Text: John 20:19-31
The Gospel lesson just read, from John chapter 20, is always the appointed reading for this first Sunday after Easter. While there is plenty of material to focus upon in these verses, the part that tends to stand out to us is the part where Thomas refuses to believe until he has seen with his own eyes.
This part stands out because we can identify with Thomas. Like Thomas, we have not seen the risen Lord Jesus ourselves. We’ve only heard about it from others. And, let’s face it, many of the things we’ve heard from others over the years have turned out not to be true. So we’re suspicious–especially of claims that seem out of the ordinary, like a man rising from the dead.
We live in a world where seeing is believing. We research, observe and document. Only then do we make decisions about what is true or false. If we trust, we are sure to verify.
Living this way is fine as we analyze the claims of our fellow humans– scientists, advertisers, politicians, etc. But is it really the way we want all of life to be – especially our spiritual life? If we believe in a God who has created all, loves all, judges all and cares for all – aren’t we willing for that God to do some things out of the ordinary? Do we even have the capacity to see all things? Shouldn’t we be willing to accept some things by faith?
If seeing is the only path to believing, then our belief would be placed squarely on death, not life, because death is what we see. Death always prevails, or so it seems. Having death as the focus of our faith, however, would not only be depressing, but it would also render life as having no meaning.
Thankfully, Jesus has taught us something different. He has taught us that believing is seeing. When we believe that Jesus rose from the dead, we see that life is more than just a rapid progression to death. Instead, we see that life is a journey of joys and sorrows, puzzles and wonders, until the day of our resurrection from the dead. And after our resurrection we will walk with the Lord and all his disciples in a new and glorious way—living life as never before in the new and glorious creation God has restored.
If we think about it, we already know that believing is seeing. If when we drive we slow down to a crawl at every intersection because we don’t believe the cars on the other road will stop at the light, we will never see much of anything during our life because all we will do is crawl. At some point we have to trust others, believing in their abilities too. So also, we believe and trust that God knows what He is doing – that He is loving and fair, not vindictive or random. Otherwise we would despair of life under such a God. Believing allows one to have hope. Believing allows one to take risks. Believing allows one to heal. Faith is that extra ingredient in life which allows us not just to look around but to see.
Actually, the way of Jesus is both seeing and believing. Jesus is God in human form, come to earth to be observed by us for the sake of our faith. This God is seen by us on the pages of Holy Scripture and in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. We see. We believe. And because of this we know God is with us.
Analyzing the story of Thomas is always helpful. But today I thought we could also find help in our believing by looking back at one of the stories from the Passion account. On Good Friday, reading from Luke this year, we heard the conversation between the two criminals who died next to Jesus. All four Gospel accounts record the presence of these criminals, or “robbers” as they are labeled in three of the Gospels. But only Luke records the conversation.
You probably know how the story goes. The one criminal joins in the chorus of taunts against Jesus as he is dying on the cross, saying: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” The other criminal, however, rebukes him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And then he turns to Jesus and says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” To which Jesus replies: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
It seems to me that this story is helpful to us in exploring certain characteristics of the belief Jesus is encouraging in us, for to believe in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead means more than just accepting it as a fact. It also means to act on this fact.
When Thomas saw Jesus in the flesh standing before him, he cried out: “My Lord and My God!” This was a strong confession of faith. It was probably also a cry of repentance. Thomas realized he was wrong. In his embarrassment – coupled certainly with his joy – he cries out to Jesus, acknowledging Jesus’ Lordship, and thus Jesus’ superiority to him, a poor sinful being.
The criminal next to Jesus who refused to taunt him has often been called the “penitent thief.” The one who taunted him has been called the “impenitent” one. Certainly these designations seem appropriate. The one who refused to taunt him did so because he realized his punishment was deserving. He acknowledged his sin. His cry for Jesus to “remember him when he comes into his kingdom” has been understood as an act of contrition. It is commonly thought to be the equivalent of the tax collector’s “Lord have mercy on me a sinner” and the prodigal son’s “Father, I have sinned,” both from earlier in Luke’s Gospel.
