Sermon: "A Different Kind of Evidence," April 8, 2018

Second Sunday of Easter
Rev. Ryan Slifka

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When 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 Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So 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.”

A 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.” Then 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.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
— John 20:19-29 (New Revised Standard Version)

 

            Doubting Thomas. You may have heard this popular phrase before. It’s used to describe someone skeptical, someone who has trouble believing in something without seeing the evidence. Someone who is usually more skeptical than necessary. So much so that they ruin someone else’s joy or fun.

            The phrase comes from this morning’s scripture passage. Thomas is one of Jesus’ disciples. And Thomas is a skeptical doubter. Hence “doubting Thomas.”

How he gets his name goes like this.

In the first scene in our scripture passage, Jesus’ disciples are huddled in fear. They are afraid of the religious authorities, that the religious authorities will do the same thing to them that they did to Jesus. They’re hiding, barricaded behind closed doors. Afraid to go out.

            But despite the fact that the door’s locked, and the windows are boarded, though, Jesus appears in their midst. Doesn’t say how. Doesn’t say he came down the chimney. Or shrunk and crawled through the key hole. But it says he stands in among them. And the first thing he does is bless them. “Peace be with you,” he says, and then shows them his hands and his side, both bearing the wounds, the nail holes from his crucifixion. They rejoice, it says, knowing that it’s him. He’s alive.

The thing is that our skeptic, Thomas, wasn’t there when Jesus made his visit. “We have seen the Lord,” the other disciples declare to him with joy. But Thomas is unconvinced by words alone. “I won’t believe unless I see it for myself,” he says. “I won’t believe it, unless I see the holes in his hands and his rib. Hell, I won’t believe it unless I can stick my finger in his hands, and my whole hand right into the wound in his side.” So not only is seeing believing for Thomas. He’s gotta touch. Get his finger right in there. Otherwise it might be a lie, a delusion. Or an apparition. He needs facts, he needs proof. Even more than that, actually. He needs cold hard evidence. Otherwise, for him, the testimony of his friends is just hearsay.

Thomas is a true skeptic. But a second visit from Jesus cures that. It’s a week later. The disciples are gathered together again. Under lock and key (again). Scared (again). And Jesus shows up in their midst (again). “Peace be with you,” Jesus says. Again, just like last time. But this time, the difference is that Thomas the sceptic is there with them. And this time Jesus tells him to put his finger in his hands, and to put his hand right into the wound on his side. “Do not doubt,” Jesus says. “Do not doubt, but believe.” We don’t know if Thomas actually reaches out an touches them, but this experience of the risen Christ is enough for Thomas to believe. And Thomas does believe. “My Lord,” he says. “My Lord and my God.”

            “My Lord and my God,” Thomas says. Not simply “wow,” or “that’s not something you see everyday.” But “My Lord and my God.”

            This is a story of skepticism. But it’s also a story of skepticism shattered. Thomas goes from skepticism to true believer… hallelujah, praise the Lord, Amen!

Thomas goes from doubt to full-blown belief in the resurrection of Jesus. And all it took was Jesus, raised from the dead, entering through a locked door, and standing there in front of him. Right in front of his face. That’s all it took!

But if that’s all it takes, a lot of us are in trouble, aren’t we?

I mean, if someone comes to us with the claim that someone they saw dead appeared to them in a locked room, we might be a bit skeptical, too. We’d probably ask for evidence. Or at least a psychiatric evaluation.

But while it’s true that some of us have had ecstatic spiritual experiences. Some of us even report having encounters with Jesus himself. Some of us have had a Thomas-like encounter that has cleared all doubt from our minds. But for most of us, though, this just simply isn’t the case. And it may never be the case, either. And this really is one of the biggest obstacles for many when it comes to faith, too. A lack of cold, hard evidence when it comes to God, the Bible, the resurrection of Jesus. It’s fine that you all believe this, but where’s the cold hard evidence?

