While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
These posts will be on hold while I am on Sabbatical from May 1st to July 31st. They will resume in August. — Andrew Jensen
Three Lessons from Thomas
Scripture: John 20:19-31
Today I am going to break one the first rules I learned in seminary: I am going to preach a three-point sermon. Don’t worry, it won’t be the kind from a hundred years ago where each point took 15 minutes! But today’s assigned reading from John about Thomas has three major points that intertwine, braid together, and I don’t want to leave any of them out.
I will begin with the end of the reading: the purpose of the book. This was the original ending of John’s gospel. Other chapters got added on for clarification. Remember; John’s gospel is structured to deliver a theological message with seven signs spaced out to reveal important things John believed about Jesus. Here the author makes it clear – people are supposed to read it and believe, and through believing, gain eternal life.
This ties in with the main part of this lesson we usually remember: poor old Thomas being branded “doubting Thomas” because he expresses a very modern desire – to see evidence. John’s gospel was the last one to be written and it was in an age when few apostles were still alive; few eye-witnesses left. So, all the telling of the story of Jesus was being done by a younger generation, by people who heard it from someone else. Therefore, John is trying to address this issue by giving an example of an early uncertain disciple who not only gets the evidence he needs but is also told about how blessed are the people who are able to believe without that evidence. It’s an acknowledgement that belief in an age without evidence is really hard and it’s an encouragement to embrace that belief anyway.
This focus on belief as a means to salvation has made John’s gospel very popular in the Protestant tradition.
The second lesson here is tied right in to John’s purpose from the start: John was writing to oppose the Gnostics, a group that said that all flesh is sinful and that only spirit can be holy. I’ve mentioned this before. It gets quite complex and involves rejecting nearly everything from the Hebrew scriptures.
John’s depiction of the resurrected Jesus gives us a complex image. On the one hand, Jesus is able to appear in a locked room and then disappear again, as if he had Scotty at the transporter controls. We also know from this and other bits of the gospel that Jesus wasn’t instantly recognized by his followers; he had to reveal himself somehow before they recognized him. At the same time he is solid, not just spirit. How else could Thomas touch his wounds?
So there is a reaffirmation of the physical nature of Jesus, that the Word become Flesh has not abandoned the flesh but that there is more to it than a simple resuscitation. This resurrected body is something special, something greater, perhaps more in line with the ideas Paul expresses in 1 Corinthians 15 about the Spiritual body except that Paul really does step far away from the idea of a resurrection of the bodies we leave behind when we die.
Clearly, there was a debate in the early church about how all this worked and John is clear that he wants us to avoid embracing the Spiritual life at the expense of the Physical. He would agree that God made creation and that it is very good, so we shouldn’t turn our backs on it for some poorly defined future spiritual existence. John would support what we call today an “embodied” faith; a spiritual life made real in the flesh but which also bringing benefits that go beyond mere physical reality.
This brings us to our third point: the gift of the Holy Spirit.
This is an alternate version of how the Holy Spirit came to the church,
different from the one Luke offers us about Pentecost. This has contributed to the biggest split in Christianity as the Western church added the phrase “and from the Son” to the Nicene creed 1000 years ago when talking about the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father. The Orthodox part of the church couldn’t accept that change and so East and West have been divided ever since.
But John’s point is clear: he is claiming the authority and power of God
for Jesus. John is making a statement of what he understood the phrase “son of God” to mean and he carried that further in this reading by having Jesus give the church the power to forgive sins.
That’s one the Protestant church has challenged. It was an early bone of contention for the Reformers against traditional Roman Catholic theology and it remains one of the parts of this gospel that makes Protestants very uncomfortable.
It’s complicated: not only does it reflect a very high Christology with an emphasis on Jesus being divine, it also underscores the divine nature of the Holy Spirit in John’s theology. It is the Holy Spirit that makes the church real, bringing the spirit of God into human lives.
I would suggest that a modern take on this would accept God’s divine presence amongst the people of faith but would be more uncomfortable with the judgmental aspects suggested here, just as the Reformers were uncomfortable with the institutional interpretation that had been adopted over the centuries by the Catholic church where this reading supported the idea of the keys of heaven and hell being given to St. Peter and his successors.
We have seen the damage done by judgmental Christians speaking in the name of nearly every branch of the church. So this kind of pronouncement about sins forgiven and retained needs to be examined closely before it is embraced.
These three lessons can all speak to us today. We live in an age that demands evidence and we examine the scriptures with a critical eye
as I’ve been doing in this sermon. At the same time we acknowledge that there is more to life than what can be seen and measured. We recognize the need for spiritual engagement with our creator and the rest of the world.
We can see the wisdom of John’s assertion against the Gnostics; the refusal to separate human life into the extremes of the base material world and the lofty spiritual realm. We haven’t figured out how our humanity balances these two but we know that each is incomplete
without the other: we are physical beings with a spirituality informed by our forms, by the diverse shapes we have. While what happens in the next life remains a mystery, we are told once again that it will be shaped by the lives we live now.
And while we may not care about theological niceties, like whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone or also from the Son and while we may not even have a clear agreement on what we believe about the divinity of Jesus, we do have a sense that not only was God’s Spirit at work in Jesus and his ministry but that God’s Spirit is still at work in the community of faith.
That is not because we want to claim God’s authority: we don’t want the power to decide how someone else will spend eternity. No, it’s because we have seen God’s inspiration at work, God’s spirit moving in and through the lives of people who have quietly made a difference, who have demonstrated God’s love in very practical ways.
God’s work begun in Jesus still manages to get past locked doors, to transform frightened followers into courageous leaders and confused and aimless people into miracle workers; still gives insight to those dismissed as foolish and hope to those who have lost everything.
That’s what we can take from Thomas and the other disciples: the understanding that no matter how much we have had to hide behind our locked doors in the past, no matter how much uncertainty we may feel, God can and will do amazing things with us as we go forward if we learn to make room for the kind of inspiration that can come from God’s creative spirit.