No, He Never Stops Being Your Substitute

Jason Micheli —  April 8, 2018 — 1 Comment

     Even after Good Friday.

The first Easter wasn’t just a day. The Risen Jesus hung around for 50 days, teaching and appearing to over 500 people. 7 days after the first Easter Day, Jesus appears again in that same locked room as before and Jesus says ‘Peace be with you.’ And this time, this time Thomas is there.

     Jesus offers Thomas his body: ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ And Thomas reaches out to Jesus’ body. And Thomas touches Jesus. And Thomas grabs at the wounds of Jesus. He grasps Jesus’ wounded feet. He holds his hands against the holes. Puts his hand on Jesus’ pierced side to see the proof for himself…

Actually…no.

He doesn’t.

That’s the thing- We assume that Thomas touches Jesus’ wounds. Artists have always depicted Thomas reaching out and touching the evidence with his own hands. Duccio drew it that way. Caravaggio illustrated it that way. Peter Paul Rubens painted it that way.

Artists have always shown Thomas sticking his fingers in the proof he requires in order to believe.

And that’s how we paint it in our own imaginations.

Yet, read it again, it’s not there.

The Gospel gives us no indication that Thomas actually touches the wounds in Jesus’ hands.

John never says that Thomas peeked into Jesus’ side. The Bible never says Thomas actually touches him.

No. That’s got to be important, right?

I mean, the one thing Thomas says he needs in order to believe is the one thing John doesn’t bother to mention. What Thomas insists he needs to see is the one thing John doesn’t give you the reader to see. Instead John tells us that Jesus offers himself to Thomas and then the next thing we are told is that Thomas confesses: ‘My Lord and my God!” 

     Which- pay attention– is the first time in John’s Gospel that anyone finally and fully and CORRECTLY identifies Jesus as the same Lord who made Heaven and Earth.

“Doubting” Thomas manages to make the climatic confession of faith in the Gospel. After so many stories about the blind receiving sight and those with sight stubbornly remaining blind to who Jesus is, “Doubting” Thomas is the first person to see that the Jesus before him is the God who made him. And “Doubting” Thomas makes that confession of faith without the one thing he insists he needs before he can muster up faith.

———————-

     St. Athanasius says that Christ, as our Great High Priest, not only mediates the things of God to man but Christ also mediates the things of man to God. Including- especially- faith.

We think of faith as something we have, something we do. We think of belief as something we will, mustering it up in us in spite of us, despite our doubts. Believing is our activity, we think. Our act. But- If we think of faith as something we do or possess, as an autonomous act within us, we’re not speaking of faith as scripture speaks of it.

In scripture, faith- our faith- is made possible only through the agency of God: “Lord, help my unbelief” the father in Mark’s Gospel must beg Jesus, as we all must beg.

Jesus doesn’t just put on our flesh and live the life we live. He puts on the belief, lives the faith and trust in God we owe God as creatures of God.

     Jesus doesn’t just stand in our place when it comes to our sin.

He stands in our place when it comes to faith too.

     What holds Good Friday and Easter together, what makes cross and resurrection inseparable, is that Jesus never stops being a substitute for us, in our place, on our behalf.

The Risen Christ remains, even here and now, every bit a substitute for us as the Crucified Christ. Our faith, our belief, is made possible by him. It’s his work not ours, and like a parent’s hand grasping a little child’s, our faith, such as it is, is enfolded within his perfect faith; so that, in him, enclosed within his faith, our faith is mediated to God the Father. That’s what the New Testament means by calling Christ ‘the author and the finisher of our faith.” The faith we possess is the work of the Son within us not our own, but the faith by which the Father measures us is the Son’s not our own.

     ———————-

     So often preachers make the point of the story of Doubting Thomas a kind of permission for us to have our doubts, that its okay we’re all like Doubting Thomas, that “doubt is a part of faith” goes the cliche. But John would not have you see here simply Gospel approval for your doubts. This is the freaking climax of the Jesus story where someone finally and fully and correctly calls upon Jesus as his Lord and his God.

     “…but its okay to have your doubts too.” 

What kind of crappy whimper of an ending is that?!  That’s not the takeaway John intends Thomas to leave with you. No. John wants you to see Jesus, the Risen Lord. John wants you see the Risen Christ bringing into existence in Thomas, who had insisted unless I can touch his hands and feet for myself, a faith that can confess Christ as Lord and God.

Doubts are okay, sure. I’ve got plenty of doubts and, I’ll bet, I’ve got more reasons to doubt than you do. Sure, you’ve got doubts. Big deal. That’s not very interesting.

If faith is Christ’s work in us then doubt is just our natural human disposition, like Adam and Eve wondering in the Garden “Did God really say?”

Thomas’ doubt is not what John would have see.

     What John would have us see:

Is that Thomas’ faith-

It’s the work of the Risen Christ.

The Good News is NOT that you are saved by faith. Think about it: that puts all the onus on you. It makes faith just another work. Your work. It empties the cross of its saving significance and it makes his substitution in your place partial. Imperfect because its incomplete with out your faith.

The Good News is NOT that you are saved by faith. The Good News is that you are saved by faith by grace. By the gifting of God. By the agency of God. By the mediating activity of the Risen Christ. Who is every bit as present to us now as those 10 disciples hiding behind locked doors.

You are saved by faith through the gracious work of the Risen Christ, who can compel you- against your natural disposition to doubt- to call upon him as your Lord and your God. Such that whatever of the Gospel you are able to trust and believe, whatever Word from the Lord you can hear, whether your faith is as meager as a mustard seed or as mighty as a mountainside-

Your faith is NOT

YOUR doing.

It is a miracle. Grace. An act of the Risen Christ.

In you and upon you and through you. And it makes you- even you! It makes you exactly what Thomas insisted he required. It makes you proof that he is risen. He is risen indeed. You’re why John ends his Gospel the way he does. You’re the reason John doesn’t need to write down everything Jesus did among those disciples. Because Jesus is neither dead nor disappeared from this world. He’s alive and still doing work among his disciples. And for proof you need look no further than your own faith, your own ability to call him your Lord and your God.

Jason Micheli

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One response to No, He Never Stops Being Your Substitute

  1. Caroline Sprinkel April 9, 2018 at 1:52 PM

    I love this, Jason. We were just talking about this as a family a few weeks ago (we were talking about the progression of Holy Week on Palm Sunday) — and that Thomas said, I won’t believe Jesus is alive, that He’s risen unless…and THEN he never touched him, he immediately confessed his faith in the living God Jesus as soon as he appeared before him.

    I miss your preaching, friend.

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