Audio of today’s sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or you can read the text here.
Lost in the busyness of Holy Week was a publication by the Gallup pollsters that once again reminded the Church of the importance of good preaching. In a survey that asked people what factored into their decisions about church attendance, 76% of respondents said that “sermons or talks that teach you more about scripture” were a major factor in where they went to church. 75% also listed “sermons or lectures that help you connect religion to your own life” as a major factor. With no offense intended to my colleague Ken Stein, only 38% suggested “a good choir, praise band, cantors or other spiritual music” as a major factor. These statistics are nothing new. I’ve been hearing about the need for quality preaching since before I went to seminary. Seminaries, to their credit, do the best they can within the confines of a three-year curriculum to help would-be preachers begin to hone their craft. At VTS, we were required to take a semester and a half of homiletics during our Middler year. Much to my benefit as a preacher, I had the Rev. Dr. Judith McDaniel for a full semester. Judith’s teaching style matched me to a “T”: she is exceedingly Type-A and loves rules. She worked hard to mold us into good preachers. Her goal was to teach us how to “proclaim the gospel in such a way it can be heard by the head and the heart.” Even though I violate most of them on a regular basis, including at least two in that last clause, I still have Judith McDaniel’s patented “12 Homiletical Norms” saved in my files. I will never forget her number one rule in preaching: “Settle for one point, well made.” She was so serious about the need for one clear point that without an obvious thesis statement in the body of the first paragraph, your sermon could not be graded as an A.
Having now violated that norm as well, I can say that I am in good company. It isn’t until his Gospel is almost over (and some scholars think maybe it was over) that John finally gives us a clear statement of his purpose for putting the story of Jesus to parchment. “These are written,” John writes, “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.” All the poetry, the signs, the discourses; all the time spent on the high priestly prayer and the Passion; all the details and the care with which he wrote them, were included so that we might come to believe. It might feel like this thesis statement is simply an appendix, tacked on after the story has been told, but I think John decided to include it here on purpose. This thesis for belief comes right at the tail end of a story that shows us what belief requires.
This story takes place while it is still Sunday, the first Easter Day, the first day of the week and the first day of new life. That whole scene at the tomb that we heard about last week had just happened that morning. John and Peter had seen the empty tomb and gone home when Mary came barging in, breathlessly declaring, “I have seen the Lord.” And what did the disciples do with that news? There was no Alleluia Party, I can tell you that. No shrimp cocktail. No champagne punch. No cake. Only fear, disbelief, and locked doors. This pattern of testimony and skepticism wasn’t new. Back at the very beginning of John’s Gospel is the story of Andrew who, after he had encountered Jesus, went to tell his brother Peter. Peter needed his own encounter, and so off they went to meet Jesus. The pattern repeated the very next day when Philip ran off to find Nathaniel who is famous for responding to Philip’s testimony with, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Belief based on the testimony of someone else proves challenging in John’s Gospel. John knows that belief in Jesus is easiest with a personal encounter.  But after the Ascension, John also understands that coming to faith based on the testimony of someone else is the norm, and so he wrote his story, that we might come to believe having never seen.
Back in that locked house on Easter evening, other than Mary Magdalene, we have no idea if any of the disciples gathered there actually believed that Jesus was really risen from the dead. If anyone did believe, they were likely the most afraid. When Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead, it sealed the deal on his execution. Imagine what havoc Rome and the Temple would wreak upon Jesus’ friends if he really had the power to come back from the dead! Those who were still unbelieving likely had similar fears with the added thought of how awful it would be to get yourself killed for following some guy whose tragic death was made more pathetic when he wasn’t resurrected like he said he would be, but his body was stolen to perpetuate some ridiculous hoax. The disciples had heard Mary’s testimony, but they couldn’t come to believe, when suddenly, Jesus appeared in their midst.
That morning, Mary’s encounter with the risen Lord was simply her name. Now, the disciples were offered peace and his wounds, and like Mary, they rejoiced at the sight of their risen Lord. Well, not all of them. For whatever reason, Thomas wasn’t there. Like Andrew going to find Peter and Philip running off to find Nathaniel, the disciples went in search of Thomas with the Easter proclamation of Mary Magdalene on their lips. “We have seen the Lord!” Here is where most preachers will go off on a tangent about Doubting Thomas, but I refuse. Partially because Judith McDaniel’s voice is reminding me that I’ve already failed pretty miserably at settling on one well-made point. But mostly, I refuse to beat the dead horse of Doubting Thomas because I think calling Thomas “doubting” is a bad reading of the Scripture. Thomas didn’t have any less faith than the rest of the disciples had shown the week before. All he asked for was what Mary and the rest all received on Easter. He wanted to see and touch Jesus. Like everyone else in John’s Gospel, before Thomas could believe, he needed to encounter the risen Lord.
It took eight days, but Thomas got his chance, when back in that same locked house, Jesus once again appeared in their midst. Again, he offered peace. He invited Thomas to touch his wounds and asked him to give up his unbelieving ways just as the rest of them had a week earlier. Jesus invited Thomas into a relationship, which is what belief is all about. Believing in Jesus means that we trust that he is who is says he is and will do what he has promised to do. It means that through his resurrection, we can enter into an ongoing relationship with him by following where he leads.
It is into this relationship that John hopes all of us will enter. Both he and Jesus know how difficult that will be for those of us who would come later. Unlike Andrew and Peter, Philip and Nathaniel, Mary, the Ten, and eventually Thomas, we don’t have the opportunity to encounter Jesus face-to-face. Much as we would like him to, Jesus isn’t likely to miraculously appear in our midst, offer us peace, and invite us to touch his wounds. We who believe without seeing are blessed, Jesus assures us, because ours is a faith much more challenging to maintain. The disciples came to believe through seeing. We will have to come to see through believing. Eventually, if we stick around long enough; if we can hang on to belief through its infancy; if we are open to the Spirit, we will have our own opportunities to see Jesus, to receive his peace, to feel his wounds, and to know the power of his resurrection. Through belief, Jesus enters our lives, despite whatever doors we may have locked in fear, and we are blessed. He enters offering peace, and invites us to abundant life in his name. God knows, it isn’t easy to maintain an Easter faith without seeing Jesus face-to-face, but when we can, we are assuredly blessed in believing. Amen.