By Marvin A. McMickle
Monday, March 01, 2004
When you woke up this Easter morning of 2003 you already knew how the story of Holy Week ended. You did not wake up wondering whether or not Jesus of Nazareth was still in the grave. You did not wake up to a world where death and the grave seemed to have won the final victory. You already knew how the story ended. When you walked into the door of the church someone greeted you with the words "Christ is risen" and you responded by saying "He is risen indeed!" We know how the story ended. It is important for us to remember that on that first Easter day so many years ago the disciples of Jesus did not wake up with that same assurance. Whatever they were expecting to face that day, it is clear from the story that resurrection was not on their minds.
Our text today takes us to the evening after the resurrection of Jesus had occurred. The text invites us into the midst of a group of broken-hearted and confused disciples. We can observe them as they wonder what they will do with their lives now that the man they believed to be the Son of God and the savior of the world was taken down from a cross and sealed inside a grave. Parts of three days have passed by and the disciples had remained out of sight, still afraid that what had happened to Jesus might also happen to them if they showed their faces in public.
But now it is Sunday morning, and some of the women who had followed Jesus during most of his earthly ministry were determined to leave that upper room hiding place and go to the tomb where their Lord had been buried. Peter, James and John did not go with them, because someone on the street might still recognize one of them. After all, it was just four days earlier that three different people had picked Peter out of the crowd and announced that he was one of the followers of Jesus. Three times Peter denied even knowing Jesus; and those encounters took place at night when faces are harder to see. Now it is Sunday morning and the chances of detection were simply too high, so the women go to the tomb alone.
We know from other accounts in the Gospels of Mark and Luke that the women had come to the tomb early on Sunday morning to anoint the dead body of Jesus with spices and ointments. This was a time before bodies were embalmed, and in the hot climate of the Middle East dead bodies would rapidly decay and begin to smell. You may remember in the story about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead that one of his sisters had to remind him that their brother had been dead for four days and by now his body would omit an awful odor. The spices and ointments were largely meant to cover over that smell for as long as possible, and to offer one last gesture of love and respect to the dead. The point that must be grasped is that as those women were making their way to the grave they were expecting to see a dead body and not a risen Lord.
The fact that they were not expecting the resurrection is proven by the fact that when they arrived at the tomb, found the stone rolled away, and saw that the tomb was empty, none of them said, "He is risen." Instead, the women went running back to Peter and reported to him that the body had been stolen. At that moment, Peter did not speak up and say that no one should be alarmed because Jesus had simply been raised from the dead. Rather, he and the other disciples finally came out of hiding, rushed to the now empty tomb and looked inside. Even when they stood looking inside of that empty tomb, none of them spoke up and said "he is risen just as he said." The disciples simply went back into hiding, wondering who had stolen the body of Jesus. It is important on this Easter Sunday that we remember that on that first Easter morning none of the followers of Jesus were expecting him to be raised from the dead.
Over the course of that first day Jesus begins to reveal himself to his friends, and as he does their spirits are transformed and their faith is renewed. First he appeared to Mary Magdalene who had remained near the tomb after everyone else had left the cemetery. Then he appeared to all of his disciples at once. They were huddled together in the upper room, and the Bible says that while the doors were still locked and while the windows were shuttered, Jesus suddenly stood in their midst. Such a sight must have sent them into panic, because he had to calm them down like he had to calm down that storm on the Sea of Galilee by saying, "peace." He shows them his nail-pierced hands and feet, and he showed them the wound in his side caused when a Roman soldier thrust a spear into his body while he was still hanging on the cross to make sure that he was dead. Needless to say, the disciples were overjoyed. None of them were expecting the resurrection, but now all of them knew for a fact that Christ was risen from the dead.
Well, almost all of them knew that Christ was risen. It seems that one of the disciples; the one named Thomas was not with the others when Jesus made his miraculous and historic appearance. What a time to be absent; Jesus returns from the dead and Thomas was not there. God's victory over sin and Satan was being confirmed, but Thomas was not there. The Holy Spirit had been given to the disciples so that their ministry could have much of the same power as did the ministry of Jesus, but Thomas missed out on the Holy Spirit because Thomas was not there.
Let me break in right here and say that every time the saints of God get together you and I ought to be present with them, because you never know when Jesus is going to show up in a powerful and wonderful way. I do not know where Thomas was, just as I do not know where so many Christians are on any given Sunday morning. Maybe Thomas was having brunch at the local hotel or restaurant; that's what so many Christians do on Sunday. Maybe Thomas was playing golf or washing his mode of transportation (his camel or donkey); since that is what so many Christians do on Sunday. Maybe Thomas wanted to get a front row seat at the next chariot race or some other sporting event, because that is certainly what so many Christians do during baseball, basketball and football season.
