John 20:19-31 CEB
It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
Jesus appears to Thomas and the disciples
Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”
But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”
After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”
Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.
“Doubting Thomas,” we often associate this phrase with our scripture this morning, and we give doubt a bad name in communities and people of faith in the process. I think this morning we will find that Thomas does not have a doubting problem but a trust problem. In reality, Thomas did not ask for anything that had not already been given to both Mary and the disciples, so can we fault him for asking to see Jesus and touch his wounds? Certainly, Christ does not fault Thomas, even taking the time to appear again and invite him without a shred of sarcasm or disappointment to touch his wounds and place his hand in Christ’s side. It is not God who is endangered by this kind of unbelief and mistrust, it is rather his community of faith that is impacted by his inability to trust them. Like Thomas, when we cry out, “there’s no way I will believe unless I see it for myself,” we do not exclaim doubt but mistrust in our fellow children of God who not only experienced the Lord but have been commissioned by Christ to serve in this world. The risen Lord cries out to us, “‘No more disbelief. Believe!’” This is a belief, a trust, of not just words is found in the ways we act and interact with our God and with our fellow Christians.
The beauty of our scripture this morning is that it takes place just after Mary has experienced the risen Christ and has told the disciples as much, so we get to see the impact of her words. Well then, how do we find the disciples after having just received news that Christ is now alive? Are they out spreading the word about Christ and living into this truth? Nope, instead, we find them behind locked doors, hiding from the authorities… Jesus has to appear to them separately and have them experience him as risen as well, and he even gives them a similar commission as he did to Mary, saying, “‘As the Father sent me, so I am sending you’” before they believe. This is a tall order, for God sent Christ to do a lot in a short span, and now, this call to do as Christ did is before the disciples! Except, we then find out that not all the disciples are present, Thomas is missing.
Here we have it, Thomas’ chief issue is not of doubt at this point but that he was absent. He was not there with Mary or with the rest of the disciples when Jesus appears and gives them their commission to go and be Christ to the world. Initially, Thomas seems to be asking to have the same experience that they have all had, and in fact, if we are to accuse Thomas of doubt, we must do the same to the disciples because they do not seem to have believed Mary any more than Thomas has believed them! Even if it had been doubting in the reality of the risen Christ, Jesus does not seem to be at all critical of doubt, going so far as to oblige Thomas just a week later when he shows up again! Jesus appears before Thomas offering his hands and feet and wounded side for Thomas to see and touch and experience. Finally, here we have Thomas exclaim the culminating theological expression of the entire Gospel of John, “‘My Lord and my God!’” For Mary and the others had said that they had seen their teacher, their master, their Lord, but it is Thomas who says that Jesus is not just their master but also God! At the beginning of John, it is declared that the “Word was God,” and now we find this echoed in saying that the Word, the Logos, Christ Jesus is not only supreme in authority but is also God as well.
My friends, if Thomas had been simply in doubt, there is no shame or problem with this. In fact, I have a greater issue with people who say that they never experience doubt in their relationship with God than those that do. The reason for this is simple, in those moments of doubt we are testing our experiences of God. Are they real? Are they valid? Are they the voices in my own mind, those self-possessed realities, and opinions, that I have elevated in volume to drown out the still small voice of my God? As I have said before and will always be willing to repeat, I get suspicious when my voice and God’s voice sound eerily similar, as that voice is probably not from God at all. Doubt is a sign of a mature faith, one that can be examined and explored because of those self-reflections and self-critiques rather than destroyed by them. The things I am most passionate about are the things I am the most critical of in my life, so I can sympathize with Thomas.
For you see, Thomas was not being asked to believe in the risen Christ, in other words, just accepting the fact that Christ is risen, rather he was being asked to believe into Christ. This demands his whole life now centers and revolves around this truth, so that nothing he could do or say could be outside the impact of this reality. For instance, if you accept the reality that tomatoes are actually a fruit, that does not have much impact on your life (like starting to add tomatoes to a fruit salad from now on), but if you now need to accept the reality that Christ is alive, it comes with a caveat, in accepting this truth, you must now go out and be like Christ to the world. That is a much bigger deal! However, Thomas’ issue was not with doubt, for that God can answer and walk with us through, instead, it is trust that stands out as the problem Thomas has. His community-destroying mistrust finds echoes in our own community struggles today, and that is where Christ focuses.
Trusting in God even when we cannot see God and hear God’s commission for ourselves is the kind of faith praised by John’s gospel. Mary goes to the disciples saying, “‘I have seen the Lord!’” The disciples say to Thomas, “‘We’ve seen the Lord!’” Each has experienced the risen Christ, and now they say to the other, “Trust me that I have seen him and his wounds, and trust me when I say that he breathed God’s own Spirit into us to help us be like Christ to the world.” Thomas meanwhile turns around and says, “I do not trust your eyes or your hands!” Hard words indeed! Ones that can often be echoed today. How many of us have encountered someone with the life view of “I’ll believe it when I see it!” How many of us have expressed that view ourselves! We could be presented with all the facts in the world, all the evidence in the world, but if our stance is that we simply won’t believe without it being verifiable by our own standards, it will never be enough. In other words, we hold that if another’s truth does not conform to our own values or experiences, it cannot possibly be true.
Unfortunately, this kind of mistrust has proven to be prevalent in our churches as well. Today, if I say to you, like Thomas, “Jesus is the Son of God, he is God!” That’s not controversial at all, but back in the early days of the church, in about the 4th or 5th century, Christians were willing to kill, excommunicate, and oppress those who dared make the statement that Jesus is God. Again, in the 16th century, people were dying because some said that you did not need a priest to be forgiven by God. These were Christians telling other Christians they were from the devil, that they could not be Christians because they believed something that the others had not experienced. Mistrust tore communities apart! We still have this mistrust today. Look around, where are the issues that tear Christians apart today? What are the beliefs that others hold that we mistrust to the point where we will claim these others cannot be Christian because they do not believe as we do? We are unwilling to trust that they too have experienced God and received a Spirit-led commission from God that sounds different from our own. They cry out, “I have seen the Lord!” Our response is not one of amazement or curiosity, but of Thomas-like mistrust, “Unless I see it with my own eyes and touched it with my own hands, I will not believe!” Doubt would be to see and test the fruits that come from another’s actions and words, to explore what another has experienced. Mistrust is to deny another because they are not like us.
Jesus’ response to Thomas counters his mistrust and our own, “‘No more disbelief. Believe!’” In Greek, the word for believe also means trust, so Jesus counters Thomas’ mistrust, by saying don’t do that anymore, trust! Jesus follows this up by saying, “‘Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.’” This is not just addressed to Thomas, this is addressed to all of us. We are those who have not seen Jesus in life and death and resurrection like the disciples have. We must trust the experiences of those like Mary and like the disciples, and we have, otherwise the church would not have endured to this day. So you see, belief (or trust) into Christ means we must trust not only in our God, but it means we must also trust each other, even when our truths and experiences differ. Friends, how will we react today when we encounter another who shares different experiences, tells uncomfortable truths, and delivers strange news to us today? Will we turn away in disbelief, or will we instead take a moment, have faith, and listen? Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman