Summary: Though we are often filled with fear and unbelief, Jesus' encounter with the disciples in the locked room reminds us that we are yet called by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue Christ's work in the world.
Doubting Thomas. Upon hearing this passage from John, and recalling the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, we often remember the story of “Doubting Thomas.” But did you know that the word “doubt” is not even used in the original Greek of this Scripture from John. Rather, John used the word “unbelief.” Jesus did not say to Thomas, “Do not doubt but believe” as our New Revised Standard Version suggests; this is just an easy translation in English; it simply flows better. Jesus’ words to Thomas probably went something more like this: “Put your finger here and see my hand. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not be unbelieving, but believe…Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” As Jesus speaks to Thomas and the other disciples, his emphasis is not on doubt, as we so often make it, but on belief. And when we look at this passage as a whole, we see that Jesus is giving us a message not just about our own belief, but about helping others come to belief as well!
Yet, even when we “believe,” I think we still often find ourselves filled with unbelief. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism struggled with this himself. One morning, at 36 years old and living as an Anglican priest, Wesley found himself crying out: “Lord, help my unbelief!” And he wrote in his journal that morning that “he felt dull within and little motivated to pray for his own salvation.” But that evening a friend persuaded Mr. Wesley to attend a meeting on Aldersgate Street. It was a Bible study of some sort, and at about 8:45 p.m., while someone in the meeting was reading Martin Luther’s preface to the Romans; while this person was reading Luther’s words “describing the change which God works in the heart through faith,” John Wesley records in his journal, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” In other words, the Risen Christ had appeared to Wesley and Wesley’s faith had finally become a true conviction, a living, breathing reality. And Wesley spent the rest of his life living that out, seeking to grow in his love of God and to share the love with all around him.
Such life-altering belief is the kind of faith that Jesus asks of his disciples, of Thomas, and of us. We are to believe with every ounce of our being, beyond every shadow of unbelief. And even as Jesus shows the disciples his hands and his side, he commissions them saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you…If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Somehow in Jesus’ words, we understand that we, too, are being commissioned, and that we will have to go forth knowing that we will not have the benefit of seeing Jesus’ hands and side for ourselves. Do we have such faith? And are we prepared to share it with others? These questions, more than any others, get at our commission as the disciples of Jesus Christ; a commission first given to the scared disciples and Thomas in that locked room. And a commission that now comes before us, carrying with it the weight of Jesus’ continuing work in the world.
As Jesus stands with his disciples following his resurrection, his words to them in this room become a sort of charter of the church. As the Father sent Jesus forth, so Jesus sends us forth. With this commission comes great meaning and significance. It means that Jesus needs the church, needs us. Now, we might be hesitant to think that Jesus, the Savior of the world, needs us for anything. I debated just this very question with some friends soon after entering seminary. Does God need humanity? After going round and round, we decided that God does not need us like we need water, in order to survive, but God does need us like women need chocolate! Because, in fact, God in Jesus Christ really does rely on us and has chosen us to spread his love in the world.
Jesus came from the Father with a message for all humanity, and now he was going back to the Father. His message could never be taken to all humanity unless the church took it. Jesus disciples, what we now call the Body of Christ or the church, are to be a mouth to speak for Jesus, feet to run his errands, hands to do his work, and arms outstretched in an unconditionally loving embrace. By loving one another as Jesus loved, we reveal God to the world. By revealing God to the world, you and I make it possible for the world to choose to come into relationship with our infinitely loving God. It is in choosing or rejecting this relationship that sins are forgiven or retained. Though Christ is counting on us to continue his work in the world, our task is never to be the judge of right or wrong, but only to constantly bear witness to the love of God in Jesus. Jesus has lived and taught, has healed and forgiven, has hung on the cross and been resurrected – all for us – and now as he sits at the right hand of the Father, our call is to make sure that message gets out to all the world!