Tag Archive | John 20:19-31

An Unexamined Belief Is Not Worth Having

John 20:19-31

Today’s gospel reading is one of the best-known Eastertide gospels – that of “Doubting Thomas”. We almost never hear the name of this disciple without the label of “Doubting”. Most people, no matter how non-religious, have heard about “Doubting Thomas”.

You may be interested to know that in the first three gospels we are told absolutely nothing at all about Thomas. He is just a name in a list of the disciples (Mark 3:18, Matthew 10:3, Luke 6:15), a faceless man among the twelve. It is in John’s Gospel that he emerges as a distinct personality, but even then there are only 155 words about him. Bishop John Shelby Spong in his book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, that the writer of John created Thomas as a metaphor with a unique personality of “doubting”. His story has entered the vocabulary of the world and is even used in common conversation. People who doubt or question the status quo are called “Doubting Thomas”.[1]

Jesus admonished Thomas:

“Stop doubting and believe” (John 20:27)

Jesus told Thomas to believe and accept His resurrection as true – to have “faith”.

What then is this “faith” we are supposed to have? Faith is a complete trust or confidence in someone or something. It is, from a religious standpoint, a strong belief in God or certain doctrines based on spiritual apprehension, rather than proof. Jesus goes on to tell Thomas

“blessed are those who believe and have not seen”. (John 20:29)

In fact, not only Christians, but all human beings, really, live every day by faith.

  • We go to sleep assuming by faith that we will wake up.
  • We kiss our loved ones goodbye, having faith that we will see them again.
  • We drive to the grocery store with the faith that we will return home safely with our groceries.
  • We plant our gardens in the fall with faith that they will blossom in the spring.

And most crucially, we live every day knowing at some point that we will die, and that somehow it will be alright. But we cannot prove that, nor can we understand what really happens. These are all elements of “having faith”.

But does faith mean we do not doubt?

No, surely faith does not preclude doubt. Most people, if they are honest with themselves, will admit that they are troubled from time to time with doubts about what they they’ve been taught is true. Even the Saint Mother Teresa wrote of her doubts in her diaries, saying:

“[But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, – Listen and do not hear – the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak “

Even this holy woman had doubts, yet her faith was strong.

Doubt is defined as: ‘a feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction; a hesitancy to believe; not being certain about something, especially about how good or true it is.’

The writer, Frederick Buechner, put it this way, “If you don’t have doubts you’re either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants-in-the-pants of faith; they keep faith alive and moving.”[2] Doubt is one of God’s most effective tools for producing mighty men and women of faith.

I submit to you that being a “Doubting Thomas” and questioning life, especially its major events or problems, is not a bad thing. We should do it. When we ask ourselves difficult questions, we get answers that can deepen our faith and provide us with the tools we need to move to a more purposeful life and a closer relationship with God.

Indeed, we can learn a valuable lesson from Thomas: We must doubt and then move beyond doubt to faith. It is all right to doubt, but we must move beyond doubt.

Jesus told Thomas that those

who believe even if they have not seen are blessed.” (John 29:29)

Certain Christian doctrines and biblical stories simply seem illogical and flawed. They confound all reason and go against much of what we now know for sure, through science and experience.

So, what if we find ourselves with serious doubts. What should we do?

  • We can accept that doubt is normal and healthy for human beings. All Christians, sometime during our lives, have doubts, questions and skepticisms. That is the way that God made us: to ask questions, to inquire, to think, to sort things out.
  • As I mentioned, doubts, questions and skepticism often lead to a greater faith. Centuries ago, Copernicus doubted that the earth was the center of the universe. Christians of his era were using and quoting the Bible to prove that the earth was the center of the universe. Copernicus doubted the validity of those peoples’ interpretation and his doubting of their interpretation of the Bible led him to a larger and deeper understanding of our place in the world and the wonders of God’s creation. Galileo took this further to his own excommunication from the church, but a strengthened faith in God. Doubt often leads to deeper faith.