While I don't know where Thomas was, I do know where Jesus was, and I know what Jesus was doing. Jesus was lifting broken spirits, which happens every time the saints get together. Jesus was answering questions and settling doubts, which happens every time the saints get together. Jesus was pouring out the power of the Holy Spirit, which happens every time the saints get together. By the time Jesus was done with his down hearted disciples they were all leaping and shouting for joy, which can happen every time the saints get together. All of this was happening, but Thomas was not there.
I don't know where some of you are on many Sundays when the people of God gather for worship in this place. Sometimes you come to church and sometimes you do not. But I do know that whether you and I are here or not, Jesus shows up every Sunday. Blessings are available every Sunday. Songs are sung, prayers are lifted and the Gospel is preached to the glory of God every Sunday. Your soul can be revived every Sunday. Your burdens can be lifted every Sunday. Your faith can be strengthened and renewed every Sunday. Do not be like Thomas who was absent when Jesus came and who missed the blessing that Christ brought with him when he came.
When he finally returned from wherever he was, the other disciples told him that they had seen Jesus, but Thomas did not believe them. He could tell that something had happened to them, he could see that they now possessed a joy and a hope that he still lacked. Something had obviously happened, but when they tried to tell them about the resurrection Thomas doubted and would not believe them. He said that unless he could see Jesus with his own eyes and touch the nail prints with his own hands that he would not believe their report. As a result of this lack of belief, Thomas has forever been known as "doubting Thomas." However, I want to suggest today that we watch Thomas as he moves From Doubt to Declaration.
It might be well for us to consider that Thomas had reason to doubt what the other disciples were telling him. After all, except for the people that Jesus had raised from the dead himself, who ever heard of people being raised from the dead? This was not a normal occurrence. It did not happen every day. I am sure that Thomas believed in life after death in heaven in some unknown spiritual form. Many Jews had believed that for hundreds of years. But that was not the message that Thomas was given. Thomas was told that Jesus had just been standing in that room on that day, and that was apparently more than Thomas could comprehend.
What would you say if I told you that someone whose body we had escorted from this church to some cemetery was just seen walking along 105th Street, or worse, that on a Sunday when you were absent that person was seen sitting in their old seat in the sanctuary? I am sure that you would believe that with no hesitation; right? Or might you suddenly become more sympathetic to Thomas' point of view? Some things are hard to believe, because some things seem impossible.
I wonder if part of what is wrong with so many Christians is that we no longer really listen to what the Bible actually says. We have heard these lessons for so long that we take them for granted, and in doing so the wonder and mystery of our faith is lost. We hear that God split the Red Sea so that the people of Israel could cross over on dry ground, and we act as if that is an every day occurrence. We hear that as Israel made their way across a bleak and barren desert that God fed them every day with manna and quail and water from a rock. In response to those wonders we shrug our shoulders without as much as a second thought.
This same thing happens with reports of events from throughout the life of Jesus. Of course he raised Lazarus from the dead. Of course he fed five thousand with two fish and five loaves of bread. Of course he walked on the water and turned water into wine. Of course he was born of a virgin at the beginning of his life, and of course he was raised from the dead at the end of his life. None of the other disciples believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead until they saw him with their own eyes. Why do we criticize Thomas because he wanted that same experience? Is it because we take the biblical story for granted? Is it because we are no longer listening to what it says about what God was doing?
Maybe the reason why Thomas did not believe the report that he received was because he did not trust those persons who were speaking. I can imagine that Thomas looked over at Peter and said, "why should I believe anything that you have to say about Jesus? The last time his name came up, you were the one who said that you did not even know who he was. You weren't telling the truth then, so how do I know that you are telling the truth now?" He could have looked around the room and said something similar to all of the other disciples. All of them had deserted Jesus. None of them stood by his side at the critical hour. Maybe Thomas did not believe what they said because he had no confidence in their integrity.
What a shame it is when our lifestyle gets in the way of our testimony. We are busy trying to tell other people about Jesus, but all they can really do is notice that our "walk" does not match our "talk." I am informed by our slave ancestors who sang a song entitled, "I Got Shoes." That song says, in part:
I got shoes, you got shoes,
All of God's children got shoes,
When I get to heaven gonna' put on my shoes,
Gonna walk all over God's heaven.
Then they sang these words:
Everybody talkin' 'bout heaven ain't going there…
Our challenge in life is not only to talk about heaven, but to be sure that we are qualified to go there. In order for that to happen we have to have a verbal testimony for Jesus Christ that is not offset by any aspect of our daily living.
