The text for this sermon is John 20:19-31.
In the 80’s when Lutherans realized they were shrinking nationally, they reacted with a big push on witnessing. The thinking, I suppose, if we could just get our people to tell their neighbors and friends about how they came to Jesus, people would choose to come to Jesus with us. From what I can tell from the numbers, it didn’t work out so great.
We should have guessed this, really. The way most of our members “came to Jesus” was in the backseat of their parent’s station wagon. Lutherans generally don’t have harrowing, inspiring coming to faith stories. Our stories tend to be a little dull. I can remember being a young adult in these classes wishing I had a more exciting story to share; knowing the survival of my church depended on it. But mine was like most everyone else’s in the room. My parents took me to church, and I always went to church. I can never remember a time when I didn’t believe in God. There has never been a time in my life, ever, where I was not an active part of a church. I never came to Jesus. Jesus came to me in baptism and like a lovable stray dog, has always hung around since.
Beyond just being the wrong strategy for Lutherans, I grew to have a deeper problem with it. I don’t think hearing someone else’s faith story causes them faith, no matter how cool and full of good salacious sin it might be. It would be like you telling me how smart you are with the hope it would make me smart. People have tried, but I am here to tell you it doesn’t work that way. Being smart is a gift only given by God and belief is the same sort of gift.
For example, I heard this witness at a homeless shelter. A drug dealer was hit by a car while selling illegal stuff and knocked into a huge mud puddle. He got up from the puddle and on the rippled service saw the face of Jesus outlined in rainbow colors of oil on top. I find that a memorable story. I’ve remembered it years later. This story may cause me to want to know about this Jesus character that shows up in mud puddles. It may even move me to go to church to hear about Jesus even bothers with drug dealers on rainy days. It doesn’t bring me faith.
There is a famous story in the fourth chapter of John where Jesus is at a well and he asks a Samaritan woman for some water. In their conversation Jesus amazes the woman and this becomes a great faith moment for her. She goes back and tells her village about what happened. She shares with them her come to Jesus moment, her rainbow colored mud puddle experience.
What does the village do? They love the story, because it is a cool story. When Jesus shows up in the next village, they run to hear him. In John 4:42 they tell the woman “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” This is how people come to Jesus. People don’t believe because of a cool story about Jesus apparitions in the rain. Since, I am the only one of my parent’s four children who even goes to church; people don’t even come to Jesus by the backseat of a station wagon, either. People come to faith in Jesus after he comes to them and they hear for themselves.
Let’s face it. The disciples had been telling Thomas a fantastic story, one that topped seeing Jesus in a mud puddle, but it didn’t make him believe. In the book of John, first Mary Magdalene sees and talks to Jesus by the empty tomb. She believes and tells her story to the disciples. We don’t know the disciples reaction, but we do know whatever Mary told them was not enough to keep them from huddling in fear in an upstairs room. Jesus shows up in the locked room, wounds and all, talks to them, breathes on them, and they believe.
Thomas, likely out getting the mail or something, misses all of this. He is intrigued by what he heard, but he wants what they got, to see Jesus face to face, bloody palms and all. So, Jesus, the good shepherd who promised to go and search out for the one, lost, stupid wandering lamb of the flock of 100 makes a command appearance just so Thomas would believe, also. Jesus comes to Thomas and Thomas believes. Jesus ends the scene by telling us we are blessed if we believe without seeing him, like Thomas, Mary and the others.
I appreciate the encouragement of Jesus. Few of us are going to have such a dramatic encounter with Jesus, drug dealers notwithstanding. Yet, I suspect that all of us are like Mary, the disciples, Thomas and the others. We want what they got, to see Jesus face to face, a sensual experience full of sights, smells, tastes, sound and touch. We need an encounter with Jesus to believe, too.
Trusting and believing in Jesus is not only a head thing. Your witness of Jesus no matter how moving will not give me faith. Reading a bible or Luther’s writings will not give me faith. Mary’s story or the disciple’s story could not give Thomas faith. Trusting and believing in Jesus is a relationship thing and relationships require encounters and in this encounter Jesus comes to us.
The good shepherd doesn’t wish that 100th lamb back in the flock. He doesn’t make a good case of why it should return. He doesn’t train the other 99 in the power of a convincing argument to lure that one dumb lamb back. The good shepherd goes and gets it. Jesus shows up in front of the lamb, the woman at the well, Mary, the disciples, Thomas, the drug dealer us and says look, listen, touch, taste my presence. The word became flesh and dwelt among us, because this is what we need to believe in the goodness of God’s love, the presence of God.
We need to touch, taste, see and hear the presence of Jesus. We need Jesus to come to us. For some, this happens in very concrete ways, like the drug dealer that saw Jesus in a mud puddle or Thomas that saw him in that room or some of you that have told me vivid stories of powerful visions of Jesus that you have had in your life. Alleluia.
For most of us Jesus comes in baptism, that leads us into the church, the gathering of saints committed to nurture our faith. Jesus comes to us in these waters then appears to us in the powerful presence of God in the people gathered as church. I know Jesus lives because I have been loved by him in a grace filled way through Dave Smith, Carol Thompson, Nola Drake and Ike Redfern. These faith filled people didn’t tell me to love God. They didn’t even tell me about why they love God. They simply loved me in a whole and good way so that I could taste, touch, see and hear the presence of God. They are my oil spilled visions of Jesus.
As the baptized, we gather to worship the God who has come to us. For all of us, worship is the opportunity to weekly brush close to the presence of God in Jesus. In this place when we gather, we should expect Jesus to show up. Worship is sensual just like Thomas’ experience. The tingling of music, the sweet, acidic taste of wine, the honeyed smell of flowers, the light touch of a kiss or firmness of a handshake in peace, the soothing, precise notes heard in song. Worship led well, and participated in fully is our opportunity to be like Thomas and place our hands in the wounds of Jesus and believe.
How did you come to faith? Maybe, a great story about how Jesus transformed a friend’s life encouraged you to look and see. Maybe, an encounter with a worn bible in a hotel room when you were struggling with your demons moved you to reconsider a relationship with God. Maybe, you were dunked as an infant in the waters of baptism and thrown every Sunday afterward into the car. However it happened remember, you never came to Jesus. Jesus the word made flesh came to you first in fleshy, real ways. Amen