Hope. It is a power. Hope can give life in desperate times. Hope can sustain us through the dark moments. If there is hope, you can endure just about anything. Hope is at the heart of what it means to have faith. For as the preacher of Hebrews defines it: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen,” (Hebrews 11:1). One of the things I love about my job is that I get to say I work for Hope. Hope is not just the name of an institution, it is a fundamental character of a faithful people. To have faith in Christ is to know Hope. Hope is power.
But what happens when hope is lost? What happens when, after we have sacrificed, endured, emotionally trusted in what we have been hoping for is unfilled? How do we respond? Have you ever lost hope? Something you have poured your heart and soul into only to lose it? How do we respond if hope is lost?
I was thinking about this at Easter.
It’s Easter morning and there’s snow on the ground as we go to church. I love my church. It’s old school. Pews that creak. Cranky organ. It’s filled with aged wisdom. Meaning, well lets just say that this means I worship in a church where the most dense demographic are those who are collecting social security. But I love worshiping with them. These people have been around the block. They know a thing or two about life – about what it means to have a hope earned by “a long obedience in the same direction.”
Easter was hard for me this year. I wasn’t in a joyful place. In fact, I was sad. But I went. I showed up. Sometimes in the Christian life, the most heroic thing to do is just show up. So I went to church. I was with Kristen and my in-laws, Peter and Elka (Kristen’s parents).
In our creaky pews, I sat in front of Dave and Jody. Dave goes to our church. I’ve gotten to know him a little. Dave is the kind of man who you want as a friend. When you meet him, you are struck by an intuitive sense of empathy. He wears a gentleness that comes with the knowledge that each of us is fighting a great battle. I have never heard a harsh word from his mouth. Though he has never told me himself, I know his life is marked with a profound loss. The kind of loss that kills hope.
I am friends with some of his old friends and they have told me the stories. Many years ago his young son went into the lake and never came out. To lose a son in such a way? It haunts. The whole community mourns. The hope of a generation is lost. And I also know that a few years later, his wife, his beloved, was stricken with cancer. He lost her. He nursed her through. She died. The love of his life. Dies. So soon. Life is so fragile. Two significant losses. The hope of love is lost.
I didn’t know Dave then. It was before my time. But I know him now. And I know he carries the pain of hope lost. You can tell he is a man who knows what it means to suffer through unanswered prayers. Dave is right in front of me. He’s here. Putting his faith in something. Trusts, but has not yet seen, the resurrection. I wonder how he hears this news that Jesus is risen indeed.
And today, on this Easter Sunday, I am so thankful for him. I am thankful for his witness.
Dave’s witness gives me strength. I have needed that this past month. Dave reminds me a lot of the witness of Thomas.
“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
“But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”
“A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 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.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 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.”
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
The First Sermon
We catch up with the disciples huddled together. They are gathered with the door locked, in a secret room, trembling with doubt, suspicions of conspiracy theory, and fearful. What a pendulum swing from a week earlier.
Only seven days ago they were with Jesus. Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The crowds gathered. The palm branches swaying. The voices lifted up “Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest.” I imagine Jesus’ talmidim, the chosen disciples, chest out high. Jesus the messiah was coming to fulfill this destiny. And they, the twelve, were going to be a key part of the new Kingdom. Did power, glory, riches pass through their minds? It was the moment.
They had traveled, trained, and been tested by Jesus for three years. They left family and friends. They lived like spiritual troubadours traipsing about the countryside as Jesus spoke of a new age – a new kingdom to come – as Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, comforted the mourning. They were with him the night he walked on water. They witnessed the feeding of the five thousand. They saw him heal the leper, the blind man, and raise Lazarus from the dead. They saw how the very presence of Jesus – meaning God saves – inspired hope in the people. Wherever they went, word spread that Jesus was in town and the people came. He was said to be the Messiah – the son of God – the one who was going to restore Israel – God’s covenant people – to full restoration. So much hope swirled around Jesus – so much hope must have been intoxicating to the disciples. Jesus in Jerusalem. Now was the moment. The disciples with baited breath.
