The Second Sunday of Easter (Series B)
“How Can We Know?”
April 8, 2017
Text: John 20:19-31
Peace to you from God our Father and from His Son, our risen Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
During the years between 1618 and 1648 the Thirty Years’ War waged across northern Europe. It was a horrible war that dragged on and on and involved many nations. It has been said that this was the worst war that Europe ever experienced, including World Wars 1 and 2, because of the uncertainty that it created for people. No one knew what was coming next, but it was usually even worse than what had happened before, and on and on it went for 30 long years.
A careful study of our hymnal shows one of the results of this war. If you study the hymns from the 16th century, the century of the Reformation, when people were discussing and debating the doctrine of the church, you will find that those hymns reflect that emphasis. Most of our hymns that are loaded with great doctrine, the kinds of hymns that serve as sermons all by themselves, with no help, come from the 16th century.
But if you study the hymns of the 17th century, the century of the Thirty Years War, you will find something different. People were no longer as interested in the details of doctrine as much as they eagerly desired some sign that God was still around and that God still loved them. During the war, they saw much evidence that God had abandoned them. They were asking the questions like, “Where is God?”, “Why does God allow this?”, “Why doesn’t God do something about this?”, and, “Does God still love me?” They were plagued with doubts. And the new hymns of church reflected that. Many of the hymns of the 17th century cry out for some kind of touch from Jesus, some kind of a sign, something that would answer their doubts that were mounting in the face of all the horrible things that were happening around them and to them. How could they be sure that God still loved them when so much evil was on the loose? How could they know?
Many of us have never experienced the horrors of war, or some other kind of unimaginable trauma like the death of a child. Those extreme situations can and do push even the most faithful of Christians into doubt. But we have all had our moments. We have all suffered and we have all had bad things happen to us. And all of those unfortunate times, times of both great pains and little pains, have the potential to bring us to those moments when we can doubt, when we can wonder, “Does God still love me? How do I know? How can I know?”
There is a simple, yet profound, story in the Bible about this. Let’s play word association for a moment. I’ll say a word. You say the first word that comes into you mind. Doubting ________. Doubting Thomas. He’s in our Gospel lesson this morning. I always feel a little bad for Thomas. I think a lot of people are going to have to apologize to him in heaven. He was by all accounts no more and no less faithful than any of the other disciples, besides Judas. And yet all he is remembered for is his one moment of doubt. His only mistake was not being there the first time Jesus appeared to all the other disciples. Had he been there the first time Jesus came, he would have believed, just the same as the rest of them. And had any of the other disciples not been there, they probably would have doubted, too. It could have been “Doubting Matthew” or “Doubting Andrew.” But because Thomas made the first mistake – he was not with the group where he belonged when Jesus came the first time – that mistake was compounded into doubt about the testimony of the other disciples when they said that they had all seen the Lord risen from the dead.
In the face of that testimony, and his own doubts about the possibility of Jesus rising from the dead, Thomas faced a critical question: “How can I know? How can I know that Jesus is risen from the dead?”
We must remember that Thomas was already in the whirlwind of doubt, just as the other disciples had been. They had cast all their hopes on Jesus, and within less than 24 hours they had gone from the wonderful fellowship of the Passover meal with their Lord to seeing their Lord arrested, humiliated, tried, beaten, whipped, crucified, mocked, and then dead and buried. There is a Dostoevsky novel in which one of the main characters encounters a famous painting depicting the dead Jesus being taken down from the cross, and even the details in that painting are enough to make him almost lose his faith. If that is so, and that painting is known for having that effect on people, then how much more would seeing the real thing have crushed the hope and life and faith out of the disciples? That is why, even though Jesus told them more than once that He would die that way, and that He would rise from the dead on the third day, not one of them was waiting outside the tomb on the third day to see what would happen. All of their faith had been snuffed out.
And that is why Thomas is so specific in his answer to, “How can I know?” He knew what had happened to Jesus. He knew exactly what had thrown him into doubt. It was those horrible, mortal wounds that had been inflicted upon Jesus. Thomas thought that he needed to see that body restored for himself. “Unless I can put my fingers into the wounds of His hands … unless I can thrust my hand into His side … I will not believe.”
What is interesting is that Thomas was wrong in his answer to, “How can I know?” When Jesus appears to Thomas a week later, two fascinating things happen. First, what Thomas experiences is more than enough to make him do a 180 immediately. He goes from doubt to faith in an instant. The evidence for Thomas is suddenly overwhelming. More than that, Thomas doesn’t just confess that Jesus is, in fact, risen from the dead. Thomas goes even further and becomes the one and only human being in all the Gospels to look at Jesus and directly call Him “God.” Thomas knows.
The second fascinating thing is what it actually took to work faith in Thomas. Thomas had answered the question, “How can I know?” with, “I must see, I must touch, I must feel, I must examine closely, I must carefully consider all the evidence, and then I must thoughtfully reach a conclusion that this is, indeed, Jesus risen from the dead.” But Thomas was wrong. None of that is what happened when he came to faith.
There is nothing in the text that would indicate that Thomas ever actually touched the wounds of Jesus. Jesus made the offer to Thomas. But Thomas didn’t need it. What overwhelmed Thomas, what worked faith in his heart, was the mere presence of Jesus, especially the word of Christ speaking directly to Him. What we learn from the first chapter of Genesis, and what is confirmed again and again in the Gospels, is that the Word of God is powerful, it is creative, it accomplishes what it speaks. All that Thomas needed for restoration of his faith was the Word of God, Christ Himself, speaking to Him. The Word creates faith. That is how Thomas knew. That is how we know.
