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More Blessed Than Thomas (John 20:19-31)

Second Sunday of Easter – Quasimodo Geniti

“More Blessed Than Thomas”

St. John 20.19-31; Ezekiel 37.1-14; 1 John 5.4-10

28 April 2019

Pastor Philip Meyer, Emeritus


This reading gushes forth like a mountain spring. More riches can be mined than can be handled in one sermon. We have two resurrection appearances. The institution of the Office of the Holy Ministry occupies the first half of the reading. And then we hear the account of Thomas which is intimately intertwined with all of this. But the golden thread that runs through all of this is the matter of faith, or if we pay close attention, also the lack of faith in Jesus’ resurrection, not just of Thomas but of all the disciples, including the women.

Mary Magdalene came to the tomb fully expecting to find the dead body of Jesus. She and the other women planned to anoint his body with burial spices. Peter and John likewise reach the tomb but did not connect the dots [John 20.9]. Even as Mary turned to see Jesus she did not recognize him because she did not believe he had risen [John 20.13-15].

Later that evening ten of Jesus’ disciples met in the same upper room where they had celebrated the Passover. Behind locked doors they met in fear, listening for every sound, listening for every step on the stairs, terrified that it might be the religious authorities coming to arrest them and perhaps crucify them as well. If they had believed the report of the women and the evidence at the empty tomb they would have been filled with boldness and joy. Unbelief, however, controlled their minds and hearts

Only after Christ appeared and spoke his Absolution to them did they truly believe. “Peace be with you” is the peace of forgiven sin, although this will need to be spoken yet again to Peter whose guilty conscience gripped his thinking [John 21.15-19]. Then they rejoiced to see Christ’s hands and side and our Lord repeated his absolving peace, adding that he would be sending them out to proclaim this same forgiveness of sins in his name.

Our Lord displays the vastness of his mercy in dealing with people who are sinners. These eleven men were hardly good examples in Gethsemane and at Christ’s trial and crucifixion. They had utterly failed him just as he predicted. They were cowards. All ran away except for John who stayed to watch the end.

But what of Thomas? What can we say about him? A numbers of things are evident:

First, he wasn’t there with the others. Thomas occupies center stage in the second half of this reading. What shall Jesus do with Thomas? Thomas had deliberately absented himself on that evening. He had already withdrawn from the fellowship because of anger and disappointment. That has happened countless times as Christians have endured disappointment, hurt, and pain, and have taken out their frustrations by refusing to have anything to do with Christ and his Church. To all those Christ again pleads, “Do not disbelieve, but believe.”

Second, Thomas was not doubting! He was unbelieving! He’s often called “doubting Thomas,” but that’s much too kind. Maybe it’s the English “disbelieving” which sounds softer than unbelieving. The Greek is very clear: “unbelieving/believing.” Thomas was not cowardly. Quite the opposite. When Jesus took the disciples to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead, John records:

16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” [John 11.14-15]

He clearly did not lack courage at that point. Nor did he lack love for Jesus. But love and faith are not the same thing. With the exception of Judas, all the disciples, women included, loved Jesus, but they lacked faith after the arrest and crucifixion. Of course a Christian loves Jesus, but it is better to say, “Jesus loves me, a sinner, and only through faith in his suffering, death, AND resurrection do I have eternal life.” That’s saving faith. And that’s what Thomas lacked.

Thomas didn’t believe the reports that Christ had risen from the dead. It seems amazing when one considers that he was an eyewitness to Jesus’ raising of Lazarus. He also witnessed Christ’s raising of the widow’s son at Nain and Jairus’ daughter. Yet, Thomas was belligerent in his unbelief.

We know the clichés, “Seeing is believing,” or “I’ll believe it when I see it.” They are variants on Thomas own “Unless I see . . . I will never believe.” After Christ invited him to put his finger in the nail holes of his hands and his hand in the hole in his side, our Lord spoke a blessing that should bring great comfort to all people who were not there that day: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” [John 20.29] John doesn’t record whether Thomas actually put his finger and hand into Jesus’ wounds. It doesn’t matter. His answer is all that we need to know: “My Lord and my God!” Thomas was blessed because he finally believed. You are more blessed than Thomas because our Lord comes to you and puts his true body and blood into your mouths for the forgiveness of sins. This far exceeds any blessing of Thomas’ fingers and hand exploring the wounds of the risen Christ. Yet, it was necessary for Thomas to see also with his eyes the resurrected Christ because without seeing him he could not be an eyewitness, a prerequisite for apostleship [Acts 1.21-22]. He could not be sent to pronounce forgiveness of sins.

Blessed are those who believe the Word of God. That’s often a tall order when life gets hard. When loved ones suffer we want to see what God is doing. Job could not see what God was doing, yet he believed. Do not say that his faith wasn’t tested; it was tested as perhaps no other ordinary human being has ever been tested. I am sure he was tempted by unbelief. Even his wife told him to curse God and die [Job 2.9]. When everything he held dear was taken away he had nothing on which to depend, except the Word of God. It was Job who confessed faith in the resurrection centuries before Christ was born. You know his words upon which the great resurrection hymn, I Know That My Redeemer Lives, is based:

25    For I know that my Redeemer lives,

and at the last he will stand upon the earth.

26   And after my skin has been thus destroyed,

yet in my flesh I shall see God,

27    whom I shall see for myself,

and my eyes shall behold, and not another. [Job 19.25-27]

You, dear friends, are more blessed than Thomas. It is true that he saw the risen Christ in the flesh, but seeing with his eyes of flesh is not a more blessed state than seeing with the eyes of faith. In fact, it’s the opposite.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Receiving God’s gracious favor in the body and blood of Christ distributes God’s richest gifts, forgiveness and salvation. John, in our epistle reading, summarizes:

11 And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. [1 John 5.11-12]

To have the Son by faith is to see the Father. That’s what Jesus said to Thomas earlier when Thomas asked about finding the way to heaven. To see Jesus by faith is to see the Father. [John 14.6-7]. God the Holy Spirit has created faith in you in Holy Baptism so that you believe what God’s Word says about Christ. It isn’t even because you love Jesus but because you trust that his death satisfied God’s wrath and that you have forgiveness and eternal life because of it. You stake your eternal destiny on his promise. And in that you are more blessed than Thomas.

John writes that Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, and yet, the signs are not recorded. The miracles must give way to the words of Christ. “These words have been recorded so that by believing you confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you have life in his name.” [John 20.31, my translation]

Our English translations can leave us hanging. The word “may” is used twice in this last verse . . .”that you may believe . . .you may have life.” “May” sounds conditional. That’s unfortunate. It really is meant to carry the force of result. “That you believe” and “that you have life.” Result. Luther’s German is much more certain.

“These, however, are written so that you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through faith you have life in his name.” [my translation, Die Bibel oder die gaze Heilige Schrift, Württembergische Bibelanstalt, Stuttgart, 1962]

You have life through faith in this resurrected Christ. He has redeemed you with his atoning death and the proof of your redemption and your eternal life, body and soul, are confirmed by his resurrection from the dead. You have forgiveness of sins! You have eternal life! That, writes, John, is the purpose of the Holy Gospel. “Depart in peace,” the pastor speaks once you have received Christ’s body and blood. The same Absolution Jesus spoke to his Apostles is spoken to you. You do not see but you do hear.

Thomas finally believed, but you believe because God the Holy Spirit has given you the ears of faith to trust his life-giving Word and to make the good confession, “My Lord and my God!” Indeed, you are more blessed than Thomas.

In the Name of the Father and of the ☩ Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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