Denis Diderot was an 18th century French atheist. Referring to his life he wrote, ‘Wandering in a vast forest at night, I have only a faint light to guide me. Then a stranger appears and says to me “My friend, you should blow your candle out so you can find your way more clearly!?”‘ This is not only relevant to 18th century French atheists. So many people go through life like this today, not knowing what they are doing or where they are going, as if they are wandering around aimlessly in a forest in the dark with just a tiny light, and other people being less than helpful? But it does not have to be like that!
Recently we have celebrated Easter Day, the Day of the Resurrection, the greatest day in history. Jesus had died on the cross and three days later was raised to life again. Death could not hold him then and death cannot hold him now. He is alive for evermore. In terms of the Church Calendar the Easter period continues from Easter Day through to Pentecost. So it is both right and good to spend some time during this period looking at what are known as the ‘Resurrection Appearances’. These are the occasions when Jesus met with his disciples and spent time with them after he had risen. We have a wonderful example of one of these in John 20:19-31
It is the evening of Resurrection Day. The disciples are huddled together in the Upper Room, scared witless that Jewish Authorities are going to come and arrest them and put them to death as well. Then, even though the doors locked, suddenly Jesus comes and stands in the midst of them. He greets them with the words, ‘Peace be with you’ (vs.19,21). Jesus, the Prince of Peace speaks peace into their traumatised hearts to dispel their fear. This is not just any kind of peace; it is a special peace. The Hebrew word for it is shalom, which means far more than merely the absence of trouble. It is so much fuller and means complete peace, well-being, contentment, welfare, harmony. It is the peace that comes from knowing and being assured that our lives are safe in the hands of God. No more wandering in the dark forest of life blind and vulnerable. As the psalmist put it in Psalm 27:1 – ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear. The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?’ Paul tells us that this peace is made available ‘through the blood of cross'(Colossians 1:20), which is why Jesus then shows his disciples his hands and his side – the scars of the cross.
This is no ghostly appearance. Jesus is a physical being and his wounds are real. Peace with God is now available for sinful people which we all are. As we read in Ephesians 2:14 – ‘For Jesus himself is our peace who has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility’. It is sin that separates us from God as if there is an insurmountable wall between us and God. This sin was dealt with on the cross so destroying this barrier. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are at one with God again, at peace with him. Because of Jesus, our sins are forgiven and the relationship between God and us is restored. When we receive peace with God, we also experience the peace of God. This peace is not as the world gives Jesus tells us (John 14:27) but, as we read in Philippians 4:7, it is ‘peace (that) passes or transcends all understanding.’ The Message translation describes this peace as ‘a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, coming and settling you down.’
What a wonderful thing it is to experience this kind of peace in a world that knows so little peace. Life no longer experienced as a dark, mysterious, forest of unknowingness. Into this fearful place, God makes himself known as light breaking into darkness – light to guide us and show us the way. This light is ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4:6). Life no longer mere physical existence, but life as it is meant to be – full, abundant and eternal – life that takes us from insecurity and fear to certainty and assurance, from doubt to faith. God is there and God does love us! With such peace – the peace of God – comes love, purpose, meaning, hope and joy. This is what the disciples experienced. As we are told here, ‘Thedisciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord’ (v.20)!
All that is except Thomas – ‘Doubting Thomas’ as he is known, because he is not there (v.24). Where is he? Is he just too depressed after the death of Jesus and does not want to be with the others? Does he just want to be alone with his grief? Perhaps we have all felt like that at some point in our lives. Thomas always was a bit of a depressive and somewhat negative. For example, when Jesus’ friend Lazarus died, and Jesus was going to go to him so he could perform the great miracle of bringing Lazarus back to life, Thomas says, ‘Let us go too, that we may die with him’ (John 11: 16)!? This is verycourageous no doubt, but a somewhat pessimistic. So when the other disciples tell Thomas here, that they have seen Jesus, Thomas just does not believe them. He is full of doubt. Unless he sees for himself, he is not going to believe it?! Unless he sees the nail prints in Jesus’ hands where the nails were hammered onto the wooden cross, unless he thrusts his hand into Jesus’ side where the spear pierced Jesus’ flesh, he’s not going to believe?! For Thomas, ‘seeing is believing.’
