Malcolm's Service from Morning Prayer 11th April 2021

That you might believe… John 20.19-31

Cockfield, 11 April 2021

He was born in an obscure village in a remote corner of a great empire.  The child of a peasant woman, he worked as a carpenter until he was about 30 then as a travelling preacher for 3 more years. He never wrote a book, he never held high public office, he never did any of the things that usually accompany greatness. While still a young man, the tide of popular opinion turned against him, his friends let him down and his enemies put him through a mockery of a trial. He was nailed to a cross between 2 thieves, and while he was dying his executioners gambled for his cloak. When he was dead, his body was laid in a borrowed grave, thanks to the pity of a friend.

Yet since then, all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that were ever built, all the parliaments that ever met and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the lives of men and women as powerfully as has that one solitary life.

The words of an anonymous author about Jesus and it prompts the question HOW?   How is it that such a person born 2000 years ago has had such a global impact?   Today, an estimated 2.4 billion people worldwide profess to follow Him – about 30% of the global population – and His Name is widely known to those from other faiths or none.  How do we account for the impact of this one man?

For an answer, we need to go back to the Gospels and to look at the person and life of Jesus himself, His unique claims and in particular His death and resurrection. 

It’s the resurrection in particular that seems to have been the crucial event for the early church as they shared the Good News of Jesus throughout the then known world, and – in the words of their enemies – ‘turning the world upside down’.  

Please turn with me to that reading – John 20.19-31.   It’s a familiar story and I invite you to imagine yourselves in that locked room with the disciples.  

  • It’s 2 days since the crucifixion and they’re huddled together, fearful and confused.  Their 3 years with Jesus had ended so suddenly and so tragically. With their Lord and Master dead, what were the disciples going to do now?   The Jews would find them out and in all likelihood have them arrested too. Hence the locked door. But some strange things had also been reported: Peter and John had been to the tomb and Jesus’ body wasn’t there.   Then Mary Magdalene had come to them saying she’d actually seen him alive.   Surely she’d been deluded and seen a ghost, hadn’t she…?
  • Then Jesus Himself enters the locked room… and speaks to them with words of grace “Peace be with you” (repeated twice).  And the disciples are overjoyed.  He’s alive!   Then he breathes on them – a ghost couldn’t do that! – and He commissions them afresh.  
  • In his Gospel, Luke also records that Jesus ate some fish in their presence.   A ghost couldn’t do that either!   This was clear evidence that the impossible had happened.  Jesus had risen from the dead just as He said he would, though the disciples hadn’t really registered that when He told them. 
  • He had a body that could be touched and he could eat –  although His body was somehow different: it could go through closed doors for example. 
  • One of the disciples is missing on that first evening – Thomas.  The others try to convince him that they’ve “seen the Lord”, but he refuses to believe them and insists on first-hand evidence. And a week later that’s exactly what Jesus graciously gives him.  “Put your finger here Thomas, see my hands, reach out your hand and put it in my side. Stop doubting but believe”.  And Thomas famously responds “My Lord and my God” – a wonderful profession of faith unique to all the Gospel records.

  Draw out 2 lessons

  1. The difference the resurrection made in the lives of the early church 
  2. The difference it can make to us today.
  1. The difference it made in the lives of the early church.
  2. Reading the rest of the New testament, it’s clear that the resurrection became central to the early church’s mission and message.  This was the clincher that convinced them that their message was real – Jesus was alive.  Then the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost empowered them in their mission.
  3. See this from our 1st reading: Acts 4.32-35.  V.33 ‘With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and great grace was upon them all”.     And it’s the same resurrection that has underpinned the church’s testimony ever since; this has been at the heart of the unique appeal and growth of the Christian faith globally.  
  4. Not only had their testimony changed, but the disciples behaviour changed too.   During Jesus’ earthly ministry, they used to jostle for prestige and power, squabbling amongst themselves as to who was the greatest, but what an incredible difference here!  
  5. Now the number of believers had grown to 5000 men (so 10-15,000 all told!).   Despite the inevitable differences, there was a wonderful degree of unity and real sharing of possessions.   
  6. Acts 4.32,34: “They were of one heart and soul… everything they owned was held in common…there was not a needy person among them!”.  A remarkable transformation by any standard!   
  7. That was surely one of the most appealing aspects of the early church – their unity, transcending all national, ethnic, gender and religious divides. They were truly One in Christ. No wonder the church became so popular – as it still is in many parts of the world today. Caring for one another at a very practical level.
  8. Judy and I were privileged to belong to an international church when living abroad. It was a multi-cultural mix with some 30 nationalities represented from all over the world.  We came from various Protestant and Catholic denominations, but we were united in our faith (and the fact that we spoke English!).   But it was a microcosm of what the church could be – truly one in Christ, overcoming all human barriers and distinctions.
  • The difference it can make to us today.

There’s much we can learn from the experiences of those early disciples.

  • We know what it’s like to live with FEAR.  The experiences of Covid-19 and lockdown over the last year have certainly shown us that.
  • Many in Myanmar/Burma are living with real fear now as they hide from military aggression.  Unable to sleep at nights because of the gunfire and unable to go out to the shops by day for fear of being shot. Yet many Christians there have also known a sense that God is with them despite everything.  And God’s presence has given them HOPE even amid their fears.
  • We too can know God’s presence and comfort despite our worst fears, knowing that Jesus is alive.  And we too can have hope, knowing that God’s kingdom WILL come, and one day be fully established on earth. 
  • If we know what it’s like to fear, we also know what it’s like to DOUBT! We can all too readily dismiss him as “Doubting Thomas” as if he’s somehow less spiritual. In fact, he’s just like most of us who have doubts.
  • Doubts aren’t necessarily bad – they’re often all too real, and they can be a means towards real faith.  Someone has written that doubt was never meant to be permanent. Rather it’s like one foot lifted up, poised to step forward or backwards. There’s no motion one way or the other till the foot comes down.  
  • Thomas is actually a good model for us.  He doesn’t seem to have been a sceptic by nature, rather he appears to have been an honest seeker, looking for evidence – and once he had it, he believed, making his own outstanding profession of faith.   

Which brings us to Jesus’ final words to Thomas: Have you believed because you have seen me, asks Jesus of Thomas? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. That’s us!  The evidence is all there if we choose to see it and, like Thomas, are willing to be convinced by it.  But doubts can sometimes be used as a cloak to cover up our unwillingness to be believe.   In such a case, the problem is not of the intellect but of the heart.

And if we haven’t yet come to believe, then John invites us to do so. He concludes:  These things are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah/Christ/Saviour, the Son of God and that by believing you might have life in His name.   If we thirst for life, the eternal life that Jesus speaks of, the best way is to put our trust and our faith in Him. To believe – it’s as simple and as profound as that!

As we cry out in faith to Him and put our trust in Him, even amidst our fears and our doubts, we will enjoy life in His Name.