“An Unbelievable Future” – John 20:19-31

Thomas rubbed the deepening circles under his eyes.  Sleep had eluded him again.  He sat in the half dark room alone, staring up at the ceiling.  His stomach growled from hunger, but he didn’t feel like eating.  Every time he thought of that man’s face, beaten… that crown of thorns shoved forcefully down on that brow, his stomach churned in knots.  He shivered as he remembered that man, his teacher and friend, hanging on those rough beams of wood.

Thomas’ breath became labored as he recalled watching Jesus’ ragged breathing on the cross.  A small stream of water from Thomas’ eyes mirrored the water running from Jesus’ side as the Centurian pierced his side with a spear.  Dead.  The lifeless, limp body no longer moved.  Jesus had cried, “It is finished!”  Those words hung in the arid air before Thomas.  It was finished.  All of it!  The hope, the promises, the future… dashed against the cold, heartless rock of Rome and the Jewish authorities.  Another failed messiah… another failed leader… another promise broken.  Thomas curled into a ball as sobs racked his body again.  His tears had all but dried up.  His sobs were ghostly moans of disappointment.

How many had there been?  How many prophets?  How many politicians?  How many spiritual leaders?  How many self-proclaimed messiahs?  All had promised to make Jerusalem great again… yet, here they were again – empty promises littering the floor.  Anger flashed.  Rage swelled.  But, despair followed quickly as Thomas was reminded of the futility of it all.  Herod.  Pilate.  Caiaphas.  They held all the power.  The world kept moving much as it had before Jesus was killed.  Those in power remained in power; nothing ever changed.  Jesus had been silenced forever.

Thomas couldn’t bear the silence of the room any longer.  He wasn’t sure where to go, but he had to get out.  He slipped quietly from his room, avoiding eye contact, darting in the shadows, covering his face to keep from being recognized.  He bumped into a few people as he hurried along, his feet carrying him along a familiar path.  He wasn’t sure how he had arrived on the steps, but he knocked on the door anyway.

Familiar faces were gathered together.  All of the disciples were here.  He hadn’t expected to see all of them together, but he supposed they didn’t have anywhere else to go.  He looked into their eyes, searching for something – he wasn’t sure what.  Perhaps the same sense of loss and desperation, the pain, the disappointment.  Thomas expected reddened eyes and dejected faces staring back.  But, they smiled at him!  What was wrong with these people?  How could they possibly smile after all that they had seen and heard?  How could they so easily forget that awful day of finality?

The disciples hugged Thomas.  Gripped his shoulder.  Patted him on the back.  He didn’t really return their embrace.  Nor did he return their smiles.  What was going on?  His bewildered look prompted one of the disciples to speak.  “Thomas, the most wonderful news!  Jesus came here last week.  He’s alive.  We saw his hands and feet.  It was him!”

Thomas squinted in disbelief.  Anger began to rise to the surface.  What kind of cruel joke was this!?  Dead people don’t rise.  He had seen the lifeless body brought down from the cross.  He saw them carry Jesus to the tomb.  If the Romans were good at one thing, it certainly was the ability to kill people.  They were proficient killers.  What madness had gripped his friends?  Dead people don’t show up anywhere!  Perhaps they had seen a vision or maybe they had a vivid memory in their grief.  Hadn’t he hoped Jesus would walk through the door and prove it all a bad dream?  But, that had not happened.  Jesus was dead.  Thomas cleared his throat of the knot that was there, “I will not believe it unless I put my finger in the wounds.”

Thomas had been fooled enough.  He had dared to hope.  He wouldn’t be taken in again.  He wasn’t gullible, like the rest of this group.  Thomas was tired of hoping.  He wanted proof.  He wanted nothing less than tangible evidence.  Nothing else short of that was acceptable.  Trust was exhausted.  He refused to trust what he could not see.  Thomas fumed.  He refused to smile and he would not meet anyone else’s eyes.  He sat shaking his head in disbelief that his friends could be so gullible, so naïve.

Thomas is often given a bad rap.  “Doubting Thomas” we call him.  We shake our heads and wonder at Thomas’ audacity to ask for proof.  We marvel at his lack of belief, his inability to understand what has happened.  Doubting Thomas.  He embodies for many of us something opposed to faith.  Doubt, some say, is the great enemy of faith.

But, doubt is a function of faith.  We doubt based on what we believe.  We doubt we can jump off of a 10 story building and fly because we so deeply believe in the power of gravity.  We doubt that we can put out a grease fire with water because experience has shown us that water actually makes grease fires worse.  We doubt that camels can fit through the eye of a needle, unless that needle is gigantic, because we believe in the physics of reality making such an event impossible.  Thomas doubted Jesus’ resurrection because he knew that dead people stayed dead.