Interestingly, this phrase – ‘seeing is believing’ – was first recorded in 1639, and suggests that ‘only physical or concrete evidence is convincing.’ This is such a modern scientific concept, and therefore surprising that it has been around for such a long time. In way it is totally understandable. It is so much easier for us to trust in our own physical eyes and to doubt everything else. Doubting Thomas is such a sympathetic character, so human, we can all identify with him because we all know what it is to doubt – to doubt what we believe or even if we believe anything at all?
But it is OK to doubt. To say we don’t doubt would be dishonest. And what Thomas is, is honest about it. He doesn’t believe just because other people say so, or because he thinks he should. There is nothing worse than pretending to believe when we don’t. Going through the motions, repeating the creeds by rote, thinking that that’s enough, and God doesn’t know what we really think! But God wants us to be honest with him and with ourselves. Alfred Lord Tennyson, the Victorian poet laureate of the Lady of Shallot fame wrote, ‘There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.’
Thomas could be described as an ‘honest doubter’. He wants to believe but he finds it hard. I think Jesus knew this and understood, because a week later when the disciples were in the house again, and Thomas is with them this time, Jesus comes among them and again speaks ‘Peace’ to them – ‘Peace be with you’ (v.26). He doesn’t say ‘what’s wrong with you Thomas? Why didn’t you believe’? No! Rather, so kindly and so gently, he says, ‘Thomas, put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe!’ And Thomas does just that. He says to Jesus – and we can imagine him falling on his knees as he says it – ‘My Lord and my God!’ (v.28). He sees Jesus, recognises him, and calls him ‘Lord’ and ‘God’.
This is the thing about Thomas. With him there is no halfway house. When he was sure, he went the whole way. Well either Jesus is ‘God’ is true or it isn’t!? There is no halfway house, no sitting on the fence! There is such a thing as ‘dishonest doubt’ – when our ‘doubts’ are really simply ‘excuses’ for our refusal to believe or commit? When we foster doubts and feed them, when we enjoy them and insist on being negative and thinking the worst. Thomas Baird wrote a response to Tennyson’s verse about ‘honest doubt’ part of which goes as follows:-
‘There is more faith in honest doubt,
believe me, than in half the creeds;
so penned a poet (witless lout)
to praise the doubter’s doubtful deeds.
But let me whisper in your ear,
There’s no such thing as honest doubt;
For doubt will doubtless disappear
if it is honest out and out.
For doubt is very much like gout –
the more ’tis nursed, the more it grows.’
Thomas doubted in order to be sure and when he was sure, he surrendered to certainty. He gave Jesus his all, holding nothing back. It is suggested that Thomas became the first missionary to India. For him this assurance came about due to a personal encounter with the risen Christ. And the final answer to doubt is a personal experience of the Living Lord Jesus. So how does that help us?
Jesus said to Thomas, ‘So, you believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing’ (v.29 The Message). Can we believe without seeing? Instead of ‘seeing is believing’ it becomes ‘believing is seeing’! We see with the eyes of faith. According to Hebrews 11:1, ‘Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.’ Thomas saw and believed. And Jesus calls us ‘blessed’ when we believe even though we do not see. We don’t see with our physical eyes, concrete evidence to convince us, but we can see with our inner spiritual eyes – which is actually just as convincing! We believe and our doubts are dispelled, when we have a personal encounter with the Risen Christ!
Now not everyone experiences this in the same way Saul of Tarsus (who became the Apostle Paul) did on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). It more usually happens as a growing awareness that God is there, that what it says in Scripture is true, that Jesus really did rise from the dead and so is still alive today and with us by his Spirit. Jesus promised ‘I will be with you always’ (Matthew 28:20), and it remains true, even today!Jesus is here! When we are honest with God, and with ourselves, and really open our hearts to him, we may experience his peace and loving presence as a living reality! We can know and be assured that our lives are safe in hands of God. No more wandering in the dark forest of life blind, vulnerable and alone! St Augustine wrote, ‘Faith is to believe what you do not see, the reward of faith is to see what you believe.’ When we feed faith and starve doubt, when we look into it positively with hope, anticipation and expectation, rather than with negativity and presuming the worst, Jesus becomes more and more real to us – as real as the person sitting next to us. We can have our own encounter with the Risen Christ, right here, right now, through the Holy Spirit. This is the testimony of countless millions of people throughout the world today and over the past 2000 yrs. As the old song goes:-
‘He lives, he lives,
Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and talks with me
along life’s narrow way.
He lives, he lives
Salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know he lives?
He lives within my heart!’
~ Alfred Henry Ackley (1887-1960)