I’ve needed to hear this sermon. I need to hear that Peace – shalom – is possible… Not only is it possible, it is reality. It is our mission after the resurrection to live into the peace that Christ preaches. We don’t make the peace happen – the reconciliation has already happened. But we live into it by faith through grace. This Shalom is all grace. I think sometimes we lose how radical our faith is. Christ has done this. Christ has shattered the power of sin. And when he gets up out of the grave the first thing he says is “Peace be with you.”
This is not just a wish. This is the declaration of a fact. By Christ’s sacrifice on the cross – the power of death, the power of sin, is abolished. This is more a declaration of victory after a long war. “Peace be with you.”
You know that Peace is more than a statement of non-violence. It is more than a ceasefire between enemies. Peace is the Hope of God. Peace is what we were created for – it is what we were saved for. Of course you know this, but in Hebrew the word for peace is “shalom.” Shalom is what humanity was originally created into. Shalom is the webbing together of all things in justice, fulfillment, and delight. To be given shalom, is to be given reconciliation with God, with ourselves, with each other, and with creation. To be given shalom is to be given salvation. That is why we come out and say to one another “Peace be with you” and you say “and also with you.” These are not just words. This is the hope of the world. This hope is larger than we can possibly ask or imagine.
Do you know that you are forgiven? Do you know that God is giving you his peace? It is yours to access by faith. It is given to you by the only one who can give it – Jesus Christ. Only in Jesus – the one who conquered death – can we be given his peace. The good news is that Jesus came to us to give it. This is the first sermon: “Peace be with you.”
Jesus seems to walk through the walls. Or he picks the lock. However it happens, he shows up and says “Peace be with you.” Then he breathes on them, gives them the Holy Spirit, and sends them out. “Just as the Father sent me to give hope to the world, so I send you. But you will go with the power and authority of my Spirit.” The holy spirit is even now with us – so that we can go out and live into the peace that Jesus freely gives you, and me, and the world.
I’ve needed to hear this sermon. That this kind of hope is really real. That it is really possible. I’ve needed to believe, despite my unbelief. Oh yes. I have my fits of doubt – and struggles.
And I think so did Thomas. This sermon was also for him.
The Witness of Thomas
Thomas is not there originally when Jesus shows up. I can’t help but wonder why? This is only speculation, only a theory. I can’t prove it. But I think Thomas was thinking of ditching the whole thing. I think Thomas was about ready to pack up his things and leave the other disciples.
I’d be thinking about it if I was him. Think about it. For three years you’ve been fed all this hope about the Kingdom of God. You have seen the signs that this guy Jesus may just be the long awaited Messiah. Your whole life, all you have, is tied up with this one man. And just when everything is supposed to come together, supposed to cash in, he goes and gets himself killed, and there is a strong possibility that he too might get killed. If he wasn’t thinking about leaving this demoralized band of brothers, he should have. I think Thomas wasn’t there because he might have been thinking of leaving.
But then the others find him and tell him something extraordinary. “We have seen him. We have seen the Lord.”
Thomas responds with a suspicious eye and a cocked eyebrow, as if to say, “Really? “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.”
The word used for put – “to put your fingers in his side” – is the Greek word ballyo – this is the word used to say throw or thrust. A better translation might be to “to thrust, to hit, my fingers in his side.”
To throw or thrust your fingers into someone’s open wound is an aggressive act. If we read between the lines, you get the idea that Thomas is upset. He wants to jam his hand like a fist into Jesus’ side.
If you think about it. Thomas might have had cause. At least in his own mind. He had spent three years with Jesus. Three years of faithful following. Three years of doing the right thing. Three years of leaving his family behind. Three years of hoping that Jesus was going to usher in the Messianic age, and Thomas is going to be one of the key players. So much Hope. So much expectation. And then… the cross. Death. All the hopes died with Jesus on that awful Friday.
