John 20:19-31 (NRSV)
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
I think this story is a testimony to the difficulty of faith – how hard it is to believe. Merriam-Webster defines faith as a “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” Belief. I think of the words from the Apostle’s Creed, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and so on…” or from the praise song – “I believe in Jesus…I believe he is the son of God…that he died and he rose again…that he gave himself for me…” All week as I’ve thought about this text, the old Steven Curtis Chapman song has rolled around in my head, “I do, I do, I do, I do believe, I know, I know, I know, I know it’s true, Lord, I believe in you.” Firm belief – faith – is not only foundational, but transformational. It can be life-changing as we mentally and verbally declare – this is what we believe. This is who we are. So what about the disciples – where was their belief, their faith?
The doors are locked in fear. The disciples are meeting together not just behind closed doors, but locked doors. Their fear is apparent. As Jesus was betrayed, they scattered like ants and that initial fear has only been heightened as they believe that their friend, their leader, their rabbi has been crucified.
But wait, prior to this, didn’t Peter and John see the empty tomb and the discarded clothes of Jesus? Haven’t we heard “Up from the Grave He Arose” and “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and celebrated the Resurrection with all of the Alleluia’s? Didn’t Mary Magdalene see and speak with Jesus and then proclaim to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!”? It seems that Thomas has gotten a bad rap. As much preachers like to use “Doubting Thomas” in our sermon illustrations, he wasn’t the only one that needed to see to believe. They too needed a personal encounter or experience with the Risen Lord.
Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” I like that he just sort of appeared. It doesn’t say exactly what the disciples were doing – maybe freaking out or worrying over what they would do next or what would happen to them – but all of a sudden, there was Jesus – Jesus that had been crucified and buried, Jesus that they had deserted, Jesus that they loved and had followed, saying, “Peace be with you.”
He doesn’t say, “Dude, where were you guys?” or “I told you so,” but peace. Peace. He showed them his hands and side to prove to them that he wasn’t a ghost, that he was the same Jesus they had known, had eaten with, walked with, learned from, the same Jesus that had been crucified just three days earlier. The text says, “Then,” “Then” they rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Not until he showed them did they rejoice. Seeing was believing.
Again Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” And then he does an amazing thing – he empowers the disciples and gives them authority. Not only does he react in compassion to their doubt, but he ordains them to bringing the Good News to the world. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” They have seen the journey that Jesus has taken – the ups and the downs and especially the persecution. But he doesn’t ask them to walk this path alone – he gives them the Holy Spirit. Actually it says, he breathed on them – just like God breathed life into Adam – He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
The disciple’s faith, their firm belief, was restored. They thought they would never see him again, and in he walks into the room. They witnessed in person the Risen and Resurrected Lord. They had a personal encounter with Jesus.
What does it take for us to believe? The Gospel of John shows us that faith comes in different ways and with differing intensities to different people. It doesn’t all come in the same neatly wrapped package. In verse 8 of this same chapter, the beloved disciple believes upon seeing the empty tomb. In verse 16, Mary believes when the Lord calls her name. The disciples here in verse 20 rejoice when they see his hand and side. And then here comes Thomas.
He had missed out on the action, the unbelievable good news. They had seen the Lord with their own eyes – but he had not.
Whether out of reaction to all of them seeing and now believing and a little bit of FOMO (fear of missing out) or whether he just needs tangible proof, he takes it a step further. He not only wants to see Jesus to believe, but he says that he wants to put his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in his side. That’s a pretty hardcore and definitive statement.
You see why he’s called Doubting Thomas? He’s been singled out throughout the ages as someone with inferior faith because he actually expressed his doubt in the resurrection. He made his reservations known out-loud. He used his outside voice not just wondering in his head. He absolutely refused to say that he understood what he didn’t understand, or that he believed what he didn’t. He was honest and blunt. As I said earlier – it’s not that the other disciples immediately believed or that they weren’t scared as well, but Thomas is the one who remains firm – No, I’m not going to believe unless… And because of that he is the poster child for skepticism. Even those that don’t know the story, have heard of a “Doubting Thomas.” His name is so synonymous with doubt that if you look in a Webster’s Dictionary you’ll find it in two places: under “d” for doubt and under “t” for Thomas. According to Webster the definition for a “doubting Thomas” is a habitually doubtful person.
