April 23, 2017 “Faith” – John 20:19-31

John 20:19-31
“Faith”
April 23, 2017 – Second Sunday of Easter

Somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of Christian young people will leave the church and their faith in college.[1] That distressing statistic came to roost in our own family a few years ago when our youngest daughter wrote us a long letter explaining that she no longer felt like she believed the Christian faith. Some of you have experienced similar events in your own families or you know someone who has.

How are we to respond to people who have doubts about our faith, even, and especially, when they are members of our own families or circles of friends? How should we feel about our own doubts? Maybe we can learn something today from the original doubter, the apostle Thomas.

The reservations Thomas expressed in verse 25 are not his first. He is the patron saint of pessimists. In John chapter 11, when Jesus is about to depart for Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead, the disciples remind their Master that on His last trip to that vicinity He was almost stoned to death. Jesus tells them He is determined to go. We can almost hear Thomas heaving a sigh as he says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

In John 14, Christ offered His disciples the comfort of knowing that His Father’s house has many rooms. He was going to prepare a place for them and that He promised to come back to take them with Him. Jesus said, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” But Thomas complained, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” This was the disciple who saw the cup half empty, who always looked at the gloomy side of the situation. It earned him the nickname “doubting Thomas.”

Maybe, though, it’s our own perception of Thomas that is skewed. Maybe we should see him as half-full instead of half-empty. Thomas was the one disciple with enough courage to speak what he really felt at such moments. He spoke his doubts instead of hiding them away. He was honest and authentic. Perhaps you and I could be more honest about our own questions and doubts.

That kind of honesty, though, doesn’t just take individual, personal courage. It takes a community of family and friends willing to accept and live with people who ask hard questions and express less than absolute confidence in the faith. The first big thing we learn today is to be a church, to be a family, to be a community like that first community of the apostles.

Look at the situation. In verse 19 Jesus came to the other ten apostles where they were hiding and afraid. Jesus reassured them, “Peace be with you.” Then verse 20 tells us He “showed them his hands and his side.” Those men became confident believers because they had saw everything they needed to see in order to believe. So when Thomas says in verse 25, “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 believe,” he was not asking for anything the other disciples had not already received.

To their credit, the other disciples must have realized that. When Thomas expressed his doubts, they did not ostracize him. They did not criticize him or exclude him because he couldn’t believe what they told him. No, as verse 26 shows us, when the next Sunday rolled around a week later, Thomas was there with them. He still had a place among the disciples—doubts, questions and all.

A Christian community of faith needs to have a place for those who are not quite convinced of that faith yet. You and I need to remember and admit our own questions and doubts so that we can sympathize with and be gentle to those among us who are feeling unsure.

Universities and colleges are supposed to be places where there is freedom to question and express different opinions. It’s not always the case. But Christian young people need to experience that freedom to ask questions before they ever land in a college classroom. Their churches need to be places where they feel safe to say what is on their minds or to question what they learned in Sunday School in the same way Thomas felt safe to express his doubt there among his fellow disciples.

This past week our Oregon Covenant pastors group met in the home of a young man who is pastor of a new church called “St. Thomas Covenant.” We don’t have many Covenant churches named after saints, but this new plant deliberately took the name of the disciple who asked questions and said what was on his mind. They believe their mission is to some of those people who walk away from faith and church in college or whenever.

St. Thomas Covenant aims to be a safe place for people who feel like their doubts went unanswered in the churches they grew up in, who feel like they’ve been hurt by Christians who acted like they had all the answers and had no room for people who only had questions.

I think St. Thomas Covenant is a pretty cool experiment in vision and church planting and I’m praying for them to succeed. But you and I can learn from St. Thomas the apostle and St. Thomas the church. Let our own community here at Valley Covenant be one that is open and safe for those who doubt, for those who question, for those whose ideas about the faith may not quite yet line up with the Nicene Creed or Covenant Affirmations or whatever yardstick you want to use. Thomas had a place among the apostles before he was completely convinced. Would he have a place among us?

So the first thing we learn today from Thomas’s story is the example of that first church of the disciples. Let us be a place where people, young and old, can ask questions without fear of embarrassment or condemnation. But the second thing we learn from this scripture passage is that questions deserve good answers. And we learn that from our Lord Himself.

Look at how Jesus responded to Thomas. He had already appeared to the others. He had shown them his hands and side. He had breathed on them and invited them to receive the Holy Spirit and then told them in verse 23 to go and offer forgiveness of sins to other people. They were prepped and ready for their mission. But a week later, Jesus returned for what seems to be only one purpose: to answer Thomas’s questions.

Verse 26 is a total repeat of verse 19. The disciples are gathered, the doors are locked, and Jesus shows up and says, “Peace be with you.” The only difference is that little phrase, “and Thomas was with them.” Jesus did it all over again for the sake of a man who asked questions and needed a genuine and strong answer.

Beth and I both grew up in churches that did fine work in teaching us the Bible and inviting us to accept Jesus as Savior. But when we got to our teens and started asking questions, they gave us lousy answers. I remember vividly a session with one of our pastors when I was trying to question his interpretation of a Scripture passage. He finally threw his hands in the air and said, “You just think too much!”

