Dr. Chris White April 20th, 2014 (Easter Sunday)
Hiroo Onada died recently at 91 years of age. He became a World War II hero in Japan long after the war ended, 29 years to be exact, because he lived on a remote island in the Philippines for those 29 years presuming the war with the Allies was still on. His last orders were to hold the land or die fighting. For 29 years he lived off the land, killing the occasional Filipino he took to be an enemy. When he was finally convinced in 1974 that the war was over, he surrendered his sword to President Marcos of the Philippines. People tried to convince him: Allies dropped fliers, search parties often drew near. But the command to hold the ground (and the belief that Japan could not lose) kept him a prisoner to the jungle. When he returned to Japan, he found a nation of televisions, skyscrapers, and America as ally. He lived the rest of his life reconciling himself to what was real: a defeated Japan and a modern world. The truth looked stranger than fiction.
Our story today is of a man, Thomas, who is also struggling with what is real. On the one hand, he has just lost his friend, Jesus of Nazareth, to crucifixion. He is in the earliest stages of reconciling the terrible suffering of Jesus with his belief that God sent Jesus. No one expected a Messiah to suffer. But then a new wrinkle occurs: people are telling him that the one you watched arrested, the one dead by crucifixion, is alive. When we arrive at John 20:24, other disciples have already had an encounter with Jesus. They believe, and they are trying to convince Thomas to believe. But Thomas has his doubts. What follows is predictable.
Read with me John 20:24-25: Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 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 fingers where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”
As the sermon title notes, resurrection accounts are a doubter’s paradise. Such accounts are not uncommon in the world of religion, but they raise doubts. Were anyone today to tell us that a friend who died last week is now alive and appearing at gatherings, we would never accept it at face value. Of course, we grow more and more skeptical of anything that good.
We have reason to doubt a fair bit of what we read or are told in the age of internet. The claims are often so fantastic. I had one waiting for me Friday morning. The email said this: “I am Mrs. Ruth Keith a widow suffering from long time illness (Cancer). I have some funds I inherited from my late loving husband Mr. Nicolas Kelly, the sum of $7,500,000.00 which he deposited in bank here and I need a very honest and God fearing person that can use these funds for God’s work.” The note goes on to say that she is nearing death, has no child to inherit the money, and fears that the money will be used in an ungodly way. Well. While I am flattered that my reputation for godliness reaches all the way to Nigeria, where this hoax was most likely manufactured, I did not respond. This letter is reason for doubt, if only for the sake that it sounds too good to be true.
When Thomas is offered a scenario where Jesus is now alive, it sounds too good to be true. Of course he doubts the resurrection. Anonymous letters with vast sums of money and resurrections of friends sounds too good to be true. And because a resurrection of his friend, his Lord, is so fantastic, he sets conditions for belief. Who would have thought that God might meet them? Read with me John 20:26-31: 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!” 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.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Jesus did many other miraculous 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 Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
It is going to take a remarkable event for Thomas to come around to a resurrection, and indeed he gets one. Jesus meets Thomas’ conditions for belief and then calls for him to leave his doubting behind. The confession of Thomas, My Lord and my God, is the goal of such an appearance. As John writes, this and other stories are written that all people may believe in Jesus Christ as God’s Son and have eternal life through him. It is God’s will, God’s hope, that all believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. On a more personal note, it is God’s will, God’s hope, that doubters like you and me believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
The story of Thomas is important in this regard. If God wants us to believe in a resurrection account, be fruitful, and live in Christ, then he has to take doubters seriously. The story of Thomas suggests that God does take doubters seriously. It suggests that God might even meet us at our doubts and in our doubts so that we can believe. In fact, Jesus seems to single Thomas out because he doubts. If this is the case, then maybe your doubts are not repelling God but actually attracting His attention. Maybe it’s time to accept that doubts are not the ending places of faith but the beginning.
Maybe you need something dramatic to come your way. I was talking to a man a few days ago who had been in an auto accident, and he was open about what he perceived as the lack of empathy from the man who hit him. I could hear pessimism about people in his voice. But then he told another story. He mentioned the kindness he received from caregivers from the accident scene, the hospital, and rehab. He also told me that shortly after the accident an EMS worker was giving him attention, but he felt like the car was in danger of sliding down the hill into the river. He told the EMS worker of his concern, and his reply was this: “If the car does go down, you won’t be going alone.” It didn’t occur to him that strangers would suspend their own safety for him. Dramatic answers come our way when we need them.
It is time to stop running from doubts. Yes, the resurrection of Jesus, forgiveness of sins, and surviving death and living in heaven all sound too good to be true. Doubt comes with the territory. But there is a precedent for asking God for help in faith. There is a precedent for going to God with your doubts as a starting place for faith. Jesus says in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Maybe you are weary with doubts about forgiveness for your sins. Maybe you are burdened with a fear of death. Jesus Christ is the answer to these concerns. Confessing him as Lord and God is the first step to knowing the peace he brings. To stay only where you trust God and avoid the harder questions of doubt is to miss the fullest work of God in your life.
Those who grow in faith in Christ are willing to do the hard work of belief. It is work that requires reading Scripture, praying, huddling over coffee with friends, and bringing a real life of doubts before God. You might leave here today with doubt and believe you are left out. The story of Thomas offers something else. Your doubt is the place to begin.