Thomas wasn’t a doubter.  He was a realist.  Dead people stay dead.  Thomas wasn’t faithless.  He had followed Jesus.  But, the cross pointed to Jesus as a failure.  Where was the Kingdom of God when Caesar, Pilate, and Herod still ruled?  Where was the fulfillment of promises when the messiah laid in a tomb?  Where was any hope when Death held the victory?  The powers-that-be had won decisively.  Their victory was the shape of a cross that proclaimed Jesus to be a false king and a political rabble rouser, but nothing more.  Thomas may have doubts, but they are born out of his experience that has shown itself over and over and over again.  Promises are ultimately broken.  Hope is short-lived.  The world never changes.  Death always wins.

Thomas would fit right in to our postmodern age.  We watch election campaigns where candidates promise to make everything “great again.”  We hear their promises and know there is false hope being offered.  Too many promises have been made.  Too many promises have fallen short.

We watch markets fluctuate while interest and the cost of living rises.  There is more month than paycheck and we wonder how we can make those dollars stretch.  Many are foundering under mounds of credit card and consumer debt.  Houses are foreclosed.  Loans are overdue.  Creditors hassle us.  That mountain of debt appears too large to overcome.

Illness, and addictions, and abusive relationships, and hunger, and a myriad of other problems invade our vision with such regularity that it becomes difficult to see any possible future where our lives are not dominated by these realities.  The rich get richer.  The poor get poorer.  The powerful become more powerful.  The weak become more vulnerable.  The way of the world seems to hold sway.  The shadow blots out the light, until we are unable to see the horizon beyond.  We are tired, and torn, and tattered.  We are distraught, and dismayed, and disillusioned.  We are beaten, and bleeding, and bruised.

Even when it comes to the Church, we often wonder if such a place matters.  What’s the point?  The people are hypocrites.  The Church is mixed up in scandals and abuse.  The Church is broken and ineffective.  The Church is failing and declining.  I remember talking with the dad of a teen one day, who told me, “The Church, I believe, is just going to die.”  He had seen churches close and flounder in its mission.  And, as a youth pastor, it was difficult for me to see any other reality either.  Perhaps like me, you have wondered if the Church has a future.  It is easy to look at the Church and at the rest of the world and become increasingly cynical that anything but death can come from it.  Our experience of death is so strong and overwhelming, that like Thomas, we won’t believe life and hope are possible unless we can see it with our own eyes and touch it with our own hands.

… Just as Thomas’ eyes pivoted to the floor, he heard a voice among the voices of the disciples.  It didn’t belong to the disciples, but he recognized it.  He rubbed his temples, obviously hearing things that were impossible to hear.  If dead men stay dead, dead men don’t talk either.  Thomas kept his eyes to the floor.  A pair of feet stood directly in Thomas’ line of sight.  They appeared to be normal feet with sandals… except for one difference.  These feet had a hole straight through them, as if they had been pierced by a metal spike.

Thomas’ eyes followed the feet up the robe, up the torso of the robed figure, until he met the eyes of the man that had been his teacher.  His voice caught, his breath left him, he was hallucinating, surely!  He blinked his eyes to clear them.  Opening them found the same scene – Jesus standing before him.  Jesus spoke: “Peace be with you.”  Thomas’ jaw must have been on the floor, because he did not respond… couldn’t respond.  Jesus exposed his side, the side that had been pierced by the spear.  “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

Thomas’ body began to shake, to tremble.  It was Jesus!  Alive!  His hands and feet and side all bore the wounds of crucifixion and yet something was different because nobody had opened the door to this room – it was still locked!  Yet, here Jesus stood, in the flesh, bearing the wounds of crucifixion and yet living and breathing and alive!

Thomas didn’t remember slipping down to the floor on his knees, but he couldn’t help himself.  “My lord and my God!”  It was the only appropriate response because nobody else could defeat death, especially in such spectacular fashion.  Jesus looked at Thomas, saying, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

As Pastor Becca reminded us last week, “The resurrection changes everything.”  It changes everything!  Thomas encounters the risen Jesus and his response is, “My lord and my God.”  Thomas began with the realistic expectation that dead men don’t rise.  He could not fathom a world where Jesus was messiah and king when it was obvious that Death had stopped him.  Now, because of this encounter with Jesus, Thomas doubts that there is any place that Jesus is not lord and king of all because resurrection has fully undermined the power of Death.

