This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Congregation gathered at Newborough on Sunday 8th April 2018, the Sunday after Easter in Year B.
Acts 4:32-35; John 20:19-31
On previous Sundays at this point in the service I have spoken of my time as a teacher, and this morning I want to briefly touch on that experience again. Some of you may remember from my earlier stories that in several schools in the past was a teacher of students who wore the label “EBD”, which stood for “Emotional Behavioural Disorder”. These were kids, and kids they were, whose disability was not physiological in that they had brain damage or a missing limb, but emotional in that they experienced mental illnesses or simply displayed anti-social or asocial behaviour. I taught kids who had been expelled from other schools because they had taken a gun or a bong to school, or been involved in repeated fights, or were chronic non-attenders. In other words, “EBD” quite often stood for “every bloody day” because that is how often they were naughty in class (or not in class as the case may be). These weren’t the special children in wheelchairs you might feel sorry for, no, these were the special children who would spit at you because you wished them good morning and for whom no one ever felt sorry.
In other words, these were children with a reputation, and specifically a reputation that they were each and every one of them irredeemable.
In today’s reading from the gospels we came across a man of irredeemably poor reputation, the disciple Thomas. Now when I name Thomas I am sure you don’t immediately think of the ambassador in chains, that apostle to the east who was the first man to live and die for the sake of the gospel in the lands of India. I am sure you aren’t immediately put in mind of the Thomas Christians who to this day worship Christ in India because of Thomas, and who have a tradition of faith that is as old as the Petrine and Pauline Christianities of the Roman and European churches. No, when I say Thomas you say, “ah, Doubting Thomas”. Poor Thomas.
Well, let’s have a look at that story. The lectionary jumps us in to John’s story of the twelve on the evening of Easter day, and the time when ten of the twelve, plus some of the women no doubt, were gathered together in shell-shock. Jesus appears in their midst and these gathered disciples were given divine authority as apostles, given the right and power to reveal Jesus and make him known to those who did not believe. Jesus delegated this holy power personally through his breathing on them and conferring the infilling of the Holy Spirit in John 20:22-23. There is no seven weeks wait for Pentecost according to John, this is the time, on Easter Sunday evening, when the Spirit is conferred and the ten are blessed with power from on high. The power they are given, alongside the task of preaching for which they are empowered, but the authority as power, their right and duty of command and superiority relates to sin which they are authorised to forgive or not forgive. “Now that you have seen me again,” says Jesus, “and you know me as the risen one and have received the Holy Spirit, go and meet unbelief in the world with grace and enthusiasm.” That’s what they’ve been told to do: tell people that Jesus is Lord, proven by his resurrection, and help them to believe him and follow him as disciples. If the apostles spoke of faith, then the rumour of God would be in the world and people would be able to respond; but if the apostles did not speak of faith then the word would remain hidden and the people living in darkness would not have the opportunity to respond. The future of the Christian story, as we heard last Sunday in the story of the frightened women, was up to the witnesses of Christ. Jesus wasn’t going to preach any more, the duty and authority to speak and to keep silent was up to them, the apostles.
Jesus made it quite clear: whether people live in the sin of unbelief or in the sun of understanding is up to us because we have the job of telling them the story which leads to hope and belief.
Now, Thomas wasn’t there John 20:24 tells us, so he missed out on the empowering sight of the risen Christ and the impartation of the Holy Spirit so it’s no wonder that he’s doubt filled. Thomas was where the other ten had been seven days earlier, they’d not believed the women so how can they judge him for not believing them? They’d seen Jesus, so how can they begrudge him the same evidentiary experience? And, most importantly, how ineffective must their preaching have been that Thomas was not convinced? Here are the apostles charged with all of the authority and resource of Heaven to declare new life to the world, and they can’t even sell it to one of their own?
Psh, “doubting Thomas”, more like “dubious apostolic preaching”.
When the resurrected one appears a week later and speaks to Thomas, Jesus does NOT breathe on him; rather in John 20:27 Jesus addresses the area of Thomas’ unbelief, which was Thomas’ desire to have touchable proof in John 20:25. Thomas, having been offered the chance to put a finger in Jesus’ wounds, but without actually doing so, worships Jesus in John 20:28. Jesus words in John 20:29 are probably not what he actually said to Thomas, after all Thomas has done more than the ten with the evidence he was given; more likely John later put these words in Jesus’ mouth as encouragement to those who read the gospel. Thomas is no more doubting than the ten, and a week later he worships Jesus as Lord which indicates to me that he was far more convinced, and therefore far less doubting of Jesus than the other ten.
No wonder it was Thomas who Jesus and the Holy Spirit sent to India, and less effective Peter and James who Jesus left in Judea. As with my EBD-labelled kids in England, reputations can be undeserved, but they stick once stuck, and they mislead.
In both of our Old Testament portions for today, one of which comes from Acts 4 in that strange way the lectionary provides for our history lesson in the time between our celebrations of Christ’s resurrection and ascension, the theme is unity. Better said the theme is the opportunities that congregations of believers provide God with to bless the world through our single-minded devotion to each other in God’s name. Unity is not enough, even ten-against-one the apostles could not convince Thomas of the resurrection, it is unity with devotion that God requires. How good it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity we heard as our call to worship from Psalm 133:1. Now, the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul we read in Acts 4:32, such that with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and great grace was upon them we read in Acts 4:33. The spoken out witness of the apostles as individuals was supported by the lived out witness of the loving fellowship in which all lived, including the support of all from the common wealth of resources. Everyone had a bed under a roof, everyone had food and clothes enough, everyone had love and comfort as part of the family, everyone had encouragement and good cheer from the testimony of the others. No wonder they saw three thousand added to their number in one day, and others added daily because of the apostles’ testimony: who wouldn’t want to be part of such a loving community with a profound and delighted sense of hope in the world.
Thomas was part of that Acts 4 action, and then he went alone to India where he spoke of Christ and established a community of faith that lives to this day.
So, what does this mean for us?
- We must hear the message and take it to heart. Like Thomas we must believe and know that Jesus once dead has been raised by God in vindication of his message of the Kingdom of God, the forgiveness of sins, and the assurance of salvation.
- We must proclaim the message and take God’s appointment to heart. Like Thomas we must go where God draws us and filled with the Spirit and the authority of God to do so we must proclaim the Kingdom of God, the forgiveness of sins, and the assurance of salvation.
Our evidence that the gospel is truth is that we have met the risen Christ. Like those who came after Thomas we have not seen Jesus in the flesh, but like Thomas we don’t have to touch the resurrected one to believe, we believe without seeing yet we believe by having known Christ. The world’s evidence that the gospel is truth is that we who have met the risen Christ live in harmony, unity, peace, and mutual enjoyment.
Where our reputation is one of love and peace the world will believe that we have the life-giving words of faith.
Every. Blesséd. Day.