Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Some rough notes on John 20:24-29

At our fraternal last Wednesday we fell to talking about preaching without notes, as was the practice of John Calvin (see here). I only caught part of the discussion as I had popped out to buy a bacon roll for lunch. But amongst some there was a misconception that not using notes in the pulpit means preaching without premeditation or preparation. But this isn't the case. I blogged on this a while back. Extemporary preachers should still work on preparing a written sermon, even of the document is not used in the pulpit. Writing a sermon will enable the extemporary preacher to work on exposition, structure, doctrine, illustration and application. Structure is all important as it is the basic structure and thrust of the message that will be committed to memory rather than the whole sermon. The notes will be a bit rough and ready. They are not meant to be a polished literary text, so much as a framework for the preacher containing fragments of thought and prompts for further extemporary elaboration. Just to give an example of what my notes look like, even though I don't use them in the pulpit (aside from the non-Bible quotes, which I print out!), here is a lightly edited sermon text from last Sunday evening's preaching.
John 20:24-29
In his new book on the resurrection, Jesus: Dead or Alive?, John Blanchard recalls a long conversation that he had with an atheist in South Africa. As a parting shot, Blanchard asked, ‘What do you think of Jesus Christ?’ The atheist replied, ‘I am not sure, but I do know this: everything depends on whether or not he rose from the dead.’ That is a very perceptive answer. If Jesus is not risen, we can discount his claims and give up the Christian faith as a dead loss. But if he did rise from the dead, that changes everything. The early Christian movement sprang to life on the basis that Jesus had defied death. Their essential message was: “God raised Jesus from the dead”. But these bold witnesses took a lot of convincing that Jesus was alive. One of them was especially sceptical about the whole thing. That man was Thomas.

I. Thomas’ Doubt

Now, Jesus had appeared to his disciples on the evening of the first Easter Sunday. But it appears that only ten of the remaining apostles were present. Who was missing? Thomas, vs. 24. Where was he? I haven’t a clue. But wherever he was he missed out on something big, 20:19ff. The other disciples told him what had happened, vs. 25a. But he was having none of it, vs. 25b. Thomas knew as much as everybody else that dead people do not simply spring back to life. He knew that Jesus was a special teacher and miracle worker. It was so sad that he was dead. But dead he was and that was that. If Thomas was going to accept that Jesus was alive, he wanted proof. No ghostly apparition would have satisfied him. He wanted to see and touch the nail pierced hands and wounded side of the risen Jesus. Nothing else would do. Without that evidence he says, “I will not believe.”

Perhaps is why we label this disciple, “doubting Thomas”? But let us not be too hard on the man. It is not as if the others came to believe that Jesus was risen without hard evidence. Mary Magdalene’s journey of faith. John saw and believed, vs. 8. Other ten – vs. 19ff. Luke tells us, 24:10 & 11. It was only the bodily appearance of the risen Jesus in the locked room and the sight of his hands and side that convinced them that Jesus was alive. Thomas wanted no more than what his fellow disciples had experienced.

Now, according to Richard Dawkins, faith is the great cop out, (Richard Dawkins' God, Alister McGrath, p. 84). It’s a bit like when Alice encountered the White Queen who informed her that her age was,

“one hundred and one, five months and a day”. "I can't believe that!" said Alice. "Can't you?" the queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again, draw a long breath, and shut your eyes." Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said. "One can't believe impossible things."
"I dare say you haven't had much practice," said the queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

According to Dawkins, Christian believers are in the same position as the White Queen, self-deluded wishful thinkers, who believe things despite of what the evidence says. But that is not quite right is it? Thomas was not a gullible fool who simply accepted what the others had told him concerning Jesus’ resurrection because he had trained himself to believe “six impossible things before breakfast.” He was adamant that without evidence he would not believe. The Christian faith is not based on irrational wish-fulfilment, but on eyewitness evidence to hard facts.

We do not simply dismiss all doubts and demand that people exercise blind faith. There is a place for doubt and healthy scepticism in the Christianity. The writer and literary critic A. N. Wilson once professed Christianity. Then he became an atheist. In recent articles in the New Statesman and the Daily Mail, Wilson explained why he had converted back to Christianity. He explained that he had become weary with the undoubting dogmatism of the atheist community. He describes the time when Christopher Hitchens quizzed him to make sure that he did not have a lingering belief in a divine being. There could be no room for doubt that there is no God. But slowly Wilson began to doubt his atheist certainties. Regarding his old atheist cronies he wrote,

“Sadly, they have all but accepted that only stupid people actually believe in Christianity, and that the few intelligent people left in the churches are there only for the music or believe it all in some symbolic or contorted way which, when examined, turns out not to be belief after all.
As a matter of fact, I am sure the opposite is the case and that materialist atheism is not merely an arid creed, but totally irrational.
Materialist atheism says we are just a collection of chemicals. It has no answer whatsoever to the question of how we should be capable of love or heroism or poetry if we are simply animated pieces of meat.”

