listened for a while. But I finally raised my hand and said “we don’t have absolute proof that Jesus rose from the dead. There is good evidence for it, but in the end, we just have to combine that evidence with faith that it is true.” This was the lesson that our pastor was trying to teach us.
As many Christian scholars and theologians, including N.T. Wright, Timothy Keller, Lee Strobel and others have argued, if you look at the available evidence, the strongest and best conclusion that fits the facts is that Jesus Christ did, in fact, rise from the dead. The other explanations for the available evidence just make no sense.
Strong faith, undergirded by the evidence of Thomas and the evidence in the rest of the Gospels, gives us confidence to persevere in this life when we face sin, death, and decay. This is what gave Peter the courage to preach as we read about in our first reading from the Book of Acts. Peter, the disciple who earlier was tongue-tied and so cowardly as to deny even knowing Jesus, suddenly became full of courage. He stood up to speak to a crowd in Jerusalem saying “God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” and “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it.” Do you really think that Peter would have turned from coward to bold preacher who put his life on the line if he wasn’t supremely confident in what he was preaching?
Death is something that will overcome each of us. We cannot defeat it. During Ash Wednesday, we are reminded of this truth when the priest marks us with ashes and says “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Despite all of our technological advancements, we cannot defeat death. It brings grief and sadness. It is an ever present reminder of the brokenness of this world.
But Jesus Christ defeated death. He rose physically from the dead on Easter. He was dead and now he is alive for ever and ever! We know this because Thomas is our witness! Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead is our one sure hope that God will redeem this world from sin and decay and defeat death once and for all in the end. On Good Friday, Jesus took our sins upon himself and suffered our penalty. On Easter Day, he rose up and defeated death, thereby promising us that not only are our sins forgiven but that death and decay are defeated also. The way is cleared for us to live forever in a right relationship with our creator.
So let us have confidence in our Lord and in His saving us from death and decay. He will raise us up on the last day just as he will raise all believers from their graves.
In Eastern Orthodox churches, the Easter liturgy is always begun with the Paschal troparion, which is a chant that is sung or said many times over:
“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death; and on those in the tombs bestowing life!” Listen to these words and let’s take them to heart.
Let us pray.
Risen Christ, you filled your disciples with boldness and fresh hope: strengthen us to proclaim your risen life and fill us with your peace, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.