Saturday, 15 June 2019

God's Saving Gospel (Romans 1.1 - 8.39)




Introduction

The epistle to the Romans is the longest letter in the Bible. Actually, it’s by far the longest letter we have from the ancient world by any writer. So what’s it all about, and why is it so long?

Some see Romans as the nearest Paul ever got to writing a complete systematic theology; Paul’s mature theological summary, his magnum opus, like Calvin's Institutes, as if one day he sat down and thought, “I really should write a comprehensive volume that covers the whole sweep of how I see God, man, life, the universe and everything.”

But it is, in fact, a pastoral letter addressing a practical issue in a unique church for a particular reason as we shall see next week.

It would take several years of Sunday sermons to do Romans justice. We could easily lose ourselves for months on end unravelling and getting to grips with Paul’s tightly-packed thinking. When Peter says “Paul’s letters contain some things that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3.16) he was no doubt thinking of this epistle. It is a demanding read, let’s not pretend otherwise.

But we’re not going to spend 2-3 years going through Romans, though that would be an excellent thing to do. For a start, you'd need a better Bible teacher than me to take you through this letter line by line. Instead, what we’re going to do is this: instead of covering the entire book verse-by-verse, we are going to cover chapters 1-11 in just two weeks

This will give us a feel for the overall flow of the more doctrinal part of the letter, before we dig down into the more practical section in chapters 12-16 over a term.

This week, I am going to give you an overview of Romans chapters 1-8. Next Sunday, I’ll do the same for chapters 9-11 which is I believe not (as some say) a parenthesis, a bit of an aside, but actually the key to understanding the whole letter. 

The task I have given myself today feels like having to summarise Tolstoy’s War and Peace on the back of a match box. Where do I start? It’s impossible to do it justice, but here we go…

Let’s start with the basics. The letter is written by the Apostle Paul, and it's after the three missionary journeys we know all about from Acts, and it’s written to the church in imperial Rome which he did not found, and had never visited. 

Why did he write it? He hints at the end of the letter that he is looking for a new western base for the next phase of his ministry towards Spain, but in chapter 1 he says he also wants to give them something to make them strong. It seems he wants to establish contact for their mutual benefit. We’ll explore this in depth in the weeks and months to come.

In a word, chapters 1-8 are all about the gospel. Of all systems of belief, religious or secular, Christianity is the only one that has a gospel.

It’s the only one that doesn’t say, “Once you’ve attained the standard, you get the prize. Or once you’re good enough, then God will love you.”

Instead, Christianity says, “You, like everyone else, have blown your chances of ever attaining the standard, so instead of a prize for good behaviour, here’s a gift you don’t deserve. Take it.” As Tim Keller says, “Christianity is not about being nice. It's about being new.” 

Chapter 1

Before we can ever appreciate the gospel, which means “good news”, we have to understand just how bad the bad news is - which Romans spells out in great detail in chapters 1. It says that whatever we do, and however hard we try, we always end up gravitating down to sinful desires. 

Sin is a spectrum. At the extreme end, it spirals totally out of control. 50 million victims of Stalin. 30 million under Mao. We all know about Hitler. Bodies and fields full of bones in Cambodia and Rwanda, and Bosnia and Iraq and Syria and I could go on. Our species is a finely tuned killing machine. We even make war on our unborn.

2 million children are exploited for sex by perverts every year. More than 300 years after a period called “The Enlightenment” modern slavery is on the rise.

Some of our estates are no-go areas. We have become accustomed to repeated cycles of fatherlessness leading to crime and violence; the schools can’t correct it, the police can’t control it, and successive governments are powerless to stop it. 

Sin ruins everything and Romans starts by saying exactly that.

Staring hard in the face at the decadent society Rome had become, Paul says the brakes are off in four areas; 
1) mounting sexual impurity, particularly unnatural sexual relationships. 
2) increasing family breakdown (he talks about disobedience to parents and infidelity).
3) a growth in aggressive atheism (he talks God-haters who don’t think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God).
4) soaring antisocial behaviour (he talks about slander, insolence, murder, strife and depravity).

