Easter Praise - John 20:1-31

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the evening service on 23rd March 2008.

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Why should we believe in the resurrection of Jesus?

I came across a story recently about a couple from Minneapolis in the north of the United States, who decided to go to Florida to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary. Romantically, they booked to stay in the same hotel they'd gone to for their honeymoon 20 years earlier. The couple were both professionals with hectic lives, and they weren't able to completely coordinate their schedules. So the husband travelled down to Florida on the Thursday, and his wife was due to fly down the next day.

The husband checked into the hotel and there was a computer in his room, so he decided to send his wife an email. However, he accidentally left out one letter in her email address and without realising, pressed the send button.
Meanwhile, somewhere in Houston, a widow had just returned from her husband's funeral. He was a church minister of many years and had died suddenly of a heart attack. Returning from the funeral, the widow decided to check her email, expecting messages of condolence from friends and relatives. But after reading the first message, she collapsed. The widow's son rushed into the room, found his mother on the floor and saw the computer screen which read:

"To: My loving Wife
Subject: I've arrived

I know you're surprised to hear from me. But they have computers here now. And you are allowed to send emails to your loved ones. I've just arrived. I've checked in. And I see that everything has been prepared for your arrival tomorrow. Looking forward to seeing you then! Hope your journey is as uneventful as mine was.

PS - Sure is hot down here."

It’s so easy to misunderstand what someone is trying to tell you. We experience it all the time and in so many areas of our lives. People misunderstand what we think is obvious.

I certainly encounter this reaction in my role as a full-time church leader. I passionately present the good news about why Jesus died and the life-changing implications of his resurrection and then I show as best as I can the evidence for everything I have just said – and I’ve lost count of the number of people who have replied, “Well, that all sounds very comforting, all very nice, but I just don’t have the faith to believe it.”

And at this point I’m thinking to myself, “How on earth did I manage to communicate that being a Christian is all about taking a blind leap in the dark?”

Because that’s what people mean when they say, “I just don’t have the faith to believe it.” They assume that faith means blind trust in the absence of evidence. Close your eyes and take the step – that’s all you can do. You’ve just got to have faith. There is no evidence to believe. Simply take a risk and see what happens.

This seems to be the default position of so many people in the UK. However, it is not what the Bible means by faith. Yes we take a step, yes put our lives in the hands of another, but the Bible always encourages our personal decision for Jesus Christ to be made on the foundation of reliable evidence.

And that’s one of the reasons I love John chapter 20. In this section of the Bible we see this truth lived out in practice. No one in John chapter 20 believes Jesus is alive without evidence. By the end of the chapter everyone we meet is personally convinced that Jesus has been raised from the dead but no one reaches this conclusion without first being presented with convincing proof.

Let me show you this from the Bible. Have a look at verse 1.

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved [That’s code in John’s Gospel for John himself!] and said,
“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we [So obviously she wasn’t alone when she went to the tomb!] don’t know where they have put him!”

Notice Mary’s first conclusion after witnessing the empty tomb is not to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead. She was not expecting a resurrection. She was on her way that morning to anoint a corpse not to witness a dramatic change in Jesus’ personal fortunes. 

So when she got to the tomb, saw the stone rolled away and the body gone she did not assume the best, she assumed the worst. She presumed someone had taken her beloved Jesus from his final resting place.

So, verse 3, “Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.”

Now don’t you just love that comment? Peter has obviously had too many fish suppers for dinner. His fitness was not on the same level as John’s!

So John, verse 5, “bent over and looked at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally, the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed.”

Crucially we have just been told that when Peter and John arrived at Jesus’ place of burial the tomb was not empty. It was almost empty but it was not completely empty. Yes the body of Jesus was gone but rather strangely his grave clothes were almost exactly in the same position as before – only now minus the body they had once surrounded.

So although we are told in verse 5 that John saw the strips of linen lying there, a slightly better translation would be that John saw the strips of linen collapsed there.

The wrappings, the burial clothes, were exactly as they had been around Jesus’ body, except they had fallen flat. They hadn’t been unwound, or thrown into a corner, or taken off and folded up. They were still wound around…but flattened. As if the body of Jesus had passed right through them. This is what caused Peter and John to believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

So remember earlier that morning Mary had recounted her conviction that someone had taken the body of Jesus. She didn’t know who – whether body snatchers, an enemy of Jesus or even the Roman authorities themselves.

