I’d like to start this morning by having you sit down. Generally we stand for the reading of the gospel, but I’m going to take some liberties and read to you the entire 20th chapter of the gospel of John. I think it’s important that we hear the whole thing to gain a new sense of perspective on this second Sunday after Easter. So, the gospel according to John. Glory to you, O Lord.
Now, you all heard about the campus preacher this week. Maybe you spent some time over at the Free Speech Zone listening to him talk. Maybe you even argued with him. I saw him on Thursday afternoon, talking to a large crowd and very, very confidently expounding on what he believes about the Bible, Jesus and the world in which we all live.
I sort of envy that campus preacher’s confidence. It’s one thing to stand here in front of you this morning and preach: it’s another thing entirely to stand up in front of a crowd of people and holler about Jesus until someone stops to listen for a bit. Someday I hope to be in the area before the campus preacher starts shouting, just to see what happens to the poor soul walking right by him at that particular moment.
It’s no secret that I get frustrated when these guys roll into town. For one thing, as much as I dislike the way they preach and the things they say, they’re still ‘one of us,’ and that means the negative perception of Christianity they generate flows over to us. But what genuinely concerns me about his brand of Christianity is this: there is absolutely no room for uncertainty, for questions, for confusion. Someone told me that at one time this campus preacher went through the crowd and actually identified which people in his crowd were going to heaven and which were going to hell, and the message for those who were hellbound was this: get your head and heart straight about Jesus, or else.
I’m of the opinion that when we start to think like this campus preacher, it’s a good time to revisit the stories about the Resurrection, particularly the ones having to do with the disciples. Why? Because the more time you spend looking at those first days after the Resurrection, the more you realize how confused all of Jesus’ friends were about what was happening and why.
This is the Second Sunday of Easter. In the entire course of the three-year lectionary our church generally follows, only the Second Sunday of Easter uses the same readings every single year. Why? Because the events described in John 20 take place about a week after the Resurrection. But the unfortunate side effect of this is that “doubting” Thomas gets rolled out every single year to be reprimanded once again by preachers eager to exhort their congregations to deeper faith.
But, if we look closely at the whole Resurrection story in John 20, we see that Thomas is merely another link in a chain of uncertain, frightened people who just can’t figure out what’s going on. Rolf Jacobson, an Old Testament professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, said this week that John 20 is a “continuum of confusion;” that everyone gets it wrong at the start. The women at the tomb don’t understand. Mary doesn’t understand when Jesus appears to her. No one believes the women when they tell the story of what happened. Peter and the beloved disciple don’t understand. The disciples locked inside their upper room don’t understand. Thomas simply comes along last in this story – he’s just the next domino to fall when it comes to the confusion that surrounded the resurrection of Jesus.
Contrast all this confusion with our friend the campus preacher this week. It makes me wonder: to what would he attribute the disciples’ confusion? I’ll admit that I didn’t hear much of what he had to say this week, but if you’ve been around here long enough you know what this kind of Christian has to say about confusion. He’d probably say it’s a sign of weakness. He’d probably say it’s a lack of faith that can only be overcome by believing harder, by praying more fervently, by constructing a faith in Jesus that cannot be shaken by doubts or questions. And that, friends, is why I can’t support this kind of ministry – because it’s dishonest about who we are. If the earliest followers of Jesus, who lived and ate and slept and walked and listened and served and prayed with Jesus for three years, were assaulted by doubts and fears even after the resurrection, then we have to assume that we, too, will have doubts and fears as we follow Jesus. We are the brothers and sisters of Thomas, of Peter, of the beloved disciple, of Mary and the women at the tomb: uncertain, afraid, confused – and this is the state in which Jesus comes to us bearing God’s peace.