Because this criminal believed that Jesus was coming into his kingdom, the criminal cried out to him for help. If we believe that Jesus has risen from the dead, then we will cry out to him too, repenting of our sins. He is the one who can offer us help. He is the one who can overcome the sins that lead us to nothing but death.
Repentance is a very important characteristic of belief. But there are others too. Believing that Jesus has risen from the dead should also cause us to follow him. One who has overcome death is worth following. We, too, wish to overcome death someday. Jesus is the way to eternal life. We do well to follow him.
Following Jesus means listening to him and obeying him. He has told us how we should live—especially how we should love God and love others. When we obey Jesus we will show such love.
The thief on the cross who refused to taunt Jesus showed characteristics of love as he spoke to Jesus and his fellow criminal that day. For instance, his rebuke of the other criminal is clearly a defense of Jesus. Interestingly, there have been people over the years who have noted this defense of Jesus by the criminal, and seen the whole conversation as more an act of pity or compassion than an act of contrition. One of these, Dorothy Sayers, a well-known Christian writer from England in the early 20thcentury, once interpreted the words “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” in a much different way than we normally think. Instead of the words being said as a sincere prayer of repentance or faith, Sayers had the thief offer them as a kind of gentle statement of comfort to one he viewed as being rather out of his mind. His words were an act of charity toward this man, Jesus, who, so the thief thought, just wasn’t thinking right. A supporting detail for this view may be the fact that this is the only time in any Gospel account where someone addresses Jesus by simply using his name, without adding a title such as “Son of Man” or “teacher.”
I still tend to think the criminal spoke more from his own need than his impulse toward compassion, but the question does get us thinking. Even if the criminal didn’t yet believe that Jesus truly was who he said he was, could it be that his following of Jesus’ command to love prompted the same response from Jesus – who told him “today you will be with me in paradise”? Remember that Jesus also once said: “Those who are not against us are for us.” And to those who had done good things to “one of the least of these my brothers,” Jesus said they had done it to him. At some point the thief on the cross must have come to faith. But perhaps it was more of a following faith than a confessing faith. Even more than being known as the “penitent” thief, this man has been known over the years as simply the “good” thief.
Of this whole line of thinking, Richard John Neuhaus writes: “Jesus does not reject any who turn to him. At times we turn to him with little faith, at times with a mix of faith and doubt when we are more sure of the doubt than of the faith. Jesus is not fastidious about the quality of faith. He takes what he can get, so to speak, and gives immeasurably more than he receives.”
Belief in Jesus, whether strong or weak, should have the characteristics of both repenting and following. In addition, belief should also have the characteristic of praying. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” is worded as a prayer for all people of all time, not just for that one criminal. We have included these words, or at least a portion of them, in our liturgical statement: “Lord, remember us in your kingdom and teach us to pray,” which we often use to introduce the Lord’s Prayer.
Prayer is an act of humility, in which we acknowledge, or seek help from, the One who is much greater than we. The prayer of the good/penitent thief is certainly a humble prayer. “Lord, remember me” is not making any demands of action on Jesus. It is not telling Jesus what he should do. It is a simple request for Jesus to think about us – “Lord Jesus think on me” as one of our old hymns says it. When we are praying to a merciful God -who loved us so much he went to the cross on our behalf – simply praying for God to remember us is sufficient, for we know God’s heart of love.
Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is a call from God to believe in Him for our salvation. We live in a day when if something sounds too good to be true, we quickly dismiss it. The forgiveness of our sins and promise of life eternal in paradise may sound too good for our modern ears, but that would just be conforming to our time, not listening to the echo of faith down through history. “Blessed are those who believe and yet have not seen,” says Jesus. Even those people who see don’t always trust their own eyes.
God wants us to be people of faith. We are to trust Him to care for us. We are to trust Him to teach us. The resurrection of Jesus shows us that God wants to have a relationship with us far beyond our death. He is the God of the living. His Son, our Savior, is the Living One. In him and through him we do well to place our faith. In the name of Jesus, amen.