There are stories that get told every year at Knox College (where I went to seminary) about the ghosts that have been seen over the years in the academic wing of the building. People have spotted them numerous times in the chapel, in the classrooms, and especially in the library. One student, who studied at Knox a couple of years before I did, described in great detail the appearance of a ghost who seemed to walk right through her as she stood in the hallway late one night.
According to the stories, library staff have often noted one particular chair which is always pulled out when they arrive in the morning, and a series of books that mysteriously find their way back to that desk. Some say that the ghost must be a doctoral student who died before completing his thesis.
As compelling as some of these stories may be, especially when told with dramatic detail and suspense, when I heard them, I was sceptical. I just don’t believe in ghosts. They don’t fit in with my understanding of the world. People are either alive or they’re dead. And as much as I believe in eternal life, I don’t think it involves disembodied people floating around old buildings or trying to finish uncompleted dissertations.
The Easter story – the story of Jesus’ resurrection – his rising from the dead – is similarly unbelievable. It was Sunday night, the same day that Mary Magdalene said she saw Jesus alive and outside the tomb. The disciples were understandably freaked out. Their leader had been horribly killed, they had deserted him, and now Mary was claiming that he wasn’t dead anymore!
Gathering inside a house, they locked all the doors, and probably worried about what to do next. But suddenly, Jesus stood among them. He appeared out of nowhere, and appropriately greeted the shaking disciples with the words… “Peace be with you.”
If I wasn’t a Christian and hadn’t heard this story before, I would have plenty of possible explanations for Jesus’ sudden appearance… It was a magic trick… a hologram… a hallucination… some kind of special effect. Perhaps I might say that the disciples must have been hysterical or dillusional.
Anyway, I wouldn’t believe it. And that’s why it seems harsh to me for us to call the disciple who wasn’t there to witness Jesus’ first appearance “Doubting Thomas”. After all, wouldn’t I have doubted too if I had been in his place? Wouldn’t I have asked to see and touch for myself before I would consent to believe in such a ludicrous tale? If I wouldn’t believe in the studious ghost of the Knox College library, why would I believe in this Jesus raised from death?
And so Thomas would not believe it. When his friends said “We have seen the Lord.” Thomas replied: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hand, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
This guy wanted real proof. He wanted to see and touch and be sure of the reality of the physical Jesus before he could be convinced. And Jesus doesn’t disappoint him. It’s only a week later when Jesus appears again. He does a repeat performance, and this time, it seems that he’s come just for the sake of Thomas.
Once again, he stands among the gathered disciples and says: “Peace be with you.” And then the rest of the conversation is between Jesus and Thomas: Jesus says: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
Thomas wanted proof, and Jesus gave him proof. Or at least, Thomas wanted to see for himself, and Jesus came back again to invite Thomas to see, and to touch, and to experience the presence of the risen Lord for himself.
As much as the story of Jesus appearing in the upper room for Thomas is a great story all on its own, whenever we read the stories of the Gospels, we must take note of the context in which we find them. Each of the Gospels is somewhat different from the others. Put together within its own early Christian community, and written for its own unique purpose.
The Gospel of John, the only one of the Gospels that contains this story of Jesus with Thomas, has its own particular focus. The author of the book put together his collection of Jesus stories and sayings for a particular audience and a particular purpose, and it shows. In the final verses of the chapter we read today, the author even tells us what that purpose is: “So that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
The Gospel of John is a collection of stories, signs, and wonders, put together so that its readers might come to believe in Jesus the Christ. All through the Gospel, we have stories of people struggling to understand who Jesus is, and Jesus trying to show them that he is God’s son. It’s all about a movement from doubt to faith, from scepticism to belief in Jesus the Messiah.
What convinces them? What moves them from their scepticism? What makes them think that this Jesus is not just a crazy travelling preacher who thinks he’s God’s son? What makes them start actually believing that Jesus really is that special – that Jesus really is from God?
Well, in the Gospel of John we read that…. Nathaniel believed because Jesus knew his name without asking. The disciples first believed because Jesus turned water into wine. The woman at the well believed because Jesus told her everything she’d ever done. A royal offical in Cana (& all his family) believed because Jesus healed his son. In chapter 7, we read that… many people in the crowds believed because of the signs that Jesus did. A man born blind was healed by Jesus, and when the Pharisees questioned him about it, he too was convinced that Jesus must be from God. The crowd standing around Lazarus’ tomb believed because they saw Jesus raise him from the dead. And now, Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and the other disciples believe when they see the risen Jesus standing in their midst, when they hear his words of peace, when they receive the Holy Spirit from him.
The author of the Gospel of John wrote all these Jesus stories down so that those who read them might believe. Is it convincing? Are you convinced by what you read in John’s Gospel? They are great stories. But you know, I’ve read too many stories and watched too much T.V. to be convinced by stories alone. Who’s to say that they’re true stories? There’s nothing to make me sure that they’re authentic any more than I might be inclined to believe the ghost stories.
But I stand before you today as one who believes in the truth of the stories of the bible — as one who believes that Jesus was and is the Son of God — the one sent into the world from God — the one who was killed by his own people, but didn’t stay dead! I believe that God raised Jesus up to a new kind of life – an eternal life with God. And I believe that this Jesus gives us the promise and the hope of joining him in that eternal life when we die. I believe it — and so do many of you. Why are we convinced?
Well, when Thomas missed Jesus’ appearance, he said that “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” He needed to see and experience the risen Jesus for himself. Only then would he believe. Jesus gave him the experience he needed so that he could believe, and Jesus will do the same for us.
I’m going to tell you some reasons why I believe in Jesus. As I do, I want you to consider why you believe, why you are leaning towards believing, why you are thinking about the possibility of believing… I believe in Jesus because I’ve seen communities of people drawn together in his name to worship and work and serve together. I believe in Jesus because through him, I have experienced forgiveness for my failings, strength for my endeavors, and hope for my future. I believe in Jesus because I’ve watched relationships being reconciled, people giving their time and money and effort to help others, and people reaching out to each other in times of crisis.
Why do you believe in Jesus? I invite you to take a moment to consider that question.
I believe in Jesus because I have seen and experienced Christ standing among us, just as he stood among the disciples that Easter week. He doesn’t look like a ghost. And he doesn’t look like any picture of Jesus that I can remember. Sometimes he looks like an elder serving Communion. Sometimes he looks like a new friend with open arms offering a hug of welcome. Sometimes he looks like young person, asking honest questions and challenging the status quo. Sometimes he looks like an older person reflecting on years of experience and pointing in a wise direction. Sometimes he looks like a person in need, drawing attention away from our selfish agendas and forcing us to look and to see him. Sometimes he looks like a congregation worshipping, and serving, learning and growing, and supporting one another as they seek to live out Christ’s mission in their community.
You, like me, may not be convinced by ghost stories, but like Thomas, you can ask to see for yourself. When Thomas wouldn’t believe, Jesus came back especially for him. Jesus did a repeat performance so that Thomas could see and experience the risen Lord – so that Thomas could believe. Jesus will do the same for each one of us.
So look, because you will see Christ. Then, when you have seen, go where Jesus sends you in the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit, and show Jesus to those who have not yet seen. Amen.