Jesus Christ lived, died and was raised so that all who believe may live fully for God. Jesus’ resurrection calls all people to move past fear and doubt to embrace the mission of extending God’s offer of abundant life to the world.
Followers of Jesus Christ around the world this season are greeting one another by saying “Christ is risen,” and responding by saying “Christ is risen indeed!” Many of us may mouth these words, but inwardly we may be asking, “So what?” We have heard the story over and over, but it simply remains a story detached from life. <!–split–>
Mark Twain, the great American humorist and writer, penned a classic piece titled “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” In this yarn, Twain narrates an encounter that he had with a man named Simon Wheeler. Twain is interested in learning about a fellow named Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley. This story is ultimately a long rambling narrative about nothing. Instead of telling Twain about the Rev. Smiley, Wheeler spins a long-winded story about a certain Jim Smiley. Wheeler’s narrative goes nowhere and moves from one unrelated story to another.
As we gather today ostensibly to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, it is worth pondering its interaction with our lives:
- Is it the center of our lives or is the story of the first Easter morning simply another detached narrative that we store along with any number of other stories that we have heard over the course of our lives?
- Is it simply a story or is it the story?
- What difference does it make in our day-to-day lives that Jesus was raised?
- How has this truth changed us?
Would our lives be any different if Jesus had not been raised?
For Jesus’ earliest followers, the reality of Jesus’ resurrection changed everything. It transformed a group of frightened and doubting people into a revolutionary movement that impacted the entire Roman world. It elevated an obscure Jewish teacher into a figure worthy of universal worship. It sent common fishermen to the far reaches of the world. It can transform our lives today if we have ears to hear and eyes to see.
Our scripture lesson includes two episodes in the aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection and a final comment by the author. In the first, Jesus appears to his remaining disciples (except for Thomas) and breaths into them the Holy Spirit. In the second, Jesus appears to Thomas who had disbelieved his fellow disciples about Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus assuages his doubts, and Thomas recognizes Jesus in all of his fullness and triumph. Our text ends with an editorial comment by the gospel writer, which points to the overall purpose of the story about Jesus.
Embrace The Mission
Unlike Simon Wheeler in the Twain story, the writer of John’s gospel does not mince words or spin tales for the sake of hearing himself talk. The story about Jesus has a purpose. This purpose is life altering and uncompromising. The story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection points to only one conclusion: Jesus is the only true way to live the life that God created us to live.
This is crucial information. This needs to become the “word on the street.” The Gospel about Jesus Christ is not a maudlin middle-class myth — it is good news. The various stories about Jesus that circulate are not the isolated “Christian” equivalent of Aesop’s fables or like-minded stories intended to teach virtue or ethics. John has gathered these stories together for one purpose and one purpose only: to inspire a life-altering, paradigm-shifting, world-changing belief in Jesus as the long-awaited good news from God, from the God who makes it possible to enjoy life in all of its fullness forever with him.
This is good news for all people. Students of John debate the meaning of “so that you may come to believe” in verse 31. Some Bible versions translate the phrase as though John is writing for the purpose of persuading outsiders to the faith to experience a moment of conversion. Other versions translate the phrase as “so that you may continue to believe.” In this case, the gospel serves to strengthen an already present faith.
In either case, the intention of the John’s gospel and the Gospel message is clear — the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is missional. The Gospel seeks to change everyone who hears it and to shape each person into a follower of Jesus Christ. It calls to those on the outside to become part of the community and it continues to call those on the inside to live fully in light of its good news.
Have we embraced God’s mission? Have we experienced the life that God desires for us to enjoy forever? If not, what is holding us back?
Our scripture lesson suggests that there are at least two stumbling blocks to embracing fully a life-altering belief in Jesus Christ — fear and doubt.
Moving Through Fear
Fear can be paralyzing. Imagine the lives of the disciples in the aftermath of Jesus’ crucifixion. Their dreams had been crushed. Their movement squelched. Their very lives seemed threatened. They must have asked themselves, “Will we be next?”
To see its true paralyzing nature, we need to set the fear of the disciples in its context. In the first two-thirds of John 20, we learn that Jesus’ tomb is empty. Peter and John race to check it out. They find an empty tomb but they are unable to make sense of it. They return home. Only Mary remains at the grave. She encounters Jesus. Jesus sends her to share the good news with the disciples. She returns to the disciples and announces, “I have seen the Lord.”1
Apparently, this eyewitness report from a trusted friend of Jesus did not lessen the fear of the disciples one iota. They remain locked in their house.
How many of us do not fully embrace the mission of Jesus out of fear? Yet there is a great irony at work. The Gospel claims that God has conquered even the power of death. Yet fear at its roots concerns itself with self-preservation. If God has indeed raised Jesus from the dead, what is left to fear?
The words of Martin Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress in Our God,” come to mind: “The body they may kill. God’s truth abideth still; His kingdom is forever!”
Jesus appears to his frightened disciples and breathes the Holy Spirit on them. The Spirit empowers them to overcome fear and embrace the mission of Jesus. Jesus authorizes them to serve a high calling — the extending of forgiveness to others on behalf of God. The life to which God calls us is one that gives life to others. Back in John 10:10, Jesus promised an abundant life. This life begins with the restoration of relationship with God through forgiveness. When we move through fear to embrace life, God’s Spirit empowers us to participate in God’s mission.
What are we afraid of this day? What is keeping us from embracing the life that God created us to live? If Jesus is alive, how can fear keep us from true life? What would it take to move us past our fear?
Moving Through Doubt
Doubt is a second great stumbling block to the life that God desires for us. Thomas, forever remembered in the annals of Christendom as “Doubting Thomas,” is unable to believe that Jesus is alive. Even after his fellow disciples proclaim, “We have seen the Lord,” he remains in disbelief. Doubt is as paralyzing as fear. If fear keeps us from committing ourselves fully out of self-interest, doubt prevents us from fully embracing an idea or movement because of the fact that we might be wrong.
Many of us today are able to grasp the idea of Jesus’ resurrection. Many of us are even able to recognize the incredible power that such an event would have. But many of us doubt. This is understandable. Thomas doubted and he was much closer to the events than any of us ever will be.
But doubt cannot keep us from Jesus Christ. Christian faith is neither naïve nor wrong-headed. It is based on the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. The gospel of John deals with Thomas’ doubt by reporting that Jesus met him face to face. In other words, John concedes that Thomas doubted, but Thomas did not remain in doubt. Something happened — Jesus the risen Lord appeared to him. Thomas was transformed from a doubter to one of the most zealous disciples in terms of mission. Thomas is alleged to have carried the Gospel personally as far east as India before his death.
The gospels include other scenes of doubt in the face of Jesus’ resurrection,2 but nowhere does doubt thwart a life-changing faith. There are simply too many eyewitness accounts to be frozen by doubt.
Throughout the centuries, many women and men have had their doubts about Jesus, but time and time again, careful investigation ultimately leads to a life-changing faith. If any of us sit here this morning trapped in a prison of doubt, do not give up. Seek after the truth and it will set you free.