Doubting Thomas and Abraham Lincoln
Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon at Trinity and St. Jacob’s on April 23, 2017, the Second Sunday of Easter. The Gospel Reading is John 20:19-31.
Dear Friends in Christ,
Every year on the Sunday after our big Easter Celebration we get to hear the story of Doubting Thomas. He was the one who missed the appearance in that locked room on the evening of the resurrection. For the past 2,000 years Thomas had been used as an example of doubt and unbelief by many preachers. Today I want to suggest to you that rather than be used as a bad example, I think he can be seen as a wonderful example to us all of us of how to come to a deeper faith in Jesus.
When the other disciples told Thomas about what he had missed and how excited they were to see Jesus alive, he indeed responded with skepticism. “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 last time Thomas saw Jesus he was on a cross for three hours and he died and is now in his grave. This is what he saw with his own eyes and knew with his heart and brain. Now his whole way of thinking is being challenged.
John reports to us what one week later the disciples were again gathered in that locked room and Jesus again appeared to them. This time Thomas is there. And Jesus told Thomas to touch the wounds in his hand and his side. Then he said to Thomas, “Do not doubt but believe.”
Now comes a part of the story that is fantastic. Thomas is the first one in the entire Bible to say these words of belief: “My Lord and my Go!” In other words, Jesus gives him this gift of faith, this belief that Jesus and God are one.
I wonder if a better way to understand Thomas is to see him as a questioner, an inquirer, one who really wants to know. I think he is like many of us. “Others have come to Christian faith, and I want to be a believer too. I want Jesus to come to me in my heart and mind and soul.” This isn’t the first time in scripture that we hear about Thomas being a questioner. Earlier in the Gospel of John we hear these words of Jesus: “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
It sure seems to me that Thomas was asking of Jesus what any one of us wants. “Jesus appeared to the other disciples. Why not also to me?” Then these words of Jesus that are for all of us in the generations later who were not personally present to see and touch the wounds of Jesus in that room: Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. John writes these two sentence that tell us why he recorded the story of Jesus’ resurrection appearances in is gospel account: 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.
Now about Abraham Lincoln. This month marks the 152nd anniversary of the end of the American Civil War. I had the opportunity to watch the history channel and the 150th anniversary ceremony at Appomattox that remembered the surrender of General Robert E. Lee to General Ulysses Grant. That was April 9, 1865. I am also aware that this past April 14th marked the day when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, just five days after Appomattox.
Let me talk about the skepticism and the faith of Abraham Lincoln. It seems appropriate on this day when we are hearing about Doubting Thomas and his quest for faith. So many writers have vividly pointed out Lincoln’s lack of public witness to Christianity and that he never joined a church and was never baptized.
Here is what I’ve learned about him:
*Lincoln grew up in a highly religious family. There were hard-shell Baptists. He never joined a church.
*As a young man, he seems indeed to have been a skeptic, questioning everything about religion.
*We have no record that he made an unambiguous profession of Christian belief.
*We do have an 1846 handbill entitled “Handbill Replying to Charges of Infidelity”; Lincoln was running for Congress and felt compelled to state: “That I am not a member of any Christian Church is true…but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures.”
*When his son died, Lincoln reportedly said, “May God live in all. He was too good for this earth. This good Lord has called him home. I know that he is much better off in Heaven.”
*When a pious minister told Lincoln he “hoped the Lord is one our side,” the president responded, “I am not at all concerned about that…But my constant anxiety and prayer is that I and this nation be on the Lord’s side.”
*On the day Lincoln was assassinated he told his wife at Ford’s Theater that he wanted to visit the Holy Land and that “there was no place so much he desired to see as Jerusalem.”
*Then this witness by the pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Dr. Gurley, while Lincoln was attending as president:
Was Lincoln an infidel in his religious faith? I do not believe a word of it. It could not have been true of him while here, for I have had frequent and intimate conversations with him on the subject of the Bible and the Christian religion, when he could have had no motive to deceive me, and I considered him sound not only on the truth of the Christian religion but on all its fundamental doctrines and teaching. And more than that: in the latter days of his chastened and weary life, after the death of his son Willie, and his visit to the battlefield of Gettysburg, he said, with tears in his eyes that has lost confidence in everything but God, and that he now believes his hearts was changed, and that he loved the Saviour, and if he was not deceived in himself, it was his intention soon to make a profession of faith.
Some say that Abraham Lincoln was intending to be baptized on Easter Sunday 1865. He was assassinated on Good Friday 1865. This is what we can find about the plan of Abraham Lincoln to be baptized on Easter Sunday: There is an affidavit signed under oath in Essex County, New Jersey, February 15, 1928, by Mrs. Sidney I. Lauch, then a very old woman: “After Mr. Lincoln’s death, Dr. Gurley told me that Mr. Lincoln had made all the necessary arrangements with him and the Session of the New York Presbyterian Church to be received into the membership of the said church by confession of his faith in Christ, on the Easter Sunday following the Friday night when Mr. Lincoln was assassinated.”
And so we learn important lessons this day from Thomas and Abraham Lincoln. Doubt and skepticism are not the opposite of faith. They are steps along the path to faith. John tells us that Jesus not only showed the disciples his wounds but he also breathed on them the Holy Spirit. It is my prayer for all of us that the Lord will also breathe his Holy Spirit upon us and bring us to faith in the risen Jesus.