So, when we doubt, we begin to examine our lives to determine what is true, what is right, what is good for us. That is the human process – it leads to a better understanding of ourselves, our world, and our relationship with eternity. And each one of us must travel that journey at their own pace and in their own time.

So, is there a real purpose for doubt in our Christian faith? ABSOLUTELY!

Doubt is what enables our faith to grow. Today’s gospel passage tells us this. In the beginning of the text Jesus has appeared to the disciples and they believed. They had to share it with others. Thomas was not in the room when Jesus first appeared to the disciples, and when he heard what happened, he did not believe what they were saying. Thomas had little faith in what the disciples were saying because it was, frankly, unbelievable, and he needed more proof. Jesus was dead – he had seen him brutally tortured and murdered, he saw his lifeless body buried in a tomb.

We don’t know why Thomas was not with the others when Jesus appeared. But surely, he was despairing – the one in whom he had put all his faith was dead. Yet, today we should be glad for his doubt, for we, like Thomas, did not see Jesus appear resurrected, and our doubt is much like his.

When Jesus appeared to the disciples a second time, however, Thomas was there and declared for all to hear,

“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, and place my finger where the nails where, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.“ (John 20:25)

Did Jesus chastise Thomas for his unbelief? No! He understood the reason for his doubts and said:

“Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” (John 20:27)

And Thomas believed!

Doubting Thomas was very much like each of us, wanting to believe and still unsure that Jesus has actually risen. He wanted to see the scars and touch them to assure himself that it was really true – Jesus was alive and had overcome death. Just as Thomas doubted, we feel compelled in our doubts to see for ourselves. Just as Thomas wanted tangible proof, we, in our complex and cruel world, need to be reassured that what Jesus promised us is true – that life is eternal – that to live as He did, to follow His example of love, compassion, service, and forgiveness – this leads us to true life, here on earth and beyond – and that where He is eternally, there we will be also. Like Thomas, we all must seek, experience, meditate, and question until we come to understand, through confidence in the word of Jesus, that He is true, His promise is true, and we can believe in Him with all our hearts and minds.

I leave you with this poem, “Thomas, Undone”, by Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes:

The un-ease you feel is not doubt.
It is hunger to go deeper.
You are not done yet.

Learn from Thomas,
who, when Jesus planned to go to Bethany
where they had tried to stone him,
said, “Let us go die with him.”

You want to see the scar of your betrayal
and how love bears it.

You want to touch the wounds
and enter the heart of The One
Who Suffers for the World
and lives.

Now, more than before,
you are ready to come and die with him,
let love undo you and begin again.

Don’t belittle your restlessness.
Let it lead you.
Reach out.

Even now he is saying your name. [3]

Let us pray:

Almighty and ever living God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with sure and certain faith in your Son’s resurrection: grant us the faith to truly and deeply believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found doubting. Empower us to be carriers of that faith to others. Give us the ability to share it so others can know the grace of your salvation, your gracious gift of Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.
 
 
Christ with Saint Thomas, Andrea de Verrocchio, Orsanmichele, Florence (1467-1483)
[1]    John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, HarperOne, 2014
[2]    Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, (Harper One, 1973)
[3]   Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “Thomas, Undone”, Unfolding Light

Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington and Parts Adjacent, Worthington, OH; 23 April 2017

Seeing (Or NOT Seeing) Is Believing

John 20:19-31

Today’s scripture is the basis for the introduction of Doubting Thomas. . . a term that has been used in both the sacred and secular world since the time of the earliest Christians. But maybe he should be a called Searching Thomas as well as Doubting Thomas.

Let’s set the stage:

    • On Easter morning, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb to find it empty, but an angel informs her  that Jesus body was not stolen, but that He has risen
    • Mary runs to tell the disciples that Jesus is resurrected. They don’t believe her (after all she is a woman)
    • Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, although she initially does not recognize Him.

Now it is Easter evening, and all the disciples except Thomas were hiding in a secure place.