And he says, “You can tell when God’s wrath is over a civilisation because this is what starts to happen. It’s all there in Romans 1; read it for yourself and ask whether you think God is OK with the Western world. 

He isn’t. His wrath is like a pan of milk that simmers away for years – centuries even, because he is slow to anger, and abounding in love. But there comes a day when it suddenly boils over and all the signs are there in our culture that his patience is running thin.

Chapters 2-3

But just as all good, respectable Christians start tutting and sitting in judgement over all those sinners, chapters 2 and 3 say, “Wait a minute! Is your heart always virtuous and pure? Do you always do the right thing? You cannot criticise because you’re in the same sinking boat; we all are. We’re all without excuse for our sin and subject to God’s judgement. All have sinned and fall short.” 

Every person, one way or another, makes a judgement about God: whether to love God or leave him out of their lives; whether to acknowledge and follow his revelation or ignore it and go their own way.

And God has fixed a day when he will pronounce a verdict on each human being for the verdict that they made about him.

But the first two words of Romans 3.21 signal a dramatic turnabout. “But now…” It’s like the collapse of the Berlin Wall on a cosmic-scale. You see, the more your eyes are opened to see your own flaws and sins, the more precious, electrifying, and stunning God’s grace appears to you.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones once preached a whole 45-minute sermon on those two words. “But now…” They are words that announce that everything has changed. “But now… ”God has intervened, not in wrath, though we would have no complaint if it was. Instead, he has decisively stepped in and changed everything by showing grace.

Have you ever been struck by lightning? You don’t want to be! The electrical charge of a lightning bolt can exceed a billion volts. That wouldn’t feel all that nice.

On 2nd July 1505, a young student was travelling to university. On one part of the journey, he met a thunderstorm and, as the rain pelted down, suddenly a bolt of lightning struck the ground just a few feet away from where he was. He was terrified of death and divine judgement. He was filled with dread, and he cried out, “Oh no! The righteousness of God! I’m damned!” 

That man was Martin Luther. And that thought of God’s fearsome wrath consumed him for years. He became one of the most zealous and disciplined monks in the monastery but he was gripped with an obsession about God’s righteousness.  

During mass his thoughts filled him with anxiety and dread. He physically trembled and had panic attacks just thinking about God’s ominous and awesome greatness. So aware was Luther of the darkness in his heart, of his utter unworthiness, that he was sure he could never stand before God and live. 

But one day, tormented by fear and unworthiness, his world was rocked to its core. The discovery he made that day changed the course of history. Like a bolt from the blue, he saw that the righteousness of God is not that terrifying divine rage that could damn him in an instant. 

No! The righteousness of God is the unblemished record, the pure goodness of Jesus Christ that God wants to give us. And Luther made that discovery right here in Romans 3.22: “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.”

That’s the gospel and here’s what the gospel does: 

Paul Cowley was brought up on one of the roughest estates in Manchester. His father was an alcoholic. He left school at fifteen. He ran away from home. He lived on the streets. He joined a gang. He got involved in crime and ended up in prison. When he came out he joined the army. His relationships were chaotic. He went through two marriages and two divorces.

In 1994, he walked into a church and signed up for an Alpha course. It changed his life. He gave his life to Christ and was filled with the Holy Spirit. 

Then he started visiting prisoners. He founded an organisation to care for ex-offenders. He set up a homeless project. He created courses to help people struggling with addictions, with depression and debt.

Under his leadership, Alpha for Prisons has spread through the jails in the UK and seventy-six countries around the world. Thousands of men and women, mostly men, have come to faith in Jesus Christ and been found churches who help them reintegrate into society. The ministries he now heads up have the potential to touch millions of lives around the world.

That’s the gospel; a righteousness given to you, and reckoned as wholly yours, that comes not through self-help or short, sharp shocks, or government handouts - but through faith.

Thank God for social action - let’s do more of it - but it’s not enough on its own. The evangelist Vance Havner once said, “If they had a social gospel in the days of the prodigal son, somebody would have given him a bed and a sandwich but he never would have gone home.” 

