February 17, 2008
Rev. Billy D. Strayhorn
John 20:24-29 (NRSV)
 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.
 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."
 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."
 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."
 Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"
 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."
One of my top ten favorite movies is Braveheart. It is such a 100% guy flick that most women don't like it or get it but it touches everything in men. That sense of adventure, a battle for noble reasons, camaraderie and honor. I think we find all of those, at least in part, in the life and faith of Thomas.
A lot of us old timers will remember the old TV show Dragnet? I think you can still see reruns on TVLand on cable and satellite. The main character, Sergeant Joe Friday used to tell the folks, "Just the facts, please, just the facts?" I think Thomas was a little like Joe Friday. I think Thomas needed the facts and needed to see the "signs" and wonders of Jesus with their own eyes.
For centuries Thomas has labeled a doubter but I think Thomas got a bum rap. Thomas was a pragmatist and an empiricist. If he couldn't see it, touch it or feel it, he had a hard time believing it. That was the source of his doubt. But there was more to Thomas than just doubt. Thomas was a man of courage, commitment; and faith. And there's a little bit of Thomas in all of us.
A. We all have a little doubt in us. We all have a little skepticism. We've seen too many SciFi flicks with great special effects. If we can't do it ourselves, most of us know someone who can photoshop anybody they want into a picture. We all have a little doubt in us. But there are two kinds of doubt. There's the doubt that undermines our faith and the doubt that leads to and builds up the faith.
Some of you may remember Dave Dravecky, former pitcher for the San Francisco Giants. At the peak of his career in 1991 he lost his pitching arm to cancer. Those who watched his 1989 comeback will never forget the Montreal game. Dave's left arm snapped with a deafening crack that could be heard in the stands. The comeback quickly ended. It was a devastating experience. It is bad enough to have cancer, let alone face the amputation of an arm, but then on top of that, to lose a promising career as a major league baseball player. Naturally Dave was filled with many questions.
During his struggles, letters of encouragement poured in from all over the country. Most were letters of encouragement. Some were looking for answers to life's questions. They had seen him keep his faith, and they wanted to know how he had done it. But one day he received this letter:
"Dear Mr. Dravecky, If there is a God who cares so much about you, why did he allow you to have the surgery in the first place? I have lived 41 years in this old world and have yet to see any piece of genuine evidence that there is anything real about any of those religious beliefs you talk about. God certainly does not love me and has never done a single thing to express that love for me. I have had to fight for everything I ever got in life. Nobody cares about what happens to me and I don't care about anybody else either. Can't you see the truth that religion is nothing more than a crutch used by a lot of weaklings who can't face reality and that the church is nothing but a bunch of hypocrites who care nothing for each other and whose faith extends not to their actions or daily lives but is only just a bunch of empty phrases spouted off to impress others?"
A pretty cruel letter, isn't it? How would you have responded to it? Dave Dravecky sent a letter to the man and said that he had faced his own doubts and that faith was not always easy. He wrote, "I am convinced that there is a God. That no matter what happens to me, there is a purpose for it and behind that purpose stands a loving, caring God."
Dravecky had come to know the same Lord who came back for Thomas. The same Resurrected Jesus who stood before all the disciples and said, "Peace be with you, Thomas. Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."
We all have doubts: Thomas, Dravecky, the letter writer. No one is exempt. What Jesus says is: You will be blessed if in the midst of those doubts you believe. This kind of doubt leads to a deeper faith and a deeper commitment. (1)
A. You see, when push came to shove, Thomas' faith helped him believe, because Thomas was a man of faith. Scripture doesn't say where Thomas was when the risen Christ first appeared, it just says that he wasn't there. I've often thought that Thomas was off by himself, thinking and praying. His heart and hope and dreams had been broken. He was trying to make sense out of it all. Maybe he thought of the resurrection in some symbolic not physical way. Then he found himself back with the disciples and their incredible story. Being a pragmatist, he wanted physical proof. A week later he got it.
Scripture doesn't tell us whether or not Thomas actually touched Jesus. It does say that Jesus invited him to. But I don't think he did. I don't think he needed to. I think the tone of Jesus' voice and the look in his eyes, a look of joy, compassion, understanding and forgiveness was enough for Thomas, he believed. That was when Jesus said: "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
B. We need the faith Thomas had, the faith to believe in God even when the going gets not just rough but tumultuous. We need faith that is built not upon historical evidence but upon the evidence of faith. Like the hymn says: "You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart!" Not only that, but we see evidence of the Risen Christ's presence with us in everyday life.