They were behind a locked door. They did not fully understand the resurrection and they were scared. Scared that:

    • those who caused the death of Jesus would come after them. Not an unrealistic concern.
    • Someone had stolen Jesus body
    • They would be accused of stealing His body
    • Wondering where the body of Jesus was
    • Because they did not know what to do or what was going to happen to them.

But they may have also felt ashamed:

    • ashamed that they had not been able to save Jesus,
    • ashamed that they had denied Jesus
    • ashamed that they abandoned Jesus in his time of need,
    • ashamed that they did not believe in Jesus enough to feel assured of His resurrection

The other ten disciples had told Thomas that Jesus had been resurrected, but he refused to accept it without proof. After all, even though Jesus had told then again and again that he would rise from the dead, it was something they had trouble grasping. Coming to life after three days in the tomb was not a common occurrence then – – – or even now!

Then suddenly, Jesus appears to the disciples in this locked room. . . just walked through the closed door.

He came looking for the disciples when they were in need. He forgave them for their denial and calmed their fears. He blessed them with the gift of the Holy Spirit and gave them a ministry. The nail marks and spear wound were comforting to the disciples – –they knew that this was indeed their Lord. They had been to the crucifixion and seen his death. Now this man standing before them bore those same scars.

But Thomas was not present in that locked room. Thomas was a practical man — he wanted to understand what was going on and be ready to deal with whatever was going to happen. He was not hiding behind locked doors, but searching for proof that his Lord had indeed risen from the dead.

According to John 20:26, it wasn’t until eight days later that Jesus again appeared to the disciples. This time Thomas was there. He had heard Jesus was alive, but found it hard to believe, even though he wanted to believe more than anything in the world.

He is very much like each of us wanting to believe and still unsure that Jesus has actually risen. He wanted to see the scars and touch them to ensure himself that it was really true.

Just as Thomas wanted physical proof, when we wander off the beaten path, need to be reassured of God’s love and forgiveness.

And we get that every Sunday.

When the priest says:

    “Peace be with you, (John 20:21)

this is what Jesus told the disciples when he first appeared to them. . . when he blessed them with the Holy Spirit.

Just as Thomas doubted, we must also see for ourselves. And we see that risen Christ each time we partake of the Eucharist.

 
Delivered at Church of the Good Shepherd, Athens OH, 30 March 2008

The “Doubting” Thomas

John 20:19-31

This is the Sunday that we hear about and celebrate the apostle commonly known as ‘Doubting Thomas’, considered by some theologians to be one of Jesus’ ‘bad boys’.

We find the other ten disciples cowering in a room, afraid to come out. The doors were shut and locked; the drapes were drawn, the widows were closed and the disciples were full of fear and despair.

They have just seen their Lord and Master crucified on a cross and buried. Then on the third day His body disappeared from the tomb. Although the angels at the tomb tried to reassure them, they were still afraid.

“Overwhelmed” is a good way to describe the disciples after Jesus died, huddled together in their fear and confusion, not knowing where to turn or what to do next. Their leader and teacher who had held them together all those long months was dead and buried, executed like a common criminal, and his body now missing from the tomb. What a disappointing turn of events! When Jesus was laid in that tomb, there went all their hope, their vision, their sense of direction and purpose in life. They were left only with an overwhelming sense of failure, loss, and shame, because they knew they had deserted Jesus in his hour of need.

Were they more disappointed and disillusioned with themselves or with Jesus, who had raised their hopes so high?

What were they afraid of?

I don’t think they were just worried that those who killed Jesus would kill them as well. Their fear went deeper. Maybe they didn’t want to deal with the scorn or ridicule of those who knew they had failed. They had even failed at protecting Jesus. They had denied knowing him. In spite of all their earlier bravado, all their zeal and conviction, they were afraid of the cross.

And ashamed.