Wilson’s doubts concerning atheism led to faith in the bodily resurrection of Jesus,

"In the past, I have questioned [the truth of Jesus’ resurrection] and suggested that it should not be taken literally. But the more I read the Easter story, the better it seems to fit and apply to the human condition. That, too, is why I now believe in it.
Easter confronts us with a historical event set in time. We are faced with a story of an empty tomb, of a small group of men and women who were at one stage hiding for their lives and at the next were brave enough to face the full judicial persecution of the Roman Empire and proclaim their belief in a risen Christ."

Wilson is no naïve fool. He has been convinced by the biblical evidence for Jesus resurrection and the evidence of the transformed lives of those who believe that Jesus is alive. Thomas was not wrong to demand evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus. The Christian faith does not silence and suppress honest doubt. It confronts our doubts with a surprising fact that calls for genuine faith.

II. Thomas’ Surprise

Now it is the Sunday after Easter Sunday. Once more the disciples were gathered together. But this time Thomas is present. Something remarkable happens, vs. 26. He singles out “doubting Thomas”, vs. 27.

i. Jesus invites Thomas to examine the evidence that he is risen

vs. 27a The evidence is unmistakable. This is the same Jesus who was crucified. Yet now he is alive and not only alive but he has been strangely transformed so that vs. 26. He has not “done a Lazarus”. He has been resurrected from the dead. All that the other disciples had told him concerning Jesus were true. His doubt is confronted and unsettled by the surprising fact that Christ is risen.

ii. Jesus calls Thomas to believe that he is risen

Note that Jesus does not zap Thomas for his unbelief. His first word to the disciples including Thomas was “Peace to you!”. But now he does challenge his doubting disciple, vs. 27b. You have seen the evidence. Now believe! And does Thomas believe!

III. Thomas’ Confession

He not only believed that Jesus was alive from the dead, but in believing he was given understanding of Jesus’ true identity, vs. 28. In a sense Thomas’ statement here is the high point of John’s Gospel, told from the outset, 1:1, 14 etc. But it takes the resurrection of Jesus for his divine identity to be fully revealed. This risen Jesus, bearing the marks of his shameful crucifixion in his hands and his side is none other than Lord and God. Remember that Thomas was a religious Jew, Deut 6:4ff. By faith he sees that Jesus is included in the divine identity so that what might be properly said concerning Yahweh may also be said of Jesus. He was Lord, the sovereign ruler of the universe. He was God through whom all things were made. Remember that John 1:1ff was written in the light of John 20. It is only because of the resurrection that Jesus was confessed as Lord and God. Other than that, he would have been another failed Messiah.

This is the genesis of Christian theology. We confess the risen Jesus as Lord and God. He was with God, he was God, he was made flesh and now he is seen to be Lord and God in his resurrection. This is why the early church worshipped Jesus alongside God, because as the risen Lord he was shown to be the eternal Son of God.

Note that this is a deeply personal confession. The one who said, vs. 25 now says, “My Lord and my God.” Is that your confession too?

IV. Thomas’ Faith and Ours

Now Jesus addressed Thomas, vs. 29. Why are we blessed in believing without seeing?

i. Not because Thomas had evidence for his faith and we do not

We will not see the risen Jesus (until he returns), but that does not mean that our faith is a leap in the dark. We have the compelling eyewitness testimony of the apostles. The fact that they could be so sceptical and doubting adds to the integrity of their confession. We have the authority of Scripture. God is there. He has spoken. His word gives us many infallible proofs that Jesus is alive. Dawkins was so wrong. In believing in the resurrection of Jesus we are not in the same category of the queen in Alice in Wonderland. Faith is convinced by the demands of truth that Jesus is alive.

ii. Because we believe in the same Jesus as Thomas

We believe in the one who died for sins and has been raised again from the dead. We cannot see him. But he is a real and living object for our faith, Rev. 1:18.

iii. Because we have a living relationship with the risen Jesus

Not simply figure in history. Whitefield and Lloyd-Jones. He is alive, John 14:21. 1 Peter 1:8.

iv. Because we have been born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

If Jesus is risen, then we can trust his word, John 11:25 & 26. It is not irrational to stake your eternal destiny on that claim. You can entrust your death to Jesus knowing that he has conquered death himself. Consider the facts. Examine the empty tomb. Reflect on the resurrection appearances. Scrutinise the integrity of the apostolic witness. Then with Thomas confess concerning Jesus, vs. 28. Don’t be unbelieving, but believing. For, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have yet believed.”

1 comment:

Carl Hartwell said...

Amen and amen. God bless you brother!