One of the first things you'll probably notice about this sermon is how short it is. DelBene simply reads his text—the story of Thomas and his initial unbelief—and shares a litany of stories that show the fine line between unbelief and belief. The brevity is due in large part to DelBene having a simple point: when you encounter the presence of Christ, you either believe or you don't. But it's a little shorter than usual because DelBene first preached this sermon right after Easter Sunday (we've edited the manuscript slightly to make it applicable for any given context). After spending a few intense weeks filling the minds and hearts of his congregation with the life of Christ, they were at a climactic point in their journey: they were either going to believe in Christ after all their encounters or they weren't. Why talk about it too much longer? The time for a radical decision had come. As you read the sermon, you'll see that it's quite fitting as a climax for any series that focuses on encountering Christ.
In John 20:19-31, John writes:
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors 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 side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
Again Jesus said, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." And with that he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven."
Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord!"
But he said to them, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it."
A week later, his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."
Thomas said to him, "My Lord and my God!"
Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Visions of Jesus
A number of years ago, I was doing a prayer conference in Florida. During one of the breaks, a petite, elderly woman slid past me in the hallway as she said, "Could I talk to you for a few minutes?"
Her name was Elizabeth, and as we sat down she said, "I'd like to tell you something I've only told one other person. I told this to my husband, and he didn't believe it. He thought I was crazy."
I knew that was an invitation, and I said, "Well, I won't say you're crazy."
She continued, "A long time ago, my husband had a heart attack and was in an intensive care unit. They told me he would not live through the night. I was sitting next to him when I looked toward the door and saw this bright light in the doorway. I just knew that it was death come to get my husband.
"I stood up, put my hands out, and said, 'No, you can't have him!' The light came closer to me, and again I said, 'No, you can't have him!' The next thing I remember is the nurses picking me up off the floor. I guess I had fainted. But, you know, my husband turned around like that. He was out of intensive care in a day. He was out of the hospital in five days, and he lived another five years before he died of another heart attack. I just know that I kept death from taking my husband."
I looked at her, and she said, "I just don't believe it."
I said, "Thank you for sharing with me."
She said, "Do you believe it?"
I said, "Yes."
She said, "I don't believe it!"
Then I said, "Did you ever think that the light you saw in the doorway was not death coming to get your husband but Jesus, who had come to heal him?"
Her eyes opened wide, and she said, "No, I never thought of that."
I remember being aware for the first time that when anything happens within our normal experience we assume it is of God, or God could be involved. But anything that happens outside our normal experience must be evil, and we're fearful.
Elizabeth said the words "I don't believe it" in two very different ways. First, she said her husband said, "I don't believe it," and then she said, "I don't believe it!"
Another person, a man named Stan, told me of a childhood incident where he had been severely beaten by his father. He said, "I remember that I was trying not to cry. And in the midst of the pain, all of a sudden, I saw Jesus. Jesus was there, and he said to me, 'I know what it's like to be beaten. I am here with you.'"
Then Stan said, "I just don't believe it! But a part of me knows that it was real."
Then I became aware of what a small step it is across that threshold from "I don't believe it" to "I don't believe it!"—one being unbelief because of denial and the other an unbelief because of absolute awe. It's a small step over that threshold from denial to awe. But it's a giant leap of belief.
Sensing the Spirit
I'm also reminded of Mary Ann, a young mother who commutes with her children back and forth to school every day. She shared with me that she often prays as she drives. She said, "I was driving to pick the kids up one day, and I stopped at the stoplight where I always stop. I looked up at a soft drink billboard. At the bottom it said, 'It's the real thing.' Suddenly, out of nowhere I had a sense of God's presence with me. I knew Jesus is the real thing in a way that I'd never known it before. I just don't believe it, Ron."
Then there's a story from Douglas, a negotiator with Corporate Structures. Doug is a runner. He said, "Many times when I'm running, my work goes through my mind. Usually when I prepare for a negotiation I have ideas in mind of what I'm going to say and the approach I'll use. One of the negotiations was like a blank wall—all week long I'd just been looking at a blank wall.
"You know how sometimes when you run you kind of move into another space? That happened to me. On this particular morning, I'd been thinking about this negotiation and how it still was a blank wall. As I moved to this other space, I had a tremendous sense of the presence of God's Spirit, and all my ideas fell together. It was as clear as anything for me. You know, there's a part of me that says, 'I just don't believe it,' but another part of me that says, 'I just don't believe it.'"
It's amazing to me that we continually hear how God throughout all of history calls people to the margins, to beyond their normal experience. We hear how Jesus pulled his disciples, his followers, to the very margins and even beyond the membranes of the margins of their usual experience. They were pushed into new kinds of experiences. In those kinds of experiences, God spoke to them in the midst of life but beyond their normal experiences.
I can remember a night when I walked in the snow, feeling lost and wondering about my life: Where am I going? What am I supposed to be doing? I remember clearly hearing a voice. I know many of you have heard that same voice just as clearly as we hear my voice through this microphone. Yet, it wasn't like my own voice. The voice clearly said, "Take my hand. I know the way." Mine was a sense of "I don't believe it," and "I don't believe it."
Conclusion: God still calls us.
You and I could tell many other stories—stories we don't have time to share. I have told you these stories so you may believe that God continues to break prison doors. God continues to capture people in the midst of their prayers. God continues to force us to look at the flesh in which we live, to look at the experiences we encounter every day. God continues to call us in our disbelief. He continues to call us at the margins of our lives as he has throughout all generations, so we can share it with others. I could tell you many more stories, but I tell you these so you might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing, you may have life in his name.
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see "Plagiarism, Schmagiarism".
Ron DelBene is rector of St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama.