What difference does it make?
We’ve been through Holy Week and Easter – we’ve walked through the pain of Good Friday and heard the joy of the resurrection, of Jesus turning to Mary in the garden and saying her name.
My question for you today is: a week later, what difference does it make? What is the relevance of this story – this incredible story of God becoming human, killed on a cross, and then rising from the dead three days later – what’s the relevance in our world, and most especially your own life, today?
If the resurrection of God’s Son isn’t just a story that we hear once a year before we go see a parade or eat a big meal, but something we claim is true, what difference does it make?
Because if we believe that the most miraculous and beautiful thing in the world actually happened on that Sunday morning long ago, it means that absolutely anything is possible – in our lives, in the world.
Part of what it means to be coming here – to listen to sermons week after week, to participate in the liturgy, to seek to grow in faith, is a belief that that the resurrection actually happened, and that it makes a concrete difference in our lives – Jesus still has the power to transform us, to bring life where there was death, and joy where there was mourning.
“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house … were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.””
Our gospel passage today picks up right where we left it last week, on Easter Sunday. Last week we heard how Mary discovered the tomb empty, and Peter and the beloved disciple ran to check it out but then left again without being any the wiser. But Mary stayed, and as you recall Beth so beautifully describing it last week, Mary heard Jesus calling her name, and recognized her Lord. Then she ran back and told the disciples, who obviously didn’t believe her.
Because our passage picks up today in the next verse – “the doors of the house were locked for fear.”
The disciples had just been told that their Lord had risen from the dead – by an eye-witness, someone they knew well! Yet they hadn’t believed Mary. They weren’t out looking everywhere for Jesus. They weren’t even looking for his body – they were holed up together, afraid.
Friends, Jesus has such patience. This is a good thing to know about Jesus. He is so, so patient – with the disciples, and with us.
And so he comes to them, in their locked room, where they’re hiding and unsure. He knows what they need to see and hear in order to believe, and rather than chastising them for being anxious and afraid, he offers them peace, and himself. And as John tells us, “The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”
But Thomas wasn’t with them.
Thomas, one of the disciples from the beginning. Poor Thomas – Thomas gets a bad rap. “Doubting Thomas” is his nickname forever. And yet we know more about Thomas than just that he was a doubter.
We know that Thomas was a twin… his name even means “twin” in Hebrew – which makes me wonder who his twin was, and why he or she is not in the picture. Twins usually stick together – so did his twin die young? Did they just go separate paths? Perhaps part of Thomas’ pessimism and realism is because he’s learned the hard way that life is hard, that good things don’t happen unexpectedly.
Because Thomas is a realist – someone who sees the truth for what it is, a practical man. He’s kind of like Martha in that way, who also has a bad reputation. She’s the one to tell Jesus that Lazarus is going to stink after 4 days in the tomb. And Thomas is the one to speak up and ask the questions no one else is brave enough to. He’s the one who, when Jesus is talking about going to prepare a place for them in John 14, just outright says, “Lord, we have no idea where you’re going. How are we supposed to follow you?” He’s the person that everyone else is glad asked the question – cuz they were all thinking it!
We also know that Thomas has some courage. When Lazarus had died, and people were seeking to kill Jesus already in Judea, Thomas was the one who was ready to go with Jesus into danger: “Let us go to Judea and die with him.”
Thomas knows that people don’t just rise from the dead. So he asks for the same proof that everyone else got – visual evidence that Jesus had actually risen.
And again we see Jesus’ lovely patience. He isn’t angry that Thomas didn’t have enough faith to believe on the disciples’ words alone, anymore than they believed on Mary’s words alone. No – Jesus simply shows up, same as last time, offering peace, and saying to Thomas:
Okay – I know what conditions you’ve set on belief. Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Now stop doubting and believe.
This is all Thomas needs. Without any further hesitation, he becomes the first person to proclaim what this resurrection means for him: “My Lord… and my God!”
With one exclamation he accepts that his entire worldview has changed: that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has somehow come into that little locked room, and taken away his fear, and has given him hope instead. “My Lord, and my God!”
I think our reading from Acts 5 is a brilliant pairing to our gospel reading about Doubting Thomas today, because it is a picture of the incredible, unstoppable power of God that was released once all the apostles let go of the conditions they placed on belief, and threw themselves fully into resurrection life.
Listen to this:
In Acts chapter 4 – just before our reading from Acts today – Peter and John are arrested for “proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead… So they are called in front of the high priests and ordered not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard – regardless of what the law says.” So after threatening them again, they let them go.” (v 18-21)
They completely ignore the threats, and go on preaching and healing. So they are arrested again – this time all of the apostles. But in the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, brought them out, and said, “Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.” So what do they do with their freedom? They go right back into the temple, and start preaching again!
Friends, these people know the risks. They know exactly what they might be in for. And yet they are so blown away, so moved by the power of God, that nothing will stop them from talking about it. This is the resurrection power in their lives, moving them so deeply with God’s love that they must share it, even though they know the dangers.
So they arrest them again, and that’s our passage today. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching!”
The apostles don’t stop there. There is no stopping these guys! They go on to proclaim the gospel in Judea, in Samaria, and in as many countries as they can reach. Our own “doubting Thomas” took the gospel to India and founded the first Christian church there. Christianity caught fire, around the world, and we are here today because those first apostles believed in Jesus’ resurrection, and were transformed by it.
So what do we need, in order to believe with the same fire they did? And what conditions do we place on our belief?
I don’t have trouble believing that God exists – usually. But believing that the same God that raised Jesus from the dead is still just as active and invested in my life today is sometimes a bit harder. And when our loved ones are suffering, or we hear of tragedies across the world, or of relationships that we pray for that just never heal… that’s when it becomes a temptation to place conditions on belief – to say, with Thomas, unless I see God acting in the way I want to see him, right now, I won’t believe in him. Unless he heals this person, or unless make these things right, or unless I get that promotion…
Do you know these “unlesses”? Are there some of them hiding in your life right now, holding you back, preventing you from falling at the throne of grace in wonder, from submitting every aspect of your life to Christ?
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believed.”
Jesus never promised an easy life to those who believe in him. Far from it – he warned of tribulations and trials, of persecutions and sorrows. The disciples experienced all of these, and there are many Christians around the world today who are suffering for their faith. But Jesus did promise his presence, and fullness of joy. And I can guarantee it, it is worth it.
Happy, happy are those who believe.
If you’re new to this, and sitting there wondering whether it’s all worth it, wondering whether to throw all of your life at this man named Jesus who is also God… let me tell you from experience – happy are those who believe.
If you’ve been a Christian for a long time, and your faith maybe feels dry and stale, my friend, Jesus wants to show up in that room with you right now and show you himself again, to remind you of the joy of the resurrection not just two thousand years ago but in your own life too.
If you “sort of” believe, but have never truly caught on fire from the joy of Jesus’ love for you…he wants to meet you there, too, and bring you to new levels of faith.
Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.
“These things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
May you find that life in his name, today and always.