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A Call To Courage

John 20:19-28

For nearly 2000 years the two words have been repeated together so frequently that now they almost seem to be the man’s first and last name. I refer to the one who is called “Doubting Thomas.” But is that really an accurate description of the man? I think not. Thomas may have been many things but doubter is not one of them. To be sure, He was never satisfied with easy answers or glib phrases. He was not given to flights of foolish fancy nor was he a sucker for sticky-sweet sentimentalism. He was a hard-eyed realist. He was a straight-forward, no-nonsense thinker. He was a man of deep loyalties and incisive wisdom. But most of all, I think, he was a man of extraordinary courage. In fact, I would call him the patron saint for all those who have courage enough to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Therefore, I resolve to myself today that I shall never again casually and habitually refer to him as “Doubting Thomas.” Instead I shall call him henceforth “Courageous Thomas.” In fact, his life is nothing less than a call to courage in Jesus Christ. Let me show you what I mean…

For Thomas revealed himself to be a man of great courage in the face of defeat.

We see that quite clearly in John 11. Do you recall what happened there? Jesus had antagonized the religious leaders in Jerusalem with His teachings and His claims. As a result they tried to stone Him to death, but the Bible says that “He escaped from their hands.” It was then that Jesus took His disciples on the lam, and they went down to the Jordan River region to let the temperature of opposition cool a bit. Then came the word that Lazarus, one of Jesus’ closest and dearest friends, was dying in the Jerusalem suburb of Bethany. Jesus indicated to His disciples that He was going to return to Jerusalem to minister to Lazarus. The disciples protested–all of them save one. “Master,” they said, “That’s madness! You were defeated once in Jerusalem. We were lucky to get out of there. You can’t go back. You can’t take another setback to your work. Let’s stay here. There are lots of people who are responding to you and we are experiencing great success. Don’t go back to Jerusalem!” Only one voice was raised in support of Jesus. The one, lone voice was the voice of Thomas. Thomas said: “Let us go back to Jerusalem with the Master so that we might die with Him.”

You see, that was not simply a statement of blind optimism or blind loyalty. Thomas knew perfectly well—he had counted the cost—he knew if they set foot in Jerusalem again, they would encounter almost certain defeat. And yet, in the face of those defeating circumstances, Thomas had courage enough to say I will follow where Jesus leads no matter the cost. It was, I submit to you, a moment of incredible courage in the face of almost certain defeat.

I don’t know about you, but I need to hear a call to that kind of courage—courage in the face of defeat. In life there are those times when the odds seem stacked against us and defeat seems inevitable. There are those times in my own life when frankly I feel like Charlie Brown in the Peanuts cartoon strip, when Charlie Brown said: “No problem is so awesome, so complicated, and so fraught with danger that the average person cannot run away from it!” There are times when in the face of almost certain defeat my instinctive reaction is to turn around and run. And yet, I know in my heart of hearts that to do that turns potential defeat into actual disaster. Better instead, I think, to try and find something of the kind of courage Thomas possessed, because having Thomas’ kind of courage enables us to attempt to turn potential defeat into glorious victory.

I think here of a young girl named Wilma. She was born prematurely which affected her physical health. Then in early childhood she contracted polio. She survived the disease but it left her legs virtually useless. She could move about only in enormous steel braces. Yet, at a very tender age, she demonstrated an extraordinary faith in God. She came to believe, even as a child, that God did not intend her to live in those braces. The doctors said that it was virtually impossible for her to remove those braces. The only possibility would be to engage in a horrendously rigorous regimen of exercise. But this young girl, out of her faith in Jesus Christ, gave herself to that exercise. There were times when it so exhausted her physically that she could not move. But week after week, month after month, year after year she struggled. There came a point when she was 12 years old when the braces were removed for good.

A couple of years later, she got the idea of trying out for the girl’s basketball team in her school. By this time she had grown to be six feet tall, however, she weighed only 89 pounds. She was frightfully awkward and ungainly. Her sister, Yvonne, who was quite strong, was on the basketball team and Wilma decided she would try out. She did. That very night the coach came to their home to visit and Wilma overheard the coach say to her father: “I want your daughter, Yvonne, on my team, but I do not want Wilma.” That father had sense enough to say: “Coach, if you want one of my girls, you have to take both of them.” And he did. But he gave to ungainly Wilma none of his attention. He consigned her to the farthest reaches of his mind and to the farthest end of the bench. She never played a single second in any game. One year later, before one of their games, Wilma was on the court warming up. The referee for that game was a man named Ed Temple. He also happened to be the girls’ track coach at Tennessee State University. As he watched Wilma on the court, he thought to himself that she might make a good runner. After the game, he proposed that possibility to her and she expressed an interest and he then proceeded to train her personally. The training was incredibly difficult because she still maintained this ungainly awkwardness. But they worked at it. She went on to Tennessee State University. They had no athletic scholarships for women so she had to work at a full-time job in order to go to school. She worked at her job, she carried a full academic load, maintained a B average, and she still had time to train. There were times when she became so exhausted that she was ready to give up. There were times when defeat seemed inevitable, but she would not quit. Her faith kept her going. She kept saying to herself “With Christ all things are possible,” therefore, I can do it. And do it she did.

There came a day in 1960 when in the Olympic Games in Rome, Italy, she represented the U.S.A, in the 100-meter dash and the 200-meter dash and the 400-meter relay and she won all three races—three gold medals and three world records—an unprecedented performance. When it was all over, her single comment to the press was “To God be the glory.” Her name, of course, is Wilma Rudolph. And today she heads a foundation which goes about in the tough, poor areas of our nation and finds young people there of great promise and enables them to become everything God wants them to be in obedience to Jesus Christ. She is passing along her courage in Christ to others.

