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Defending Thomas

23rd March 2008

Rarely an Easter season comes and goes without a sermon on — or at least some sort of reference to — “Doubting Thomas.” I think, quite frankly, that Thomas has got a bum-wrap for his nickname as it suggests that there was something wrong about his doubts. But nicknames stick. I was surprised even to find an entry under “doubting Thomas” in Webster’s dictionary. There it reads: “Doubting Thomas, a person who refuses to believe without proof; skeptic.” And then it refers to John 20:14-31.

There are only three vignettes of Thomas in the Scriptures, including John 20. In contrast, there are numerous extra-biblical works attributed to him, including a Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, an Infancy Gospel of Thomas, an Apocalypse of Thomas, and an Acts of Thomas (these works are typically dated from the 2nd to 5th centuries CE/AD). These extra-biblical stories aside, the first place we meet Thomas in John’s gospel is in chapter 11. Jesus wants to go to Bethany because Lazarus has died, but his disciples try to dissuade him for fear that he’ll be killed if he goes near Jerusalem. Here Thomas encourages the other disciples that they should go and die with Jesus. The next time we meet Thomas is in chap. 14, where Jesus comforts his disciples that he is going away to prepare a place in his Father’s house and then come back for them. As many of Jesus’ teachings, this totally confuses the disciples, but it is Thomas who is honest enough to admit that he didn’t have the slightest idea what Jesus was talking about. He says: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way” (14:5). (Imagine, a MAN who admits he needs directions!)

The picture that emerges of Thomas from these two passages is someone who was honest — he didn’t pretend to know more than he did. He also seemed to be a bit of a pessimist (or a realist) assuming the worst if Jesus was to go near Jerusalem, but he was willing to follow Jesus anywhere — even to his own death.

We get substantially the same picture of Thomas in John 20. He’s somewhat pessimistic, brash, but also up front and honest. He put his cards right on the table: “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!” (20:25). When it comes right down to it, I’m not sure how seriously we’re to take his request to “put his hands where the nails were” or to “put his hand into Jesus’ side.” The text later says that Thomas believed because he had seen Jesus, not that he believed after touching him. Also, the week before, when Jesus appeared to the others, it says that Jesus “showed them his hands and his side” (v. 20). So, one way of looking at it, he just wanted the same opportunity that the other disciples had. (Furthermore, while we don’t get this impression in John’s gospel, other accounts present many of the disciples as filled with doubt. E.g., in Luke 24:36-43 when Jesus appeared to the disciples, they didn’t believe that it was really him until he ate some broiled fish; see also Mark 16:11 and Matt 28:17.)

Faith didn’t come easy to Thomas, but nore did it come easy to any of the disciples. So let’s not be too hard on the poor fellow! At least the picture of Thomas we get in the gospel portrays him as honest and up front about his doubts. What is more, once Thomas believed, he uttered one of the greatest Christological confessions in the Bible: “My Lord and my God!” (20:28). This was both a profoundly theological confession as well as a profoundly personal one.

So perhaps we would do well to remember Thomas by his great confession, rather than his initial doubts. Just a thought. Happy Easter.

Posted in Easter, Gospel of John, New Testament | 1 Comment »

Christmas According to John, Part 2

25th December 2006

[Merry Christmas everyone! This is the second part of a Christmas sermon presented here with only minor editing. The first post may be found here]

John’s Metaphysical Manger (John 1)

The second passage I want to direct our attention to helps us understand some of the theological implications of the birth of Jesus. The passage I am referring to is chapter one of John’s gospel. In this highly metaphysical and philosophical passage the significance of the birth of Christ is interpreted theologically.

1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived [tabernacled] among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ �) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

The Mystery of Christmas: The Incarnation

This passage tells us a number of things about that baby in a manger. In particular it tells us something about the divintiy of the Word and the ministry of the Word.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.â€? John tells that the baby in the manger is divine; God made human, God incarnate. John’s Christmas account revels in the mystery of the incarnation. The word “incarnation” and the adjective “incarnate” come from the Latin in carne “in flesh.â€? Note the progression: In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. Note that John says not that “God was the wordâ€?, but that “the word was God.â€? John is not saying that the Word is “a god,â€? as though the Word was a lesser god alongside the supreme God; nor is John saying that the Word was simply “divine,â€? nor does John say that the Word did god-like things without possessing the divine nature; rather John is saying that the Word is God in his very nature, yet without exhausting the being of God. The baby in a manger was fully human and fully God. He was God incarnate: “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us.â€?

The divine nature of the Word is seen in his activity in creation (vv. 1–5), revelation (vv. 5, 9–12, 18) and redemption (vv. 12–14, 16–17); in all these God expresses himself through the Word. The baby in the manger, the Word made flesh, was with God at the beginning and all things came into existence through him. The Word also reveals God to us. Paul says that Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). Both the deity and the humanity of Jesus are fundamental to his saving work. It’s because Jesus is God the Son – the Word made flesh – that we can know God, it’s because Jesus is God made human, that we can understand his death as the supreme evidence of God’s love for us.

There is more to Christmas than our minds can comprehend… when we come to Christmas, when we look upon that baby in a manger we are looking upon God incarnate. We are looking upon a mystery. There’s More to Christmas than Meets the Mind.

The Paradox of Divine Condescension

And this is the mystery of Christmas. Here you have the paradox of divine condescension; the mystery of God accommodating Godself, God becoming human.

At root, to save us God came not in his full glory as God but rather as a human; God came as a baby crying in his mother’s arms, a baby that required feeding and changing, a baby that was entirely and hopelessly dependent on others. God hid his glory, he limited himself. Remaining one with and equal to God he took the form of a slave. By becoming one with us, he was able to share our sorrows, bear our burdens, and ultimately die a criminal’s death and atone for our sins and unite us to God.