But as Peter and John examined the evidence, as they witnessed the unusual sight of the grave clothes they came to the proper conclusion. Who would take the time to unwrap Jesus’ body before they nicked it? And who would then wrap it up again to make it seem like Jesus had simply passed through the material? And how could this be done anyway?

Peter and John realized the truth and concluded that Jesus must have been raised from the dead.

Now interestingly we’re told in verse 9 that “They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.” The significance of this statement will become more obvious to us by the end of the chapter but for now please see the obvious implication. The resurrection of Jesus should not have come as a big surprise to his closest followers. Not only did he predict it before it happened but the Old Testament predicted on many occasions. It promised that the Christ, the Messiah of Israel, would be resurrected after he had died for the sins of his people.

Well, poor Mary still hadn’t put two and two together so we’re told in verse 11 that she stood outside the tomb crying. Peter and John had returned home confident that Jesus had risen from the dead but dear Mary was still in a state of troubled confusion.

At one point as she wept outside she decided to have a look inside and that’s when she saw two angels sitting on the place where Jesus’ body had been laid.

I love what they ask her. Verse 13, “Woman, why are you crying?” Why the distress on a day like this? Don’t you know it’s resurrection morning?

Well, that was the problem. She didn’t know it was resurrection morning. She was still convinced that someone had taken the body of Jesus. She was not expecting a resurrection and at this point she certainly didn’t believe one had taken place.

So much so that when Jesus appeared right behind her and asked her the same question as the angels, “Woman, why are you crying?” she thought he was the gardener and said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

Jesus replied affectionately, “Mary.” 

And that’s when the scales dropped off her eyes. We don’t know exactly why but the mere mention of her name by the risen Lord Jesus caused her to recognize him on the spot.

What a turnaround! One moment it was despair, now it was delight. A few seconds ago she was in a state of hopeless desolation but now she is bear hugging the Lord of glory and won’t let him go! So Jesus tells her not to worry. “It’s okay Mary,” he says, “I’m not going home to my Father straight away. This will not be the only time you will see me. So relax a bit. Chill out. In fact, go and tell the others that you’ve had a personal encounter with your risen Lord.”

So, verse 18, Mary went to the disciples with the news, “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.”

We’re not told how the disciples reacted to her good news announcement but we are told that later that day the other disciples had their own personal encounter with Jesus.

Verse 19, “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.”

Or at least most of them were because look at what we are told in verse 24. “Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.”

It’s not very difficult to imagine the scene when Thomas returned. We’ve no idea where he was or why he was missing but eventually he would have returned to be with his friends. He would eventually have come back to room and what would he have seen? Well, straight away he would have noticed the mood was very different from before. The cowards were now full of joy. The tears had been replaced by smiles. And then he would have heard the reason why.

Verse 25, “The other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ 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.’”

What do you make of Thomas? What do you think about his request to see the resurrected Jesus’ for himself? Do you think it was justified? Everyone else has seen the risen Jesus so do you think his request seems reasonable? Or do you think it was an outrageous demand?

Most of us instinctively assume that Thomas was being reasonable. “Well done Thomas”, we want to say, “we commend you for your sensible desire to have evidence before you believe in something so life-changing as the resurrection of Jesus.”

It’s important to realize that wanting evidence is not a wicked ambition.

Richard Dawkins defines faith as “Blind truth, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence.”

But this is not how the Christian religion operates. Authentic Christianity is not opposed to evidence. No one is being asked to close their eyes and believe things they know are nonsense.

Being a Christian is about a personal commitment to Jesus. It is a life-changing decision. But it should be made on the foundation of evidence, not in the absence of evidence.

What should we make of Thomas? Well, first of all, we need to say that his desire for evidence is commendable. We are to be like good detectives when we examine the claims of Jesus. We are to use our brains. Christian faith is not blind faith.

However, we need to be clear that in this section of the Bible Thomas’ attitude is not presented as something to copy. He does have a major problem. And it’s this. He demands a certain type of evidence. He demands evidence on his own terms.

Let me show you what I mean. Have a look at what we’re told in verses 26-29. “A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’ Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’

We’ll come back to this climactic confession in just a moment but for now look at how Jesus replies to him 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.’”

The first thing to notice is that Jesus doesn’t say “Shucsh. Be quiet Thomas. You’ve got it all wrong. I’m not your Lord and God. What nonsense is this that you think I am more than a mere mortal? Go wash your mouth out. Stop all this ridiculous speculation that I am the God who made you.” He doesn’t say this. He accepts his confession to be true.

