Roger Bullard

Easter 2 – Sermon by Roger Bullard, M.Div. – April 11, 2021

So That You May Come to Believe

Now 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. (John 20:31)

I don’t remember if my wife, Josephine and I ever spoke about intending to have a large family. But we did. It just happened. After our first two arrived, there was a six-year pause. Then our second two were born over a three-year interval.  Anyone would have been happy with our two sets of pairs, two girls, two boys.  Not us, because twelve years after our firstborn, Josephine is pregnant again.

Awaiting the ultrasound scan the nurses amuse themselves, toying with the ultrasound wand over Josephine’s abdomen.  “Look,” they exclaim, “there is a little hand, and, oh, look, there’s another!”  Enter the doctor, the great presence, trailing two note-taking residents.  He grabs the ultrasound wand, makes two precise passes over Josephine, then asks: ‘Josephine, do you have twins in your family?’ ‘No,’ she says, hesitatingly. “Well, you do now!” the doctor announces, as he sweeps out of the room, white coat flowing behind him with his entourage in train. We are left speechless. Who would have believed that!

Twins Are Special

#TwinsTwins are something special, particularly identical twins, like our sons.  They share a special relationship, physically, genetically and in a deep sense a personal intimacy.  After all, you wake up every morning as an infant. Looking through the slats in your crib, you see someone across the room who looks just like you. You reach out to that special relationship.

Today we meet another twin, the apostle Thomas, also called the Twin.  I am drawn to this story as I am partial to twins, so much so that my son Charlie, fifteen minutes older than his twin brother Jack joins us at Emmanuel this morning.  Charlie and Jack are a unique blessing and an example of God’s grace bestowed upon our family.

Why Thomas is nicknamed the Twin is one of those matters that biblical scholars love to argue about.[i] One intriguing speculation is that Thomas might have been Jesus’ twin brother. But that is the stuff for endless scholarly debate.  The nickname by which he is best known and the one that concerns us today is “Doubting Thomas.”  Each year in Easter season he comes to us out of the pages of the Gospel of John.  We meet him today during a two-day conference, if you will, amongst the disciples with the Risen Christ.  The agenda for this meeting is Belief.  Belief in the Resurrection, belief in the Risen Christ.  As the meeting concludes we are given the impression that, of all the disciples Thomas is the one who failed to believe. Doubting Thomas.

Thomas is Not the Only One Who Needs Convincing

Let’s you and I consider, however, that Thomas is not the only one who needs convincing.  Coming to belief in the Father through belief in Jesus is the central purpose to John’s gospel.

 Now 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. (John 20:31)

Despite their loyalty as they accompany Jesus along his ministry the disciples fail to fully comprehend and believe. They are presented with the stunning example of feeding the five thousand with only five barley loaves and two fish.  The crowds who are fed say: “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”   Yet despite the many signs and miracles of feeding and healing put before them,  the disciples remain stubborn examples of uncertainty and simply just not getting it.

Jesus Appears to the DisciplesToday we arrive in the moment when Jesus will send the disciples out, enlivened by the Holy Spirit to forgive the sins of many.  Receiving the Holy Spirit depends entirely upon belief in the Risen Christ.  Jesus tells them: ‘if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send the Spirit to you.’ (Jn 16:7) So no Resurrection, no Holy Spirit.  If sin may be defined as disbelief, the disciples must declare their belief before they go forward to forgive the sins of others.[ii]

Jesus has good reason to confirm their belief.  Judas betrays him. As Jesus is arrested, the remaining eleven abandon him in fear for their lives.  Peter denies him three times.  None have the courage to stand as witness to his crucifixion.  Now, in fear for their lives, the disciples are locked away, hiding out from arrest as accomplices to Jesus.

Jesus comes to the ten disciples late in the day. That morning, Mary discovers the empty tomb. She tells the disciples that “she has seen the Lord” and that Jesus is “going up to the Father, to my God and your God” (20:17)  The disciples have no reason to expect that they will see the Risen Christ in person this evening, or ever again.

Hiding within the locked room, the disciples are surprised by the appearance of Jesus. They expected he was going up to the Father.  Jesus greets them in Peace. He knows they require reassurance. Without being asked he offers proof of his resurrection. He shows them the wound on his side, the marks of the nails on his hands.  Breathing upon them confirms that he is alive as he confers the Holy Spirit.

Thomas Was Absent

We don’t know why Thomas is absent.  Like the others, he wasn’t expecting Jesus.  Let’s you and I imagine he was out and about doing what Jesus sends him to do, preaching and healing.  He did not fear for his life.  A few days earlier, the disciples caution Jesus not to travel to Bethany where he will raise Lazarus. There are threats of violence there. Thomas, nevertheless, speaks out: “Let’s go too. If Jesus dies, let us die with him.” (11:16)  Thomas was a practical man. He questioned. He searched for answers. At their final supper, he was the only disciple with the courage to speak up: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (14:5)

#DoubtingThomasEight days later, the meeting continues. Thomas asks for and receives the same proofs that Jesus freely offered to the others.  Immediately, Thomas believes, accepts and responds with a statement of the full divinity of Jesus: “My Lord and my God!”  Out of Thomas’ declaration,  the Resurrection is complete.  It is truly finished, as Jesus spoke on the cross as he hands over the Spirit. (19:30)

The full purpose of John’s gospel is revealed in its concluding verse: Now 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. (20:31)

These things are not written to convince a Doubting Thomas. They are written so that all persons, all the disciples and all who come after, everywhere, may find the conviction to overcome our unbelief and believe beyond our doubts.  Thomas stands for us during these weeks of Easter season as an example of faith.  As we seek reassurance, we are given this example of Thomas, the believer.  Like the father whose epileptic son Jesus heals in the Gospel of Mark, cries out: “I believe, but help my unbelief.” To that father, Jesus reminds us: “All things can be done for the one who believes.” (Mk 9:23-25)

As the Gospel of John concludes, we will follow the apostleship of Peter, James and Philip in other writings. We lose track of Thomas.  Some conclude he travels to India where he will meet his death.  Even today there are Thomas Christians in India who call Thomas the founder of their faith.[iii]  If so, Thomas is a powerful example of how far we can travel in our own discipleship in opening our hearts to Jesus.  I leave you to reflect, then,  that doubting is not the end of faith, but perhaps the beginning of an enduring faith.[iv]

 

[i] Wells, 04/08/2021

[ii] Michaels, p.1016

[iii] Pagels, p. 37

[iv] op.cit, Wells

 

Works Referenced:

This is a sermon delivered to the congregation of Emmanuel Church, Newport, RI on April 11, 2021.  I am indebted to Dr. Carolyn Sharp, Professor of Homilectics and Jere Wells, Director, Educational Leadership & Ministry, Berkeley/Yale Divinity School for their theological guidance; also for their insights into the lectionary: J. Ramsey Michaels,  The Gospel of John, Eerdmans (2010); and Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 

Roger C. Bullard, April 11, 2021