The confession - John 20:19-31
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
A few months ago, the Ministry of Defence made public some secret files which contained details of an amazing secret weapon which MI5 seriously considered using during the Cold War. This secret weapon was so deadly it could wipe out whole cities in enemy territory, and would be so fearsome that it would reduce enemy countries to their knees. It could slip in and out of enemy lands without being seen and was undetectable to radar. What was this terrifying and awesome secret which would wreak havoc on any potential enemy? What was this fearsome and devastating weapon? It was the common pigeon. Yes, believe it or not, during the 1940's the government's Air Ministry had a special pigeon section, run by Wing Commander William Rayner. Rayner devised a plan whereby pigeons could be trained to fly into enemy territory, with a small explosive device carrying deadly poison strapped to their backs. The pigeons would be flown in a plane over enemy lines and then dropped so they would fly to their destinations and release their deadly cargo. Sadly, it was discovered that the pigeons would not survive the attacks, but it was said that the pigeons were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for King and country. What was perhaps more disturbing though was that the Germans had commandeered thousands of pigeons for similar purposes. But the MI5 file ends by saying that the Air Ministry also had what was known as the Anti Pigeon Falconry Unit. And this Unit had trained British falcons to intercept and kill any enemy pigeon that flew into British airspace. Isn't it reassuring to know that the government thinks of everything!
Now on first reading this story sounds totally unbelievable. Pigeons carrying biological weapons of mass destruction? It's got to be an April Fool hasn't it? But when you investigate the evidence you find that the story is totally true. It really did happen and you can check out the facts on the National Archive website. And when you look at the evidence the facts drive you in only one direction which is to believe and accept what is written.
And that is precisely the issue that is laid before us in our reading this morning from John's gospel. John was one of Jesus' disciples, and he's writing to present before us the facts about Jesus Christ; and he's asking us to make up our minds about Jesus. Now for many people that is just not the way that faith works. Faith, as Alice in Wonderland puts it, is about believing six impossible things before breakfast. Faith is about a blind leap in the dark, usually flying in the face of the evidence. And when it comes to the Christian faith, well it's just for the gullible who need a crutch to prop up their weak lives. It's fine if it works for you, but really in this day and age of hard science and expanding knowledge, then the Christian faith is the last thing we need.
But actually in the Bible there is no separation between faith and facts. God does not treat us as weak minded gullible idiots. Rather faith rests on the solid facts of history and specifically the historical person of Jesus Christ. And it is the fact of Jesus Christ that this doubter called Thomas comes face to face with in our story. And when Thomas was faced with the facts, he knew he could only do one thing. Put his trust, put his faith in Jesus Christ. For true faith is based on fact. And we'll discover that the person who makes the real blind leap of faith is not the person who trusts the truth about Jesus Christ, but rather the person who rejects the evidence and lives their life flying in the face of the facts about Jesus. That's true blind faith.
So for each one of is this morning, John gives us a challenge. Perhaps you're here as a guest or visitor, maybe supporting baby Robert. Maybe you have never seriously considered the claims of Jesus Christ, or you are simply curious to know more. Well for the next few minutes, look with me at this amazing story and consider the claims of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus' claims are not just a matter of personal opinion. Rather, they concern the eternal destiny of every person in this room. And for those of us already committed to Christ, then we too will need to hear John's challenge to stand firm in this truth and pass it on. So three challenges for us this morning:
1) Examine the Evidence (Vv 24-29)
2) Receive the Rescue (Vv 30-31)
3) Spread the Word (Vv 19-23)
1) Examine the Evidence (Vv 24-29)
So John's first challenge for us is to examine the evidence. And that is what Thomas was asked to do. Now we don't know that much about Thomas. He crops up a few other times in John's book and he appears to be a determined man who is not easily taken in. He's even ready to die for Jesus in chapter 11. So he's not the sort of guy to believe anything. In fact if anything, he's a hard nosed realist whose mind is not easily changed. So you can imagine how he must have felt when his ten best friends come up to him in verse 25 and say that they have seen Jesus, their master and friend alive. Thomas hadn't been there when Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples in verse 19. They were overjoyed when they saw him! It must have been almost too good to be true. Because, if you remember the story, you'll know that Jesus has just suffered an horrific and humiliating death, executed as a common criminal by the Romans on a cross. If you've seen Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ", then you'll know how gruesome it all was. For many victims, the pre crucifixion flogging in itself was fatal, let alone the actual crucifixion itself. So there was no doubt that Jesus has died. And some of these friends of Thomas', and perhaps even Thomas himself, had been there to witness it. So when Thomas' friends turn up saying Jesus was alive and well, then you could forgive him for being a little sceptical couldn't you? Do you see how Thomas responds? Verse 25: "But he 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.'"
