Easter 2 – St. John 20:19-31
Most of you are probably familiar by now either with the popular book, or the now popular movie: Heaven is for Real. The premise of both the book and movie, is that a boy nearly dies during surgery, and then describes having an out of body experience in which he goes to heaven, where he sees Jesus, an old relative, and an unborn sister, as well as seeing the simultaneously occurring events on earth.
Needless to say, his experience is doubted by many in his own family, in the church, in the community, and even by many today. Those who believe his account might be prone to look down on those who doubt his experience as denying aspects of the Christian faith, if the not the entire faith itself, especially when we make the confession of an eternal life in paradise every Sunday.
And yet, doubt is the reasonable conclusion one can draw. After all, the boy’s experience is not normal. It is in fact much more in line with the experience of Lazarus, or the widow’s son at Nain. How many others were there who died in Bethany, or in Nain, or even in Israel, during the ministry of Jesus who were not raised from the dead?
Not everyone gets to see heaven and come back to earth and tell others about it; in fact, very few do. And so doubt is to be expected when one makes the claim that it happened to them.
And so today, it is perhaps most fitting that our Gospel text is about doubting. For when Thomas hears that Jesus is alive, he doubts. But it is unfair of us to pick on Thomas for his doubting. After all, dead people do not come back from the dead, especially when the only one capable of raising people from the dead, is the one who is now supposed to be resting in the tomb.
Thomas knows what he saw with his own eyes. He did not have machines and medical technicians, but he did see Jesus beaten by the Roman soldiers. Thomas saw Jesus nailed to the cross. He saw the spear pierce His side. He saw Jesus placed in the tomb. He saw the grief and anguish and despair on the face of Jesus’ mother Mary, and on the faces of the other disciples, and on the faces of the crowds.
Thomas has seen much during his life, not to mention the past ten days, and he knows that except for some very unusual circumstances, dead people do not rise again.
And so doubt is understandable. Thomas has some very strong and convincing evidence that tells him that Jesus is dead. To hear that he is now alive; well it is going to take a little more than a cute little boy to convince him of that.
What Thomas gets is a face to face, hands on encounter with the risen Christ. Thomas hears His voice; he sees the marks on His hands, feet and side; he touches the real flesh of the real Christ standing in his presence.
Thomas the sceptic, is convinced; Thomas the doubter, believes; because his doubt is overcome, not with medical testing, or scientific evidence, but because he sees, hears and touches the risen Christ for himself.
But what of you today?
The person of Jesus does not stand before you, so that you to may touch His hands and side; you do not witness Him eating a piece of fish as is recorded elsewhere; nor does He open the scriptures in your presence as He does on the Emmaus road.
What you do have are the whispers of the devil in your ear, telling you that Jesus does not exist; telling you that the scriptures are not to be trusted; telling you that religion is a hoax; telling you that there is no eternal life in Paradise for you or for anyone else. For the devil knows that if your hope does not rest in Jesus, than it does not rest in salvation, and instead rests in the devil’s kingdom.
And so what is there to convince you? How do you know that Jesus is for real? How do you know that eternal life and Paradise are for real? How do you know that forgiveness of sins, and Baptism and Lord’s Supper are real? How do you know that God’s love for you is for real?
Where is your out of body experience to sit at the side of Jesus? Where is your Thomas experience, where Jesus stands before you? Where is your Mary experience, where you see Jesus in the garden? Where is your Peter experience, where you see Jesus on the shore? Where is your Paul experience, where Jesus speaks to you from heaven?
Or do you not get one?
Or do you get all of them?
Thomas, the one who doubted the words of the fellow disciples of Jesus, and who had no reason to lie, touches the hands and sides of Jesus for himself. Mary, who was looking for the dead body of Jesus, speaks with Him outside of the tomb. Peter, who denied even knowing Jesus, sees him on the shore and runs toward Him, and then has breakfast with Him. Paul, who was carrying out an assumed mission from God to kill all the Christians, encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus, and is called to repent, and spread the word.
These things, these very accounts where pillars of the faith are recorded as doubting, as questioning, as requiring indescribable conversion experiences, are written so that you may believe, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
Because if Thomas did not see Jesus in the room on that first Sunday after the resurrection; don’t you think the early opponents of the Church would have exposed it? Don’t you think the Pharisees would have held Mary up as a liar, if she did not speak to Jesus in the garden that first Easter morning? Don’t you think Peter would have been called out every where he went as a phony, if he had not had breakfast with Jesus? Don’t you think Paul would have persecuted with an even greater passion if he had not spoken with Jesus on the Damascus road?
The people in the first century would have exposed the disciples as frauds if they were lying. And yet, the Gospel spreads to the ends of the earth; why? Because the words and the witnesses are real. And the words and witnesses are real, because Jesus is for real.
Thomas does a great service for the Church; he doubts. He doubts, he questions, he stands up and says that he will not go on blind faith, but needs to place his hands into the holes in Jesus hands and side.
And Thomas gets to do just that; and he confesses ‘My Lord and my God!’ Because the resurrected Jesus who stands before him is for real. The doubting is over; the questions are erased. Jesus is for real; and Thomas verifies it for you and for me.
And that is why you do not need the testimony of a little boy, or of a young girl, or of anyone else, telling you that they went to heaven and that it is real. You have known from the day you were baptized that there is a Paradise, and that you have a place reserved for you, because you believe with your heart and confess with your lips that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Thomas, Mary, Peter, Paul, and the more than 500 witnesses of the resurrected Jesus, all doubted, and all had their doubt turned into faith, because they saw the living Jesus, and they have recorded their encounters, so that you may know with sure and certain confidence, that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and that Christ will come again.
Jesus is for real; His promises are for real; His death and resurrection are for real. So real, that the Church has been willing to die for the confession that Jesus is Lord from the very beginning.
Thomas the doubter, dies a martyr. He dies making the confession that he once doubted: that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.
Peter, who denies Jesus, dies a martyr. He dies because he refused to deny Jesus Christ as Lord.
Paul, who persecuted Christians, dies a martyr. He dies in the same way that he once used to kill those who confessed Jesus Christ.
People do not die for a lie; they die so that you may know how strongly they hold to their confession of faith.
They die, because they know that their future is secure, because the one they confess has promised them life and salvation for confessing His name.
You do not need to go very far to know this. You only need open the Bible and read the words recorded that Jesus is real; and not just real, but risen.
For these things are written, so that you would not doubt, but believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.