But contrary to his bad press in Webster’s, he had not always doubted. Thomas had believed in the Lord. In verse 16 of John chapter 11 as Jesus prepared to go to Jerusalem, Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” He had believed and he had followed, but his worst fears had been realized – in his mind, Jesus was dead and that was irreversible. Any normal person would have that same reaction – because no one previously had been resurrected and no one ever since. Thomas was speaking out of his grief, out of his fear, out of his anger, out of his despair.
Virginia was 19 years old and pregnant when she went to live with her 15th set of foster parents. Her case file read like a textbook example of neglect, abuse and bureaucratic failure. She sat silently in a chair, hands neatly clasped, staring into her lap. The foster parents, whose three children were in school, had been apprised of Virginia’s story and promised that this placement would be “temporary.” (Temporary was the story of Virginia’s life.)
Finally, the foster mother said, “Are you frightened, Virginia?”
“Kinda,” she replied without looking up. Then, “I’ve been in lots of homes.”
“Well,” the sympathetic woman tried to reassure the bewildered young mother-to-be, “Let’s hope this time turns out for the best.”
Virginia’s reply is one of those statements that sticks to your soul — it was flat, without change of tone and without Virginia even looking up, “Hurts too much to hope.”
Can you imagine?
Thomas could. It hurt too much for him to hope. In his mind, dead is dead. His Lord was dead. Jesus was dead. It hurt too much to hope.
In some ways, it seems that Thomas has become a scapegoat – not only for a society who does not prize doubt, but certainty and confidence, but also a scapegoat for the church. Somehow doubt has come to be seen as wrong, or that it is somehow less than faithful to need a sign, or a touch, or a vision, or a personal encounter. We get the impression that we are not allowed to ask the hard questions without being labeled a cynic, or a skeptic, or a “liberal.” Since when are questions bad? Since when is it wrong to admit that we don’t understand everything? Since when is it wrong to ask God these things? Read the account of Job, the Prophets or the Psalms. All are filled with uncertainties, complaints, and questions of God. Even Jesus while hanging on the cross cried out to God, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Thomas is just one in a long line of faithful people who have raised their voices to ask the hard yet faithful questions. If one is asking God questions or seeking answers from God, there has to be some kind of faith that God exists and can respond. When we cry out to God, know that God will answer. Maybe not immediately or in some of the ways that we want or desire, but God always promises to work things together for good for those that love God. Our God is a big God and can withstand our doubts, can withstand our fears and can withstand all that we throw at God, and “God with us” will respond. Jesus doesn’t throw the book at Thomas because of his doubts. He doesn’t say – welp, you missed out on seeing me, you’re permanently stuck in your unbelief.
A week later, this time the doors are shut, but not locked and Jesus comes and stands among them again saying, “Peace be with you.” Part of me wonders if he leads off with the “Peace be with you” each time because it’s still probably pretty shocking to see him alive and in their midst. Immediately he says to Thomas – do it. Do what you need to do to remove your doubt and believe. “Do not doubt but believe.”
Thomas’s need to grasp, to touch for proof evaporates as he sees Jesus and he responds, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas’ fears were removed – he was given all that he needed.
Reminding me very much of Thomas, Paul Tillich writes, “The old faith must die, eaten away by doubts, but only so that a new and deeper faith may be born.”
In France, they grow a lot of grapes, but in France they do not water the grapevines. In California there’s lots of irrigation, but not in France. The French believe that it’s better to have a bad harvest one year than to lose vines due to drought. If you don’t water your vines the roots of those vines go deep, deep, deep into the earth until they touch groundwater and become invulnerable to drought. The harvest may not be great one year but the vines will return the next year.