I’ll believe it when I see it. I’ll believe it when I can “thrust” my fingers into his hands like a fist.
Then a week later. The Disciples are all gathered together again. Thomas is there this time. Thomas is there. He didn’t leave! Suddenly Jesus shows up. It doesn’t say this, but you get the impression that Jesus walked through the wall. But this is not a ghost. His body must have had physical presence, because he looks right at Thomas and says, “now – here – put – thrust – your finger here. Touch me, and see if this Hope is not real!”
Thomas can only gasp and gape in the disbelief of his belief, saying the only thing that comes to his mind, “My Lord and my God.”
What strikes me about Thomas is not that he needed proof. It’s not that he needed clarification. Think about it: a guy walks through the walls and shows up at the prayer meeting… you’re not going to ask for some I.D.?
No. What is remarkable is not that he doubted – or asked questions. That’s not remarkable. Doubt is part of faith. I’m actually a little worried when people don’t have any struggles of doubt. How can we not doubt or have questions. Of course Thomas had doubts. Who wouldn’t? Doubt is easy. It is common sense applied. But what is extraordinary is faith – it is hoping in what we can not see.
No. What is remarkable to me is that Thomas is even there. What is amazing is that after having his hopes dashed, he still stayed, he stuck with it. Even when he must have had voices in his head saying, “Leave. Now. Get out while you still have a life.” He stayed. To put it simply, Thomas was faithful even in his doubts.
I think Thomas should not be known as the doubter, but as the faithful.
Thomas is there. Thomas showed up. This is the witness I most admire. My heroes in the church are not the ones who have a great personal experience. When this happens, it is a gift – it is all grace – and I love it. I love to hear the stories of God doing something new in someone’s life. There is so much energy and fresh joy when people meet the Holy Spirit and get a taste of the glory of God. They can’t wait to get more – to study and pray and learn all they can. I love this. But as much as I love this, what I love more is sitting behind someone like Dave.
What inspires me most is when I am around the old saints who have been through it all and they are still there. They have been tested, they have traveled with their doubts, and they are still there. Though they have “considered all the facts,” they still show up. Even when their Hope has been lost.
People like Dave. People who have lost someone they loved. But he is still there.
I need that witness – that witness of Thomas.
As I said it was a hard Easter for Kristen and I. We don’t talk about this much. It’s difficult. But Kristen and I have been struggling to start a family. About three years. We have wanted to be parents more than anything.
January we found out that we were pregnant. In fact I found out right after I got done preaching at a conference at Calvin. My text was the great cloud of witnesses.
It felt like it was a miracle. New life. After so much waiting, and hoping, and doctors, and procedures, we were expecting. I was going to be a Papa. We were so excited. I was playing with names.
One night, about a month ago, Kristen didn’t feel well. It was the first round of the tournament. I went to the basketball game with a friend. But when I got home and I could tell on Kristen’s face that something was wrong. There was bleeding. The next morning we went to the doctors and confirmed that we had lost the baby. Just like that. Hope was gone.
It’s not that I’m mad at God. I’m just sad. I feel like I lost hope. It was like I lost someone I loved but never got a chance to meet.
Easter was hard. Hearing about the resurrection. I wanted a resurrection for this child. I’m not getting it anytime soon. To be honest, I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay home.
And I ended up sitting right in front of Dave. And Dave has remarried. In this marriage he has a wonderful new family. He is, what I like to say, “experiencing the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living,” (Psalm 27:13). Though the sorrow is still there in his gentleness, he lives with the Peace of the Lord.
That is how I want to live. Though I can’t see it yet. I want to live with that kind of hope. I want to keep showing up. Because the witness of Thomas is if you stick with it even in your doubts, if you keep coming together with the other disciples, maybe, just maybe, Jesus is going to show up in your room and say to you the sermon you are longing to hear – the sermon of good news – the sermon of truth – the sermon that will set you free – Peace be with you!
Preached at a Hope College Gathering service on April 8, 2018.