Sermon notes 04-19-20   Pastor David King              Peace in Believing[1]

[(John 20:19-31] On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” [20] When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. [21] Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” [22] And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. [23] If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

            [24] Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. [25] So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

            [26] Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although 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, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” [28] Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” [29] Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

            [30] Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; [31] but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.  (ESV)

Today is the second Sunday of Easter.  I think most of the world, including many Christians, considers Easter to be one day, Easter Sunday; but on the Church calendar, Easter is a season that only just begins on Easter Sunday and lasts all the way to Pentecost Sunday, a period of fifty days.  So there are actually seven Sundays in the season of Easter.  The passage that Lois just read to us is the Gospel text that is customarily read in the church every second Sunday of Easter, because the encounter between Jesus and Thomas occurred one week after the very first Easter.

Many of us would identify this passage as the story of Doubting Thomas.   It is a continuation of the resurrection story from John’s Gospel that we read last week, and the two main characters in the story are Jesus and the disciple Thomas.  We are told in the passage that Thomas was called “the Twin,” but the Bible doesn’t tell us why Thomas was called that.  We might assume it is because Thomas had a twin, but the Bible never names or mentions Thomas’ twin.  At any rate, we are probably all familiar with the other nickname besides “the Twin” that Thomas has been saddled with—Doubting Thomas.  That nickname does not appear in the Bible, but because of the skepticism Thomas expresses in this story, it has become a tradition in the Church to call this disciple “Doubting Thomas.”  In fact that nickname has been so widely circulated that we hear it applied to anyone who is skeptical about anything.   But I want to emphasize an aspect of this story that I would suggest is much bigger and much more important than the doubting of Thomas.  I want us to consider that the main point of this story is that Jesus wants all of us to come to belief in him; in fact he goes to whatever lengths necessary to bring us to belief, in order that we might have peace in believing.

First we should notice something about this story that might lead us to cut Thomas some slack.  We cannot call Thomas ‘Doubting Thomas’ without saying that all of the disciples were doubters.  I want to read to you the verse that comes just before today’s reading.  It is John 20:18, the last verse from the resurrection story that we read last week: “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord’—and that he had said these things to her.” Then verse 19, On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”  

It occurred to me as I re-read this passage this week that perhaps more than ever before, we can relate to the disciples being in seclusion out of fear.

We are in a form of seclusion for fear of contracting or spreading the coronavirus.  The disciples were hiding in fear that the same Jewish leaders who condemned Jesus to death for claiming to be the Son of God would punish them for being his followers.  But think about it.  When Jesus rose from the dead, that proved he was who he claimed to be.  So after hearing the witness of Mary Magdalene, why were the disciples hiding in that room with the doors locked out of fear?  If it were true what Mary said, and Jesus had really risen, the disciples would have had no need to be afraid.  They would have had no reason to hide or to be afraid if they didn’t doubt Mary Magdalene.  But these disciples were evidently doubters too.  Like Thomas, they needed to see Jesus themselves in order to believe.  The only difference between these disciples and Thomas is that Thomas did not happen to be there to see Jesus that first Sunday evening.  Maybe we should give Thomas credit for being the only disciple not cowering behind locked doors on the evening of that first Easter.

Later on, when the other disciples find Thomas after they have seen Jesus, they tell Thomas the exact same thing that Mary had told them.  They say, “We have seen the Lord.”  And Thomas says, “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.” Chances are that is the very same thing that the other disciples said, or at least were thinking, when Mary Magdalene told them she had seen the Lord.  Their words and thoughts are not recorded in the Scripture, but the actions of those other disciples indicate they did not believe either, until they too saw Jesus with their own eyes.

There is something else that I think is important for us to notice in this passage.  It must be important because it shows up no less than three times in the space of eight verses.  Did you catch it?  Jesus says the exact same thing to the disciples three times.  He says, “Peace be with you.”  Now I want to go back a few chapters to a promise Jesus made to the disciples on his last night with them, just before his betrayal and arrest.

It’s in John 14:27, where Jesus says to the disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you”.  So when Jesus appears to the disciples after his resurrection and says, “Peace be with you,” it is a fulfillment of that earlier promise he had made to them.  And because he says it three times, it must be very important to Jesus that his disciples have this peace.

