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May 10, 2020 Sermon – From 11 Frightened Disciples: Proof to Overcome Doubt

May 10, 2020 Sermon
“From 11 Frightened Disciples:
Proof to Overcome Doubt”

Scripture Readings

Our first reading will be the guiding passage of this sermon series, a reminder of how the disciples began the evening of the first Easter locked away in a room out of fear.

 John 20:19-20

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

John 20:24-29

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

“From 11 Frightened Disciples: Proof to Overcome Doubt”

I remember a conversation I had with my mother after a Sunday morning at church when I was a child.  My mom knew that I had all kinds of doubts about the biblical stories I was learning about in Sunday School.

  • If God wanted people to be healed – and demonstrated as much by working miraculous healings through Jesus – why weren’t people being miraculously healed today?
  • If Jesus was resurrected and didn’t die again but ascended into heaven, why didn’t Jesus come back to earth to visit once in a while for new generations to be able to see and experience?
  • If God wants us to believe, why doesn’t God provide more proof for each generation…instead of asking us to believe the words and stories from a long long time ago in a land far away?

More than likely, this particular conversation took place not long after one of my friend’s fathers had passed away from cancer.  I had prayed and prayed and prayed some more for his healing, but he died anyway, and I had doubts.

So my mom told me a story she had just heard about – maybe in the newspaper, maybe during the sermon that morning, I can’t remember.  The story was about some people flying in a small airplane.  Some kind of dangerous situation developed – I can’t remember the details but do remember the people in the plane thought they were going to die.  As they prepared for the plane to crash, the people in the plane suddenly saw an image outside the plane, an image in the clouds that looked like Jesus, and they were calmed.  And somehow, miraculously, they all survived to tell the tale.

(PAUSE)

You’ve heard of “doubting Thomas”, right?  Even if you didn’t grow up in the church, you might know the term “doubting Thomas” from popular culture; according to the Oxford Dictionary, a doubting Thomas is “a person who is skeptical and refuses to believe something without proof.”

So today, we’re considering just a little of John’s version of the events that transpired last week.  Last week we read and considered Luke’s version of this resurrection appearance in a room where the disciples were gathered on the night of the first Easter.  In Luke’s gospel, when the risen Christ appeared to the disciples gathered in that room, he called them ALL doubters: “why do doubts arise in your hearts?” (Luke 24:38).  And then, Jesus showed them his hands and feet and invited them to touch his wounds.

For some reason, John omits these details as he highlights what happened with Thomas, who was not present at that gathering.  And Luke’s provision of the missing details helps explain something.  When John portrays Thomas as having said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe”, John does portray Thomas as appearing MORE doubtful than the rest of the disciples.  BUT, when we know the other disciples doubted, as well, which led Jesus to invite THEM to touch his wounds, Thomas’ words make so much more sense.  Surely, the other disciples told Thomas about their experience, about their touching of Jesus’ wounds. Thomas’ words have a context: Thomas merely wanted the same experience the other disciples just had; he is presented as having doubted no more than the rest.

Surely, you’ve heard of “doubting Thomas.”  Well, it’s become something of a modern trend for pastors to utilize their sermons about these verses, John 20:24-29, to absolve Thomas of this perceived sin of doubt.  You may have even heard my words a few moments ago – words to provide more context about what was happening – as words absolving Thomas.

But that’s not at all what I feel called to do today…because spending my time trying to absolve Thomas would be diverting my focus from what I believe is truly God’s message through this passage.  My friends, God’s message isn’t about Thomas.  God’s message was never about Thomas.  God’s message is about GOD, about JESUS, about the RISEN CHRIST.  And God’s message is about what God PROVIDED to Thomas and the other disciples.

When we combine the descriptions given by both Luke and John, we can discover something absolutely amazing about the events of that night and the next  week.  What we discover is that God, through the risen Christ, provided the disciples – not just one of the disciples but ALL of the disciples – EXACTLY what they needed to move from fear to power.  And what they needed in that moment was proof to overcome doubt.  What they – all of them – needed in that moment was to get past any doubts that God had raised Jesus from death…so they could spend the rest of their lives living out of a conviction that resurrection awaits them, as well.