A. Thomas had faith, he also had courage and commitment. Someone once said, "Courage is fear that has been conquered by love." I think that describes Thomas. It was his love for Jesus that filled him with courage. When Jesus started back to Judea to raise Lazarus from the dead, the other disciples warned Jesus that the Jews there would just try to kill him again. Thomas jumped in and stopped the objection by saying, "Then let's go die with him." Those aren't the words of one who doubted Jesus or was filled with fear. Those words took courage, courage born of love and commitment.
B. After the U.S.S. Pueblo was captured in 1968 by the North Koreans, the 82 surviving crew members were thrown into brutal captivity. In one particular instance 13 of the men were required to sit in a rigid manner around a table for hours at a time. After several hours, the door violently was flung open and a North Korean guard brutally beat the man in the first chair with the butt of his rifle. The next day, as each man sat at his assigned place, again the door was thrown open and the man in the first chair was brutally beaten again. On the third day the same thing happened again to the same man.
Knowing the man could not survive another beating, a young sailor took his place. When the door was flung open the guard automatically beat the new man senseless. For weeks, each day a new man stepped forward to sit in that horrible chair, knowing full well what would happen. At last, the guards gave up in exasperation. They were unable to beat that kind of sacrificial love. (2)
A. You see, that's the other quality Thomas had that sets him apart. Thomas was committed. He was ready to follow Jesus anywhere, even if it meant his own death. Thomas was always available.
The great baseball manager Leo Durocher was once asked who was the all-time favorite player he had coached. Lots of people were shocked when he named Dusty Rhodes. Rhodes was a little known pinch hitter, not a really big name player. Durocher was asked, "What was so special about Dusty Rhodes?" He replied, "In a tight game when I looked down the bench for a pinch hitter, some players would avert their gaze and refuse to look in my direction. But Dusty Rhodes would look me right in the eye, smile, and tap on his bat." He was always available. New birth is more likely to happen to persons who make themselves available to God. (2)
Tommy tried and tried to go to church with his wife. Sophia was the one who'd been brought up in the church. Her parents had been very devout Christian people. With Tommy's parents it was completely different. They didn't attend church and they didn't make their kids attend either. At this point in their marriage, Tommy and Sophia faced a real dilemma. Tommy had promised he'd give church a try.
And he did. But the whole thing left him sort of cold. He just couldn't buy it all. There was just too much there that was unbelievable!
Tommy tried talking to Sophia about it one Sunday after they had been to church. "Can't we find some kind of compromise on this religion thing?" Tommy asked. But Sophia would have none of it. Her Christian faith meant the world to her. She was not about to compromise. She wasn't about to give up her faith practices.
"You promised," she said to Tommy. "You said you would give it a try."
"But I have tried," Tommy replied. "How long do I have to go on with this anyway? I've been to church with you just about every Sunday for this whole first year of our marriage. Isn't that trying? What more do you want from me? Enough is enough. There's just too much about church and all that I just can't believe."
"Well, what can you believe about it all?" Sophia asked.
"Jesus," Tommy blurted out after a few moments of silence. "I like Jesus. He makes a lot of sense to me at times. There's some very good advice about life in his teachings. But to buy into Jesus I've got to buy into too much other stuff that isn't helpful at all. In fact, it just confuses the issue. Take this Virgin Mary business, for example. I mean, come on! Get serious. Stuff like that just doesn't happen. And what's the use of it anyway? Does it make Jesus any better than he already is? I don't think so. And then there's the miracles and the final miracle: 'he was raised from the dead.' I feel the same way about that as I do about his birth. So what? Jesus was a great man, a great teacher. I don't need all this miracle business. I honestly doubt that it really happened that way. Maybe the disciples just made it up for all we know." At the end of their discussion, however, Tommy agreed to keep his promise and go with her on Sundays for a few more months.
One Sunday the gospel reading caught Tommy up short. It was about Thomas. That was his name. Thomas had doubts. So did he. He liked what Thomas had to say about Jesus being raised from the dead. "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." Tommy couldn't have put it better himself. "If only I could see his body," Tommy thought to himself. "If only I could touch his body. That's the way we Thomas people are."
Tommy's whole thought got fixed on the Bible's Doubting Thomas. That's all he could think about for the rest of the service. That's what he was thinking about when he and Sophia went up for communion. "If only I could see his body. If I only could touch his body."
And then Tommy's reverie was interrupted by the pastor's words, words that jolted his consciousness, simple words, "This is the body of Christ given for you."
There is a bit of Thomas the doubter in each of us. But what we need are the Bravehearts like Thomas who can overcome that doubt with Faith, Courage and Committment.
1. Brett Blair, ChristianGlobe, Inc., 2001
2. Andy Grossman, via SermonFodder.com
3. Bill Bouknight, Collected Sermons, www.Sermons.com
4. LECTIONARY TALES FOR THE PULPIT, Richard A. Jensen, CSS Publishing Co., 1994.
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