The gospel of grace gets you home and makes peace between you and God forever.

Chapters 3-4

Chapters 3-4 of Romans explain what this looks like in detail and it’s given a name: “justification.” 

Who has ever heard of a magistrate who passed sentence on a guilty defendant and then did the community service, or served the time or paid the fine himself? I spent ages on Google last week trying to find one example of such a thing to illustrate justification for you – and I found nothing

Why not? Because judges never step in and serve the sentences that they pass down to the guilty offenders standing before them in the dock. It just doesn’t happen! 

But one did. Jesus, the innocent one, who will judge the living and the dead, served the death penalty for you and me so we can walk out of court free men and women, all charges dropped, and our case dismissed.

Chapters 3-4 tell us about mercy (which is not getting the spiritual death we deserve). But because God loves us, he wants to give us more than mercy.

Chapter 5

Chapter 5 is about grace (which is being given the abundant life we don’t deserve). It says, “We have peace with God.” Anxiety? Sorted. Guilt? Wiped away. Hopelessness? Banished. Dread of God’s wrath? Gone. Estrangement from God? It’s history.

It says that God’s love is just poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. It says, however badly sin messed us up, Jesus is able to set things right.

Oxford-based church leader Simon Ponsonby sees it as like the card game, Top Trumps. Did you ever play that game? Paul in Romans 5 plays spiritual Top Trumps. Our former life as sinners (‘in Adam’ he calls it), and our new life having been given (as if it’s ours) the righteousness of Christ. 

Adam lays down his card “sin.” Jesus lays own his card “righteousness.” Jesus is top trump. Adam lays down the card “condemned” – that should do it. But Jesus lays down the card “justified.” Jesus is top trump. Adam puts down the card “death.” Jesus just smiles and throws down the card “life.” Jesus is top trump. 

Whatever card our old sinful DNA, that we inherited from Adam, lays down Jesus has a card to beat it. “Where sin increased grace increased all the more.”

Chapters 6-7

Chapters 6-7 are all about freedom. Because the gospel is not just something that happened once and that’s it. It goes on with a life-transforming power in your life.

You are being loosed, you are being freed, you are being released from crippling bondage to sin, and from crippling bondage to law. 

What does that mean? Law means trying to appease God by mechanical religious duty. There are people who think that if you just do the ritual right, even if you don’t really like it, God will accept you. He just likes a bit of religion so just placate him and it’ll all be fine. But God hates cold, hard-hearted, grudging religious duty. The Bible says it makes him sick.

It’s why Saint Teresa of Avilla once ran out of her dreary monastery and prayed, “From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, spare us O Lord!” The gospel frees us from all that. Thank God!

And chapter 7 ends by saying that despite all God has done for us, there is a spiritual battle in all of us. How do we win the battle? We win when we believe that God’s promises are true and better than the empty promises of sin.

Chapter 8

Then finally, chapter 8 brings this majestic doctrinal opening half of the letter to an end. It’s all about assurance that the Holy Spirit brings to your heart. 

If you knew that this afternoon you would have to stand before the God, whom the Bible describes as a holy and consuming fire, to learn your eternal fate, would you look forward to it?

An angel opens a door, looks at a clipboard, rubs his hands and says, “Welcome to the final judgement. Please make yourself comfortable…” A big screen starts a countdown. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…

This is a recording of the inside of your mind. Everybody you know is a special guest, looking on. What certificate is this film; PG or X-rated?

Your mouth is dry. Your palms are sweaty. You watch the show, you cringe all the way through, then you feel a lump in your throat as you wait for the verdict.

What’s God going to say? Will it be “Welcome home, well done” or will it be “Well, that was disappointing”? Or worse still, will it be “Who are you? I never knew you?” 

Romans 1-8 explains that, if you’re a Christian, God does not consider your performance. He considers Christ’s performance. That’s what it means to be in Christ; everything that is true of him becomes true for you.

And according to Romans 8, if you are a Christian believer, because of Jesus, no matter what the film of your inner life contains, the words ‘not guilty’ are indelibly tattooed onto your soul. No condemnation means no condemnation.

