"Hope for Those Who Might Have Missed Out"Dr. Ronald D. Vaughan John 20:19-31 Year C - Second Sunday of Easter
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again, Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.
If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.
So, the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe. “A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John. 20:19-31 NIV)
At the peak of my mostly backyard basketball career, those few years I could break the law of gravity enough to dunk the ball, my friends added a participle to my name. They called me “Dunking Dee,” a nickname I was so proud to hear that I had it printed on a tee-shirt.
The main character in the passage we study today has had a participle attached to his name, not for a few years, but for two millennia. Thomas was sometimes called, “the twin.” He bore the title “Apostle” as one of the twelve Jesus chose as followers. But Thomas is most often called by his nickname, “Doubting Thomas.” We gave him that name because Thomas struggled to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead.
This Sunday after Easter, I think we’ll do well to spend some time with Thomas and ask the question he so honestly boldly asked, “Do I believe Jesus is alive today?” And to focus that question on the situation the first disciples faced, hiding in fear, wondering if they had gambled on Jesus and lost, “Am I ready to bet my life on Christ’s victory over sin and death?”
For some of us, the words “I believe” come at little cost or consequence. Our confession may mean little more than “I like the feeling I get when I hear the story” or “I frequent the place where it’s told and enjoy the company of the people who tell it.”
Not so for Thomas. He came to Jerusalem knowing he might die with Jesus. He saw Jesus arrested and executed. He wondered when his turn might come. For Thomas and the other disciples, faith in the resurrected Jesus meant facing bloodthirsty enemies just outside their locked door. We so quickly judge Thomas’ answer when, in fact, we haven’t begun to grasp the gravity of the question.
So, let’s step inside this hiding place with Thomas and the others to witness their journey to faith and to learn how we can follow. This story begins with a gift of good news.
Jesus Comes to Us Where We’re Hiding
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” (Jn. 20:19 NIV)
It’s Easter Sunday. The disciples have heard Mary’s testimony “I have seen the Lord.” Perhaps they don’t yet know if they can believe Mary’s words, but they are quite certain that Jesus’ enemies want to mop up the remainder of His movement by putting his followers to death. So, they hide behind a locked door, straining their ears to hear footsteps and voices outside. They fear for their lives as they struggle to find their faith.
In many corners of today’s world, this is a sad reality for Christians. They must hide for fear of persecution or death. Far more believers are dying in our day for their faith than died in the early days of the church.
But most of us, supported by political stability and religious freedom, hide in very different ways and for different reasons. We hide because we don’t want to be identified with extremists who show up so often in the media spotlight to give Christians a bad name.
We hide because we don’t want sharing our faith to erode into a religious argument that accomplishes nothing.
We hide because we are ashamed of religious institutions that have hidden the sins of leaders.
We hide because we have doubts, we’ve never voiced, much less resolved. We, like the first disciples, know how to hide.
The first ray of hope that shines into this story is that Jesus comes to his disciples in the very place where they are hiding. He goes past the locked doors of their fears and stands among them. He comes to them where they are that he might lead them and love them to where he knows they can be.
He does the same for us. Jesus doesn’t wait for us to overcome our fear and confusion and unlock the door on our own. He comes to us just as we are so he might love us and lead us to faith and fullness of life. The story goes on to tell us…
Jesus Brings the Gifts We Need to Come Out of Hiding and Live for Him
Again, Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (Jn. 20:21-23 NIV)
Jesus didn’t come to his disciples to condemn them for hiding or to ask for an explanation of why they cowered behind locked doors. He came to them with gifts of grace they needed to come out of hiding and live for him.
He brought the gift of peace, the fulfillment of shalom, the truth that, in him, the disciples had every good thing they needed to be free and fully alive.
He brought a sense of purpose, a mission that could lift them above their fears to take bold action. Just as God sent Jesus to bring salvation to the world, Jesus sends the disciples to bring the good news to all people.
He brought the gift of God’s presence. John says Jesus “breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” Just as God breathed life into humankind, Jesus breathed God’s life giving presence into his followers. They could walk through many dark valleys in the strength of knowing “thou art with me” (Psalm 23:4).
Psychologists say the greatest human fear is abandonment. Jesus drove out that fear by the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus gave his disciples power, the authority to continue his saving work. A simplistic reading of verse 23 might lead you to believe Christians are the gatekeepers of God’s grace, the arbiters of forgiveness. I don’t accept that role for the first disciples or for us, but I do believe we are the gatekeepers of the message of forgiveness. When we choose to withhold the message of grace, we keep people from hearing it, trusting it and finding freedom through it. When we faithfully deliver the message, we unleash its power to change lives.
What was true for the disciples that first Easter Sunday is true for us today. When the risen Christ comes to us, he doesn’t come to condemn us. He brings the gifts we need to come out of our hiding places and live for him. He brings a peace that passes understanding. He brings a purpose worthy of our highest commitment. He brings the promise of God’s presence to sustain us in our mission. He calls us to be faithful messengers of grace.
This story could end well right here, but, surprisingly, we haven’t yet met the main character.
Thomas Missed What the Other Disciples Experienced
He wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. Perhaps, in the wake of Jesus’ crucifixion, he was still too shocked and heartbroken to be with other people. He may have been like a minister friend of mine who, moments after his wife passed away, walked out of the hospital room and away from his large circle of friends to walk the hospital halls by himself for a while.
