John 20: 19-31 | Faith & Sending

Sermon 16 April 2023 | Liz Caughey

Today’s gospel is a very rich text and contains many messages, but I’d like to look at it from just two angles: faith, and being sent by Christ.

Firstly, faith.
Recently a friend described her favourite metaphor for faith. She said it’s like someone in a boat following the lamp on the bow of their boat rather than being guided by the light from a lighthouse. If you follow the light on the bow of your own boat you will go off course, but keeping your eye on the lighthouse will ensure you come to no harm. I thought this conveyed so much about faith – how it can guide our path and make us feel safer and more confident, and inspire us to do more on our journey. How restricting to have just ourselves to rely on.

Our Gospel today tells the story of how the Trinitarian God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – became the lighthouse to the world. It was through Jesus’ resurrection, and the witnessing to that resurrection so faith would be embedded, and endure. God knows that just the rumour of the risen Christ wouldn’t be enough. Someone – more than one – had to see Him so there would be a solid ground of belief about what had happened, so people could have faith.

I find it very reassuring that the words for faith and doubt in Greek come from the same linguistic root. They’re a bit like two sides of the same coin. So it makes sense that doubt is necessarily part of our faith journey. To have no doubt is to have certainty, and in the context of the vast mystery that is God, that is objectively impossible.  Doubt is part of the very essence of faith. And the words here, ‘do not doubt’, are actually more accurately translated from the Greek as ‘be not unbelieving, be not incredulous’. But how can we possibly NOT be unbelieving and incredulous in the face of the gospel narrative?

And then I think of John’s interpretation of ‘believing’. For him it means ‘abiding in’. It’s like saying to Christ, ‘I abide in you and you abide in me’. It is the claiming of, a commitment to, a relationship between, Jesus and the believer.  To establish our own ‘abiding’, like the disciples, we must each have our own encounter with Christ. And that happens in God’s good time, by God’s grace.

The fragility of every disciple’s faith is conveyed in this text too. Each person who saw Jesus in this story responds differently, just as we each have different pathways and timing when coming to faith. When Mary heard Jesus say her name, she knew instantly it was Him. The apostles were sceptical and needed to see his wounds before they truly believed.1 And Thomas – the supposed unbeliever – well, he didn’t actually need to place his hand on Jesus’ wounds. He simply saw Him and believed. I imagine those words ‘My Lord and my God!’ exploded from him in a range of emotions – shock, joy, astonishment – yet still “disbelief” that this could be happening. Loyal Thomas, whose words proclaim his personal relationship with Jesus – ‘my Lord and my God’.

I imagine we can all relate to this reading. Needing proof before we can believe the improbable – actually – the impossible. Because the disciples would have believed – after the crucifixion – that they would ever see Jesus alive again.

So how would we feel if someone – one of our congregation – came to us and said, ‘I have seen the Lord’?  I HAVE SEEN THE LORD. Would we believe? Or would we want to see for ourselves? I think so. I think disbelief would be uppermost in our minds – because how could that be possible?

But it’s stories like this that shore up our faith. What I love about this one is that Jesus returned for Thomas – for just one disciple. And now I put it into the same group as the parables of the Lost Coin and the Lost Sheep.  Jesus always comes back for those left behind or excluded or lost – and we all feel those things at times. God’s search for us is persistent, faithful, determined and accurate.2 Jesus will always come for us, and then come back for us, over and over again. You could say that God has faith in our potential to be disciples.

Regardless of where we are, what degree of belief or unbelief we have, or what prison we’re in – Jesus comes to us.3  That prison can be physical, emotional, social or psychological. No doors – and no closed heart – can shut out Christ’s presence from us. He didn’t judge Thomas for his unbelief, and he won’t judge us. Instead he will surround us with an aroha that we can lean into with faith in the knowledge that we are not alone.  

The second focus I have chosen from this gospel is ‘being sent by Christ’:
In v21, Jesus says, ‘Peace be with you’. Then He shows the disciples his wounds and immediately says, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ That sounds like an urgent message to me. I say this because there was no chit-chat after he turned up out of the blue, no offers of a cup of tea or something stronger to settle their nerves. Jesus gets straight to the point – ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’

This ‘sending’ is a commissioning of disciples who have just seen the risen Christ, but are still coming to terms with that. It can also be taken as a commissioning of all those who accept Christ in their lives,  who also ‘believe yet struggle with their unbelief’. God will bestow faith on any sinner, any doubter, any unbeliever who can do God’s work. That includes us. We are enough. We are enough in the eyes of God. Each of us here is enough, to be God’s eyes and hands in a world that is hurting. To go where there is pain, emptiness or injustice. Where love is needed. Love in the sense of aroha – a holistic kete of compassion, caring, non-judgment and inclusion. Jesus sent these unbelievers and He sends us. He understands that we are flawed because He walked amongst humans. And those flaws don’t matter, because if we look to the light in the lighthouse rather than to the lamp on the bow of our own boat, we will be upheld.

The challenging thing is, as soon as we see, recognise, ‘find’ Jesus, we too are called by and caught up in that urgent instruction to be sent out into the world – as Jesus was sent, and as Jesus sent the disciples. Once we know Jesus, even if only at the tip of our consciousness at the beginning of our faith journey, there is no turning back. We are abiding in Him and He in us, and it is an eternal relationship. We are part of all those – in all times, in all places – who strive to bring God’s kingdom on earth.

To go into the world in the name of Jesus is no easy task and yet this is what we promise every Sunday at the end of our service. Perhaps those are words that could be said as we wake up each morning. They remind us who we are and whose we are. They are a call to affirm our faith, and a call to action, grounded in and nurtured by that faith. The liturgist calls, ‘Go now to love and serve the Lord. Go in Peace’, and we – God’s people – respond, ‘Amen. We go in the name of Christ’.

1. It wasn’t until, as the text says, ‘…He showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.’ It’s as if somehow they didn’t truly see him until they saw his wounds.
2. ‘Swift, determined and accurate’. Austin Farrer, 20th century NZ theologian.
3. From ‘How to Escape from Prison’, by Dr Paul Wood, 2019.