That means that our prayer life ought not to be offset by our private life. Our praise ought not to be offset by profanity and pornography. Our love for Jesus should not be outweighed by our thirst for Jack Daniels, or Jim Beam or Johnny Walker Red or Black. Our walk should match our talk. Our love for Christ should not be obscured by our addiction to crack cocaine. Our intimacy with Christ in the spirit cannot go alongside of our intimacy with someone who is not our spouse in an act of sexual infidelity. Our times of worship should not be followed by prolonged times of worry.
Christ's command to us to love and serve one another should not be replaced by a selfish love that serves no one other than ourselves. Our walk should match our talk, and when that does not happen our testimony is weakened to the point that no one listens to what we say because they are distracted by how we live. Maybe Thomas did not believe Peter and the others because their walk did not match their talk.
Whatever the reason was for Thomas' doubt; he got what he wanted just one week later. The Bible says that Jesus showed up again in the room where the disciples were gathered together. This time he speaks directly to Thomas and tells him to come and place his fingers in the wounds on his body. I can almost hear the Master talking to his disbelieving disciple.
Come here Thomas; I have come back just for you.
Come here Thomas; and let all of your doubts be settled.
Come here Thomas; and place your fingers in the wounds left by the spikes.
Come here Thomas; and touch where the Roman spear pierced my side.
Come here Thomas.
Come here and see what you missed the first time I came.
Come here and know for sure that I am risen from the dead.
Come here Thomas; and do not doubt any longer.
Come here Thomas.
There is one more thing to be said from this text. Jesus said to Thomas, "You have believed because you have seen. Blessed are those who will not be able to see but will still be willing to believe." Thomas joined the other disciples in believing in the resurrection of Jesus as a result of physically seeing him and touching him and hearing his voice after he was raised from the dead. They were there when Christ preached on the mountainsides of Galilee. They were there when Jesus healed as he traveled the roads of Judea. They were there in that upper room when Jesus ate with them and instituted the Lord's Supper on the night before he died. They were also there in that same upper room when Jesus appeared to them in the hours and days following his resurrection from the dead. It was easier for them to believe, because they were able to see the whole thing unfold before their very eyes.
The real issue surrounding Easter is not what Thomas did or did not believe; the real issue for today is whether or not you and I believe this same story. Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God? Do you believe that he lived on this earth as an extension of the very presence of God himself? Do you believe that when he died on that cross that all of your sins were forgiven if you just put your faith in him? Do you believe that when God raised him from the dead that he also swung open the gates of the grave and gave the promise of eternal life to all that call upon the name of Jesus?
The blessing is not to those who lived with and walked with Jesus and who saw everything recorded in the Bible. The blessing really belongs to those who cannot prove it, but who do not doubt it. The blessing belongs to those who never saw it, and yet they are willing to stake their lives and their souls on it. The blessing belongs to you and to me, and to anyone else who stands nearly 2000 years removed from Calvary and who continues to proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.
What is your declaration as we gather today in memory of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead? I hope that you are prepared to declare that Christ is lord. I hope you are prepared to declare that because of him your sins are forgiven. I hope you are prepared to say that you will walk by faith and not by sight. Claim Christ today even though there is much that you do not now understand and may never fully understand. Claim Christ today as the way, the truth and the life. Claim Christ today, even though everything in your present world is not as you wish it to be. Claim Christ today and allow him to reorder your every step. Say what Thomas said after he saw and touched Jesus; my savior and my lord. Only your blessing will be greater than his, because you did not see what Thomas saw and yet you believed.
I cannot prove that Jesus was born of a virgin mother, but I believe it. I cannot prove that he made the blind t see or the lame to walk or the dead to come back to life. I cannot prove any of that, but I believe all of that. I do not find this blind faith hard to explain, because there are lots of things in my life that I can't prove but that I still believe. I cannot see electricity working, but I believe in electricity. I cannot see gravity working, holding things down and keeping things from floating away. I cannot see it, but I believe in gravity. I cannot prove that a prayer spoken in faith at the bedside of a sick person can have the power to speed up their healing and recovery. I cannot prove it, but my God do I believe it!
Today I stand with Thomas who made his move from doubt to declaration. One week he said that he would not believe that Christ was risen unless he could see it for himself. One week later after Christ made a personal appearance just for Thomas, that doubting disciple could be heard making this declaration; "My Lord and my God." It may be that after Thomas saw Jesus with his own eyes that he started singing the song that we can only sing when we walk by faith and not by sight. That old song says:
You cant' make me doubt him,
You can't make me doubt him,
You can't make me doubt him in my heart…
_________________________________Marvin A. McMickle is pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland, OH.