My colleague Heidi said this week, “You know, the Resurrection is just impossible to believe. I can’t do it on my own. I can’t get my head around how it happened. There’s no way I can believe this without God doing it for me.” Heidi is right: we simply do not have the capacity within us to believe our way out of confusion. We use the creeds to describe what it is we believe, but the creeds do not describe how we come to believe – and neither does our friend the campus preacher, with all his simple plans for salvation and his certainty about who’s in and who’s out. We construct a dangerous façade when we insist that certainty and confidence are the hallmarks of a genuine Christian faith, particularly when we insist that OUR version of the faith is the only legitimate faith. As Pastor Ken Carter wrote at the Christian Century website this week, “The gospel is not something that we can impose on others. People must discover it for themselves…”
I’ll say it again: no one was certain what was happening that first week after the Resurrection. Confusion reigned – and it was in the midst of confusion that Jesus came to his disciples. Confusion about Jesus and the Resurrection are not the marks of a lack of faith: confusion is the mark of a faith seeking deeper understanding. What is more genuine: to be so absolutely certain about Jesus’ resurrection that you never ponder its meaning, or to be so intrigued by Jesus’ resurrection that you continually question and search for understanding? To admit confusion is to admit to a desire for growth, a desire for revelation, a hunger for truth that will not be sated by platitudes and cheap grace. Thomas, Peter, the beloved disciple, Mary, the other women at the tomb: they knew they weren’t seeing the whole picture, but their confusion was the avenue by which Jesus increased their faith. Confusion can be the mark of great faith on the cusp of awareness, waiting for God to tip the chalice and pour out grace and understanding until our hearts are overflowing.
Jesus wasn’t offended by these confused friends. On the contrary, he welcomed them in the midst of their confusion, and thus so do we. Jesus appeared in the upper room, in the midst of his frightened, confused followers and said, “Welcome.” So the invitation has gone out through the centuries following: we confused followers of Jesus are welcomed to Jesus’ table again and again, to receive God’s peace through Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit and be sent into the world to proclaim the good news. Thomas was not rejected in his confusion. Jesus didn’t cast his followers out when they didn’t understand everything about his resurrection right away. So also to us, confused though we may be, Jesus says, “Come.”
Finally, we are reminded that the Resurrection changes everything, but not all at once. People like our friend the campus preacher would have you believe that the power of the Resurrection rests in one single moment of confession and transformation. Now, in fairness, our friend the campus preacher is right about God’s desire to transform our lives – but our friend is thinking far too small. The good news of the Resurrection extends far beyond on single ‘born-again’ moment. John 20:30-31 says as much.
“These things are written so that you may come to believe and continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”It’s called a multivalent translation: the word πιστευετε means both “come to believe” and “continue to believe.” In the midst of our confusion, we are invited by Jesus to come in faith and continue to believe, and through believing Jesus promises life in his name.
In closing, one final noteworthy point. Jesus waited a week to appear to Thomas: why? Was Jesus wrapped up in other business? Sleeping off the aftereffects of the resurrection? Was Thomas hiding where Jesus couldn’t find him? Pay attention to the place and the circumstances under which Jesus revealed himself to Thomas. If Jesus was concerned only for Thomas’ understanding as an individual, Jesus could have appeared to Thomas the moment he realized Thomas wasn’t in the upper room with his disciples the first time. But Jesus chose to wait until the disciples had gathered again. This is no accident. By waiting one week, Jesus lifted up the importance of the community of faith in our transformation from confusion to confession. This is the final problem with our campus preacher friend – he comes, preaches, hopes for a conversion or two, but then he leaves. What is a believer to do after that? Simply put, faith is not just about you – it is about WE. WE are called together in faith to believe with, and sometimes for, one another, and through believing life in the name of Jesus begins to happen.
So here, today, we join Thomas, the frightened disciples, Mary in her wonderment, Peter and the beloved disciple, and the women at the tomb in a long line of people swept into the good news of Jesus Christ, before we know what it’s all about. To we confused believers, the invitation and exhortation remains: “Come. Continue.” These things are written so that we may come to believe, and continue to believe, and that through believing have life in Jesus’ name. Peace be with you. Resurrection life be with you. Amen.
The beautiful artwork is "The Doubt of Thomas" by He Qi
Editorial Note: It's been brought to my attention since preaching this sermon that the campus preacher in question was far more welcoming and respectful than this sermon suggests. I did admit that I didn't hear much of what he had to say, and so I'll take this opportunity to offer an apology for what is largely a caricature of campus preachers I've heard in the past, joined to the coincidence of a campus preacher at Iowa State while I was considering this line of thought in the sermon. But I continue to believe that in the present time this style of ministry is questionable at best, harmful to the church at worst. Acts of charity and personal interaction are, in my opinion, far more faithful and effective forms of evangelism.