Sunday, February 22, 2015

Disbelieving Thomas

Today, we're going to look at one of the more familiar stories that John included in his Gospel. We're going to look at 'doubting Thomas', though as I will show you, that's actually not what he should be called. First, let me read what John wrote to refresh your memory (John20.24-31).

John's account is pretty straightforward. Thomas wasn't with the others when Jesus appeared to them on the evening of that first Easter. And when they told him that they had seen the Lord, he didn't believe them. He demanded tangible proof. So, a week later Jesus shows up again. And along with offering him tangible proof, Jesus gently rebukes Thomas.

Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.

I think that it's important for you to understand that if Jesus renamed this disciple, like He did Peter, his new name would not be 'doubting Thomas'. It would be 'disbelieving Thomas'. His failure here was not just a little slip up. 'Oh well, we all have our doubts at times.' No. Jesus expected something of him and it wasn't disbelief. Disbelief is sin. Jesus expected Thomas to believe, and he didn't, at least not at first. And that earned him a rebuke.

Now, in all of this we've bumped into one of those church words that hides so much: 'believe'. What does it mean to believe? There are two aspects to believing that I want you to see. So that's what I'm going to be spending our time on this morning.

Here's the first aspect I'd like you to see. To believe is to accept some statement as true and accurate. So, you hear from someone just in from an errand that it's snowy and cold outside. You have no trouble accepting that as true and accurate, especially lately. But consider when a long time couch potato friend tells you that he ran the Boston Marathon last year and finished it in good time. You don't believe him. You don't accept that statement as true and accurate.

Now, you have reasons why you don't. To believe one thing will often necessarily include believing other things. So, to believe that your couch potato friend successfully ran the Boston Marathon, all 26 plus miles, you would have to also believe that he actually can run. You've never seen him do that, even when he's been caught outside by the sudden downpour of a summer thunderstorm. You'd also have to believe that he has the discipline to fulfill the rigorous training that's required to run a marathon. Again, you've never seen any evidence of that. All he does is play video games. To believe one thing is to believe all the other things that are included. And when it comes to marathons, you can't believe the things that need to be included - not for this out of shape friend.

So, Jesus expected Thomas to accept as true and accurate the report of the other disciples that He had been raised from the dead. And He expected Thomas to believe all the other things that are also included. So, what does believing that Jesus has been raised include? Here's just one item. Jesus can do the impossible.

If, on that Friday afternoon someone told Thomas not to worry because Jesus was going to be alive again by Sunday, I'm sure that Thomas would have looked at him as if he had lost his mind. That would mean that death is not as invincible as it had been rumored. After all, once death grabs a hold of you, what can you do? You're done. Everybody knows that. Everybody accepts that as true and accurate. Right? So, for someone to believe that Jesus walked out of that tomb, he would have to believe that Jesus had somehow undone what death had done. And that would mean that its grip isn't what they say that it is. But such things don't happen. It's impossible.

But that's exactly what Jesus expected Thomas to believe. He was to believe what the other disciples told him. Jesus is alive. He was to accept that as true and accurate. And he was to believe all that was included in that, things like Jesus can do the impossible. It was asking a lot. We need to recognize that. But that's what Jesus expected. Anything less than that is, according to Jesus, disbelief. And that is unacceptable.

But it’s also important to see that believing is more than to simply accept something as true and accurate. Here's the second aspect of believing. If you actually do believe something then it will show in how you live. If it doesn’t show, then you don’t believe it, not really. So, if you believe that it's completely safe to drive across a bridge, you'll drive on it. But there are those who will tell you that they know that a certain bridge is safe, but when it comes time to drive to the other side, they will take the long way around to avoid that bridge. It’s a phobia with a fancy term. What does that tell you? It tells you that in the moment when it counts, they really don't believe that the bridge is safe. How they live in that moment tells you what they really do believe right then. So, to believe something is to live it. Saying that you believe some statement but refusing to live as if it is true and accurate also qualifies for Jesus' rebuke. Disbelief.

So, accepting as true and accurate the things of the Gospel, things like Jesus has been raised to life, includes living like those things are true and accurate. Jesus expected that of Thomas also. And in time his life would show that he really did believe.

This is where that last sentence of chapter 20 fits. Listen again.

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe...

Jesus expects you to believe just as He expected Thomas to believe. There are statements that you are supposed to accept as true and accurate. And you are supposed to live like those statements, and all that they include, are true. Just like Thomas.

So, you are to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. But remember that that includes some other things, things like Jesus can do impossible. Can He? I think that this is where, according to some, I'm supposed to say something about how Jesus used to do impossible things, but He doesn't do that anymore. But I'm not going to say that. Instead I'm going to offer something from the letter that James wrote to a churchful of Christians.

You do not have, because you do not ask.

Is it possible that Jesus could still do the impossible? Well, one way to find out is to ask Him to do something impossible. We have been called by Jesus to change the world. That will never happen if all we expect is the same old, same old. It will take more than human ingenuity and effort to change this place. At the heart of our religion is Jesus doing something that no one expected - though they should have. He did what was thought to be impossible. Has He stopped doing that sort of thing? Has He stopped doing the impossible? I don't see any reason to think that He has. So, if we're going to say that we believe that Jesus is raised again to life then maybe we should be expecting Him to do some more 'impossible' things.

Believing that Jesus has been raised again includes believing that He does impossible things. And out of that believing will come things like optimism, confidence and hope. And for the Church at large, as well as for our church in particular, having those qualities will have great benefit when it comes to changing the world from the ugly place that it is, filled with unbelief, to a place of beauty filled with faithful disciples of Jesus. Expecting Jesus to act in surprising and powerful ways, and knowing that not even death can beat us, will make a huge difference in how the Church deals with the mission placed on her.

So, if I now ask you, 'Do you believe that Jesus was raised from the dead?', considering all that is included in that and what that means when it comes to how you live, what would you say? I think that for at least some of us, if not more, the honest answer is, 'I believe; help my unbelief.' And as I've told you before, Jesus will act in kindness in response to that answer. Remember, He rescued the son of the man who first said those words. However, don't leave it there. Fine, you can see problem areas in your believing, and you're honest about it. Okay. And it's good to know that Jesus is patient with that. But bear in mind what He said to Thomas and today says to you.

Do not disbelieve, but believe.

We have work to do so that we will obey that command. And that gets to the goal of this sermon. I'd like you to take a look at your believing, your faith. I'd like you to be a little dissatisfied with it. I don't want anyone to get all depressed. But I think it would be good to get a sense of where you are in your believing so that you would see that it needs some work. There is something to be said for contentment. It really is important. It's an indication of the health of someone's soul if he is content with what Jesus is doing with his life. But we should never be content with our sin. And disbelief is sin. So, I'd like to see some discontent so that you would be moved to do the work of developing your believing.

The place where that discontent will first show is in your prayers. Some of what you need to be praying for is to believe that Jesus still does impossible things. After all, He has been raised from the dead. But maybe even before that, what you need to be praying for is that Jesus would make you less satisfied, less content, with the state of your belief. And that He would do that so that you would be moved to do the hard work of improving it.

So, I’m hoping for two things to motivate you in this. On the one hand, I’m banking on your hatred of sin and your desire to rid yourself of it, in this case the sin of disbelief. But there is also the other side of the coin: the excitement of being able to see Jesus do impossible things, amazing things. We have not yet seen Him do the mighty works that He can do among us. I see no reason why that should remain the case.