The Fellowship of Donkeys

John 20:19-31

Jesus Appears to His Disciples

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Jesus Appears to Thomas

24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 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.”

26 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!” 27 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.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed;blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

The Purpose of John’s Gospel

30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Dear Friends in Christ,

I came across a story recently about a car that was involved in an accident.  As a large crowd gathered at the scene, a newspaper reporter showed up who was very anxious to get the scoop on this story before any other reporters arrived, but he was having trouble getting near the car to see what had happened.  Finally, being a rather clever fellow, he started shouting, “Let me through!  Let me through!  I’m the victim’s son.”  When he said that, the crowd parted and made way for him.  But imagine the reporter’s embarrassment when he discovered that the victim lying in front of the car was…a dead donkey.

Not many of us would trumpet the news that we are the son or daughter of a donkey, right?  And yet, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll all have to admit that there have been plenty of times in our lives when we have behaved like a donkey.  And maybe that’s why we sometimes feel a certain kinship with the disciple who stands out in our text for today, namely, good old doubting Thomas.  Did you know that in the Middle Ages, the Germans used the donkey in their religious art to represent Thomas?  That’s what Lutheran scholar Dr. Paul Maier tells us in his book entitled First Easter.  Though I can’t say this for sure, I suppose the reason for depicting Thomas as a donkey was to symbolize his stubborn refusal to believe in the resurrection of Christ.

So this morning on this Sunday after Easter we want to spend some time studying Thomas and unfortunately seeing some significant similarities that exist between this donkey of a disciple and ourselves.  Hence the rather unusual title of my sermon:  “The Fellowship of Donkeys.”

The first similarity that we want to note between ourselves and Thomas is that sometimes we too can be plagued by doubts.  Now in all fairness to Thomas, he had very legitimate reasons to have doubts.  After all, he knew what had happened to Jesus just a few days before.  He knew that his Master had been brutally beaten, scourged with a Roman whip that had shredded his back into quivering ribbons of flesh.  He knew that Jesus had been nailed to a cross and that his crucifixion had had the same result as every other crucifixion back then.  He had died.  He was buried.  The stone was rolled in front of the tomb.  The Roman guards were posted outside the tomb.  So from Thomas’ and everyone else’s perspective, the likelihood of Jesus coming out of that tomb alive and well was virtually non-existent.

And yet that’s exactly what Jesus did!  And when he appeared to the disciples later that evening behind locked doors, it simply confirmed the reports the women had brought to them earlier that day that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead.  But Thomas wasn’t with them when Jesus appeared to them.  And when the disciples excitedly told him what had happened when he returned, he simply found it too hard to believe.

Well, just like it was hard for Thomas to believe, don’t we sometimes find it difficult to believe as well, especially in our ultra-modern, highly sophisticated, boldly scientific day and age?  For example, have you ever read an article in a newspaper or magazine about some archaeological discovery that they say is millions of years old or some discovery in the heavens that they’ve made with the Hubble telescope that they claim dates the universe at billions of years?  And even though you know that such mind-boggling dates conflict with the biblical account of creation in the book of Genesis, do you ever question whether those smart scientists might be right and the Bible might be wrong or at the very least a mythical way of depicting the formation and evolution of the universe?

Or do you ever have doubts about your faith when the moral absolutes that we know as the 10 Commandments are called into question and replaced with the much nicer sounding philosophy known as moral relativism?  You see, moral relativism basically says there are no absolute rights and wrong and therefore everyone has to determine for himself or herself their own code of ethics.  So what may be right for you may not be right for me.  And what may be wrong for you may not be wrong for me.  We all have the freedom to choose how we want to live.  That all sounds so nice and sweet and good and it’s so popular in our day and age that many Christians have begun to question whether the absolute laws of the 10 Commandments have become just a bit outdated for our modern times.

Or do you ever question your faith when you try telling someone that Jesus is the only way to heaven and they look at you like you’re this radical, narrow-minded, intolerant, fundamentalist, right-wing bigot, and they say, “Who are you to say that Jesus is the only way?  That’s your opinion.  I’m much more open-minded than that.  I believe that all religions lead to heaven.”

It’s sad to say, but even some mainline denominations in our country today have abandoned their original biblically conservative belief system and caved into the pressures of the liberal theology that is so rampant in our politically correct culture these days.  Listen to this quote that comes out of the official textbook that is used at one denomination’s seminaries to teach that denomination’s doctrine.  Speaking of Jesus’ death on the cross, it says: “Jesus himself, though he might have and quite possibly did reckon with a violent death at the hands of his adversaries, seems not to have understood or interpreted his own death as a sacrifice for others or ransom for sin.”  Do you understand what that is saying?  It’s saying that when Jesus died, he didn’t know or understand that he was dying to pay for our sins.  He was clueless.  Well, when highly educated seminary professors and their textbooks teach this kind of stuff, it’s easy to be like Thomas and begin to doubt your faith.

