April 22, 2018: Seeking Jesus Wk 3
John 20: 19-31
Jesus and Doubt
We’ve been looking the last few weeks at Jesus’ appearances after the resurrection and how the disciples determined they were talking to Jesus, and how they were able to see Jesus in this person they were talking to in the way that he interacted with them. I’m going to be looking today at Thomas. You may know Thomas as “Doubting Thomas.” This is how he has been portrayed for quite a bit of time. But is that really fair?
I mean let’s be honest, as we’ve seen every single one of the other disciples all doubted; and they all needed the same kind of affirmation that Thomas asks for. They needed to see Jesus. And furthermore they actually may have been less faithful than Thomas was. Because when you look at this, Thomas wasn’t with them. When Jesus shows up, Thomas wasn’t with them. They were in an upper room, behind locked doors, in fear of the Romans, in fear that the Romans would come and would finish what they started with Jesus. In other words would come for them, Jesus’s followers. They were afraid that God would not have the ability to protect them. And Thomas wasn’t with them. Which means he wasn’t hiding behind the locked doors. Why? We don’t know. Maybe he was with family, maybe he needed to take a walk, maybe he was going and getting groceries; we have no idea. What we do know is that he had walked outside of the locked room, which means he had more faith in God‘s protection then the rest. He had, literally, stepped out in faith. I think he should get a little more credit for that then he does. Was he really a Doubting Thomas, or a Realistic Thomas? We don’t know.
What we do know is that the disciples, and eventually Thomas included, are all in an upper room behind locked doors. Even after being told by the women; even after seeing the empty tomb; the disciples are afraid. And Jesus comes to them anyway. In fact Jesus it seems goes out of his way to come to them. Jesus comes especially to these disciples, who doubted what they had heard, the disciples who were afraid of the unknown enemies around them. And when Thomas isn’t there and Thomas expresses his doubts as well, Jesus comes back a week later specifically just for one person; just for Thomas. Which shows the Jesus cares about every one of his disciples. And we can see Jesus in the way that he shows that level of love and care. We can see the love of God in the way that Jesus embraces us during doubt.
You see doubt is not actually to be feared. That is something that we have had an issue with, especially on the last hundred or so years. We’ve gotten to a place where we believe that if we doubt after we come to faith for even a second, then we are without faith and our salvation itself is in question. But the disciples themselves doubt. Doubt is not something to be feared. When we encounter doubt we must embrace it, and walk through it. Doubt is not a cliff that we risk falling off of, it is merely a valley which must be traversed. On the other end of it our faith will be stronger than we ever thought possible before. And what we see in the story is the Jesus comes with us through that valley. To those who we might, by our standards, consider failures to him; ones who had denied him, ones who had deserted him, ones who had not stood by and not followed through on their words, and ones who now doubted his own words; he comes. He comes to them, he forgives them, he walks through this with them, and they come out on the other side apostles ready to begin this movement we call the church.
In fact, when Jesus comes to them, he comes to these hiding scared people who had deserted him in the moment of persecution. The first moment things began to get hard they ran away. And he gives to them the Holy Spirit and says, “I put everything in you.” Which seems like a questionable decision to me. Surely not the people I would pick first. But Jesus seems to go directly to them. He comforts them. He forgives them. He encourages them. And then he sends them out: “as the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He forgives them their failures, yes, but he also demands that they do better in the future. Forgiveness from God is not a blank check to do whatever you want, you’re expected to repent (which means to turn around). Which means to do a little better the next time. And Jesus here not only called them to do better, but the giving of the Holy Spirit gave them strength so that they can do better. And as we continue the story we see that they do indeed have more faith going forward, and the next time they do not fail. He doesn’t come simply to celebrate his resurrection, he doesn’t come simply to say “yes I rose from the dead. Congratulations.” He comes instead to encourage and strengthen them for what comes next.
