December 21, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into His side, I will never believe.’”
“Pictures or it didn’t happen.” That phrase has entered into modern usage. There is a demand for evidence for every extreme, extraordinary claim. You had dinner with the President? Pictures or it didn’t happen. You sat next to a supermodel/actor on an airplane? Pictures or it didn’t happen. You shot a 12-point buck, were introduced on the floor of Congress, drove a Lamborghini, etc? Pictures or it didn’t happen.
But this demand for evidence, for proof, is not a modern phenomenon. The demand for visible signs goes much further back, into the pre-modern, even ancient times. Tonight, as the Festival Day of St. Thomas is kept in the Church, his demand for proof is also heard. You know about this demand for proof quite well. It is read on every Second Sunday of Easter. But hear the words again: “Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into His side, I will never believe.’”
The apostles’ claim seemed exaggerated: they had seen Jesus who had died alive again. Not only one individual claimed it, but all ten. That doesn’t even include Mary Magdalene and the other women who had witnessed the Risen Jesus. The claim is extreme, though it is not the first time that the apostles and others had seen a resurrection. You will recall that Thomas himself was the one anxious to go to Bethany where Lazarus was raised after four days in the tomb. But when the claim was made that the crucified Jesus was alive, Thomas wants proof: “Unless I see…,” he says. It’s kind of a 1st Century “Pictures or it didn’t happen.”
As you also heard this evening, there have been others who made the same demand. The Old Testament figure Gideon was put in front of you again. He had been told something extraordinary: the Lord would use him, a farmer, to bring Israel out from under the oppression of the Midianites and Amalekites. Gideon had seen the angel of the Lord. He had been told explicitly what would occur.
But the Lord’s statement seemed unbelievable. How would a farmer take up such a task? How could he lead a group of people much weaker than their enemies to victory? So Gideon wanted a sign, something he could see to bring proof of the claim: “Then Gideon said to God, ‘If You will save Israel by my hand, as You have said, behold, I am laying a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that You will save Israel by my hand, as You have said.’” Yet even when that took place, Gideon still wanted more: “Let not Your anger burn against me; let me speak just once more. Please let me test just once more with the fleece. Please let it be dry on the fleece only, and all the ground let there be dew.” And once again, the sign is given.
Only after receiving such proof did Gideon take up the mantle of leadership. Only then did he accept the statement that the Lord had made to him, that he would be the one by whose hand Israel would be saved. It is very similar to what took place with Thomas: “Eight days later, His disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although 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, and see My hands; and put out your hand, and place it in My side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.’” Like Gideon’s demand, Thomas’ desired sign is given. And it leads to his confession of faith: “My Lord and My God!” Now Thomas would take up his role as an apostle, a witness to the Risen Jesus, one through whose hand the accomplishments of Jesus’ death and resurrection would save His people.
The demand for proof is what we desire. The examples of Gideon and Thomas show that we are not alone in this. But ultimately, it is a desire that comes from frailty, from sin, from imperfection. For us, it is not enough simply have the Lord declare something and believe it. Instead, there is want for experience, evidence, something empirical. But that is not how faith works. Belief in something not seen, hope in something not yet in your possession: those are the concepts of faith. There is a trust in what a trustworthy one says.
Jesus’ response to Thomas illustrates the blessedness that comes to those with such trust: “Have you believed because you have seen Me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” And yet, the Lord still condescends to our level. The words of the psalm spoke of His character: “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever.” The steadfast love that the Lord had for Gideon, for Thomas, and even for you causes Him to act mercifully for you despite your frailty, sin, and imperfection. Signs are given with His Word, so that your body may cling to something tangible, while believing His statements. So it is with Christ’s Sacraments, where something visible accompanies what can’t be seen. You can’t touch Jesus’ hands and side, but you do have Him present with you in water, bread and wine. Something for your senses is given, even as His words are spoken to your souls.
The Collect for this festival day confirms that: “Almighty and ever-living God, You strengthened Your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in the resurrection of Your Son. Grant us such faith in Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, that we may never be found wanting in Your sight….” Thomas was given true faith in Jesus and His resurrection. It even allowed him to face his own martyrdom because of his role as an apostle. His testimony about Jesus—“My Lord and my God”—did not waver. We pray for the same faith. We pray not that can have whatever sign that we might demand, but that we would receive from our Lord what He desires to give to bolster our fear, love, and trust in Him.
As that fear, love, and trust is created in you by the words and signs that the Risen Jesus gives, you are also led to the right confession about Him. You make the same statement as Thomas did: “My Lord and my God.” With that confession of faith comes the promise of your own resurrection. Then what Thomas demanded will be made to be yours: seeing with your own eyes and touching with your own fingers the Savior who died and rose for your salvation. Jesus’ words and signs are given now through the hands that He uses to dole out His salvation, so that Thomas’ experience will be yours in the future. Such is Jesus’ steadfast love to answer your frailty, imperfection, and sin.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.