We may not be able to answer every question. But let us be a church, be a Christian family where questions are taken seriously, where thinking is encouraged, where doubt is not a disaster but an opportunity for conversation.

Some of you have already heard about our friend Chet. My best friend Jay and I met him in graduate school. He was a philosophy student who had left the ultra-conservative church he grew up in and now thought his best spiritual experience was picking his own peyote mushrooms to smoke. Jay and I engaged him in conversation and did our best to reason with him like good philosophers about Christian faith.

The summer after our first year of grad school, Chet wrote me a letter saying, “I think I’ve become a Christian.” We got to see him baptized in a Mennonite church and eventually marry a Christian woman from that community.

But here’s what Chet told Jay and me not long after his conversion. “I didn’t think any of your reasons or arguments for Christianity were that good. But I was moved by the fact that you took me seriously and did your best to answer my questions.” Taking the questions seriously and trying to offer answers was all we could do. And it was enough. I think that’s what Jesus asks of us in His church, to take each other seriously and to try in patient love to explain the faith that we have accepted and believed.

It’s really appropriate this Sunday that we are starting again to focus on sharing faith with people who do not yet know Jesus. In the past we’ve sometimes left it at today’s beginning point, praying for those we know who have left the faith or haven’t ever yet come to it. But the BLESS emphasis invites us to take steps beyond that, to be part of God’s answers to those prayers. Listening and eating together and serving and sharing are ways for us to intentionally take seriously the people who are asking questions, who are filled with doubts, who might like to believe but, like Thomas, just can’t do it yet.

Jesus took Thomas seriously and came to him with a great answer. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” As the Gospel lesson itself reflects on in the last couple verses, none of us can offer that sort of answer. None of us has seen or touched those gracious wounds in His hands or side. But many of us have known and felt Jesus come to us in hard moments of doubt. We can share those experiences.

None of us has absolutely convincing proofs of Christian faith, but some of us have explored the excellent reasons there are for believing the testimony from John and the other apostles about what they had seen and touched for themselves. That’s what John says in verse 31. He wrote down what he had seen so that you and I can believe. So did other apostles and Gospel writers. They all affirmed the testimony that Jesus rose from the dead and in the body. He could be touched by them. He ate and drank with them. That testimony is a good reason to believe. We can share that reason.

In another Scripture we heard today, after talking about the trials Christians were going through, I Peter 1:9 says, “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.” Jesus gives us joy even in the midst of hard times. We can share that joy.

We have a faith to share in many different ways. But there’s one last thing to learn about that faith from Thomas. Look at his response to the answer Jesus gave to his question. Despite the wonderful Caravaggio painting of Thomas poking his finger in Jesus’ side, the text does not say that happened. Jesus just invited Thomas to do that, if he needed to. Go ahead and make sure, Jesus offered. But instead of putting out his hand, Thomas simply spoke the faith that entered his heart, “My Lord and my God!”

When Thomas was able to question and still be included and safe there among the other Christians, when Thomas was taken seriously and given a good answer, then his response was a life-changing, life-turning affirmation of faith. His whole attitude and direction were transformed by that faith.

The Bible doesn’t tell us any more about Thomas, but it’s clear he was with the disciples on the day of Pentecost six weeks later. And there are many early legends that Thomas took the message of Jesus all the way to India in 52 A.D. It’s a fact that there are still ancient Christian communities in India who trace their heritage to Thomas.

Thomas’s faith made him faithful. He said, “My Lord and my God,” and he then followed Jesus as his Lord. “Faith” and “faithfulness” are the same word in Greek. The writers of Scripture didn’t really have the concept that you could “just believe” without also demonstrating that belief in the way you live and behave.

When Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” He was not commending those who merely have the correct opinion. He was talking about the blessing of a life that has been transformed and redirected by that belief, by that faith. He was talking about faith that includes faithfulness.

Our friend Chet’s Christian life was not easy. He dropped out of graduate school without finishing his degree because he was too much of a perfectionist to ever finish a paper. He struggled to make a living and finally found work in a computer job. He had issues with health and with children. But we still get a Christmas card from him every year and his faith seems as strong as ever. That faith he first expressed nearly forty years ago included faithfulness.

That’s the faith we have to share with the people we will start praying for today. It’s a faith that has plenty of room for doubt and questions because Jesus has room in His heart for people like Thomas. It’s a faith that has good answers because Jesus made the fact of His resurrection plain to so many witnesses. And it’s a faith that offers the opportunity for a new and transformed life, full of peace and joy, because it includes faithfulness to the Lord who gives us those blessings.

Let’s be people who would welcome Thomas if he showed up here asking his questions. Let’s be people who welcome those who really are and who really will be here asking their questions. And let us be people who are humble and honest enough to admit our own doubts and ask our own questions. Jesus came to Thomas and He will come to us too in those times. We have a great faith, a faith worth sharing.

Amen.

Valley Covenant Church
Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] This is a very rough statistic. Sources for confirmation include a Southern Baptist Family Life Council report in 2002 that found 88% of children in evangelical homes leave church at the age of 18. A Lifeway Research study in 2007 said that 70% will leave the faith in college. The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church by Jossey-Bass states that 90% of youth active in high school church programs drop out of church by the time they are sophomores in college.