And according to Romans 8, you are completely set free from the power and penalty of sin and spiritual death and able to be led by the Holy Spirit.

And according to Romans 8, you are loved from all eternity, a child of God, adopted and made an heir of all the riches of heaven.

And according to Romans 8, God has given you all you need to be sure that you belong to him. Your eternal security is anchored in him, stretching back into eternity past, before time began - and before you existed.  

And according to Romans 8, you are foreknown by God from before creation, predestined by God and chosen by God to be like Jesus.

And according to Romans 8, God is on your side and nothing can defeat you. God has declared you to be inseparable from his love for all eternity.

Ending

This is a true portrait of who you are in Christ - and all of that is from this magnificent section of the Bible we call Romans 8.

That’s the truth. That’s the gospel truth. Believe it. Treasure it. Savour it. 

Let’s stand to pray…



Sermon preached at All Saints' Preston on Tees, 16 June 2019


Sunday, 9 June 2019

Come, Holy Spirit (Acts 1.12-14)


Introduction

You’ve got to admire the British adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes who, just four months after double heart-bypass surgery, and aged 59, ran seven marathons in one week on six different continents. He would have run one more, but bad weather in Antarctica prevented it. Just the idea of running one marathon in Antarctica boggles the mind, doesn’t it?

Fiennes said afterwards that his biggest test was marathon number 4 in Singapore because of the tropical climate. With temperatures reaching 32°C Fiennes barely finished the course – but he did it, before going on to run three more over the next few days.

It goes without saying that you cannot achieve a feat like that without some very serious preparation. Every marathon runner trains hard – how much more this man, given the scale of his challenge and so soon after major surgery?

The evangelisation of the entire planet, from a standing start, was an almost infinitely more difficult objective for the early church than those 7 marathons in a week. We’re talking about by far the most ambitious mission in the history of the world.

Just 120 people (that’s the precise number given in v15) who have no map or compass, let alone aeroplane to reach every nation of planet Earth. How did those charged with that challenge prepare for the mission?

Acts 1 tells us that they did three things; simple things, that are not beyond any of us here this morning. It says that they gathered, they waited and they prayed.

1. They Gathered

When it says in Acts 1.12 that the apostles returned to Jerusalem after the Ascension, we know that they went together and stayed together.

Here’s what we read: Acts 1.12-14. “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem.” They’re just across the Kidron Valley from each other. It’s a short walk. “A Sabbath day’s journey” is about 1 kilometre.

“When they arrived,” it says, “they went upstairs, to the room where they were staying.” And it tells us who was there; “Peter, John, James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James.”

No, not that Judas. Not Judas Iscariot. This is another Judas. Rotten luck if your name is Judas. You introduce yourself as one of Jesus’ apostles. “Oh yeah, I think I’ve heard of them. What’s your name again?” “Judas.” “Oh, I’ve heard all about you.” “No, not him, I’m the other Judas.”

Sometimes you just get stuck with something, through no fault of your own.

Verse 14 says that the women are there as well. And Mary, the mother of Jesus who is also a woman, obviously, but who is in a category of her own.

  • She is the chosen one, the special one, who brought him into the world.
  • She pondered things in her heart at the time of his birth.
  • She saw how he astounded the temple scholars when he was 12 years old.
  • She witnessed his first miracle at Cana.
  • She was there at the cross, there for her boy until the bitter end.
  • And now, she’s a follower and humble disciple of her own son.

Some of you here today are mothers with sons. I’m sure your boys are all wonderful individuals, and you’re very proud of them, but how many of you would publicly worship your son as the immaculate son of God? But Mary did.

And Jesus’ little brothers are there too, notice. Some of you have a big brother. I bet every one of them are great guys who you look up to and admire! But how many of you would stand up and say, hand on heart, “My big brother is without sin, he’s definitely worthy of praise and worship?” But Jesus’ brothers did.