We see this earlier in our Gospel lesson where Christ gives the Office of the Keys to His Church. He breathed on them and said, receive the Holy Spirit; whatever sins you forgive on earth, they are forgiven in Heaven, and whatever sins you retain on earth, they are retained in Heaven. And ever since then the ministers of Christ’s church have been administering what we call the third sacrament – the act of Confession and Absolution. In the stead and by the power and command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all of your sins. You’ll remember those times in the Gospels when Christ pronounced to sinners, “Your sins are forgiven,” and the Pharisees threw a fit because only God can forgive sins. And they were right, to a point. But what they didn’t accept was that Jesus was the Word of God incarnate, the powerful, creative, active Word of God, and as such, He was accomplishing the forgiveness of sins for sinners just by speaking His Word. Only God can forgive sins. And, as Thomas confesses, Jesus is God. And that gift He now gives to the church, to go to the four corners of the earth and proclaim to the worst sinners everywhere who respond in repentance and faith, “I forgive you all of your sins.” That is how we know. Because Christ speaks it, and His Word is powerful, it is creative, it accomplishes what it speaks, and it works faith and certainty in our hearts. His Word forgives us all of our sins.
There are many occasions in the Gospels where Jesus encounters someone who is doubting in some way. And Jesus never comes down hard on them, though He might gently chide them. He never gives them a command, “Have more faith!” Every single time Jesus encounters doubt, He answers it with the Word, with a promise, with the Gospel that creates faith. And so He does here with Thomas. He gently chides him, “You only believe because you have seen me with your own eyes. But blessed are those who believe without seeing.” Those words are not at all a condemnation of Thomas. They are a tender invitation directly to him, to continue on with his life and to begin trusting in Christ and His promises no matter what he experiences, no matter what he sees with his eyes, no matter what sufferings he might undergo. Christ’s words are a tender, effective invitation to Thomas to have a deeper faith. And because the Word of God is powerful, it is creative, it accomplishes what it sets out to do, it is effective and it works faith in Thomas’ heart. That is how Thomas knew.
And that is how we know. We are surrounded by skeptics who mock our faith, who cry out like little children, “Prove it!” And we are live in our own sufferings and with our own questions and we might wonder, “How can I know?”
I experienced this when I was in college and I took a comparative religions class and, at the same time, was taking a history class with a professor who was pretty open about mocking the Christian faith. And I realized that, at that time, I was a Christian and I was a Lutheran because I had been born into a German-Finnish family in America with a Lutheran background. If I had been born into Jewish family I would be Jewish; if I had been born in Saudi Arabia I would be Muslim; if I had been born in India I would probably be Hindu; if I had been born in the Soviet Union I would probably be an atheist. And I realized that I had never asked the question, “How can I know?” But now I asked. I never really doubted my faith. But I wanted to stand on firmer ground, to be able to give a more solid answer for the hope that was within me. And so I studied several aspects of apologetics, the evidence for our belief in a 6-day creation, the evidence for the resurrection of Christ, the evidence for the authority of the Bible, the problems and inconsistencies in other religions. And I’m glad I studied all those things. It did give me firmer ground upon which to stand.
But, ultimately, I came to see that that was not how we know. We have no answer to the childish cry, “Prove it!” Because you can’t really prove it. You either believe it, or you don’t. You either know it, or you don’t. We know because of one thing, and one thing only. “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel” – only found the Word of God – “enlightened me with His gifts” – given only in the Word of God – “and called and sanctified me in the one true faith, just as He calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth.” That is how we know. That is how we can be sure.
This is especially interesting for us in our day and age. People are now being warned that you can no longer believe your own eyes. Technology like photoshop calls into question the authenticity of every picture that you see. I remember the first time I saw the movie “The Perfect Storm,” depicting ships struggling in 40 and 60-foot waves out on the Atlantic, and I wondered how on earth they got that video. Then I realized that that was not real video. It was just really, really convincing computer animation. That was almost 20 years ago. Now we have virtual reality. We can no longer trust our own senses. You can’t really prove anything anymore because everything is suspect of having been tampered with.
But we can know, the same way Thomas knew. Thomas thought he needed proof. But all he needed was the Word of God in Jesus, and then he knew beyond any shadow of a doubt. And by that same Word of God in Jesus we know. Though none of us have seen Him, and none of us can prove it, we know, with more certainty than we have about the sunrise tomorrow, that Jesus is risen, He lives, He reigns, He loves us, He forgives us, we belong to Him, and He is coming back for us someday. He has been wonderful to us, and He has sent us the Holy Spirit, just as He promised, to convince us of all these things through His Word.
Though you have not seen Him, you love Him. Though you have not seen Him, you know that He has baptized you and claimed you as His very own. Though you have not seen Him, you know that in the blessed words of Absolution He has forgiven you all of your sins. Though you have never seen Him, you know that He comes to you this day in His true body and blood, given and shed for you, to strengthen your faith and grant you the gift of eternal life. And don’t forget, that though you have never seen Him, He is there, in the pages of your Bible at home, waiting for you to open and read and study, so that He might do what He loves to do – come to you in His powerful, creative, effective Word, to create faith in you and increase your love and devotion to Him. John says as much at the end of our Gospel lesson when he writes, “These things are written so that you might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.” That is how we know. Amen.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.
“How Can We Know?”
04/08/2018 Rev. Richard Bellas
St. Paul’s Ev. Lutheran Church, Lockport, IL