When we say I believe, when we have a real and personal encounter with our Risen Lord, we sink the roots of our faith deeper and deeper, so deep that these roots of our faith can handle the droughts. The times we feel God is silent. We don’t know what kind of harsh weather our lives will face; we don’t know the twists and turns awaiting us on this journey, but we trust in the deep, eternal well of God’s faithfulness because we have seen and know. We send our roots deep into the waters of life with God, not because God removes all of our obstacles, all of the storms, but because God walks with us through them.
Jesus knows our doubts just as he knew Thomas’s. He knows our hearts and if we but ask him he is faithful and true and will answer our doubts. The Bible says, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you – if we seek the Risen Lord, we will find him. These encounters come in a variety of ways, they meet us where we are and speak to us in ways that only God can.
Father John Dear in Blessed are the Nonviolent, writes,
“In the summer of 1982, a few months before I entered the Jesuit order, I visited the Holy Land to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
On the day I left the United States, Israel invaded Lebanon. When I stepped off the plane in Jerusalem, soldiers carrying machine guns searched me. I had unwittingly walked into a full-scale war.
I visited the “Chapel of the Beatitudes,” a small, eight-sided stone church that stands on a hill overlooking the sea. I remember sitting there one afternoon, carefully reading the familiar words inscribed on the chapel walls:
Blessed are the poor. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those persecuted for the sake of justice, for Jesus. Love your enemies. Be as compassionate as God.
I walked onto the balcony and surveyed the magnificent Sea of Galilee. It suddenly dawned on me: I think Jesus is serious.
I turned to the sky and called out to God, “Are you trying to tell me something? Do you want me to hunger and thirst for justice? Do you want me to be a peacemaker? Do you want me to love even my enemies?
“All right,” I declared, “I’ll work for peace and justice for the rest of my life — but on one condition: if you give me a sign!”
Immediately, two Israeli jets swooped down at me from the sky above the Sea of Galilee. They roared over me, causing a sonic boom. Moments later, they dropped bombs along the Lebanon border.
Trembling, I made two decisions in that moment. I would devote the rest of my life to working for peace and justice. And I would never ask God for another sign.”
We serve a show and tell God. I bet that if we thought about it, each of us would have stories to share about the ways that Jesus has met us where we are. The signs and wonders, the little God things, the assurances, the encounters that strengthen our faith, that help us to believe when we’re down or all seems lost whether it be a word from a friend, that special passage we flip to in God’s Word, or the song that happens to come on the radio when we need to hear it most. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Blessed are you – who have not physically witnessed the Risen Lord – have not physically seen the nail prints and the scars, but who have come to believe, to know this Jesus.
The text says that this story was written “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” God knows our need for a first-hand encounter. That is why God came to us in the person of Jesus, Emmanuel – God with us. Jesus does not shrug away from our doubts and questions. He wants us, he longs for us to believe. God searches and finds us even when we don’t want to be or don’t think we need to be found. Jesus breaks through the door of our hearts breathing his Spirit over us literally blowing away our mountains of doubt. May we let Jesus speak to our hearts, just as he spoke to Thomas. May Jesus take away our doubts. Ask and you shall receive, seek and ye shall find.
It doesn’t end there though – After the Lord breaks into our hearts and we have declared “my Lord and my God,” there is a life that proceeds from that point. God calls us out of our locked rooms into the world. The disciples knew – they had seen and believed, but they could not believe for Thomas. We can’t believe for our friends and family. Thomas had to make the decision for himself. They didn’t ridicule him for his disbelief or kick him out of the fold. May we also – welcome those that are seeking, that are questioning, those that have never heard the Good News or who have a Christianity that’s contorted beyond recognition. May they see Jesus Christ alive in our hearts and lives. The ways we love each other; the ways we respond to those in need; the ways we strive to live as Christ followers – the hands and feet of Christ. May we go forth knowing in our hearts that we serve the Risen Lord and may we let that light, that truth be known to the world! Thomas believed; may we believe also!