March 30, 2008

Developing Devoted Disciples
John 20:19-30

Jesus, at least as far as the various gospel accounts inform us, appeared to relatively few people following his resurrection. Resisting the urge to “go back and set the record straight” with everyone who had tested and taunted him, Jesus instead appeared to a select group of disciples in one setting or another. He encouraged Mary Magdalene and the other Mary just a stone’s throw from the empty tomb, walked with two befuddled disciples along a winding, rural road, and engaged in a restorative conversation with a guilt-ridden Peter over a pan full of fresh tilapia. Such are the glimpses the gospel writers give us into the few days of Jesus’ life between his resurrection and ascension—down-to-earth scenes in which Jesus talks to, walks with and cooks for his troubled and grieving disciples.

Among this handful of scenes is Jesus’ touching—figuratively and literally!—encounter with the so-called “doubting” disciple, Thomas. But while Thomas is the leading character here—the one that the camera zooms in on—his infamous reactions to both the other disciples and to Jesus serve only as pieces of a larger picture that eventually points beyond Thomas himself and the other disciples to the entire world around them.

The story of Thomas moves through three distinct scenes and concludes with a brief reflective summary on the part of the author. In scene 1 (vv. 19-23), the resurrected Lord appears unexpectedly and even mysteriously to the disciples who are now anxiously bunkered down in a secluded room somewhere in Jerusalem. Judas, of course, had by now hung himself following his bitter betrayal of the Lord, so his seat remains empty. Thomas is likewise absent, although his whereabouts remain unspecified and presumably unknown.

When Jesus appears to this now timid group, the fear and anxiety of the disciples quickly dissipates and is replaced by praise and worship. As he extends his hands and uncovers his side, the disciples “rejoiced,” John points out. Their confidence in God is restored and their hearts renewed. Clearly, the resurrected Lord cares about reconnecting people with God.

Scene 2 (vv. 24-25) apparently unfolds in the same door-locked room, although Jesus has by this time gone elsewhere. Now, Thomas, who appears only in passing in the other three gospels, takes his place on center stage. Having missed the initial, breath-taking appearance of the resurrected Jesus in scene 1, Thomas rejects the testimony of the others out-of-hand. Like so many people, he insists on additional physical evidence, “proof” that what his friends have told him is actually true. And for this Thomas is typically ridiculed.

If we are honest, however, we must admit that we sense in Thomas a bit of the same tension that we ourselves sometimes feel. On the one hand, we too want sufficient evidence and analysis so that our commitment to Jesus is both reasonable and defensible. We’ve seen and perhaps even read books like Evidence that Demands a Verdict, New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, and The Case for Faith. This complex world of ours has little need for whimsical and untested religious convictions. On the other hand, we want to beware of the sometimes endless obsession with reason and data that, if left unchecked, undermines the very essence of faith. We can get ourselves so entangled in philosophical and theological minutia that we never allow ourselves the freedom to believe, trust and love. Thomas—and this aspect of his spiritual journey is often overlooked—wants to believe. Perhaps more than anything else. He is still in the room with the other disciples, isn’t he? He hasn’t thrown in the towel on Jesus and denounced the entire matter as an unfortunate misunderstanding, at best, or a preposterous hoax, at worst. Had he left his skepticism get the best of him and run away, he might very well have never seen the risen Lord. Thomas wants to believe. He wants to learn. He wants to see Jesus, as the others did.

And that is precisely what happens in scene 3 (vv. 26-29). No doubt aware of both Thomas’ heart and mind—his longing and his doubt—Jesus enters the room a second time and goes directly to Thomas. “Touch my hands,” Jesus says. “Put your fingers on my side.” And as Thomas remains in the room and reaches out his hands, the lights begin to go on. “My Lord and my God,” he cries. Obviously, the resurrected Lord meets people where they are and nurtures them into a deeper and lasting faith.

When the third scene comes to a close, John pauses to offer some personal reflections. Having witnessed the presence and power of the risen Lord at work in that secluded room, John is overcome by the need to tell others outside of the disciples’ inner circle (vv. 30-31). People who love God and have been transformed into devoted disciples inevitably long to see others come to the risen Lord as well. Sensing this profound burden, John gathers together this and other stories and fashions his gospel in order to invite other people to faith in Christ. “…these are written,” he acknowledges, “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God….” And who is the “you” he refers to? His wider audience. A host of unnamed readers. Whoever gets their hands on this book. Unarguably, the resurrected Lord longs for people outside the inner circle of disciples to hear the good news and come to new life in him.

The story of Thomas, then, tells us something about Thomas, but it also tells us a great deal about the resurrected Lord. Jesus cares about these three primary movements: the upward—loving God; the inward—making disciples; and the outward—extending the circle. And so must we who follow him. In fact, I have come to believe that these three movements, so common throughout Scripture, capture the very essence of what it means to be the church in today’s world. All three movements—upward, inward and outward—must be evident for a church to be healthy and faithful.

In recent months, the pastoral staff, church board and ministry team here at the Grantham Church have been on a journey of sorts. We’ve reflected on the past and what we’ve learned together, and we’ve begun to discern who God is calling us to be and what he is calling us to do in the next phase of our congregation’s life. Along the way, we’ve sensed a deepening need to work together even more closely as a team rather than individual thoroughbreds, to align the various ministries of our church so that they interrelate and build upon each other, and to create a sense of common purpose here that all of us can embrace and articulate. While this journey is still very much in process—and we want to invite each of you to travel with us now—we’ve at this point formulated a simple statement that captures the three movements, provides parameters for conceptualizing and evaluating our ministries, and is easily memorized. That statement simply reads:
The Grantham Church:
…loving God (upward),
…making disciples (inward),
…serving our world (outward).
During the coming year, we plan on testing the statement to see if it helps us focus our energies and tie our ministries together. Let us know what you think, and please remain in prayer for our pastoral staff, board, other congregational leaders and the church in general. May God help us, in this needy world, to be and do all that he calls us to.