That is the real meaning of Christmas, and it’s my prayer for all of us — as we get together with friends and family, as we eat turkeys and hams, as we do all these good things — it’s my prayer that we would also realize that there is much more to Christmas than meets the eye and that the miracle of Christmas is not how much turkey you can eat, but it is that God so loved the world that he was willing to take on human flesh and enter this world as a helpless baby… a helpless baby that would one day die a criminal’s death on behalf of us all.


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Christmas According to John, Part 1

24th December 2006

[Since I am going to be quite busy the two days with family, church, and preparing a turkey dinner for twenty people, I thought I would post some more informal Christmas meditations. The next couple posts are made up of one of my Christmas sermons; I reproduce it here in two parts with only minor editing. - TFW]

Sometimes I don’t think we realize the full significance of Christmas because we focus too much on a romantic and idealized version of the Christmas story: Joseph and Mary going to Bethlehem and not finding any place to stay the night, end up giving birth to baby Jesus in a manger, etc. This quaint and romantic idea is epitomized in the Christmas carol, “Away in a Manger.�

Away in a manger, no crib for His bed,
The little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.
The stars in the sky looked down where He lay
The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the poor Baby wakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes;
I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.

But there is nothing quaint or romantic about the Christmas story as told in the gospels of Luke and Matthew.

Luke’s story highlights how when Jesus was born, how he came to the dregs of society – to the poor, to the outcasts. Jesus was born in a peasant home or perhaps even a cave for animals and was placed in a dirty animal feeding trough (for those of you who have dogs… imagine not cleaning your dog’s food dish for a year and then think about whether or not you would want to let a baby play with it!), then to top it off his “healthy beginningsâ€? visit was made by a bunch of filthy lowly shepherds – outcasts of society.

Matthew’s story isn’t a whole lot better! Matthew doesn’t say much about Jesus’ birth, but he does recount how when Jesus is a toddler he was visited by some wise men (astrologers) who recognized him as a future king… while this was nice and while I’m sure they appreciated the gifts they brought, the astrologers also alerted Herod to the existence of a potential challenge to his power – which made Mary and Joseph and Jesus flee to Egypt (anyone who has ever taken a two-year old on a long driving trip knows what fun they must have had along the way!)

Thus, the Christmas story isn’t quaint or romantic… and I think that we have to work hard to o make sure it doesn’t become so familiar that it looses its power for us!

But this morning I want to direct our attention to a couple of Bible passages that may at first glance be unlikely candidates for a Christmas message. Both are attributed to the Apostle John, and both also give accounts of the birth of Jesus, so to speak: The first I have dubbed John’s “Apocalyptic Adventâ€? (Revelation 12) and second is John’s “Metaphysical Mangerâ€? (the first chapter of John’s Gospel).

Both of these stories will give us a very different perspective on Jesus’ birth, and will teach us a couple things about Christmas that the traditional stories don’t.

John’s Apocalyptic Advent (Revelation 12)

The first “birth story� I want us to take a look at is perhaps the weirdest one in all scripture. It comes from the book of Revelation – a book that also gets the award for being perhaps the weirdest in the Bible. It’s a book that is notoriously difficult to interpret. It’s full of symbols and apocalyptic language. It reveals the first lesson that I want us to take home today: There’s More to Christmas than Meets the Eye.

When Jesus was born, it was far from a regular everyday birth: it was an event of cosmic and eternal significance. It was an event which had massive implications in the spiritual realm. Now, the traditional Christmas stories also point towards this cosmic significance of Jesus’ birth: Luke has the multitude of angels announcing Jesus’ birth to the shepherds and Matthew recounts how astrologers find a heavenly sign of the birth of a king. But these signs pale in comparison with what was revealed to John:

12:1 A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. 3 Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. 5 And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days. (NRSV)

The passage continues to recount of a great war in heaven between Michael and his angels and the dragon… and how the dragon suffered an initial defeat and then a final defeat and how God’s kingdom has come the kingdom of God and the messiah… etc. So here we have a surrealistic and highly symbolic portrayal of the birth of Christ and its cosmic and spiritual implications: that with the coming of Christ there erupted a great war in the heavens, a war in which God was ultimately victorious.

This sounds more like something Gandalf or Elrond would say in The Lord of the Rings than anything you would think you would find in the Bible! And its something we really don’t know what to do with. From early on we are brought up to trust our senses and be skeptical of anything that can’t be verified by them. Most of us have a hard time believing that the world as we see it is really not the world as it is. And even if we believe it, we don’t seem to live any different because of it!

But the reality is (at least the reality presented in the Scriptures) that the world as we see it is not the world as it is. And Christmas as we typically see it – a cute baby in a manger – is not Christmas as it is.

It’s kind of like The Matrix… when we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, when we take the blue pill, so to speak, and a whole new reality opens up to us. We recognize the world that we thought we knew is really only some of the story. (Of course, a major difference between reality and The Matrix is that there is continuity between the world or our senses and the spiritual world… rather than discontinuity as in The Matrix.)

So the first lesson I want us to take home with us today is that There’s More to Christmas than Meets the Eye. The birth of Jesus represents an event of such spiritual magnitude that is only surpassed by his death on the cross — and that should amaze us!

The second passage I want to direct out attention to this morning helps us understand some of the theological implications of the birth of Jesus… but I will turn to that in tomorrow’s Christmas post.

For those of you who celebrate Christmas, have a great Chrstmas eve.

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