Now at this stage we might want to congratulate Thomas, mightn't we? After all, he's not going to be easily duped. He's not going to be taken in by some well meaning, but gullible friends? Surely all Thomas wants to do is make sure they aren't barking mad? Perhaps they have seen a ghost? Perhaps they have all had the same hallucination? But the trouble is, there is a little more here than simple doubt. It's more an unwillingness to believe which is Thomas' problem. "I will not believe," he says. It's not so much "I cannot believe", as "I won't believe". Unless my criteria for belief are fulfilled, I won't believe. That's his problem. This resurrection of Jesus was simply not part of Thomas' experience. And if he'd not experienced it, then he won't believe it! And still the same happens today.
In the last century, a missionary came back from Africa saying he'd seen snow on the equator. (He'd seen Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with snow on it's peak). But the experts at the Royal Geographical Society said, "No. It can't have been snow. You can't have snow on the equator. That's just not possible." And so often when it comes to the Christian faith, our ideas of 'what can't be true' can blind us to what is true. We say: "Dead men don't rise again." Of course they don't. But can you always say it never happens. What if it has happened? Will your unwillingness to believe blind you to the truth? We say: "I don't believe in God because I've never seen him." Is that a good enough reason not to believe, especially when the evidence of the Bible points so strongly in the opposite direction? The trouble is we are taking a blind leap of faith based on our lack of experience. We're shutting our eyes to the evidence and saying God's not there. It's like the child playing hide and seek. As long as she can't see you, then she thinks no-one is there. She closes her eyes to the evidence. When all along you can see the giggling bulge behind the curtains!
But thankfully for Thomas and for us, he came face to face with the evidence head on. Because a week later Jesus came once again to that same upper room, and stood among the disciples. And what does Jesus say? Verse 27: "Then Jesus said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.'" He gives to Thomas exactly what Thomas wanted. This same Jesus who was butchered on the cross, whose hands and feet with pierced with nails, whose side was ripped open by a soldier's spear, this same Jesus stands before Thomas in living, breathing flesh and blood. It's no hallucination. Because they all saw him standing there. He's no ghost, because Thomas can touch him. Yes he appears and disappears at will. But Jesus is beyond death now. He can do what he wants having defeated death. He can go where he wants when he wants. But there is no doubt that this is the real, physical Jesus Christ standing before Thomas.
So what does Thomas conclude? "Thomas said to him, 'My Lord and my God!'" Thomas confessed that Jesus was in fact his Lord and his God. And it wasn't as if everything hung on this moment. This was certainly the "penny dropping" moment for Thomas. But for three years, he'd followed Jesus round and watched his every move. He'd seen Jesus feed thousands of people with a boy's packed lunch. He'd seen Jesus calm a raging storm. He'd seen Jesus bring back from the dead a man who'd already begun to decompose. But only now did the penny drop. All the evidence pointed to one direction. All the signposts pointed to one thing. And now Thomas realised it was true. Jesus was God himself. He was the Lord and God.
Do you remember the painter Picasso? Well Picasso went into a furniture maker's shop one day, although the furniture maker didn't recognise him. Picasso said, 'I want you to build me a cabinet.' He asked for a pencil and paper and sketched his design. The furniture maker looked at the sketch and thought, 'I'm sure I recognise that style. Yesbears all the marks of Picasso.' So he said, 'Are you Picasso?' And Picasso said, 'Yes. How much will a cabinet like that cost?' To which the man shrewdly replied: 'Nothing. Just sign the sketch.' And when Jesus stood before Thomas that day, it was as if he'd signed the sketch he'd been drawing for three years, signing it, "Your Lord and God." And for Thomas, it was so blatantly obvious he could doubt no longer. All the signs pointed to one thing: Jesus was God in the flesh!
But we might be tempted to say: "Yes, OK, I can see I need to look at the evidence. But it was fine for Thomas. He had the evidence right in front of his eyes. Jesus was actually there. Thomas could have touched Jesus' wounds. But we can't so what do we do?" Well actually that is precisely what Jesus answers in the next verses. Do you see in verse 29: "Then Jesus told him, 'Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.' Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God." The whole point is we don't have to have been there. Jesus says you can be blessed by believing and not seeing physically with your eyes. And then John explains that the very reason he's written this book is so that we might believe. He's noted down a good number of Jesus' miracles which point to who he is. He's given us all the information we need, out of the masses available, so that we might believe. So God doesn't expect us to make a blind leap of faith. No, he's given us all we need to make that informed choice based on solid evidence.