But there’s another way we can be like Thomas.  We too can be stubborn.  Thomas’ stubbornness comes out in our text when he says: “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.”

Do you ever dig in your heels like that?  I have to confess that sometimes I do.  I know I’m probably going to step on somebody’s toes right now, but please don’t take what I’m about to say personally.  But I get real stubborn when I get these e-mails that say you need to send it back to the person who sent it because if you do, some special blessing will come your way in a few hours or a few days.  Or if you don’t send it on to others, then you really don’t love Jesus.  I’m sorry, but my stubborn nature really kicks in when I get those messages and I refuse to send them on.

Stubbornness is a common human trait, isn’t it?  It’s a side of humanity that we pastors unfortunately see more than we care to, especially when it comes to dealing with the inactive members of our congregations.  Though I’ve been known over the years to send carefully crafted letters to our inactives – letters that I hope are going to touch their hearts and wake them up to the need they have for Jesus and the church in their lives – though I call them on the phone and visit them in person, sometimes it seems like the more I try, the more stubborn they become.  Even though I have their best interests at heart, it is part of our human nature to stubbornly resist the promptings of the Holy Spirit.  We see this happening with Stephen, the 1st Christian martyr, who said to those who were about to stone him to death: “You stubborn and hard-headed people!  You are always fighting against the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors did.”

All of which leads right in to the 3rd similarity that I see between Thomas and us and that has to do with the blessings we miss out on when we are absent from the fellowship of believers.  You’ve heard the excuses, and maybe you’ve even used them.  “I work hard all week long and Sunday morning is my only morning to sleep in.”  “I don’t have to go to church to worship God.”  “I can worship him out in nature when I’m fishing or golfing.”  “There are too many hypocrites in church.”  “I’m sorry, but I’ve just gotten out of the habit of coming to church.”

I’m not going to spend any time this morning refuting those excuses, except to say this.  If you’re ever tempted to use these or any other less-than-legitimate excuses for not coming to church, just try to picture yourself offering that excuse not to me, not to Pastor Mike, not to the Elders, but to Jesus, the One who offered no excuses when the time came for him to go to the cross, and I think you’ll know real quickly whether your excuse is valid or not.

But the point I’m really getting at here is what we miss out on when we are absent from the body of believers.  Notice what Thomas missed.  He missed the very presence of the risen Christ.  And you know what?  We do the same when we skip church, for does not Jesus tell us that wherever 2 or 3 are gathered together in his name, he’s right there in the midst of them? Does he not speak to us here through the reading and proclamation of his Holy Word?  Does he not offer us the gift of himself under the forms of bread and wine when we celebrate his Holy Supper?  Does he not join himself to us as we sing his praises, for the psalmist tells us that he inhabits the praises of his people?  So just like Thomas missed out on so much when he was absent that first Easter evening, so also do we when we fall into that dreadful habit of sleeping in on Sunday morning or just missing church for no good reason at all.

Oh how I wish all of you could speak to some of our shut-ins who used to be here on a regular basis but who are no longer able to attend because of their age or health.  Their desire to be here is almost palpable; it’s overwhelming and they would give anything to be able to worship here regularly again.  My friends, please don’t wait until you can’t come to church anymore to have that desire aroused in you.  Instead, resolve right here and now that you are going to be here whenever the doors of this church are open so that you don’t miss out on the splendid opportunity to meet with the living Christ in this place.

So I think we’ve seen today much to our dismay that we are a lot like Thomas, that we are indeed a part of the fellowship of donkeys.  And that’s not the best news, is it?  So let me close on a more positive note.  There is one way that I would hope and pray we could all be like Thomas, for there’s another side to this doubting disciple that many people don’t know about, but that we see in John 11.  There Jesus tells his disciples that they are going to go to Bethany because his good friend Lazarus had died, but the disciples try to prevent him from going because they know Jesus’ enemies are there waiting to kill him.  But listen to what Thomas said to his fellow disciples.  He said: “Let us also go that we may die with him.”

Now that’s a much different Thomas than the one we’re most accustomed to hearing about, isn’t it?  That statement reveals that deep down in his heart Thomas wanted to serve Jesus and be his loyal and faithful follower.  And I believe all of you want to do the same.  But just like Thomas couldn’t do it on his own, neither can you.  Thankfully though the risen Christ stands poised and ready to help us become all that he desires us to be.  And just as he invited Thomas to reach out and touch him with physical hands, so also he invites us to do the same with the hands of faith.  And as we do so, as we embrace the risen Christ, as we trust in him as our one and only Savior, our one and only hope and means and source of salvation, guess what we find.  We find forgiveness for all our sins, answers to all our doubts, strength to overcome our stubbornness, and an overwhelming desire to no longer be part of the fellowship of donkeys, but a part of the fellowship of disciples who remain faithful to the One who has always proven faithful to us.  Amen.