They didn’t believe in him during his ministry. It was classic sibling rivalry. They teased him. They confronted him. They said he was out of his mind. But now he has appeared to them risen from the dead and they too have gone from being sceptics and cynics to full-on believers.  

So there are 120 people in this room including Jesus’ family. It may not be very many given the scale of the task ahead of them, but in one room, that’s quite a crowd. That’s a pretty full room.

The upper room would be on the first floor in a flat-roofed building of simple structure. There’s precious little ventilation, no air conditioning, you’re just under the roof, so it’s probably sweltering up there.

This is, by the way, the very first mention in Scripture of the post-Ascension church – and you find men and women together. We sort of take this for granted, but it is still extremely counter-cultural in the Middle East to this day. In synagogues, even in the 21st century, and of course mosques likewise, you find the men are separate from the women.

In the Judaism of the First Century, only men were allowed to sit at a rabbi’s feet to learn, but we know that Jesus gave women too access into that privileged inner circle. Mary of Bethany was commended for doing just that instead of being busy in the kitchen.

Throughout Jesus’ ministry, women:
  • ministered to Jesus’ practical needs, supporting him from their own means
  • women stayed with him to the end while most of the men fled
  • women were the last at the cross
  • women were up first to tend the grave on Easter Sunday
  • women were the first to meet him
  • and women were the first to testify that he was alive

2. They Waited

So, they all gathered together, men and women, and then they waited.

At their last meeting with Jesus, shortly before the Ascension, Jesus gave them some careful instructions: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days, you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.”

So, they wait. And they wait. Hours pass. Nothing happens. Days come and go. Still nothing.

Do you like waiting? I bet no one does. I don’t like waiting around at all. I start to fidget. Waiting for buses, waiting for trains, waiting for late people to turn up. When I was a kid, waiting for Christmas was like physical torture. It felt like a breach of my human rights! I’m a doer. I don’t like wasting time when there’s work to be done. But they waited, and waited, and… w a i t e d.

The Norwegian theologian and author Ole Hallesby used to talk about mining in his country in the early twentieth century. There were long periods of time, he writes, when deep holes are being bored with great effort into the hard rock. To bore the holes deeply enough into the most strategic spots took steadiness, patience and lots of skill.

Once a hole was drilled, they put a stick of dynamite into it and connected it to a fuse. To light the fuse and watch what happens is easy and exciting. You see immediate ‘results.’ It goes kaboom, and pieces of rock fly off in every direction.

And then Hallesby says this: “The more painstaking work requires skill and patient strength of character, but anyone can light a fuse.” How many of my prayers are like “fuse-lighting” prayers, the kind I soon give up on if I do not get immediate results?

Handling the tedium is part of what makes for effective prayers. Those who really believe in the power of prayer will cultivate a patient prayer life of “hole-boring.”

3. They Prayed

Which brings us to the third thing they did – they prayed. They weren’t wasting their time as they waited. They invested their time in prayer.

In fact, it says “they all joined together constantly in prayer.” So this was dedicated, continuous and organised. It seems to have been 24/7, possibly with shifts covered by several teams, sleep and comfort breaks and so on.

And the basic prayer seems to have been, “Come, Holy Spirit” because when God sent his Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, that rolling prayer meeting stopped; the prayer was answered.

Since the days of the early church Christians have prayed for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Every week at Holy Communion, we ask the Holy Spirit to come. Many songs have been written about it, from Come Holy Ghost Our Souls Inspire to Spirit of the Living God Fall Afresh on Me. All the great revivals and awakenings were preceded by concerted prayer for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus expected us to ask for the Holy Spirit when he said, (in Luke 11.13) “How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Ending

So, as we gather and wait and ask… and wait and ask… and wait and ask… as we have been doing in 10 these days of Thy Kingdom Come, may God refresh and renew and anoint and empower his church again for the mission he started then and that he has called us to complete.

Let’s pray…



Sermon preached at All Saints' Preston on Tees and Saint Mary's Long Newton, 9 June 2019

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Unless I See... (John 20.24-31)




Introduction

One of the most famous boxing matches in the history of the sport was between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman for the Heavyweight Crown. The fight took place in Zaire (now DR Congo) and is known as “the rumble in the jungle”.

