Rev. Stephen Farris’ sermon is based on the story of Thomas and his disbelief until he saw the marks of the crucifixion on Jesus’ body. Thomas wasn’t present when the other disciples saw those marks, nor were we. Jesus said “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”. Though it is not possible for us to see the marks on Jesus’ body, it should be possible for people to see the marks on the body of Christ, which is His church and come to belief. Those marks should be the acts of Christians that reflect His love, concern and care for all his people.
Show Me the Marks Sermon
One of the challenges of being a seasonal church is that we may miss out on some of the great themes of the Christian faith that are connected with different seasons of the year. We don’t usually talk about Christmas in the summer for example, or Easter for that matter, though every Sunday is a supposed to be a reminder of the day of Resurrection. Our Gospel reading today is usually read the Sunday after Easter, for good reason, but really it is a “some time later” text. It’s about coming to believe in Jesus and deciding to follow him, post Easter, some time later, maybe even in the middle of the summer.
The story begins with one of the disciples, Thomas, missing the big events of Easter. I have always thought that the Apostle Thomas receives a raw deal in the traditions of the church. “Doubting Thomas,” we call him, as if he is defined more by his early doubt than his eventual belief. In truth, I have to admit that I can imagine myself more easily in the sandals of Thomas than the other disciples.
He has trouble coming to believe in the Risen Christ, and so, I think, would I.
He was not present that first Easter Sunday and neither was I.
He came to belief some time later, and so have I.
Indeed, so have all of us!
The truth is that Thomas wants nothing more than the other disciples have already received. Though the disciples had heard the witness of Mary Magdalene, according to the Gospel of John, they are not out on the streets, bearing witness to the Risen Lord. Rather, all the other disciples, except Thomas, are huddled together behind locked doors on the evening of the first Easter Sunday, for fear of the Jewish authorities. It is often still the case that we Christians are better at hiding than bearing witness. But Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” And then he showed them his hands and his side. He showed them the marks!
But Thomas wasn’t there, and neither were we.
The Risen Lord breathed the Holy Spirit into the disciples. He gave them a task and the power to forgive. He sent them out just as the Father had sent him. At that moment, they became the “sent ones,” the apostles, for the verb to “send” in Greek is “apostello.”
But Thomas wasn’t there. No wonder he doesn’t believe. He just wants
what the others had received before he too will believe.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
How about “reasonable Thomas?” Or “sensible Thomas?”
He wants what the others received, and so, I must confess, would I.
He wants to see the marks.
A week later, the disciples were gathered again, still in that same closed room, perhaps still hiding, but this time, Thomas is with them. The doors are still shut but Jesus stands among them once again. Closed doors are never a problem for the Risen Lord.
“Peace be with you,” he says, once again.
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
He shows Thomas the marks. And Thomas believed.
“My Lord and my God!”
Thomas sees the marks and he believes. Believing Thomas!
Now that confession, “My Lord and My God!” is the confession of the later church, not just of Thomas. The story is in some ways not about Thomas, but about us. It is about all of us who come to believe, some time later. And if we miss the point here, the Gospel proceeds to make it clear.
Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” The story is not just about Thomas, whether believing or doubting; it is about us.
Just how people come to believe, humanly speaking, remains a mystery. I suggest, however, that we are indeed like Thomas; we still say “Show me the marks! Then I will believe. I want to see the marks”
Of course, we won’t see the marks on the body of Jesus. But we may see the marks… on the Body of Christ, on the church. People are still more ready to believe if they see the marks of Christ on the church.
It has happened before, after all. It happened, for example, during the time of the Roman Empire. The early Christian writer Tertullian reported that non-Christians said of the early Christians, “See how they love one another!” They saw the marks of love, and some of them came to believe.
There was a Roman historian named Tacitus who hated Christians. But he reported that the emperor Nero needed scapegoats to blame for a great fire in Rome. People were whispering that Nero had ordered the fire to be set. Tacitus wrote:
“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.” (That is the result of the first Easter, I believe.) “
“Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind…”
Tacitus describes in painful detail the cruelty and mockery of the deaths of these Christians. But the result was surprising:
“Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.”
The people saw the marks of patient suffering and many believed.
The last pagan Roman Emperor was Julian the Apostate. Abandoning outright persecution to combat the rise of Christianity, he wrote to the priests of the pagan temples to get out and serve the people, especially the poor and needy. For, he said, one never saw a starving Jew or Christian. And not only that but, “These impious Galileans (Christians) not only feed their own poor, but ours also.”
The Romans saw the marks of Christian service and even more believed.
They saw the marks, and the Empire, the mighty Empire, became Christian!
But the sad truth is that if the Roman empire became Christian, Christianity also became Roman and Imperial. And sometimes so-called Christian empires became as vast and as powerful and perhaps as cruel as the Roman. And the church has far too often ceased to show the marks.
People notice this, you know. I saw a bumper sticker, “I like Jesus. It’s Christians, I can’t stand.” Do you think the driver of that car will believe? Do you think he will come to church?
There is a story that Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher and son of a Pastor, said of the members of his father’s church, “They don’t act very redeemed!”
An aside: if they say of your church, “See how they love one another,” all is well, no matter how small your church. But if they say of you, “they don’t act very redeemed!” your church is in trouble no matter how many hundreds or even thousands appear on your rolls.
Now, I think that those critics are wrong, of course. I have been in churches in many countries and I have seen Christians who show the marks every day.
“You’re wrong!” I would say, “I know you are wrong.”
If I had the power, I would take, for example, the driver of the car with the bumper sticker through time and space to show them that he’s wrong.
I might take him to the streets of Calcutta and show him Mother Theresa, stooping down to ease the passing of the poor, dying on those streets. I might take him to Selma, Alabama, to see a young Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King, standing up for civil rights against dogs and guns and violence. I would show the driver how King and his followers did not pay back violence with violence but prayed and sang hymns. “See?” I would say. “Do you see the marks?”
But I think the skeptic would reply. “These are heroes of your faith. Every movement has its heroes. But what about ordinary people?”
“Fine,” I would reply. “I’ll show you ordinary people.”
I might take him back to the Toronto of my childhood, when a reporter for a city newspaper loosened a wire in the old-fashioned distributor cap of his car. That was a very simple problem but it had the effect of rendering the car completely unable to run. He arranged for the car, now immobile, to be towed to some of the best known auto dealerships and garages in the city.
He received some very surprising diagnoses of the problem and some very costly estimates of the necessary repairs.
“You need a new transmission.” or
“The head gasket has to be replaced.”
And so it went until the car was towed to one particular dealership. The mechanic lifted the hood, checked the distributor cap and tightened the loose wire. “Fixed, ” he said simply.
“How much do I owe you?” the reporter asked.
“It was a simple problem,” the mechanic replied. “No charge.”
At that point, the reported came out of character, abandoned his role and told the mechanic of his adventures with dishonest dealers. “What makes you so different? Why didn’t you try to take advantage of me?”
“Because I’m a Christian.” the mechanic replied.
I have heard many good sermons in my life but never one so powerful as the simple words of the mechanic.
But I am afraid that wouldn’t work either. I think the skeptical driver or indeed Nietzsche would still challenge me and say, “That’s one special person in a long life, somebody you handpicked. But what would it be like if you took me, say, to a church you don’t know, a church where you cannot handpick the people I would meet? What would happen then?”
He wants to go to a church I don’t know. He wants to see the marks of Jesus. “Show me the marks!” that’s his challenge.
Well, I don’t know your church, the one you attend through the year. That church.
May I take him to your church?
May I take him to your church?