So Thomas’s doubt isn’t unreasonable. In many ways it’s perfectly justified. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” I’ve heard many an atheist say on more than one occasion. The Bible may say this, the tradition may say that. But without cold hard evidence, it’s just hearsay. Hearsay that needs testing. Like anything else.

So if it takes the risen Jesus standing in the room to prove the resurrection, then I’d say a lot of us who doubt are in trouble.

But here’s the thing.

So after Thomas confesses his faith in the risen Jesus, Jesus answers him not with a “good job,” or “well done.” But he replies to Thomas with a question, one that Thomas never actually answers. “Have you believed because you have seen me?” Jesus asks. “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.” Or, as Eugene Peterson puts it in his Message translation: “So, you believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.”

So even though Thomas has the evidence he’s always asked for. But then Jesus seems to say that evidence isn’t necessary. “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.” In fact, he seems to say that it’s better to believe without seeing!

Now, this might sound like an invitation for blind faith and blind obedience. To leave our rational faculties, doubt and skepticism behind. To “leave our brains at the door,” perhaps.

But I think it’s more than that. The early community of Christians understood this entirely. That the first generation of disciples had seen Jesus in the flesh. But, the gospel of John was likely written 60-70 years following Jesus’ death. So most of the people who’d seen, talked to, and touched Jesus had died out, and most of Jesus disciples had never seen him face-to-face. They understood that most of us, asides from a few mystical or ecstatic experiences, would ever see Jesus face to face. That most of us would never be able to see, to reach out, or to touch Jesus. They knew we’d never have evidence of the risen Christ. At least not that kind of evidence.

But there is a different kind of evidence we’re given. One that’s beyond the concrete.

Earlier in the passage, when Jesus visits the disciples for the first time, he declares peace to them. “Peace be with you,” he says. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And after he commissions them, after he sends them, he “breathed on them” it says. He breathed on them, and then he said to them “receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Such a weird moment. But there are echoes here of Genesis 2:7, the second creation story. Where God breathes life into the first human being, filling them with God’s Spirit of Life. In fact, it’s something that we re-enacted here last week, when we laid hands on those being baptized. Passing on God’s Spirit to the next generation. Because here in John, Jesus is filling the disciples with his own Spirit, making them a new creation. Healing them, making them new. Empowering them. And then sending them out to continue his work. Jesus will no longer be physically present to them. But his presence continues through the Spirit he breathes in to them.

What John’s suggesting here isn’t that evidence is unimportant. But that there’s a different kind of evidence. This kind of evidence has to do with the ongoing presence of Christ among his people, through the power of the Holy Spirit. And that the evidence for the Risen Christ is his peace—his shalom, his healing of lives, and the mending of creation. That the evidence of the Risen Christ is people experiencing forgiveness, and freedom, grace and mercy, and extending it outward. That the evidence is a people who do not hide their woundedness for fear or shame, nor do they turn away from it in others. But that they reach out to touch them.

And this was so obvious last week with our baptisms. If you read people’s powerful testimonies, you won’t have read phrases like “someone handed me the right book.” Or I was provided with an airtight argument. But that people found acceptance. They found love. They found grace, they found forgiveness. They found the presence of God in community. And that’s because the church, the people of Jesus are his physical body in the world, by the power of his Spirit. A Spirit that they, that we can pass to others.

It’s not that evidence isn’t important. It’s not that reason isn’t important. But it’s a different kind of evidence. We can have all the physical, historical, scientific evidence in the world. But without the transforming presence of God, the Spirit of Jesus changing lives, bringing forgiveness… then it’s all meaningless.

            So, if today, you find yourself a skeptic. If you identify with Thomas, doubting Thomas, finding yourself held back because of the lack of evidence. If you feel like you need to see it to believe it, then you’re not alone. But know that the evidence is all around. The evidence that truly matters. Reach out, put your hands into the body of Christ.[i]

            For blessed are they who do not see, yet believe.

            Amen.

[i] Thanks to Stephen Farris, former professor of preaching at Vancouver School of Theology for this turn of phrase.