Foreman was a muscular and stocky man, built like an ox, and he absolutely pounded the leaner and more elegant Ali for seven full rounds. He landed punch after punch onto his opponent, who barely managed to get off the ropes.

It looked like a mismatch and everyone thought Foreman would be Champion of the World at the end of the contest.

But remarkably it was actually Ali’s intended strategy to soak up every punch until Foreman’s energy was spent, his arms heavy and stiff with lactic acid. In the eighth round, Ali suddenly danced off the ropes, and with just a few, well-aimed punches Foreman was on the canvas and counted out.

It’s a great metaphor for Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The devil had Jesus on the ropes: he landed every blow, he gave Jesus a relentless pounding, it was absolute carnage - and everyone thought he had won.

But Jesus, on his cross, was soaking all his evil up, and in the eighth round – or rather, on the third day – he rises from the grave, deals the devil an almighty and decisive, knockout blow and says, “take that.”

Never mind the rumble in the jungle, this is “the boss on the cross” and “kaboom from the tomb.” Jesus’ arm is raised and he is declared the victor.

Between Easter Day (late-April this year) and early June, we’re going through John’s account of the resurrection and the way it was experienced by several individuals; Mary Magdalene, John, Peter and Thomas.

Have you ever noticed how busy Jesus is after his resurrection?

It’s stunning. Put it this way; what would you do if you had just:
  • carried the full weight of the sins of the world
  • secured the salvation of a fallen and broken human race
  • totally satisfied and soaked up the wrath of God
  • given the hordes of hell a damned good thrashing
  • and triumphed over death in a ferocious and epic battle? 
If it was me, honestly, after all that - I’d be taking it easy. I’d take at least a couple of weeks off, reclining with cocktail and canapes by the swimming pool, nice head and shoulder massage, thalassotherapy, pedicure...

I think I’d have the whole spa treatment, gold package with all the optional extras. And frankly, I’d think I was worth it. But not Jesus... The risen Lord is a man on a mission.

The morning he is raised, having shrugged off the small inconvenience of an earthquake, Jesus bursts out of his tomb and off he goes, we know not where. Then, not long after, he’s back in the garden to appear to Mary Magdalene and give her instructions on what she needs to do next.

A bit later, according to Luke’s Gospel, he goes for a 15-mile walk to Emmaus, giving a stunning lecture on the entire Old Testament and its meaning (with no notes), in the punishing afternoon sun, and then back again.

Easter Sunday Evening

That same evening, as soon as he gets back to Jerusalem, Jesus appears to 10 of his disciples, behind locked doors. There they are, huddled together, terrified of being associated with a man who had been lynched by a mob, looking sorry for themselves in a way that only men can. But their encounter with the Lord leaves them overjoyed.

Thomas isn’t present at the time. It doesn’t say why. We can only speculate. Perhaps he has just slipped out to get some bread for supper.

My guess, for what it’s worth, is that his mind couldn’t cope with everything he had seen. Was he an introvert, a loner, one who found the company of others difficult? Did he feel maybe he just had to get out of the house, get some fresh air, be all alone and think it all through? That’s the way it feels to me.

You notice, incidentally, in John chapter 20, how we all handle grief differently.

  • Mary Magdalene - she needs to be close up and involved; she wants to actually touch the body and personally embalm it.
  • The ten disciples - they get together in a group, to vent their feelings and support each other emotionally.
  • Thomas - he seems to be more comfortable detached from the group, bottling it all up, and on his own.
Question: which of them does Jesus show himself to? Answer: all of them. And he meets them exactly where they are. Listen, however you react to the death of a loved one, if you know Jesus, he’ll walk with you through the valley of the shadow of death and you need fear no evil.

So, Thomas is away from the others, trying to make sense of it all. He has a lot to process; a sudden and traumatic end to the movement he believed in, his leader in whom he had put all his hopes is now dead and buried.