The second thing to notice is that Jesus never commends him for his attitude. He doesn’t say, “Well done Thomas. We need more people like you around.”

He says, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed”
Or in other words, blessed are those who do in the future what you should have done in the past.

What was that? Believe on the basis of the eyewitness testimony of those who have seen me.

It’s important to get clear what Jesus is not saying. He is not saying that the really blessed people are those who believe in spite of the evidence.

It’s not a contrast between evidence based faith and blind trust. It is a contrast between different types of evidence.

On the one hand you have Thomas. He wants a certain type of evidence. That’s his problem. He wanted to see the risen Jesus for himself. In fact, he even wanted to touch his wounds.

Or in other words, he wanted to set the rules for God. He says, “I will believe if you satisfy my demands for a particular type of evidence.”

Do you know people like him? They say, “I’ll believe if God does this for me…” Dangerous game to play because there are no guarantees that God will do this.

You see, what Jesus did for Thomas was an act of grace. Thomas didn’t need an appearance of Jesus. He already had access to another type of evidence. He had the eye-witness testimony of his trustworthy friends. I’m not saying he should have instantly believed them but it was not a wise move to instantly dismiss them. He should have asked them a few questions, compared their stories, put together the case. He should have engaged with the eye-witness testimony.

So let’s get this clear. He was not being asked to make a leap in the dark. He was being asked to make an informed choice based on the reliable testimony of his trustworthy friends.

And this is why Thomas’ attitude is never presented as one to be copied. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Who are these people? People like you and me. Only a select few who had the opportunity to meet the risen Jesus face to face.

The vast majority of people are in exactly the same position as Thomas. Other people have seen the risen Jesus. We haven’t. We could have done if we had been alive at the right time and had been in the right place.

But that’s not our situation. What are we to do? Why should we believe in the resurrection of Jesus? The example we are not to follow is that of Thomas.

We are not to demand a visible appearance of Jesus. Even if we got one we may not believe. Lots of people in the Gospel of John who met Jesus and still disbelieved.

Some will say at this point, “I need to see in order to believe.” But if I can be bold and provocative this evening [Which of course is not my common practice!] let me say very clearly, “No we don’t.”

Just think about how the British justice system works. The normal method is for people to examine the eye-witness testimony of credible witnesses and then come to a conclusion. Once the court has established the witnesses are credible then it believes what they say.

Or just think about how we operate in the personal realm. On Thursday my fiancé texted me with a message which said, “Just ordered flowers for your mum!” It is my parents’ ruby wedding anniversary this weekend and my beloved Vicky volunteered to send flowers so that I would not be in the dog house for weeks. How should I have responded to her text? What would you say to me if I told you I reacted like this? After receiving the text I enquired where she had bought the flowers from, phoned the flower shop to confirm the order then phoned up her bank to check that money had actually been withdrawn from her current account. I would be very worried if you said to me, “Well Lee, I commend you for your skeptical attitude.” If I reacted like this I am in need of professional help!

In our lives we trust reliable people to tell us about events we have not personally witnessed.

It’s the same with Jesus. We are not being asked to have faith without evidence or have faith despite the evidence. We are being asked to examine for ourselves the trustworthy evidence that God has provided.

What evidence has God provided? Have a look at what we’re told in verses 30 and 31. “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 my have life in his name.”

I think what John has done is amazing. On the one hand he had done his research and worked out from the Old Testament what the predicted Messiah would come and do. Then he has placed the life of Jesus alongside the Old Testament evidence and is asking us to see if we perceive the fit? Do we recognize how this matches with this?

Hundreds of predictions made over hundreds of years by many different people and yet they perfectly match the story of the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and the return of the one they called Jesus.

Peter and John did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead but my friends when we do, when we see the join between Old and New, then our confidence in Jesus will increase dramatically.

Where are you tonight on the spiritual scale? Have you still to examine the evidence for yourself? Why not make the effort to do so? Bookstall or Christianity Explored.

No one in eternity will ever say, “I’m glad I decided to watch more TV instead of investigating the claims of Christianity.”

Are you a Christian? Well, take heart. Many wonderful implications of the resurrection of Jesus. The price has been paid. The sacrifice has worked. There is no condemnation to fear. He is the firstfruits of many. We will be raised physically at some point in the future.

But take heart. We don’t believe these things because we want them to be true. We believe them because they are true. And we know they are true because our faith is based on substantial evidence.

Let us pray.

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