And folks, THAT is what Jesus does – THAT is what God does – provide proof to overcome the doubts of Jesus’ followers so that Jesus’ followers can live without fear, can live into power…just  like those original disciples.

Folks, that is precisely what  God has done through the ages:

  • Let’s start with the beginning of the Church, the first Christian Pentecost.  Three thousand people were added to the Church in just one day.  How?  Proof given by God – first through the miraculous works of God’s Holy Spirit and then through the preaching of the Apostle Peter, who testified of Jesus’ resurrection.
  • And how about the Apostle Paul receiving proof to overcome his doubts.  Once a persecutor of Christians named Saul, Paul was converted on the road to Damascus as a result of Jesus providing the proof Paul needed to believe that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah prophesied in the scriptures.
  • Let’s move forward just a bit in time, moving past the times of the New Testament.  Have you heard of the Holy Fire?  Othodox Christians claim that a blue fire springs forth from Jesus’ tomb every single year on the day before they celebrate Easter.  And this fire lights a candle held by a high priest (a patriarch) and is then used to light the candles of countless thousands of worshippers.  Some who’ve witnessed the phenomenon say the Holy Fire spontaneously lights other lamps and candles around the church building on that day.  Some who’ve witnessed the phenomenon even say the blue fire doesn’t burn them.
  • And the Holy Fire miracle, which has been happening almost every year for more than a thousand years (maybe 1,600 years if a report from 385 is true), was predated by yet another miracle of fire, another proof.  In the year 162, when preparations were being made to celebrate Easter at the church in Jerusalem, it was discovered that there was no more oil for the lamps.  The Bishop of Jerusalem ordered the lamps to be filled with water and then lit.  When lit, the lamps burned as they would if filled with pure oil.
  •  A great many  other miracles are easy to find in the church’s history…if you take but a little time to look.  There are reports throughout the last 1,900 years of healings, exorcisms, nature miracles (like the changing of the direction of a wind or even the calming of storms), and even resurrections.
  • One of my favorite stories of miracles that provided proof enough to overcome doubt in a way that made an enormous impact  on the world is the story of St. Patrick – yes, the Saint who is celebrated each March 17 but who I don’t think would be so enamored with the WAY we celebrate him today.  If you’re not familiar with St. Patrick, he was born in Britain in the 4th century.  At the age of 16 Patrick was kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery across the Irish Sea in Ireland.  After six years of slavery, Patrick received a vision to return home.  Somehow, the vision provided the guidance he needed to escape, return home, and enter the ministry.  Decades later, as a result of the vision (and possibly having been called again by a new vision or voice), Patrick returned to Ireland convert the island to Christianity and abolish slavery and human sacrifice in the process.  Some people even credit Patrick’s transmission of Christianity to Ireland – outside the Roman Empire – with saving western Christianity after the fall of the Roman Empire; it was Irish monks who preserved Judeo-Christian culture and literature through the Dark Ages.  Coincidental timing…or a great miracle from God?  All through God providing proof to overcome doubt to an enslaved young man living the harshest of lives.

So…providing proof to overcome doubt is what God has been doing throughout the history of the Church.  And it’s what God continues to do today.  I’m sure you’re familiar with the miracles I’ve experienced and recounted to you before.  I will remind you of them again…and share the accounts of others:

