‘Doubt or Fear?’ John 20 verses 19 to the end
Sermon given by Revd Chris Moody 8 April 2018
The story of the disciple Thomas is a story about doubt, faith and what the resurrection means for all of us. It is also a story about fear. Not once but twice in this passage it is mentioned that the doors were locked and in the first instance that this is ‘for fear of the Jews’. This phrase has always caused some embarrassment. For us it has all sorts of connotations caused by centuries of antisemitism in the Church. Commentators tell us that we should not project that back, that the evangelist possibly only meant ‘the Judaeans’, those locally opposed to the new sect growing amongst them, and certainly didn’t mean a whole race or religion. Nevertheless, it is a phrase that arouses unease. It is so easy to project onto others the fear of what we might find within ourselves if we looked hard enough. ‘they’ are the greedy ones, ‘they’ are the violent ones full of hate and deceit. We are the threatened ones, the ones whose perfectly innocent way of life is in danger of being overwhelmed by their violence and hatred. We must do what we can to eliminate our fear, using methods of control we would otherwise regard as unjust or inhuman.
There is a lot of fear around us in society at the moment. So it is as well to be aware of this dimension to the story as well as the theme of doubt and faith. The writer of this Gospel and the letters later in the New Testament, seems to have been writing for small persecuted communities of believers who saw threats around them and from within, so there is a lot of fear around. But he is also the writer who says ‘Perfect love casts out fear’. He is also the writer who says ‘If I cannot love my brother whom I can see, how then can I be said to love God whom I have not seen? For God is love’.
So, this is a story about casting out fear as much as it is a story about casting out doubt. What does Jesus do as soon as he stands among them, inside their locked room. He says, ‘Peace be with you’. Not any old peace, not simply the absence of fear, but the deep peace of his love and forgiveness, his shalom, the peace of his kingdom; the same peace that he uses to calm the storm on the lake when his disciples cry out in fear that their boat is capsizing and that they will all drown. As he has said already in this Gospel ‘My peace I give you. My peace I leave with you. Not as the world gives, do I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled. Neither let them be afraid’. In that peace the disciples can make progress. They can control their fear and leave behind their imprisonment by it. Three times he says in this passage ‘Peace be with you’. So we should pay attention to it. He is not saying simply ‘Hallo, how are you?’ We should take these words with similar seriousness when they are said to us in this service. The Risen Christ is among us. His peace is at the heart of our fellowship. It is what binds us together in spite of our differences. ‘Peace be with you’ we say to the friend, neighbour, stranger or visitor standing on either side of us and they reply ‘and also with you’.
As soon as he had said this the first time, Jesus shows them his hands and his side. The disciples, and us, know that the risen one who stands among us in his grace and power, is the same one who died for us on the Cross. In that respect the resurrection hasn’t changed him at all. The same power which flows from him to us is the same power of grace and forgiveness that was first revealed on the Cross. The Gospel of John makes it quite clear that this happened, not after the resurrection, but as soon as his side was pierced as his body hung on theCross ‘and at once blood and water came out’ by which he means us to understand baptism and eucharist. He underlines this by saying ‘He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth’. And in this passage Jesus says as soon as he has shown Thomas his hands and his side ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’. This is immediately followed with what was most likely the original conclusion of this Gospel; ‘But these words are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name’.
We have become used to calling Thomas in the English tradition ‘Doubting Thomas’ which is why, perhaps, we preachers so quickly get into the groove of talking about doubt and faith and so easily miss this one about fear and love. ‘Perfect love casts out fear’. Peace, love and forgiveness flow from the cross for us as much as for the first disciples. We, like them, are to receive this new life in the Spirit which Jesus, the Christ, breathes upon us, and are to be sent out to others with the same love and charity with which the Father sent the Son to us. The same Latin word we translate as ‘doubting’ in English could equally well be translated ‘incredulous’. O incredulous Thomas! O incredulous us! We simply cannot fully take in what Christ has done for us on the Cross, how he has reached down into the depths of our sin, selfishness, fear of others and hatred for ourselves, and given us this grace and this power of forgiveness.
As the Easter hymn, the Exsultet, puts it ‘O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, that has won for us so great a Redeemer’ and we say with incredulity ‘My Lord and My God’.