As for Thomas, Thomas states that unless he is able to touch the wounds in Jesus‘s hands, and his side, he won’t believe. The thing is though, Thomas doesn’t actually need to touch Jesus when Jesus comes. Jesus simply indicated that Thomas can, and that is enough. And I think it’s enough for Thomas because Thomas realizes that Jesus was listening to him a week ago when he made that boastful statement. Jesus was there listening, even if he couldn’t see Jesus. What are the moments in your life when you realize that Jesus has lovingly been listening to you? What are those moments when Jesus able to show His love for you by showing an interest in you and by answering your concerns. Maybe that time when you been actively searching for something and it just pops up in front of you. Like when you’re feeling down and the random stranger comes up and says “I’ve noticed you’re down I’d like to encourage you.” Or when you really needing that extra hundred bucks in order to make sure that the bills get paid, and there’s food on your table, and you get a tip at work. When you see an answer to a prayer. Those coincidences that seem just a little too coincidental; those are the moments when you realize that Jesus is, and more importantly has been, with us and around us.
In some ways this is exactly what John expressly stated was the entire purpose of writing the fourth gospel in the first place: to point us to when Jesus had been around us so that we might indeed believe even when we hadn’t seen with our eyes. John hoped that through John’s Gospel we might be able to see Jesus without physically seeing Jesus, which in this story Jesus says it makes us blessed: “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” John is looking for a way to show us Jesus through words, through other people, without a resurrection appearance. Question is: are we looking for Jesus?
Something I noticed as I looked through this story was that Thomas says “unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and I’m able to place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” And that comment seemed pretty common to me. I felt like I recognized it. I feel like we say things in a similar vein all the time: if God does this for me then I’ll believe; if I am able to make it to work with all green lights then I’ll go to church in the morning; if my team wins the game. If you can get me out of this without permanent damage; if you heal my husband or my daughter, then I love you forever. We say these things often.
There’s another example of this in the Bible. It is back in the Old Testament, in the book of Judges. Here, Gideon says “God, if you make this fleece that I have laid out wet in the morning, with the rest of the ground dry, then I’ll know it’s you and I’ll do what you had asked me to do.” But unlike Thomas, Gideon didn’t actually want God to do it. He wanted an out. When he wakes up in the morning the fleece is wet, the ground is dry. That was not what he wanted. So he says, “God do it again, but reverse it. Then I’ll know it’s you.” That’s why I ask: when we say things like “unless I see the marks in his hands,” are we saying them as a valid criteria that will indeed prove to us that God loves us? Or are we really hoping that that’s not there, and it can become evidence for an excuse for us to not do what God wanted us to do? To help us to not have our life changed by Jesus being present with it? Because when Jesus becomes present in your life the way Jesus was present for Thomas, the way Jesus is present for these disciples, it changes everything. Look at how their lives changed. It still does that. When Jesus enters into your life you become different. You may not change jobs the way that they did, you may not go on massive journeys the way they did, but your life will be different and will be changed. It will at least different from the outside world. Because when God is not an abstract thing outside of time, but rather a dynamic force in through and around our lives, it effects things. It can make us do scary, strange, wonderful things we would never have thought we would do.
An example of this happened 50 years ago tomorrow. April 23, 1968 was when the Methodist Episcopal Church united with the Evangelical United Brethren church. These two denominations that had been close but separate joined together. On that day they embarked on a journey quite unsure of how it would go, but they stepped forth in faith. In the service of worship to God that officially United the denominations the Reverend Dr. Albert see Outler stated, “this is the day the Lord has made. Let us really rejoice and be glad in it. Glad for the new chance God now gives us: to be at church united in order to be uniting, a church repentant in order to be a church redemptive, a church cruciform in order to manifest God’s triumphant agony for mankind.” Reverend Outler had vision for this new denomination, a hope for the new denomination, a request he was placing before God: “if I see this, God, I will grow in faith” if you will. And for the next 50 years we have seen a church that has sought to unite others, a church that has attempted to redeem others, a church that has brought millions to Christ over three or four continents, a church that has been instrumental in bringing healing to those suffering from malaria in Africa. We have seen God work through this new denomination that they set fourth to create. Jesus made them uncomfortable and through that discomfort Jesus has transformed the world. Now the 50 years also seen conflict. And there is conflict now. There will be issues going forward. But God works through us. And for those willing to work with God, God continues to work. May God work with us.
In the end, it is not ultimately Thomas’s doubting that defines the story. In the end it is ultimately Thomas’s belief that defines the story. You see everyone doubts, not everyone moves through it to faith on the other end. Everyone doubts, but not everyone believes. My encouragement to you on this Sunday is to be a Believing Thomas; not running from, but working through your doubt; trusting and loving Jesus in the midst of it. Amen.