An Easter for the Faint of Heart

Posted by on April 1, 2018
Topic: Resurrection

“The Incredulity of St Thomas” | Rembrandt | Oil on Oak Panel | 1633

Easter is a day of hope.  It’s the day Christians reflect on Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and the hope that it brings:  the assurance that God is not as far off as we might have thought – that he came in the person of His Son, and affirmed his identity by rising from the dead.  It assures us that our sins have been forgiven (Rom. 4:25), and that one day we too will rise – that death is not the end (1 Cor. 15:22).

And yet, for many, hope is not something that comes easily.  Sometimes this can be a matter of temperament – we simply are “glass half empty” kind of people, fearful about the future.  Sometimes it’s from the news we consume.  For many of us, there are painful experiences we have lived through, and they’ve left us wounded.  Hope doesn’t come as easily as it did before.

What then does Easter say to us, when we find ourselves faint of heart?

From all accounts, the disciple Thomas was someone for whom hope didn’t come easily.  When it comes to “doubting Thomas” we think most often of him not believing the reports of the other disciples who had seen Jesus risen from the dead, until Jesus appears to him too.  But in the Gospel accounts we see that for Thomas this is part of a larger pattern.  When Jesus resolves to go to Jerusalem, the city of his enemies, Thomas despairs and laments on behalf of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him!” (John 11:16).  When Jesus speaks of what will happen after his death and says, “You know the way to where I am going,” Thomas fearfully asks, “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?” (John 14:4-5)

From the glimpses we have of him, Thomas was a fearful, sceptical, and anxious person.  When we read after Jesus’ death that “Thomas… was not with [the other disciples],” I don’t think it’s wrong to guess that Thomas wasn’t with the others because he had simply “moved on.”  He had given up three years of his life following an itinerant preacher who he thought was the Messiah, all to have him be cut down by the Romans, like so many who had come before him.  He had placed his hope in Jesus, and he had been let down.  So when Thomas hears Jesus has appeared, but won’t believe it, we’re perhaps not surprised.

How does Jesus relate to Thomas, and what does that mean for us?

  1. Jesus loved Thomas even in his doubts. At times we overlook in this story the amount of evidence Thomas already had, especially the eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection appearances, from ten of his best friends!  He also had the evidence of the empty tomb – he could have seen it himself, even checked for footprints!  Jesus’ rebuke of Thomas when he appears to him, “Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27), is not because Thomas wanted evidence, but because he wasn’t willing to follow the evidence he already had.  Thomas’s evidence for the resurrection is not too different from ours today, and it’s no small amount; here’s what the former solicitor general of the United Kingdom, Sir Edward Clark, remarked about the historical case for the resurrection:  “As a lawyer, I have made a prolonged study of the evidences for the events of the first Easter day.  To me the evidence is conclusive, and over and over again in the High Court I have secured the verdict on evidence not nearly so compelling.”  But Jesus doesn’t abandon Thomas with “good riddance” over his unreasonable scepticism.  Jesus cares about him.  He pursues him.  Jesus loves Thomas – and he loves the Thomases of the world today:  sceptical and doubting people.
  2. Jesus uncovered Thomas’s deeper problem. Looking closely at the story, it’s clear that for Thomas it wasn’t just a question of evidence.  Thomas lays out three criteria he would need to believe in the resurrection:  “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” (John 20:25).  But what’s often overlooked is that Thomas never gets all the evidence he said he needed.  It’s not that Jesus didn’t offer it – when Jesus appears to the disciples again, this time when Thomas is there, he says 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.”  Yet we read, apparently without hiatus, “Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’”  Presumably he saw the nail marks in Jesus’ hands (criteria one), but there is nothing in here of touching Jesus’ hands or his wound from the spear (criteria two and three).

“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” | Caravaggio | Oil on Canvas | 1602

What is going on here?  What brings Thomas to such a declaration – arguably the most direct affirmation of Jesus’ divinity in the Gospels – without the full evidence he demanded?  I think the key was this:  Thomas, like many of us fearful about the future, was looking for certainty – if something is certain, it’s worth putting your hope in.  But the resurrection was far from certain, even with the evidence.  But as Jesus showed him the nail-marked hands, instead of just giving Thomas an event he could be certain about (the resurrection), he gave him a person.  The nail-marked hands not only spoke of Jesus rising from the dead, but of a love that Jesus had for Thomas – a love that even death could not take away, and a love Thomas could be certain about.  Tim Keller likes to say, “There are a lot of religions that talk about a God of love, but the question is, how do you know?  How do you know that God loves you?  You can tell someone over and over how much you love them, but if you never see that love in action, how do you know it’s really there?  Instead of giving you just words about God’s love, the Christian faith gives you a story – a true story – and at the heart of that story is a cross.”  Another one of Jesus’ disciples, John, would go on to write, “This is real love – not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.” (1 John 4:10).  Thomas was a fearful person looking for something certain to find his hope in – Jesus gave it to him, not in the form of certainty about an event, but certainty about a person, and his love for him shown once and for all on the cross.

 

  1. Jesus lifted Thomas’s fears. History shows this moment was of no small impact in the life of Thomas.  It seems that Thomas carried the Gospel farther than all other disciples – perhaps as far as Chennai, India, five thousand kilometers away.  There, history suggests, Thomas was martyred for his faith in Christ.  What does this mean?  Thomas went from being the most fearful of the disciples – the quickest to despair, the slowest to hope – to the one with the courage to go the farthest for Christ.  In the wounds of Christ, Thomas found a source of hope that even death could not take away.  He left transformed – not just by the evidence, but the person that evidence pointed to.

 

What does this mean for us?  Jesus meets us as fearful, anxious people, and he loves us as we are.  But he doesn’t leave us there.  He invites us to consider the evidence, and to let the evidence drive us to himself – not just as the Jesus risen from the dead, but as the Jesus who has laid down his life for us, the greatest assurance of his love, that we might find our hope in him, a hope even death cannot take away.

 

38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)