Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, April 23, 2017
Scripture: John 20:19-31, 1 Peter 1:3-9
Poor Thomas! In our Gospel reading, in verse 24, John tell us that, Thomas, one of the Twelve, [was] called the Twin. That’s how everyone knew Thomas before this particular day: “hey, everybody, here comes Thomas the Twin.” But, because of this Sunday, one week after Easter, Thomas will be now and forevermore known as what? “Doubting Thomas”. He never lives it down, does he?
For the record, Thomas is a resolute, determined sort of guy. John’s Gospel account shows us this courageous Thomas earlier in John, chapter 11. That’s where John tells us about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus has only recently left Jerusalem, where he just barely escaped getting stoned to death.
Word comes for Jesus to go back near Jerusalem to visit Lazarus, who’s lying mortally ill, near to death. But the disciples protest, Rabbi, the [leaders there] were but now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again. All, except one disciple. John tells us, Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him. Let’s see this thing through to the death, says Thomas. So, maybe we could call him, “Thomas the Brave”.
Later, they’re there in the upper room with Jesus having the Last Supper. John writes in chapter 14, of how Jesus seems to be talking in riddles about going away and then coming back and he seems to try to reassure the disciples by saying, And you know the way where I am going.
Of course, the disciples have no idea what Jesus is talking about, so it’s Thomas who just says it: Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way? So, maybe we should call him “Honest Thomas”.
But, no, he gets stuck with being Doubting Thomas: Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe. That’s on Easter Sunday, in the evening.
A week later, Jesus appears again to the disciples. Thomas is there this time and Jesus says, “I heard what you said, Thomas. Here I am: do what you said you need to do to believe I am alive.” Of course, then, Thomas says, “no, Lord, I don’t really need to do that.” Jesus then pronounced this blessing, this beatitude: Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe… Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.
Simon Peter is there in the room and hears this blessing. About thirty years later, Peter will write this letter we call First Peter. He seems to have that blessing of Jesus’ in mind when he writes, we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead….Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy.
In other words, Peter is writing, you are the ones of whom the Risen Christ spoke, when he said to Thomas—and the rest of us there in the room: Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe. That’s us, here today, in 2017. Blessed, are we, who have not seen Jesus, and yet we speak of him and feel for him a love as for a dearest friend whom we’ve always known and who continues with us. With no bodily proof, we believe.
Well, yes and no. Yes, as far as I know, none of us have seen Jesus appear bodily before us, and yet we believe. But that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate having the occasional proof that Jesus is alive and well and at work. More than we may think, we rely on a little living proof as did Thomas.
Bob Dylan was living proof for me back in 1979. Bob Dylan…troubadour of the 1960’s counterculture. The voice of a generation in revolt. Well, in November of 1978, Bob Dylan had a vision of Jesus appear to him, enough that he converted and began quite publicly professing his faith in Jesus Christ.
The only time Bob Dylan has made a guest appearance on Saturday Night Live was in 1979. What does he sing? “Blowin’ in the Wind”? Nope. “The Times They are A-Changing”? “Tangled Up in Blue”? No. “Just Like a Woman?” No. He does an extended version, “Gotta Serve Somebody”, which was off his album, “Slow Train Coming”. That was his first of three explicitly Christian themed albums over three years.
This was great stuff, I thought! I was in my mid-twenties, listening to Bob Dylan who was a genuine Christian voice. Proof in flesh and blood, of the Risen Lord, who had converted Bob Dylan, albeit into a somewhat eccentric, Pentecostal end-times version of the faith. But, let’s not nitpick.
And, then, Dylan’s so-called “Christian period” came to an end a few years later and that was that. There went proof. Where did you go, Bob? I was kinda counting you to shore up my faith as we advanced through the years together…see! see! Bob Dylan proves its!
Well, that’s between him and God. None of my business, but I was just sort’a hoping, you know, he’d have stuck around to be a representative of the faith.
You may have your own version of physical proof to shore up your own faith. Tim Tebow, for example, or any other number of Christian athletes. Although, it generally seems to work better if it’s an outright non-Christian kind of famous person who has a very public, dramatic turn around. Wow! Now that’s a boost to the faith.
That’s, o.k.. But, don’t underestimate this truth: you have your own faith experience; you are your own flesh-and-blood, witness of the Resurrected Lord. Jesus, and then Peter, wants us to know: you, too, have a precious, precious gift you bear within you.
This is not an easy thing into which we are called, to live into this faith, to continue true to this hope that lives within us, in the resurrected one whom we call Christ, or Jesus, or Lord, or simply, God. As Peter describes in 1 Peter, chapter one, verses 6 and 7, there will be hard times to live our faith: In this you and I rejoice, though now for a little while we may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith may….What?
My RSV uses this strange word, redound. so that the genuineness of your faith may be redound to the glory of Christ. Had to look up that word “redound.” It means “to have the effect of”, or “to result in”. O.K…”that the genuineness of our faith may have the effect or result of bringing glory to Christ.”
That is our ambition and our inspiration, that in good times and in hard times, in these various trials…the genuineness of [our] faith…may be found to result in the glory of Christ.
What in the world does that mean?! Does that mean God is checking us out, to see just how genuine our faith really is? Are we on trial before God? “Well, I don’t know, maybe they believe, maybe they don’t…well, we’ll find out soon enough, won’t we? I’ll just put ‘em through wringer and see who’s left standing.”