So on the night of the first Easter Sunday, the disciples were hiding together behind locked doors. They didn’t remember or wouldn’t believe Jesus’ promise of resurrection. Imagine the speculation which took place behind those closed doors

    • They feared those who caused the death of Jesus would come after them. Not an unrealistic concern.
    • The suspected someone had stolen Jesus’ body
    • Or perhaps they would be accused of stealing His body
    • They surely wondered where the body of Jesus was

But most of all, they were paralyzed with fright – they did not know what to do or what was going to happen to them.

But they must surely also have felt shame:

    • Ashamed that they had not been able to save Jesus,
    • Ashamed that they had deserted and denied their leader, their Lord
    • And perhaps, ashamed that they did not believe in Jesus enough to feel assured of His resurrection.

I have to ask you, who are the ‘bad boys’ here?

Here at the very heart of the Easter gospel, when the mightiest act of God is occurring, when Jesus has just been raised from the dead by the power of God, when the blaring trumpets of Easter have exploded in celebration, we learn there is doubt. That there is plain, old fashioned doubt.

On such a grand occasion as Easter morning, you would have expected the disciples to have been filled with awe and adoration. But the Bible tells us on that first Easter Sunday, there was doubt.

On the first Easter Sunday the disciples were gathered together, the doors were locked. Suddenly they became aware that Jesus was standing among them. The same thing happened the following Sunday.

Thomas was the only disciple out running the streets. We do not know for sure why he wasn’t with the rest of the disciples, but we are told that he was not.

Was he faithless, separating himself from the community?

So where was Thomas anyway that first Easter Sunday? In my childhood Sunday school classes, Thomas was a “bad guy.” When the other ten disciples told him that Jesus was alive after his crucifixion, Thomas refused to believe it. He separated himself from the others and demanded to see Christ for himself. In short, we learned that he was a dull, doubting follower of Christ whom we should not imitate.

The moral of the story was clear —

      Don’t be like Thomas!

Believe!

Don’t doubt!

Remember, Mary Magdalene had told the group that she has seen Jesus. Maybe Thomas couldn’t imagine hiding when someone has just reported seeing Jesus alive. Perhaps he was trying to find out the truth. Or maybe he was the only disciple with enough sense to recognize that This hiding thing could take a long time, and that he’d better go out and get milk and bread for the group.

Have you ever been to a party or a ball game or a concert and the next day a person comes up to you and says, “You should have been here last night. That was a fabulous game. Or, the Braves won last night in the fifteenth inning. Or, you should have been at that concert last night.”

So it was with the early disciples. “You should have been here last night, Thomas. You missed something else. You missed it. Jesus came back to us and he was alive.” And what was Thomas’ reaction?

    “I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it. Until I see the holes in his hands and side, I won’t believe.” (John 20:25)

He didn’t go along with the crowd. He didn’t cower with the other ten disciples. He stood alone against the crowd and expressed his doubts and incredulities.

But why do so many reject Thomas in our gospel lesson today? To some he is the poster child for unbelief because he dares to bring doubt into our lives of faith.

    Heaven forbid we bring doubt into our faith;

Heaven forbid we name the one thing we’ve all encountered at one time or another.

Thomas merely spoke what so many have been thinking throughout the ages. Thomas did not believe just to believe. He wasn’t the kind of person who blindly accepted the faith without question. Thomas questioned, doubted, thought, pondered. He had a challenging and inquisitive mind.

We find two moments in the gospels where we meet Thomas and on both occasions he was asking questions

  1. We heard about Jesus going to prepare a place for us, a heavenly mansion in John 14:2. It was Thomas who scratched his head and asked,
      “Jesus, we don’t know where you are going and we don’t know the way.” (John 14:5)

     
    Thomas did not understand what Jesus was saying so he asked Jesus questions. None of the other disciples raised their hands and expressed their curiosity. Thomas did.