So let me ask you: Have you taken the time to investigate the evidence concerning Jesus Christ? We lay on plenty of opportunities here at St. John's to do that. Clubs for the children to find out more. We've got some great events happening in the summer for children. Small groups for adults who simply want to see if it's true, both for men and women. Have you ever had the courage to sit down as an adult and read one of the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke or this book John? Because as you come face to face with Jesus Christ, the chances are you'll be amazed by what you find. Have you the courage to lay aside your preconceptions and personal hang ups as Thomas did and stare hard at the facts? Because that is the mark of faith. That's the mark of integrity. Not taking a blind leap in the dark. But to examine the evidence and humbly bow before Jesus Christ. Each one of us needs first to examine the evidence.
2) Receive the Rescue
But why? What's so important about the evidence John provides. Well that brings us to the second challenge. First examine the evidence, but second receive the rescue. Because the reason Thomas confessed Jesus as his Lord and God and the reason John is writing down all these things for us is because in Jesus there is life. Verse 30: "Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." The whole point of why Jesus came is so that you and I might have life in his name. You see all the way through John's gospel, Jesus has made it clear that all human beings are natural rebels against God. Jesus has said that we are all in the darkness, that we are all blind to the truth, in fact that we are all under God's judgement for how we have treated him. And far worse is to come if we persist in ignoring him and paying him lip service. For to ignore the very one who created us, who gives us the very breath we breathe, is the most horrific act of defiance which will result in being cut off from God for ever, something Jesus himself spoke of the most as hell. But wonderfully, the whole point of Jesus' coming was to rescue us from that justly deserved fate. Because not only is God a God of justice, but a God of amazing love and mercy. So that when Jesus was executed on that cross, it was not as a political revolutionary, nor even as a pawn in a larger game. It was God himself in the person of Jesus laying down his life, taking the punishment we deserve for all our wrong doing against him. He died for you and me. That's why in verse 26 Jesus said to them, 'Peace be with you.' He'd just paid the penalty on the cross that they should have got. So he could now assure them that they were forgiven and could know peace with God his Father. And that's why, at end of verse 31, John says that by trusting in Jesus 'you may have life in his name.' Through the death of Jesus, we are now able to have life and forgiveness, because of what Jesus has done, in Jesus' name.
A true story came out of the American Civil War about a young man called Charlie. He left home to fight, but he got fatally wounded. And a friend he'd made, called Jim, got him back behind the lines. But sadly there was nothing anyone could do for Charlie and it was obvious he would die. But shortly before he died, Charlie handed a note to Jim and said, 'If you make it, please take this to my parents.' Well, Jim did make it through the war, and so after the war was over, Jim headed for Charlie's home. By this time, Jim was pretty much a beggar, with nothing to his name apart from the clothes on his back. He arrived at what turned out to be a smart, rich homestead. He went up to the house, and the servants tried to turn him away. But then an older man came out and asked what he was doing here. 'I have a note from Charlie,' said Jim. And Charlie's father took the note, read it, then said to Jim, 'Welcome home.' Because the note said this: 'Dearest Father and Mother, by the time you receive these words, I shall be dead. The hand from which you receive them is that of my closest friend in life and death. Please take him in, in Charlie's name. Your loving son, Charles'.
Because of our sin, morally we're like dirty beggars in God's sight. And when death brings us to the door of his house, so to speak, we deserve to be turned away. But God in his love decided on a way by which sins could be forgiven and justice upheld. He sent his Son, Jesus, to take for us the judgement we deserve. So that to those who turn to Jesus and trust him, God is willing to say: Welcome home. Your sins are forgiven, in Jesus' name, that is because of the cross. So verse 31, real Christian faith isn't just believing that something is true - believing 'that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.' It does involve believing that, but it's more than that. Real Christian faith involves turning back to Jesus, admitting you've left him out of your life, being forgiven and starting life over again with him as your Lord and your God - a relationship which begins now, and lasts for all eternity in God's kingdom. And that's why Thomas could say to Jesus: "My Lord and my God!" It was a personal relationship with God himself, with the one who had just secured his forgiveness and new life. A relationship open to everyone.
And John poses us with a challenge. He says to each one of us: Have you accepted that rescue I have provided in my Son Jesus. Do you know that forgiveness and new life that comes through Jesus? Because if not then you are ignoring the only way you can come to God with a clear conscience; the only way you and I will be able to stand before God and not be rightly condemned. And it's a blind leap of faith to think that anything else will save you, including your own goodness.