Herod, Pilate, and Caesar may still appear to be in power.  Their weapon of choice, death, has been their method for silencing their opponents.  Death has been the ultimate weapon that the world has used to silence the prophets and the people who sought to follow God and called into question the ways of this world, the ways of power politics.  The world would kill anyone that challenged how things have always been.  If you don’t want to be killed, you better play along – especially if you benefit from those power arrangements in society.  Let the poor be poor, we would say, because they deserve it.  Let the weak remain powerless, because we deserve power to look out for ourselves.  But, don’t question the way things are, don’t look too closely, turn a blind eye to the injustice, ignore the violence – better yet, be those who benefit from those things.  And, the best way to maintain peace, for any empire, from Egypt to Rome to us, has been to use death as the means for control, for domination, for maintaining life the way it is.  Death is our weapon of choice.

And, death does some awful work.  It is vicious and cruel.  It tore Jesus’ body.  He was stretched like tanned leather across those planks of wood.  His hands were pierced, his feet were nailed, his side was jabbed, his back was slashed, and his face was beaten.  Jesus stood before Thomas with visible reminders of the world’s ways of using power.  And, as he had stood before the disciples a week before, showing them his hands and feet, he said, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”  He stands before Thomas now with that same reminder that we, as disciples, have been sent back into the world as an invasion force.  But, we no longer use the weapons of death to conquer, for the world’s ultimate weapon of death has already been demolished.  “My lord and my God.”

The weapon of death, which all worldly powers depend on to maintain their way of life has been defeated, made defunct, demolished.  The resurrection changes everything.  Now, those worldly powers have no real power.  Their weapon has been trashed, trumped, and torn down.  Jesus has gone through death and come out the other side having defeated Death.  This death of Death marks the beginning of new creation.  Jesus shows up to his disciples on the first day of the week, the day of first creation.  What Jesus has initiated and inaugurated, Thomas grasps.  Only God can do something new.  Only God can give new life so dramatically.  “My lord and my God.”  Thomas doubts the power of death because he has seen and touched the new creation, he has seen and touched Jesus.  Thomas realizes, because of the resurrection, that all of God’s promises are “yes” in Christ Jesus.  And, for that very reason, hope is possible.  “My lord and my God.”  Nothing else deserves his allegiance.  Nothing else is worthy of his life.  For Thomas, and for us, the resurrection changes everything.

But, still, it remains to be seen.  It remains to be seen in our families, our communities, our homes, our offices, our churches, our schools.  Does the resurrection change everything for us?  When people watch us and watch our little church, do they see resurrection power at work in us?  Do they see the risen Christ?  Can they touch the wounds when they enter these doors?  Does our confession, “My lord and my God,” go beyond words to actions?  Are we willing to be sent like Jesus to proclaim hope, even if it cost us everything?  The Church’s job is to proclaim the new creation that has broken loose in Jesus’ resurrection.  We are called to dispel the darkness by living as light.  We are invited to give up everything for the sake of others – knowing that it is better to give than to receive and that it is in giving that we receive.

Perhaps poverty continues to be an issue in our community because we have not been the generous hands and feet of the risen Christ.  Perhaps addictions abound in our community because we are unwilling to be vulnerable by sharing our own wounds with each other, to confess that we struggle.  Perhaps people lack resources because we hoard resources for ourselves.  Perhaps the Church is floundering because we have failed to live out resurrection here and now.

But, where the resurrection has taken root.  Where we live out of the hope and peace we have received through Jesus’ resurrection, we are empowered to be world changers, initiators of the new creation here and now.  The resurrection changes everything!  Where the resurrection catches our imagination, lifts our hearts, gives us hope… that becomes a radical movement and revolution in our world.  We do not move in fear.  We are willing to give freely of ourselves.  We are energized to live out God’s mission for us.  We are empowered to proclaim the Good News.  We are equipped for every good work which we have been given in Christ Jesus.  When every day is a celebration of resurrection, we will see lives changed – both inside and outside of the church.

Those very things are happening here and more is yet to come.  I marvel at the way that our small group has decided to be missional and serve members of our community while we grow in our walk with God together.  I celebrate that Gloria and Charles have given of their time to run the van to pick up people on Sunday mornings.  I am deeply grateful for those that are engaged in the backpack program that provides food each weekend for underprivileged children.  I am ecstatic about the GED program that is meeting in our building on Monday and Thursday evenings.  I am excited to see our annual VBS program be a success this year as we reach our community together.  I am thrilled to see some of our people reaching out to others and inviting them to be part of our church.

Resurrection things are happening here.  And, as we are captivated more and more by the power of resurrection, we will fear the wounds of crucifixion less and less.  As we trust more fully in Jesus as lord and God, we will place less and less hope in the empires of this world.  And, as we live out resurrection in our world, we will see small bursts of new creation break out.  The resurrection changes everything!