April 16, 2023. Texts: Acts 2:14a, 22-32; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31.
A few years ago, shortly before the pandemic when people were travelling more or less freely, three friends took a vacation together in Europe. They were all twenty-something Americans off on an adventure. They settled in for a long train ride across the countryside from Amsterdam to Paris.
Perhaps you remember this story. It made international headlines. Another traumatic event, one among far too many in our world today, involving idealistic people caught up in very destructive narratives which they believe require some sort of redress.
In this case, a young man boarded the train with the intent to do harm to others in the name of a violent movement into which he’d been initiated. The three young Americans joined two other passengers in responding to the heavily armed man. These five people ultimately succeeded in disarming the man, saving many lives.
Belief is a powerful thing. Belief of one kind or another was behind the actions of all the people on the train to Paris that day. Everyone responded in some manner, on the basis of their belief, from the man who intended violence, to the ones who responded with quick action, to the ones who stayed in their seats.
Belief is at the heart of the gospel today. Just before this point in John’s gospel, Peter and the unnamed beloved disciple had been to the empty tomb. The text says they believed, yet their belief was not that Jesus was somehow alive. John 20:9 says, “…for as yet they did not understand the scriptures, that he would rise from the dead.” So it would seem that the two men had thus far only come to believe Mary Magdalene’s message that the tomb of Jesus was empty.
The next thing we hear, is that the disciples have met up behind locked doors in the house of someone who must have been sympathetic to their cause. The gospel says they believed that they were in danger from powerful Jews in the Jerusalem Temple community. As yet, not one of the eleven remaining disciples had seen the risen Christ.
The first follower to lay eyes on the resurrected Lord Jesus was Mary Magdalene as she left the garden tomb. Yet she was blinded by her grief. She saw Jesus, but did not know it was him. Grief can do that, you know. It was only after she heard his voice that she could believe in his rising from the dead.
Meanwhile the disciples also believed that because the body of Jesus was missing, someone was going to be blamed for that. And they were the most likely ones. They had come together not only to grieve, but to discuss what had happened, and to plan their escape from Jerusalem.
When Jesus appeared the disciples did not know it was him even after he spoke to them. For their disbelief to become belief, Jesus had to go a step further and show them his wounds. This was their moment of sweet relief and rejoicing.
It is a testimony to the disquieted state of the disciples that Jesus also had to calm and restore them with his words “peace to you”. And that he had to breathe God’s restorative Spirit into them. For, the belief that had enlivened them with energy, purpose, and direction under Jesus’s leading had been replaced with a deathly, paralyzing fear.
Thomas meanwhile, was away. He is mentioned in all the gospels but only John’s version gives us any real dimension to the man. He seems to have been a forthright and energetic person of faith. He was the one who said, “Let us go to die with him” when Jesus set out toward Jerusalem to heal and raise up Lazarus.
So strong was Thomas in his commitment, it seems almost strange that he was not with the other disciples in the house that day. They had to find him and fill him in on their encounter with Jesus afterwards. Thomas wasn’t ready to hear it though. His belief was going in another direction.
The only thing we can assume with some confidence is that Thomas did not believe that Jesus was alive. Therefore he could not believe in the resurrection either. He demanded the same hard evidence that the other ten disciples had received. Eight days later, Jesus made sure he got it.
Belief is a powerful thing. Mary Magdalene believed and feared that Jesus was dead and her grief kept her from seeing the risen Christ. Ten of the disciples believed their lives were in danger and their fear kept them from trusting the power of God. One of the disciples believed that Jesus had failed, and so distanced himself from the community of faith.
Thomas was not the only one who doubted Jesus that day. He was the most outspoken though. He was the only one that day to openly confess his doubt. And that became a teachable moment. Jesus said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Belief can be the result of a personal encounter with the risen Christ. Belief may come from hearing the words that Jesus spoke. Belief may also be turned in other directions. The tragedy is that belief is so easily placed in the service of death and destruction. But Jesus said that this is not the way of God, who is the maker, giver, and restorer of life.
John’s gospel insists on one thing. Believe that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s Son, and see how, in him, real life begins. Be aware (beware!) of belief that distracts from or opposes the fearlessly joyful life that Jesus came to give us.
So it is that many of our beliefs can get in the way of faith that leads to life. What beliefs do we have that keep us from seeing and hearing Jesus? What beliefs do we hold that keep us from coming together in good faith?
What beliefs keep us locked up behind closed doors waiting? Jesus is out of the tomb and has summoned us to meet him and go on to new roads together. Will our beliefs imprison us and diminish us, or will they set us free to follow wherever the risen Christ leads?