And for those of us who have accepted that wonderful gift, then we need to keep coming back to that cross and to live by God's grace, not trusting our own strength but in Jesus to get us through life. How refreshing it is to remember each day that it's in Jesus' name we have life. I can tell you that it is a great tonic for my weary soul to remember that I have life in Jesus. In all the ups and downs of life, with all it's uncertainties, I know that nothing can separate me from God's love when I have trusted in Christ. So if you are going through the mill as a Christian today, for whatever reason, perhaps because of doubts like Thomas, because of circumstances beyond your control, remember that it is in Jesus that we have life, and in nothing else. And that is where our hope and confidence lie. So as John says in his first letter, the challenge for the person who has accepted the rescue is this: "See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you." For there is no other rescuer. And only in Jesus is there life. Receive the rescue.
3) Spread the Word (Vv 19-23)
Examine the evidence, receive the rescue, and finally spread the word. And that's the challenge that Jesus gave to his disciples back in verses 19-23. We're actually going back a week to the first Easter Sunday, and Thomas is not with the rest of the disciples. It's the time when Jesus first appears to his disciples. And, verse 20, they are overjoyed to see him. But notice happens next! Are they just going to form a holy huddle in Peter's house and spend the rest of their days keeping this great news to themselves? No! Not at all. Rather Jesus tells them what he wants them to do in verses 21-23. He gives them a divine right and a divine resource.
He gives them a divine right in verse 21: "Again Jesus said, 'Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.'" It has been clear from the very beginning of John's book that God sent his Son Jesus into the world to rescue people like you and me. But now his work is done. He has died on the cross and has risen again, and he can give us his peace, the peace of knowing forgiveness of sins and being friends with God again. And now he sends them out into the world with the authority to tell the whole world about that wonderful news! God continues his mission to the world through his people!
Now of course, we don't have the same unique privileges as these first disciples of Jesus. And yet that authority to tell that world about Jesus and his amazing gift of life is something that the church of God continues to have. And Jesus' command still stands because all the nations have not yet heard the gospel. There is still much work to be done. But what right do we have to tell others about Jesus? What right do we have to challenge people from every nation in the world that they must accept Jesus' gift of life? Well our right and authority come from Jesus himself. In short, we have a divine right to carry on Christ's mission. And ultimately it's a question of truth. If you know something is true and if you know someone is in dire peril if they don't respond to this message, then you'll do everything in your power to speak to as many as you can.
Just a week or so ago in the Wimbledon Tennis championship men's quarter finals, the American Andy Roddick played the Dutchman Shen Schalken. But just a few months before, Schalken and his girlfriend had almost been killed in a fire in a hotel in Italy during a tennis competition. And their lives were saved when Andy Roddick who happened to be staying in the same hotel raised the alarm and carried them to safety. Roddick knew they were in danger and he did something about it. He didn't stand there and say: "Well it's all a matter of opinion. To some fire is bad, to others fire is good. Who am I to impose my personal views on others. I don't want to disturb Shalken's sleep. What right do I have to tell him about this fire?" Can you imagine anything more crass? No, he acted because he knew the truth and because Schalken was in danger.
And in a world which is constantly pressurising us to keep our views to ourselves, and certainly not to try and change people's views, how much we as a church need to hear Jesus' command. It's so easy isn't it to hide behind the curtain of political correctness and to swallow the lie and all truths are right and it's the cardinal sin to try and change another's view. But some things are wrong. It's actually a matter or truth and falsehood. So the question is who will we obey? The kings of this world, or the King of kings, Jesus Christ. No, it's Jesus' message and he's the one who his sending us. We have a divine right to go into the world with God's word, because as the Father sent his Son, so he sends us.
And we also have a divine resource, that is the gift of the Spirit. Verse 22: "And with that he breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not
forgiven.'" Jesus does not leave his people to their own resources. Rather he gives us his Spirit to enables us to do his work. And here Jesus gives his disciples an acted parable of what will become reality at Pentecost a month after this first Sunday. Then the church is given the Spirit and we are equipped and empowered to do God's work. And as people hear the gospel, either they will accept it, they will receive forgiveness, or they will reject it, they will not receive forgiveness, which is what Jesus means by those rather cryptic last few words in verse 23. God alone gives forgiveness or not, but as we tell others about Jesus, so God uses us in granting forgiveness or not. But the question for us who follow Christ is whether we are up for the challenge in this 21st century. Will we spread the word as Jesus commands? For we have his divine right and his divine resources.
So what do you make of these three challenges? I tell you that nothing could be more important to you and me this morning than to think very seriously about what we have heard from John's gospel. For we are talking not about personal opinion but about matters of life and death, whether we are followers of Christ or not. For these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
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