And that is precisely what Thomas did in the New Testament. Thomas, in the face of almost certain defeat, said to those other disciples, “Let us go to Jerusalem with Jesus, even if there we must die with Him.” Thomas not only had courage in the face of defeat, but Thomas was willing to pass that courage on to others.

And so it was that all of the disciples, not just Thomas, went back to Jerusalem. For years and years, we have called him “Doubting Thomas.” No more. Never again, I shall call him “Courageous Thomas.”

But Thomas also revealed himself to be a man of courage in the face of death.

We see that quite clearly in John 20. After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to a handful of His disciples. Later on, those disciples found Thomas and said to him: “We have seen the Lord.” And Thomas said to them: “Unless I see Him in person, unless I touch the wounds of His body, I shall not be satisfied.” Eight days later the disciples were in the Upper Room, behind locked doors, when suddenly Jesus came and stood in the midst of them. Something happened—something so amazing that it makes the whole Gospel message absolutely clear so that you cannot miss it. It is clear that Jesus came to that room for one reason. He came there for Thomas. The Bible says that he passed the others by and went straight to Thomas. He said: “All right, my friend, here I am. Give me your finger and put it in the scars in my hands. Give me your hand and place it in my side and then you will know that I have beaten death.” And Thomas in that moment found the courage he needed to face up to death.

You know, for so long we’ve misread the Scriptures, I believe. For so long, we’ve taken this remark that Thomas made, “Unless I see it, I shall not believe,”—we’ve taken that to be an expression of doubt. That is wrong. It is not an expression of doubt, it is an expression of courage. Understand, please, that Thomas was saying “I want a first-hand experience with the risen Christ.” There are so many people out there who are perfectly satisfied with a second-hand, hand-me-down faith—something that they just had passed along to them by their parents or their friends. It takes incredible courage to seek a first-hand experience with the risen Christ. That’s what Thomas was saying. He was saying that death is the greatest enemy humankind can ever know. Therefore, in order to overcome his own fear of death, he wanted a first-hand, personal experience with the risen Christ. And Jesus responded to that request. He answered Thomas’ call for courage. And when Thomas saw the risen Christ, he knew that he would never be afraid of death again. And he went on to be one of the most courageous and fearless of the missionaries of the early Christian church. He carried the Gospel to the Far East, particularly to the nation of India, and there, ultimately in great courage, he gave his life for the sake of his Lord.

I don’t know about you, but in my own life I need to hear the call to that kind of courage. Because the fear of death grips us all to one degree or another. Woody Allen put it so memorably when he said: “I am not afraid to die; it’s just that I don’t want to be there when it happens!” Well, we need to laugh in order to keep from crying, because all of us are gripped with the same fear. That is what Easter is all about. Easter declares that Jesus Christ has overcome the power of death once and for all and for all of us. Someone has said that we cannot truly live significant lives until we conquer our fear of death. That’s what Easter declares—that death no longer has ultimate power over our lives or the lives of those whom we love. Therefore, we can live significantly and triumphantly in Jesus Christ.

I think here of Charles de Gaulle. Most of us here are aware of the fact that he was the great leader of modern day France. But what I suspect most of us here do not know is that Charles and Yvonne de Gaulle had a Downs Syndrome child. Her name was Ann. Charles and Yvonne De Gaulle gave themselves to an extraordinary degree in love for this special child. So much so, that every single day, no matter how the affairs drained away his energy, Charles De Gaulle made time to spend time with his beloved Ann. Of course the burden for the rearing of this special child fell to Yvonne. Hers was really the greatest responsibility and there were some times when the strain of it all simply got her down. She would break down into tears in the presidential palace and she would cry out “Why can’t Ann be like the other children? I have prayed to God that she might be like the other children, but she is not.” And the great Charles De Gaulle, who undoubtedly had the same thoughts himself, could offer his wife nothing more than just a few words of comfort through the veil of his own tears. But because Ann was not like the others, she died prematurely. They had a graveside service for her. It was away from the public view. It was very simple, very beautiful, very meaningful. When it was over the few members of the family and the friends who were there turned away from the grave and began to walk away. Everyone except Yvonne De Gaulle. She stood there riveted to the spot next to her daughter’s grave, convulsed in tears of sorrow. When Charles De Gaulle saw her, he walked over, put his arm about her shoulder and said to her: “Come, Yvonne, we can go. Did you not hear the words of the priest? Our Ann is now like the others.”

There is no courage like the courage that comes from knowing that death no longer has dominion over our lives or over the lives of those whom we love. That is why Thomas, when he put his fingers into Jesus’ hands and when he put his hands into Jesus’ side, could do nothing other than to fall on his knees and cry “My Lord and my God.” He found in the risen Christ courage even in the face of death. So we called him “Doubting Thomas.” No more, never again. No, I shall call him “Courageous Thomas.”

On this great Easter Day, I tell you as honestly as I know how, that death strikes no terror in my heart. Oh, I do not know what death will be like and I do not want death to come any time soon. I want to live a long time. And I want to try every single day that I live to live to the glory of the risen Christ. But I am not afraid to die and when my time comes, be it soon or late, I will be ready. I can say that and mean it for one simple reason: “On the third day Jesus Christ rose from the dead.” I believe that. Thomas believed that. And I want you to believe that, too. For then there is nothing left to say but

“Jesus, You are my Lord and my God.”

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