  • I’ve told you about my becoming a member of a group of young men, one of whom very definitely had the gift of healing.  I’ve always thought they welcomed new members into their group to prevent the one with the gift from being singled out or discovered – such was the humility of this group.  Anyway, one Saturday morning I prayed with them over a newborn baby.  Prior to our prayers, the baby had been experiencing nearly constant seizures due to being born with only half a brain.  By the time we finished praying, doctors and nurses asked us what we had been doing because the baby stopped seizing, and a resulting new brain scan revealed the baby’s brain to be whole for the first time in her young life.
  • I’ve told you about the voice I heard calling my name at various times in my childhood and youth.  Scattered through the years, the voice always sounded the same, always called me by name, and always called to me when no one else was around.
  • I’ve told you the story of my asking for God to give me a clear sense of my call to ministry – whether it was really God calling or just my imagination, asking God to come to me in a dream and grant me clarity.  God responded with three dreams, more than 22 years ago, that I can still remember clearly to this day.
  • I’ve told you the story of God granting me a vision of a group of people, a group whom I could clearly identify down to what they were wearing and how they were arranged, praying over me while I slept…and discovering the next day that the very group of people was in fact praying for me in another room on the same grounds where I was staying.
  • I’ve told you the stories of people I’ve visited with during the final days and hours of their lives, people who saw clearly INTO the next life that  awaited them.  These folks have shared with me visions of the next life, visions of people awaiting them, visions to help ease their journey.
  • I probably have NOT told you this next one…because it’s not my story but the story of someone I’ve known.  I’ve known a person who has been able to sense when people are sick BEFORE those people know it.  This very same person can sense when a person’s spirit has left their body.  This person has had conversations with souls after they depart their bodies…conversations that reveal things, names, and events that turn out to be verifiably true but that my friend had no other way of knowing.

And of course there are the stories of God providing miraculous proof to overcome doubts today that go way beyond my own experience:

  • One is the story with which I began this sermon.  Ever since the easy accessibility of information online, I’ve been trying to find the story of “Jesus in the clouds” that my mother told me about as a child.  As it turns out, that wasn’t a one-time kind of thing.  It  happens all…the…time.  There’s even a website someone has created to compile all these stories and photographs.  And there are YouTube video compilations of similar pictures.  Granted, there are those who doubt, but the volume of eyewitness accounts of Jesus appearing in the clouds is overwhelming.
  • Stories also abound of miracles of healing, of people who were given zero chance to live but who are still alive…many, many years later, even some whose incurable diseases have left them completely.  And when I say these stories ABOUND, I mean it.  You can research them yourself; they are not hard to find.  One such person is a woman I knew when I served St. Charles Christian Church in Missouri.  She was told she had stage 4 of a very bad form of cancer – once stage 4 is reached, the 5-year survival rate is zero.  We held a service of prayer, healing, and laying on of hands for her.  This was at least 13 years ago.  Within a week, a new test revealed the stage of her disease had been miscalculated; she was actually late stage 3, which meant there was a last-ditch hope of a surgery that could be performed; she was likely to die on the operating table.  My friends, she is still alive and living well today.
  • There are stories of voices from nowhere that lead rescuers to find victims of accidents.  I read one this week from 2015 in Utah.  A 25-year-old woman lost control of her car, and the car landed in an icy river. The woman died almost immediately, but her 18-month old baby was trapped in the car, suspended by seatbelts inches above the icy river.  Police officers and firefighters at the scene 14 hours after the mother died reported hearing an adult voice yelling “help me” from inside the car; it’s how they found the baby.

I could go on and on and on.  Indeed, I encourage you to do your own research; you will discover countless stories of modern miracles.

Why do these things, these miracles, happen?  Why do they take place…sometimes…but not all the time?  Why didn’t God intervene through a miracle to stop the Holocaust, or wars, or acts of terrorism, or COVID-19, or ANY senseless tragedy or death?  

Clearly, I can’t answer ALL of these questions, particularly the questions about why God doesn’t step in and miraculously prevent ALL the bad stuff from happening.  But I do believe today’s reading from John 20 provides at least one answer to the first question: why do these miracles happen?  What’s the point (especially if the point is NOT to prevent all wrongs)?

The answer, to me, is quite clear.  God works to provide the proof that God’s people need to overcome doubt.  God doesn’t work enough miracles to take away free choice from people.  God doesn’t work enough miracles to control people or events like a puppet master.  God doesn’t even work enough miracles at any point in time so as to remove the possibility of people choosing against God.  But God DOES work exactly enough miracles to help those who want to believe, those who want to believe there is a God, to overcome the doubts that come along with being human.

Our job, my friends, is to do EXACTLY what Thomas did, to actively seek out and FIND the proof God does provide…so that we may believe, so that we may receive power, so that we may be transformed and participate in the continuing transformation of the world.

Amen.