So You Have Questions?
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
April 19, 2020
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the [Judeans], Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”
26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said,
“Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these 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.
So you have questions? Good! So do I, believe me. And that is what the issue today is, isn’t it? Who and what to believe? Christians just celebrated [ virtually ] the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. For many that is just a fact, no questions asked. But for many, like Thomas in our Gospel reading, just hearing the news that Jesus is risen isn’t enough. While Thomas doesn’t ask questions, he makes statements, and while you may not be as absolute at Thomas – you won’t believe unless you see and touch the wounds – maybe you have questions.
Well, let me first say, questions are not just ok, they are good. Some of the most faith-filled Christians throughout history have had questions about faith. So don’t feel “unfaithful” having questions. Secondly, let me invite you to send in your questions. That’s right. Type your questions in and let ‘em roll, or if you want to do it out of the public eye, PM me, or email me. I am on FB as “Bruce Havens” believe it or not! Or Caroline is going to add my email to the comments so you can copy it and email me. Those I may not get to this morning. In fact, I can guarantee I won’t. But I will answer you when I can get to them.
Now let me give one caveat: I can’t answer the metaphysical or scientific reality or process that would “prove” Jesus’ resurrection, so that one you will have to hold until you can ask God face to face. Sorry! But this passage certainly offers some reasons for questions and I have a few of my own. But the passage also gives us some promises I think we want to look at and listen to in this time of pain, difficulty, disruption, or whatever other adjective you want to use to describe this “Coronavirus” time.
So here is the setting for our Scripture lesson. A couple of the disciples have been to the tomb on that first Resurrection Day and evidently found Jesus was not in the tomb. Some reported having physical interactions. A few days later the disciples were together in a locked room in a house where they had been meeting. Everyone except Thomas that is. John, the writer reports Jesus suddenly “came and stood among them.” He said, “Peace be with you.” They recognized him and he showed them his wounds in his side and in his hands. He says several more things to them – and we will get to those in a minute – but Thomas is not there. When the disciples report their experience to him later, Thomas says he won’t believe unless he also gets to see AND touch those wounds. And Jesus later appears to him and invites him to do exactly that, see and touch.
Now Thomas has gotten stuck with the nickname, “Doubting Thomas,” and as I have preached to you over the years I have emphasized this is not John’s point in telling this story. The point is that Thomas makes a very powerful and complete confession of faith in Jesus as his Lord and God once he has seen and touched. Jesus – as the story tells us – says those of us who never see or touch and yet believe are blessed, as blest as Thomas, whether we realize it or not. All this is saying that John’s whole telling of Jesus’ story is about people coming to “know” and “believe” that Jesus is the “Lord and God.”
Sure, you say. Of course, you say. Obviously! No question, you say! Really, I say? All that may seem obvious and unquestioned but now my questions start. My first question is “So what?” So I say, or so I believe Jesus is Lord and God, so what? John’s answer if there in the text. He says he could have told about a lot of other signs that Jesus did, but he told us these that you and I “come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you [and I] may have life in his name.” That’s what John says. And of course that leads me to the next question: what does “life in his name,” mean? What kind of life is that?
You may have questions about what kind of life this is, or about how Jesus rose from the dead, about what form he was in physically, or about how he could pass through locked doors and solid walls to appear to people. My question is about that verse about forgiving sins. In verse 23:
23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Do we really have the power to forgive or retain sins? Is that a power Jesus really gives us? There are a lot of people who THINK they have the power to decide what is forgivable and what isn’t and my faith sure doesn’t lead me to agree with them. So I cannot believe that Jesus gives that authority to just anyone who says they “believe” in Jesus. That verse has always bothered me and I set out to find a satisfactory answer to my question about what that meant and I found one this time, at least it seems satisfactory to me.
One writer put it this way:
“Jesus is not appointing [Christians] as his moral watchdog;” we aren’t being given the power to judge others in God’s place. He says, “‘set free’ or ‘release’ is a better translation than ‘forgive.’ They can be a part of seeing others come to believe in Jesus and what he discloses.”
I think what Jesus invites us to do is to join him in “releasing” people from what keeps them from life, life in his name, as John tells us in the last verse of our passage. That life is one marked by the promises Jesus makes to those disciples and to us in this passage. Christ promises his peace. He gives us the Holy Spirit and sends us to release others. And John ends the passage by telling us there is much more he could say, but these things he tells us that we might “come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
Let’s look at this a bit more. What is this peace that Christ gives? Elsewhere Christ has told his disciples, “peace I give you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” [ John 14:27 ]. These comforting words we recite at almost every funeral. Jesus says them to his disciples at the last supper before his crucifixion. In this time of turmoil and fear for some, of a dangerous virus, and of difficulties we may have never imagined the promise of peace is a powerful encouragement for our hearts. I can’t give anyone a prescription for how to achieve this. This isn’t something manufactured or conjured by human skill. It is the gift Christ gives with the Holy Spirit and it is something we receive, not something we can make or get by our own power. Perhaps the best path is through prayer, through time of quiet contemplation when fear, anxiety, anger or frustration seem ready to boil over.
I also believe that, like all things in the Christian life, we experience it best by sharing it with others, by finding ways to “release” others. According to this John is telling us that if we do not show others who Christ is, by releasing people from what keeps them from God’s love, means we are keeping them from “experiencing the fullness [of life] that Jesus offers.” All that says to me is that the Christian life, the full life Christ offers, is always found in giving ourselves to others. If we do not have peace, perhaps the best way to find it is to do everything we can to help someone else who is fearful, angry, worried or anxious to find peace. In giving we receive.
John’s Gospel reminds us that Jesus’ glory is seen in his crucifixion. This is not intended to be a gory glorification of pain and suffering. It is an invitation to enter into the pain and suffering of others as a way to real life. John points to Jesus’ suffering as glory as a symbol. It symbolizes the life of Christ – willing to enter into our lives, our pain, our worries, our suffering and even our death. As we do that for others we will find we release them and us to know a peace that comes from the Holy Spirit. This is the fulfillment of Jesus’ commandment in John also: “I give you a new commandment: to love one another as I have loved you.”
Let us open our lives to the Holy Spirit who gives us the peace, the presence, and the purpose of the Risen Christ. That peace, that presence, and that purpose releases us to love one another as he has loved us. AMEN.