Judas has tragically ended his own life. And now (*pointing to temple*) some hysterical women are saying they have seen Jesus alive. Well, thinks Thomas, it’s probably just wishful thinking. Most likely some kind of coping mechanism…

What do we know about Thomas? Not very much. But enough to build up a definite impression.

It says in v24 that he had two names; Thomas and Didymus, which both mean “Twin.” Thomas is Aramaic and Didymus is Greek.

Whenever I tell people I once dated a twin, they usually ask if I ever got them mixed up. But it was easy to tell them apart actually. Jane had a small birth mark on her left hand and Jeremy had a moustache!

The thing about identical twins is that they can have the same physical features, the same mannerisms, the same temperament, the same height and build, but one is a follower of Jesus and the other is not.

No matter what family you come from, no matter what genetic make up you are born with, you have to decide for yourself whether Jesus is going to be Lord of your life or not.

Have you made up your mind yet? Sooner or later, we all have to get off the fence and say what we really think.

We don’t know anything about Thomas’ twin, and how he or she responded to Christ, but we do know that Thomas gave up everything to follow Jesus as a disciple. Never mind about how others in your family respond to Christ – what about you?

Well, if Peter was Tigger, Thomas was more like Eeyore. He appears to have been a bit downbeat and pessimistic. He was probably something of a melancholic.

Only three things he ever said are recorded in the Bible, and all of them support the hypothesis that he is not that guy who lights up the room. He is, of course, most well-known for his “I don’t believe it” speech in our reading today. He gives the impression of being analytical, sceptical, maybe even a bit cynical.

But he is also on record as saying, a bit gloomily (in John 14), “Lord, we have no idea where you’re going. So how do you expect us to know the road?”

He seems to have had a very literal, scientific mind. “Never mind vines and branches, tell us straight. What do you mean, the place you are preparing? Make it simple and understandable.” Thomas wants specifics, not symbols. He deals in facts, not figures of speech. Some of you are like that. That’s OK. Jesus chose Thomas to be his disciple.

The only other recorded words we have from Thomas are when they get bad news that Lazarus is terminally ill in John 11. And Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

You could always count on Thomas to spread a bit of cheer. I bet the others were saying, “Thanks for sharing that with the group, Thomas.”

What a blessing it must have been spending days on end in a locked room with this guy...  

Maybe that’s why Thomas isn’t there when Jesus appears the first time! “Look, Thomas, here’s 25 shekels, why don’t you go out for a long walk and come back with some bagels for tea? Don’t feel you need to rush back, eh?”

So off he goes and when he returns (v25), now the men say they have seen Jesus too. In fact, in the Greek it means, they kept telling him, “We have seen the Lord!”

It’s Sunday – and the believers have come together. It’s church. That’s where we should be on the Lord’s day, if we can. Because, like Thomas, you can miss out on life-changing blessings by not being with other believers at the appointed time.

Hebrews 10.25 says, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.”

It doesn’t have to be a big church; it doesn’t even have to be a good church. Jesus promises to be where even two or three are gathered in his name. And look, the first two Sundays of the new creation Jesus shows up both times. Thomas wasn’t in church that day and he missed out.

To be fair, we have to admit that some churches are really unwelcoming. Like in this passage, where the doors were locked (v26), sometimes, tragically, churches give you a stony reception; they’re unfriendly, impersonal, physically uncomfortable and boring. (Apart from that, they’ve got a lot going for them).

But all Christians should find a church where they can grow and then invest in it. That’s just a little aside.

Thomas comes back from his little walk and they all keep trying to tell him he’s missed a great service. “Ah, wow, the presence of the Lord – literally! It was, well, how can I put it? I can’t describe it. Thomas, you just had to be there.”

Thomas says, “Yeah, right. I don’t think so.” He thinks it’s some kind of practical joke.

“I need to see it for myself. I’ll believe it when I see the marks in his hands where those nails went. In fact, no. I need to feel as well as see. Unless I touch the holes where the nails went and the gash where they thrust the spear – give me a break.”

Thomas is not going to be taken in by some fantasy. He’s not prepared to take a leap into the dark. He’s a realist. He’s got a rational mind.

