A basic principle in the study of chemistry involves the difference between a physical vs. a chemical change in the composition of matter. As a solid block of ice becomes liquid water or gaseous steam, it experiences a simple, physical change. Such a change is completely reversible; nothing is either gained or lost, for there is no change in water’s actual composition.
A chemical change, however, is quite different. When basic elements -like flour, salt, sugar and water are mixed together - and baked - a chemical reaction occurs, and a completely new substance – bread – is formed. There is no un-making of bread, no extracting the flour, or re-claiming the salt. When heat energy is applied to that simple, physical mixture, the entire compound is permanently transformed into bread, the basic food for the world. And, by the way, there is nothing so enticing as the aroma and flavor of freshly baked bread.
With Christ’s resurrection on Easter morning, we Christians believe that our soul’s earthly experience was transformed – never to be the same - through its own chemical-change. For those who come to believe the events of Easter day, nothing would – could - ever be the same. We are changed, and the energy – the power - for our chemical soul-change is offered only through “our Lord and our God,” risen from the dead.
What an amazing and glorious reversal of death’s hold over earthly life! It is a wonder beyond human logic … and it begs the question today (even as it did Easter morning): How can we believe such an astonishing wonder? On this Sunday - in particular - each one of us is confronted with this question, and must decide what we believe. So today, we follow Thomas’s journey, and in so doing, we join 21 centuries of Christian seekers. Fortunately for us, John – and the risen Jesus Himself – go to great lengths to help us … not so much to see (that we might believe) … but believe (that we can see.)
When John (the only evangelist to document this moment between Jesus and Thomas) wrote his Gospel, he was perhaps 80 years old. He knew his own time was short, and more importantly, he knew that he was one of the last souls remaining who had actually known Jesus and witnessed His resurrection.
And so, late in life, with time running out, John writes his (the last) Gospel with one, single purpose. This Gospel was written (as John says) “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing you may have life in his name.” Unlike the other Gospels, John’s is not essentially a biography of Jesus; it is (beginning to end) an evidentiary attestation - documented by one who witnessed it all first hand: that Jesus is God; that He took our sin (our soul’s corruption) upon Himself, and sacrificed Himself … to pay the price for those sins, and is now – and forever - physically raised from the dead. His victory over the enemy of Life itself is absolute and without limit. And He did it all for us!
This is the context and trajectory of today’s dramatic encounter between the risen Christ and Thomas. John’s entire Gospel has lead us to this one final and climactic moment, in which we (with all John’s book of evidence in hand) might “come to believe” - with and through the experience of Thomas … that Jesus was raised from the dead.
Significantly, John’s readers have come to know the Apostle Thomas earlier in his Gospel, and it is clear that he is not a man who doubts Jesus. He’s actuality quite a decisive personality with a gallant, outspoken spirit. When Lazarus had died, and Jesus decided to go deep into dangerous territory to – as it turns out – raise Lazarus from the dead… Thomas boldly proclaims to the other, more reluctant Disciples: “Let us go too – and die with Jesus.” (11:16.) When Jesus tells the Disciples at the Last Supper that they know where He is going, it is Thomas who brazenly demands: “No, Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
What emerges from these stories is that Thomas is perhaps rather literal, and libel to say things no one else would dare say … but he is also fearless and willing to act on his beliefs. Thomas is no shrinking violet; he is not afraid to ask questions, and not inclined to follow blindly the whim of a crowd. This is not a man who could be cowed into saying he believed something he did not know to be absolutely true. He is a man of integrity, a natural leader, and importantly, he could be counted upon to do the right thing … but only after he was convinced that it was the right thing. Thomas needed facts – not theological musings. Either Jesus was or was not resurrected from the dead … and He now either does or does not actually, physically stand before him – wounds and all.
And so, it is quite in character – and from Thomas’s desire to believe – that he speaks today with such unabashed frankness. Thomas is the perfect bridge-of-belief - between the twelve Apostles who lived and walked with Christ – and witnessed His resurrection – and the rest of us, who stand so far outside that original circle of first-hand experience.
For one week, the other Apostles had been telling Thomas that Jesus was resurrected and had conquered death. For that week, Thomas was asked to believe what he had not seen firsthand, even as the others gave their word to Thomas (just as they still give their word to us.) The Apostles were offering him Truth (as they do us!) but Thomas would not believe, unless he saw for himself. Thus, for a brief time, Thomas is … one of us – more modern man than original witness. He shares our perspective, and represents our eyes and hands - and hopes to believe – that Jesus actually rose from the dead.
