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Convinced Beyond a Doubt / Second Sunday of Easter

John 20:24-31

But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into His side, I will never believe.”

Years ago, a man was traveling through South Alabama on one of those hot, sultry Alabama days. He stopped at a watermelon stand, picked out a watermelon, and asked the proprietor how much it cost. It’s $1.10, he replied. He dug into his pocket, found only one bill and said, all I have is a dollar. That’s ok, the proprietor said, I’ll trust you for it. Well, that’s mighty nice of you and picking up the watermelon, started to leave. Hey, where are you going? the man behind the counter demanded. I’m going outside to eat my watermelon. But you forgot to give me the dollar! the proprietor protested. You said you would trust me for it. Yeah, said the proprietor, but I meant I would trust you for the dime! Mack, you weren’t going to trust me at all. You were just going to take a ten-cent gamble on my integrity! What does it mean to trust somebody? What does it mean to put your faith in them?

Jack Lemmon is recognized as one of America’s most talented, appealing, accomplished actors. Those who have met him claim that he’s also a humble, modest, good-natured man. One of Lemmon’s favorite pastimes is golf, and he loves to tell stories about his greatest exploits on the links. Jack and Clint Eastwood paired up once with a couple of golf pros for a friendly round. The sixteenth hole was bordered on one side by the ocean. Jack hit the ball sharply, but it went over the edge and fell toward the water. It landed on a plant outcropping. Jack was going to leave the ball there and take the consequences, but Clint insisted that he hit it. Jack protested that if he leaned over the side of the 80-foot cliff and tried to hit his ball, he would surely fall to his death. Clint promised that he wouldn’t let his friend get hurt. He grabbed Jack by the back of his pants and led him over to the edge of the cliff. The two golf pros, along with Clint Eastwood, formed a human chain to hold onto Jack Lemmon as he leaned over the side of the cliff and hit his ball. It arced up and landed right next to the hole.

Now, that’s trust. How many people do you know that you would entrust to hold you out over an 80-foot cliff? Trust is what’s at stake in our lesson today from the Gospel.

Thomas (also called Didymus) was one of Jesus’ disciples. Thomas is only mentioned a few times in the Scriptures. On one occasion he showed great courage. In John 11, Jesus is headed back to Judea to see Mary and Martha after Lazarus’ death. The religious leaders in Judea are out for Jesus’ blood. Thomas is the one who steps forward and commits himself to going with Jesus back to Judea, even though they all fear it will mean their death. As Thomas says in verse 16, “. . . Let us go also, that we may die with Him.” If we were to stop here, we would say that Thomas trusted Jesus without any reservations. He sounds intense. He’ll follow Jesus even if it means death.

Intense would be a good word to describe Thomas the second time we encounter him in the Scriptures. In John 14:1ff, we read one of the most famous passages in the New Testament. Jesus says to His disciples, Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you I go to prepare a place for you? And when I prepare a place for you, I will come again and I will take you to myself, that where I am you may also be. And you know the way where I am going. It’s Thomas who says, Lord, we don’t know where you’re going; how can we know the way?

Thomas is having trouble with some of Jesus’ teachings. What does Jesus mean about preparing a place for them? The trouble Thomas is having with Jesus’ teaching gets us ready for the third encounter, which was after the resurrection. Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples when Jesus revealed Himself. So, the other disciples told him, we have seen the Lord! But Thomas said to them, unless I see the nail marks in His hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe it.

That’s why, when Jesus said that He was going to prepare a place for them, Thomas answered, Lord, we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way? Thomas was having trouble with the idea of life beyond the grave. Thomas was having difficulty believing that death can be conquered, even by Christ.

Thomas believed in God. Thomas even believed in Jesus. He was part of the fellowship; he was one of the chosen twelve. But Thomas couldn’t make that final leap of faith to believe that a human can be raised from the dead. Even when the other disciples, his friends, his colleagues, people he knew and trusted reported they had seen Christ, Thomas refused to believe. Unless I see, and touch, I won’t believe. Thomas was willing to give his life for Jesus, but he couldn’t believe in Christ’s resurrection.

Many people are like Thomas. Some refuse even to believe in God. No matter how compelling the evidence might be to the rest of us, even in the face of the magnificence of creation, some people refuse to believe there is a Creator.

An atheist was spending a quiet day fishing on a lake in Scotland when suddenly his boat was attacked by the Loch Ness monster. In one easy flip, the beast tossed him and his boat high into the air. Then it opened its mouth to swallow both the fisherman and his boat. As the man sailed head over heels, he cried out, Oh, my God! Help me! At once, the ferocious attack scene froze in place, and as the atheist hung in mid-air, a booming voice came down from the clouds, I thought you didn’t believe in Me! The man said, come on God, give me a break! Two minutes ago, I didn’t believe in the Loch Ness monster either.

Some people refuse to believe even the most basic truth about life, and that there is a Divine Creator. Others believe in God, but can’t bring themselves to believe in Jesus. While still others, like Thomas, believe in God and profess to follow Jesus, but have closed the door of their minds on the subject of the resurrection. For Thomas nothing would do except to see for himself the nail marks in Christ’s hands and to put his finger where the nails had been, and to put his hand into Christ’s side. And when he had done all this, when his doubts were finally put to rest, Thomas was overcome with emotion. He cried out, My Lord and my God! No longer was Thomas on the outside looking in. Now he was a believer as well.

A pastor of a large church in Oregon believed in and practiced healing, so, when he had a heart attack. A woman from his church asked him, were you embarrassed to have a heart attack? He replied that he wasn’t. But the woman was. She was unable to handle the totality of life’s experiences, including the fact that pain and suffering are real. Later, after he recovered, he had a visit from a man who was terrified as he was facing the prospect of his own bypass surgery. I want to see your scars, the man said shyly.

He took off his shirt. The man gently traced with his finger the violet scar that ran vertically down Jerry’s chest. The man went on, the doctor says the most painful part of the operation will be the surgery on my legs. They’re going to take out veins from my calf to use in the heart bypass. He asked, can I see your legs?

He rolled up his pants. The man got on his knees. Without shame, he put his hands on Jerry’s legs, touching the scars with his finger. When he rose to his feet, there were tears in his eyes. Thank you, he said. Now I have hope. Seeing and touching the scars gave him hope. Touching Jesus’ scars gave Thomas hope, hope about the meaning of his life, hope that life really does matter, hope that we aren’t here merely for a moment and then forever gone as if we had never existed, hope that the Easter story is true. Christ is alive. Death has been conquered.

Thomas had difficulty believing the testimony of the other disciples. He had to experience the risen Christ for himself. For something this important, he wouldn’t take the word even of his best friends.

There’s someone in this room for whom the Easter story is also unreal. Someone you love has been taken from you, and you have never let go and trusted God with that loved one’s care. Someone in this room is still making his or her decisions as if there were no eternity to consider. All I can say to you is that we have the testimony of men and women who had their lives radically changed by their experience of the risen Christ. Among those was Thomas himself.

The next time we meet Thomas he’s with the other disciples in a fishing boat. The risen Christ says to them, Cast your nets on the other side. My guess is that Thomas was the first one to cast the nets. No longer is Thomas a doubter. The last time we heard about Thomas scripturally is in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. But the story doesn’t end there. Thomas was so convinced that he had seen the risen Christ that he died a martyr’s death. Tradition tells us that Thomas was killed with a lance in the East Indies. Gladly he died for that which he once doubted.

Thomas learned to trust the testimony of people he respected. Thomas learned to trust the Master whom he followed. He learned to trust God who gives life both in this world and the next.