  1. And the second story about Thomas is in today’s gospel when ten disciples expressed wonder and amazement that the resurrected Christ had revealed Himself to them, Thomas didn’t go along with the crowd and say, “OK, that must be true. You all said so.” Instead, Thomas expressed his reservation and doubt:
      “Unless I see him with my own eyes and touch his wounds with my own fingers, I will not believe.” (John 20:25)

     
    Thomas was not the kind of person who would rattle off the creed without thinking of what he was saying. He would not say “I believe in the virgin birth, descended into hell, ascended to the right hand of the father, the only Son of God, the same substance with the Father” without thinking them through.

    Thomas wanted proof. And he wanted Jesus. When Jesus again appeared to his disciples in the locked room, Thomas was there. And far from rebuking Thomas, Jesus offered to meet his conditions. “Put your fingers in my hands, touch my side.” The Gospel story gives no report of Thomas doing This, and I don’t believe he felt any need to do so. The personal encounter made Jesus’ resurrection real to This follower.

In fact, Thomas’s answer,

    “My Lord and my God!”

is the high point of John’s Gospel. When Thomas got it, he got it. No one else had offered such devotion or named Jesus as God. Thomas held out for an experience of Jesus on his own terms until he found his terms seemed foolish by the reality of seeing Jesus. Only then did he make his statement of faith

So Thomas doubted. But when he behold and spoke with his Lord, when he heard the love and concern in Jesus’ voice, he believed.

So I suggest that we are should indeed be more like Thomas. Two-thousand years later in our complex and sophisticated world, we also have questions and we should express those questions. We shouldn’t hide them.

We need to look at the role of doubt in our faith.

A doubter today is a likely a person who searches for God and the godly life; the person is on a journey, a quest, a search to find God and the love of God

As one beholds This vast universe and our existence alone on This big blue marble earth, a doubter today is a person who has thousands of questions for God; questions about life, love, God’s existence, purpose, the divinity of Christ and many other questions.

Daily bombarded with violence, cynicism, cruelty and injustice, today’s doubter is a person who struggles to live a godly life, who struggles to find the purpose of life, to understand who God is, not as an unbeliever but one trying to reconcile reality and faith.

So, what is the purpose of doubt in our Christian faith?

We can accept that doubt is normal and perhaps healthy for human beings. All Christians, sometimes during our lives, have doubts, questions and skepticisms. That is the way that God made us: to ask questions, to inquire, to think, to sort things out.

Doubts, questions and skepticism often lead to a greater faith. Centuries ago, Copernicus doubted that the earth was the center of the universe. Christians of his era were using and quoting the Bible to prove that the earth was the center of the universe. Copernicus doubted the validity of those peoples’ interpretation and his doubting of their interpretation of the Bible led him to a larger and deeper understanding of our place in the world and the wonders of God’s creation. Galileo took This further to his own excommunication from the church, but a strengthened faith in God. Doubt often leads to deeper faith.

There comes a time in life where we begin to doubt our doubts, question our questions, and become skeptical of our skepticisms. We start to understand that our doubts, questions and skepticisms are a phase of our life and that we can actually become fixated with our questions, doubts and skepticisms.

Doubting Thomas was very much like each of us, wanting to believe and still unsure that Jesus has actually risen. He wanted to see the scars and touch them to assure himself that it was really true – Jesus was alive and had overcome death.

Just as Thomas wanted tangible proof, we, in our complex and cruel world, need to be reassured of God’s love and forgiveness.

And we get that every Sunday. Jesus is with us whenever the Church comes together in His name, especially on the first day of the week, which is now the Lord’s day.

When the priest says:

    Peace be with you, (John 20:21)

This is what Jesus told the disciples when he first appeared to them. . . when he blessed them with the Holy Spirit.

Just as Thomas doubted, we must also see for ourselves. And we see that risen Christ each time we partake of the Eucharist.

Let us pray:

Almighty and everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with sure and certain faith in your Son’s resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight. Please empower us to be carriers of that faith to others. Give us the ability to share it in all its loveliness so others can know your salvation and not face your justice after having rejected your gracious gift of Jesus in whose name we pray. Amen.

 
Delivered at Trinity Episcopal Church on Capitol Square, 19 April 2009