And oh!… when Thomas sees his resurrected master - he delivers the one absolutely unequivocal statement of Jesus’ Divinity found anywhere in the Gospels: “My Lord and my God!” This is the only time the word “God” is used without qualification of any kind, and in the most unambiguous terms. But, Thomas’ proclamation is also deeply personal: “my Lord and my God!” Thomas declares his complete, total conviction. He now knows Jesus is God… both supremely divine and intimately personal. And as Jesus willingly provides the proof of resurrection that the Apostle demands, the Lord tells Thomas (and us, through Thomas) that even more “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Thomas has stood in for us – and has seen the wounded resurrected Christ - and has now himself come to believe – with the strongest possible acclamation – that the man, Jesus is … God; that He was dead and is now alive. And Jesus Himself has graciously spoken to us – directly across the ages – with His assured blessing as we come to believe in His resurrection.
So, on this day, one week after Resurrection Sunday, we are again confronted with the mysterious wonder … that John wrote an entire book to prove … that Thomas had to see to believe … and that Jesus blesses as we respond. Today, we are provoked to answer life’s most important question: Do we believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead?
Some might ask: “Can’t we just believe Jesus’ teachings, and not worry ourselves with this logic-testing issue of bodily resurrection? Can’t we be “Christians” because we appreciate Jesus’ moral example and try to emulate it?" That is certainly what many in our own time – including many inside the church - would suggest … in order to, well, “modernize” Christianity and make it more … intellectually reasonable. “I’m a Christian,” some say, “because Jesus’ was a great teacher, a holy man and an inspired moral leader, and so I try to emulate His example.” Interestingly, and as an aside, this kind of “faith” makes the Gospel about us (and our behavior) not Jesus and what He actually did!
But, As Tim Keller has said: “If you get rid of the resurrection, you don’t modernize Christianity, you disembowel it.” Jesus was either God - conquering death as only God can – or He was nothing at all. Without the resurrection, Jesus’ teachings are inconsequential, His words have no power – no heft. Without the resurrection, Jesus was just another good man, a wise teacher, a moral leader … who’s dead. Without the resurrection, Jesus cannot be God. All the Apostles (including John and Thomas) had heard everything Jesus said and taught “from the beginning” and throughout His ministry … but it was not until they saw His resurrected body that they believed He was God Almighty.
The one, essential, life-transforming – chemical change power – that has always defined any Christian … is our belief that Jesus actually, physically rose from the dead. And when we believe that … everything changes! We are transformed; Life itself is changed and all history is re-oriented!
Christ’s physical resurrection means that whatever our circumstances are, whatever life throws at us, however miserably we have failed (even at following Jesus’ “good example”) we have Hope! We are not bound by our past, for Christ’s sacrifice of Himself has paid the price for our sin. We are not paralyzed by our present circumstances, for we have the risen presence of Jesus whom we can talk to, pray to - cry to - as our companion and our peace. We are set free … into our own risen future: we have a new identity, a new hope, a wholly new future! We experience our own chemical change and become new persons in Christ.
My brothers and sisters, Christianity is a baldly, boldly, overtly ... supernatural religion. Our faith is founded solely on the belief that Jesus was raised from the dead … and out of that reality, everything else – natural or supernatural – changes.
The faith we Christians choose to believe requires us to plunge ourselves into a mysterious, transforming - holy - bread-bowl, where the risen Lord God will knead us, and warm us, and watch over us as we rise … in some cool – perhaps even dark – places. As we release ourselves into the hands of this chemist, His resurrection Power will change our dross - the callowness, cynicism and pride that sours our lives – into His holy bread. And our elemental little lives – lives once trapped in sin, circumstance and hopelessness - become enticingly warm and aromatic. We – our souls - are fed deeply, eternally. And, astoundingly, we are transformed… into His communion Bread – made fresh daily - for a sorrowful and anxious world that longs for a transformational Hope … a Hope that only Christ’s resurrection can supply.
Alleluia! Alleluia! The Lord is risen! The LORD is risen, INDEED! Alleluia! Alleluia!