2nd Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 20:19-31;
DOUBTING AN EXECUTED MESSIAH
I’m glad we have the story of Thomas in John’s Gospel. It lets us know that there’s room for doubters in the church. Thomas represents a good example for all of us who experience doubt. Thomas was honest about his doubt, and, as it has been for many of us, it was the beginning of faith. We can never truly have faith until we come to grips with our doubts.
But there’s something else very important we can learn from Thomas’ particular experience, if we ask about exactly what it is that Thomas doubted. We modern folks, in the age of science, might assume that Thomas doubted whether Jesus could be raised from the dead, because many of us have those doubts.
But, actually, there is a big problem with this assumption. What is the last story in John’s Gospel before we move into the Holy Week events? It’s the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11). Do you see the problem? If Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead only days before these events of Easter evening, then why was it so hard for Thomas to believe that God could raise Jesus from the dead? No, Thomas certainly had his doubts, but I don’t think they had anything to do with the possibility of resurrection itself.
I want to suggest to you that what Thomas doubted involved who was being raised from the dead. They had believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ of God. But didn’t his getting executed by their enemies raise serious doubts about that? God certainly has the power to raise Jesus from the dead, but why would God do that for someone who appeared to have failed? Thomas wanted to see Jesus’ hands and feet and side. He wanted to see Jesus’ marks of execution. Why? Because he doubted that God would raise some loser who had been executed in such shame and misery. The believed in a Messiah who would come to free them from the Romans, not to lose out like that, hanging naked on the cross in utter defeat and humiliation. How could someone crucified be the Messiah? Thomas may have believed the week before, but now he had grave doubts. He would need to see the marks of execution to believe it to believe that God would raise him as the Messiah, the Lord.
Let’s be even more blunt: Thomas, as does the rest of humankind, believes in violence as the only effective answer for violence. When faced with frightening violence in our lives, we believe in stopping it with a greater counter-violence, and we doubt if anything less could ever stop it. And we believe in a God who is on our side and who will punish our enemies, punish those who try to hurt us. We don’t want to hear about forgiveness and mercy when it comes to our sense of justice for our enemies. We believe in punishment for those guilty of harming us.
Let’s bring Thomas’ doubt up-to-date with a rather common scenario in recent years. There’s a demonstration outside a prison. A man is about to be executed and Christians are outside demonstrating, representing both sides of the issue. One anti-death penalty demonstrator is holding a sign that says, “Jesus was executed.” But a church-goer who is demonstrating in favor of the execution takes issue with him, saying, ‘Jesus’ death wasn’t really an execution because it was the will of God fore-ordained from before creation for our salvation.’
This second man’s answer represents a common theology among Christians, where God punishes all the guilty in hell forever, so such a view of God makes it much easier to support the death penalty. We believe in a God who punishes, so we construct a version of the cross where Jesus isn’t executed by us human beings. No, it’s all part of a bigger cosmic plan where Jesus lovingly pays the price for our crimes. God punishes criminals, and so do we.
Well, this has been a popular way of seeing the cross, but, for my money, it’s simply another way of trying to ignore the real story of Jesus being executed by human beings. It shifts the story to one of God trying to punish all of us. Let me be frank: I believe, and so do an increasing number of Christians, that this way of seeing the cross has been a grave mistake. Why? Because it does the opposite of what the cross is supposed to do. We believe in a God who punishes the guilty, so we shift the story to have such a God. But think again about Thomas’ doubt. He believes in a God punishes wrong, and so he doubts a punished, executed Messiah? So isn’t being confronted with a risen executed Messiah an important clue that we are supposed to begin doubting our belief in a God who punishes? Aren’t we supposed to begin doubting our belief that the only effective measure to stop violence against us is a greater counter-violence? Isn’t that why believing in an executed Messiah is such a tough thing to do? It goes against our ordinary human beliefs in violence and punishment?
Yes, there is a bigger picture behind the one of Jesus dying on the cross outside of Jerusalem two thousand years ago, but I don’t think it’s about Jesus dying to save us from God’s violence, from God’s eternal punishment of hell. No, a theology which takes the facts of Jesus’ execution seriously sees that Jesus died to save us from our violence. That’s why he had to die precisely at the hands of our violence. As he told his disciples in the weeks leading up to his Passion, he had to give himself over into the hands of violent humanity so that God could raise him on the third day. They could not understand then, but a Risen Executed Messiah begins to reassure us that the power of our violence will never ultimately win out over the power of God’s loving gift of life. Love wins!
When Thomas bows before Jesus, crying out “My Lord and my God,” he is having to relinquish all his prior thoughts about God. If the executed Messiah standing before him is truly his Lord, then he must begin to understand the Messiah differently. The Messiah comes not with some sort of superior divine firepower. In other words, he doesn’t come with a violence to vanquish our human violence. No, that would be giving in to our ways of violence. Thomas, in bowing before this risen executed One, is on the road to a new understanding of Messiah: that the Messiah comes not to execute a greater divine violence, but instead to suffer our worst violence with faith in God’s superior power of life.
Faith, then, means letting Jesus remove all our ideas about God doing violence to instead believe in God ‘doing life.’ God doesn’t kill; we do. God’s justice isn’t about punishment; our human justice is. In the cross and resurrection, our seemingly endless capacity to hurt each other and kill each other is met with God’s truly endless capacity to forgive and to give life. God’s justice is about healing and restoration. And so faith is not about believing in Jesus so that God won’t punish us or kill us. Faith is about believing in God’s power of life and forgiveness to win out over our powers of violence and death. In short, it is having the faith that empowered Jesus to give himself over to our violence. Faith is following our Lord who will suffer violence before he inflicts it. Faith means believing in God’s power of life, even in the face of our powers of death.
A peculiar thing began happening in our Western culture in the aftermath of World War I. We actually began to lose faith in a God who has us do things like go to war against our enemies. It happened first in Europe. People simply quit going to church. Now, in the past ten years, there are strong signs that people are quitting going to church here in this country, too. There’s many voices in our culture saying that religions just cause more violence, and especially the younger generation looks at our Christian history and decides that’s right.
As an aging congregation like Faith seeks to welcome younger members, we need to be aware that they see religion as the cause of so much of the violence in our world. But what we’ve talked about today stands as a stark contrast to that picture: an executed Messiah who reveals God as willing to save us from our violence in love, not to ask violence from us in any way. Are we ready to believe in a God who is all about life and never about death? Jesus comes to us again right now in this meal of bread and wine to show us his body broken for us, his blood poured out for us. Jesus comes into our ordered, locked-down-tight worlds and says, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Faith Lutheran,
Saginaw, MI, April 2-3, 2016