No. Peter is not writing, to portray God as standing back, arms crossed, looking at us, doubting and wondering and saying, “I just don’t know about that one…they may be just blowing smoke. Let’s put him/her to the test and see what happens.”
I know one way that insidious terror got rooted and nurtured in me. It was that annual rite of spiritual abuse called the Spring Revival, or Fall Revival. That’s where we’d actually pay some itinerant preacher to come to town for a week or two and harangue us. He didn’t know us or anything about our lives, but to hear him berate us night after night, we were perpetually trying to pull the wool over God’s eyes.
We’d actually show up for six or seven nights running, plus two Sunday mornings just to sit there and have our faith dissected and discarded as a worthless exercise in self-serving self-righteousness. Did you all ever do that to yourselves here at University Baptist or at whatever churches you grew up in?
When I was twelve, our church inadvertently invited some poor preacher who just was not cut out to be a revivalist. He just did not have the heart to rip into people the way we seemed to need getting ripped on a semi-annual basis.
It was the final Sunday morning service of that particular revival when I came forward and made my profession of faith. It was a very moving experience for me. My mom later told me, she knew it had to be the genuine work of the Holy Spirit because this guy couldn’t preach worth a darn.
Don’t let anybody do that to you. Don’t do it to yourself. God’s not going to do it to you.
What Peter writes to say is this: we have been born anew to a living hope…to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept [safe] for who? For you. You and me, along with Doubting Thomas and Simon Peter and Bob Dylan, all of us who slip and slide hither and yonder on way into heaven: we, have got a treasure more precious than gold within us. And what does Peter say in verse five: God is the One who is guarding us. “You, who by God’s power are guarded through faith.”
God is guarding us. Colossians 2:13 says it quite well: For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.
The fiery, refining fires of faith are not lit by God; it’s the gold within us that shines through all and endures, that’s God’s doing. That’s what Peter wants us to understand and to find great comfort and courage.
No, in this life you and I don’t get to see Jesus in his resurrected body, as was granted the Apostles and the others in the weeks after Easter. How blessed are you! proclaims Jesus. How marvelous, declares Peter! Without seeing him, you believe in him, and you love him; that kind of faith is like a big chunk of gold ore in our souls out of which God is shaping the precious testimony of Jesus Christ.
In the early spring of 2004, I was hiking in the steep mountains of Northern California along the South Fork of the Eel River. As I was walking along the river’s edge, I heard this splash. I looked around and didn’t see anything. Then I heard another splash and then another, and still I didn’t see anything.
So, I stopped and just stood there and watched the river. Now, when I say river, at this point it just looked like a mountain stream flowing in a flat, wide meadow. As I stood at that wide, shallow section of the river, I saw what was making the splash. It was salmon fingerlings making their way to the Pacific Ocean.
As you know, the adult salmon leave the Pacific, swim back upstream to the source of the rivers into which they were born, they lay their eggs. The eggs hatch and then the little salmon swim their way back to the Pacific.
Here, the river bed was wide and rocky and gravely. The water was very shallow. So, these salmon fingerlings were having to physically flop themselves time and time again through this shallow section of the river to keep on making their way to the Pacific. That’s what I was hearing making the splashes. So, I just stood there for about a half an hour, watching this wonder of nature, these little fish flopping themselves along, in and out and back in the water, over and over, until they got past this shallow section of the Eel River.
Now, consider this: the water through which these salmon were flopping themselves along the way to the Pacific, it was the very same water they’d been swimming in just fifty yards upstream; it would be the very same water they’d be swimming in fifty yards downstream. It’s just that here in this particular spot, the riverbed had changed and it made the journey a bit tougher on the salmon fingerlings.
Not a single salmon birthed up in the steep mountain headwaters of the Eel River could just put itself in neutral and float its way peacefully on back to the Pacific. There were a lot of twists and turns and shallows and bears and mountain lions for every one of those fingerlings along the way.
But, what didn’t change ever for any fingerling was the water. The water was the medium into which they were born, and through which these fish would swim and reach their destination: the Pacific Ocean.
Faith is like that water. Faith was the medium through which we were born into Christ. Faith is the medium in which we travel. The riverbed, though, it will change from place to place along our journey. We have been, as Peter puts it, born anew into this living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. God bore us into this life of faith, this precious flowing water. There will be twists and turns and shallows and obstacles, again, what Peter calls these various trials.
But always, you may be sure, you’re swimming in the same water, you are journeying in the same faith that will see you to the One who is drawing you always, just as there is something drawing those salmon to the Pacific Ocean.
It is the same medium of faith that saw Doubting Thomas and Simon Peter safely over the shallows and through the twists and turns to God. It is the same medium of faith which will get Bob Dylan mumbling and stumbling to where Bob Dylan needs to be. It is this same faith, this living hope born through the Resurrected Christ, born in you and me by the Spirit of God, that will get us safely to God. It is this same faith gathered in this body called University Baptist Church, that will get this congregation safely along its journey.
If you doubt, well, keep swimming…you’ll find the proper depth for your faith ahead of you…it’s there, just keeping swimming even when your swimming looks a lot like flopping. You and me and we all, are blessed, for we believe though we have not seen, nor can we even imagine, this rich inheritance that awaits us by God’s grace.