The very vocal atheist Richard Dawkins famously said, “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of… the lack of evidence.”

Thomas might actually agree with that. He doesn’t want to look an idiot; he doesn’t want to be gullible and na├»ve, just trusting what people say without any proof. He wants a peer-reviewed study or forget it.

Thomas has objections. He has problems. He has questions. That’s fair enough. This life from the dead thing is, after all, a bit weird.

By the way, (shameless commercial break now), the Alpha Course is such a great environment for exploring those questions about faith. We started on Thursday, but that was just an introductory evening; there’s still time to sign up and there’s plenty of room for you if you want to come.

One Week Later…

So, Thomas is naturally guarded. He says, “Let’s see some evidence first – and then we talk.”

  • A day passes. Nothing.
  • Then 2 days. Nothing again.
  • Wednesday comes and goes. Still nothing.
  • Four days. No sign of Jesus. I love the way Jesus lets Thomas stew…
  • Five days. Now the others are starting to wonder. “Was it a dream?”
  • Then, it’s the sabbath. It’s been 7 days now...
Thomas is thinking, “I told you so. It’s a figment of their imagination.”

Thomas is thinking, “I told you so. Flash in the pan. Hallucination is common at times of distress and grief. It’s probably a figment of their imagination.”

But 8 days later, again, the Lord’s Day, Jesus appears again - “Shalom. Peace be with you.” And, this time, Thomas is there.

Jesus stands among us and says to each one here who is not finding faith easy, like he did to Thomas, “Come close. Reach out. It’s me.”  

Notice that Jesus doesn’t heap guilt on him. He doesn’t judge or criticise or harp on about the past. There is no hint of condemnation. It’s just good news. “Shalom. I want to give you peace.”

It’s an awkward and embarrassing moment for Thomas because (v27) Jesus singles him out. But it is also a very eerie moment; because he says, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Do you see what this means? A shiver goes down Thomas’ spine. His analytical mind sees straightaway that, a week earlier, Jesus must have been listening to what the eleven had been saying in that locked room. He heard everything that Thomas said about the hands and side. Jesus had been in that room all the time.

The evidence that Thomas needed – or said he needed – was to see the nail marks in Jesus’ hands and to put his fingers there, perhaps in case the scars were painted on his skin by a makeup artist.

Does he step forward to touch the crucifixion wounds? Does he carry out a physical examination? Thomas doesn’t need to. It seems he cries out, “My Lord and my God” spontaneously and immediately and with conviction.

That encounter with Christ is enough. And his affirmation of faith goes further than anyone else in the whole New Testament, acclaiming Jesus as Lord and God. No human being had ever called Jesus that before. And it’s not just “you are the Lord, and you are God” – but “my Lord and my God.”

You are so blessed if you grew up in a believing family. That’s the best start in life you can have. But Jesus is mum and dad’s Lord and God, until you come under his lordship for yourself.

And look, v29, there’s a blessing for you if you believe in Jesus for yourself, without having seen him with your eyes. One day, we will all see him face to face.

Ending

As I end, I want to just draw your attention to v30-31. We didn’t have them read earlier, deliberately, because I wanted to highlight them separately.

“Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

John is writing this Gospel down and he knows he’s nearly at the end. I love to picture him rolling back the parchment and scanning over everything he’s put down so far.

He’s had to be selective. He’s had to condense 3½ years of the greatest life ever lived into an essay that takes a couple of hours to read. And he thinks, “Oh man, there are so many other things I could have said. But I’ve said enough.”

Then he writes this; this is how it literally reads in the original: “These are written that you may go on believing that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by going on believing you may go on having life in his name.”

As the Christian author James Watkins once said, “A river cuts through rock, not because of its power, but because of its persistence.”

So, keep moving. Keep believing! Keep the faith. The more you keep going, the more you keep going. Don’t give up. Don’t slow down. Keep your eyes fixed on the Lord. And may you know the blessing of believing without having seen.

Let’s pray…


Sermon preached at All Saints' Preston on Tees, 12 May 2019