Jesus apparently really wants his followers to have peace.  He wants all of us to be blessed by having peace in believing.  I don’t know about you, friends, but I think of all the blessings that believers have, one of the greatest blessings has to be peace: peace of mind, the peace of the assurance of salvation, the peace of being in a right relationship with God, the peace that comes when we are no longer battling God over the control of our lives, being at peace with God.  Peace is a very good thing, and Jesus wants his followers to have it.  That’s why he said no less than three times in this short passage, peace be with you.

Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  I think we often interpret this to be a sort of scolding of Thomas by Jesus because Thomas was slow to believe.  But maybe we should consider that Jesus’ motive was not to scold Thomas.  This story is not so much about the doubt and skepticism of Thomas as it is about the abundant grace of Jesus, who showed up in that house on the Second Sunday of Easter specifically to meet Thomas’s demands for proof of his resurrection, point-by-point, in order to move Thomas from doubt to faith.  The motive of Jesus was to bring Thomas to a place of belief, so that Thomas might be blessed with peace.

Jesus knew Thomas would be blessed with peace in believing, as is everyone who comes to believe.  Notice again that Jesus says to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  He doesn’t say, more blessed are those who have believed without seeing than those who must see to believe.

There is not a measured amount of blessing determined by what brings us to belief; but rather fullness of blessing is found in belief itself, no matter what it takes for us to believe.

Jesus blessed Thomas by giving him what he needed to believe, and Jesus wants all of us to share in this blessing.  Jesus knew that only a miniscule fraction of all the people who would come to believe in him would be those who saw him in bodily form during the time between his resurrection and his Ascension to heaven.  All the rest of us have come to belief in Jesus without seeing him in bodily form.  Jesus’ blessing is a reassurance that being a first-century eyewitness to the risen Lord is not a requirement for faith.   Jesus pronounced a blessing upon those who would believe without the benefit of a face-to-face encounter, but the blessing does not come from the fact that we believe without seeing; the blessing comes simply from the fact that we believe!  And in that belief, we have peace.

Jesus wants his followers to have peace in believing, but notice it is not a peace that will not allow the disciples to remain behind closed doors.  As soon as Jesus makes the disciples glad with his appearance and his words of peace, Jesus tells them that he is sending them as the Father has sent him.   And friends, as he is sending them, he is also sending us.

When Jesus sent those first disciples, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit”.  God breathes his Holy Spirit into all who believe in him, giving us new life and the power to be witnesses for the One who sends us, even while we must practice social distancing, so that others may have peace in believing.  I am so grateful to be a part of a church that shares the love of Jesus with one another, with children and families and the hungry and needy, here in our own community and beyond.  I thank God that we are a church that responds to the calling to proclaim the good news of resurrection, salvation and reconciliation with God.  We are able to respond in these ways because we have peace in believing.  When we have peace in believing, we don’t have to be afraid.

We have peace knowing the Lord is guiding our steps and directing our paths, so we can go forward in confidence.  When we are at peace with the Lord and we are following where he leads, we don’t have to be worried about the outcome.  We don’t have to lie awake at night worrying about how things will turn out.  When we have peace in believing, we can sleep in heavenly peace.

Jesus wants us to help others believe so they too can have his peace.  You might ask, how can we help non-believers believe?  Well, first of all, we pray for them, fervently, without ceasing.  Then we try to help them learn to recognize the risen Christ.  Learning to recognize the risen Christ is something that we should all strive constantly to develop.  No, we will not see Jesus in bodily form, like Thomas and the other disciples, until he comes again.  But we can recognize the risen Christ here and now.  We recognize him in the way he is working in our lives, in the countless blessings he provides for us.  We recognize the risen Christ in the beauty of Creation.  We recognize him in the face of the loved ones he has placed in our lives to be an expression of his love for us.  And we strive to be those in whom others recognize the risen Christ.  We Christians should seek not so much to persuasively argue the proof of the resurrection as to be the proof of the resurrection.  We are the proof of the resurrection when we allow ourselves to be the hands and feet and face of Christ to those whom God places in our lives.

Jesus said over and over, Peace be with you.  He has given us the peace of believing, and he is calling us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to help others believe, so they too can have his peace.

May the peace of the risen Christ be with all of us, now and forever.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.


[1] Some insights for this sermon were derived from Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. 400-405.