Thomas may have found what he believed was a safer place to hide. But whatever his reason, Thomas missed Jesus’ appearance by being away from the group.
People sometimes need time and space and solitude when grieving the loss of a friend or the loss of a dream. But if we stay away from God’s people too long, we will miss some moments in which Jesus is very present, moments we need to bring us out hiding and back into life.
I’ve often heard people criticize Thomas’ response to the other disciples’ report of Jesus’ appearance. Some say Thomas makes irreverent demands of Christ, almost daring the Lord to show up again and prove that he’s alive. But, I wonder, did Thomas put Jesus to a foolish test or did he express his deep hunger for a personal experience of the living Jesus? He didn’t ask for any more than the others had been given. He couldn’t accept such a life-changing possibility as second-hand news. He longed to know the resurrected Christ for himself.
Do you feel that you’ve somehow missed out on what other Christians have experienced? Do you feel second-class when you hear someone’s “gutter to glory” testimony? When other Christians speak of times, they all but heard God’s voice, do you feel left behind in the silence? When people give thanks for what they believe is God’s healing touch, do your wounds hurt a bit more? Thomas may be the patron saint of those who fear they’ve missed out. But Thomas’ story doesn’t end in disappointment. Ours don’t have to either.
Jesus Appears Again to Give Thomas a Personal Experience of His Living Presence
A week later, the disciples gather again, Thomas among them this time. Jesus appears again bringing a special challenge for Thomas. He calls him to touch his wounds to know he is Jesus and he is alive.
We don’t know if Thomas actually touches Jesus’ hands and side or not. The story doesn’t say. But we do know that Thomas has experienced the living Christ for himself and makes his great confession, “My Lord and my God.”
Thomas now knows that the Jesus he has followed as Lord is alive and is, in truth, the God who triumphs over sin and death. The Easter story is now his story. The Easter faith is now his faith.
But what about us? What about all the generations of people who have lived after the time of Jesus’ earthly appearances? How do we come to the place that we can confess Jesus as our living Lord? How does this story become my story, my faith? Have we missed out or does Jesus still come to us?
Jesus’ next words to Thomas are, in fact, for all of us.
Blessed Are Those Who Haven’t Seen, Yet Believe
How do we believe without seeing? I think the answer is found in what follows this story. In the next two verses, the writer says two very important things.
Jesus has Revealed Himself in Many Ways Not Recorded in the Book
Verse 30 says, “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.” (Jn. 20:30 NIV)
“Signs,” in John’s gospel, are those moments when Jesus reveals who he is and what he’s come into the world to do. How blessed those first followers of Jesus were to see these in person. But, John says, we are not left out. Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his people. He still does. We can’t touch his hands and side as Thomas could, but we have seen Jesus at work in ways that bear witness to his life and mission. Lives changed. Great deeds inspired. Justice sought. Freedom won. Compassion shared. Forgiveness offered. Later in his gospel, John writes,
Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. (Jn. 21:25 NIV)
I’ve been blessed to read and learn from some of those living books, Christians whose lives exude Christ’s living presence and whose work shines with his holy purpose. You and I are writing one of those books. The lives we lead and the witness we bear can be an invitation for others to believe in Christ and make his story their own.
As John closes this passage, he names one more witness we’ve been given to bring us out of hiding and into the Easter life.
One of Our Signs is the Story Itself
John has written with a purpose. He wants the story of Jesus to lead us to know and trust him and, through our faith, find abundant life. The story itself is a gift from Christ, a revelation of who he is and what he wants to do in our lives and our world.
Paul describes the gospel as the power of God that saves, a power that would never let him down (Romans 1:16). John says his first letter is written so that those who believe might know we have eternal life (1 John 5:13).
Whenever we share the story, Jesus comes to us and offers us the gifts we need to come out of hiding, rise above our fears and change the world.
About the writer: Dr. Ronald D. Vaughan is a native of Greenville, SC and is a graduate of Furman University (B.A.) and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div. and D. Min). In forty years of ministry, “Dee,” as he is known to most people, has served as a hospital and fire department chaplain, a university teacher and pastor of five congregations. Since 2011 he has served as senior pastor of St. Andrews Baptist Church in Columbia, SC.
Dee is married to Linda, a native of Gaffney and a graduate of Furman University. Linda works as an adult education teacher for Lexington County Schools. The Vaughan’s have three children and three grandchildren.
Dee has published four books, including Seeing in the Dark: Biblical Meditations for People Dealing with Depression by Smyth and Helwys. He enjoys playing the guitar and banjo, occasionally writing a song, portraying Biblical characters, and seeing the amazing ways God works in the lives of people.
Scripture and Music
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
Love, Divine, All Loves Excelling
Rejoice, the Lord Is King
All Hail the Power of Jesus Name
Breathe on Me, Breath of God
Holy Spirit, Truth Divine
Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart
Jesus Is Lord of All
Gracious Spirit, Dwell with Me (K. Lee Scott)
Sing the Resurrection Song! (Larson)
Thine Be the Glory! (Handel)
Psalm 150 (Caesar Franck or any setting)
He Is Exalted
You’re the Only Jesus Some Will Ever See
Calvary’s Love (Mohr)