19 April 2020 | St Andrew’s Anglican Church | Indooroopilly
Acts 2:14a, 22-32 | Psalm 16 | 1 Peter 1:3-9 | John 20:19-31
Journey, Community and Life: A Sermon delivered by The Rev’d Ann Edwards
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NT Wright recognises in the Gospel of John a mirror of both Genesis and Exodus. It’s a story of creation and journey. As we’ve tracked through John, we started with the proclamation that in the beginning was the Word who was with God and was God and now, at the end of the Gospel, we hear about the continuing creation of humanity – a parallel of that 6th day.
Likewise, John gives us a journey from enslavement to freedom. The Gospel moves us from religious constraints, judgements and exclusions and out into the new promised land, where the fields are ripe for harvest.
So with this in mind, today we hear the story about the journey, transformation, recreation and redemption of Thomas. Only in John do we hear Thomas speak – he is a passing name in the Synoptic gospels. He speaks just four times, and at crucial moments when Jesus reveals his divinity most plainly. In Thomas, we can track the human journey through enslavement to death and judgement, into a period of realisation and finally revelation, through yielding to the divine.
Thomas is a bold and plain speaker in John. He says things the reader is wondering, when his friends are being circumspect. When Lazarus died, the disciples attempted to persuade Jesus not to go into enemy territory but assuring him. So then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas… said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Thomas misses that Jesus is life, but is courageous, and carries the rest of the disciples with him as they continue their journey.
And we know that Jesus reveals in the events of Lazarus’s resuscitation a promise of life.
The next time we hear Thomas is when Jesus is preparing his friends for his death. Jesus promises the disciples that there would be a place for them with him in his father’s house. Life will win. It is Thomas that asks about this place “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Assured of the place by Jesus, told that there is a promise of life, Thomas says plainly and openly what he is thinking: but we don’t really know. We don’t know how. I’m not sure. I don’t understand.
Jesus makes himself equally plain to Thomas, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’ It was in responding to Thomas’s need for reassurance that Jesus confirmed his Divinity.
And here, in our Gospel reading today, Thomas speaks the final two times, and shows us how Jesus is the way, despite our limitations. Like his friends, Thomas could not believe the women who raced to tell the remaining eleven that they had seen the risen Jesus. He was not there when Jesus appeared and the Holy Spirit was breathed on his friends in that locked room and on hearing the joyful news of promise and life, Thomas responded “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
Hearing the women had seen Jesus, Thomas declares that seeing Jesus would not be proof enough. Hearing that his remaining friends had seen the wounds, Thomas declares he would not just need to see the evidence of the crucifixion, he would need to put his hands inside those five wounds. The theologian Bonney detects an additional edge to Thomas’s challenge – Jesus had told the women “Do not hold on to me … But go to my brothers”, and now Thomas demands not only to see Jesus, or to hold Jesus, but says he needs to enter into the very wounds of the crucifixion before he can believe.
Thomas believed that he just could not believe.
The truth, unable to be accepted by the very human Thomas, would only be revealed in an encounter with the divine Jesus. In Thomas, John reveals that personal encounter with the resurrected Jesus is the way to understand the truth that is life.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
Jesus’s subsequent action was transformative. He didn’t just leave Thomas to it. The Jesus who declined the loving grasp of the women that would hold him invited the intrusive touch of the one that couldn’t believe. And Thomas doesn’t reach out and touch the wounds. That encounter and invitation was all that was needed – and Thomas responded with more understanding than anyone before. My Lord, and my God.
In Thomas, we have a model of the way. Thomas was human in his limits to seeing the divinity of Jesus and the promise of life. But he didn’t sit on this doubt, or pretend it didn’t exist, or insist that his friends conform to his limits and doubts. Thomas is courageous in speaking plainly in opposition to the group, he boldly and openly announces his doubts and concerns, but he doesn’t attempt to divert Jesus or to discourage his friends; he simply says “let us go” on. Thomas was open to being convinced, although he doubted he could be. And by staying on the journey and keeping in community, each time, where Thomas saw only threat and death, Jesus met death and delivered life. Finally, Jesus offers the most intimate proof possible, proof that Thomas realises he doesn’t need, and Thomas is transformed.
The purpose of John is stated clearly – a book of the signs so that the reader can come to believe. And what better example than that of Thomas, who grappled, who knew he couldn’t see the way, and yet yearned for the truth and light that he was not ready to accept. He traveled his own Exodus. Spent time in the wilderness. And the one that was there at the beginning of creation is the one that continues to transform humanity. John tells us that seeing the way and truth and life happens by journeying in community and with divine assistance. We must open ourselves up to hearing things that are challenging, not in gullibility, but with an openness to truth and change. We are encouraged to persevere, to go along for the ride, and trust that we will encounter the risen Christ, through whom all things were made, and in whom there is truth, transformation, and life. Amen.
Bonney, W. (2002). Caused to believe: The Doubting Thomas story at the climax of John’s Christological narrative. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy2.acu.edu.au
Sylva, D. (2013). Thomas – Love as Strong as Death: Faith and Commitment in the Fourth Gospel (The Library of New Testament Studies). London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark. Retrieved April 15, 2020, from http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy1.acu.edu.au/10.5040/9781472551054
Wright, N. T. (2011). Preface to John. In J. Goldingay & N. T. Wright (Trans.) The Bible for Everyone. SPCK.