Posts Tagged ‘Sermon on John 20:19-31’

To find our way into the future it is critical to ask questions, in the spirit of Thomas.

Probing Questions

A Sermon on John 20:19-31

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Let’s get something out of the way right up front: what Jesus actually said to Thomas is very difficult to translate into English.  “Stop doubting” is not a good translation.  The words that Jesus uses here for faith and unfaith are adjectives, not verbs.  A more accurate translation is, “No longer be untrusting, but trusting.”  The root of the adjective means trusting, having faith, believing.  Trusting and not trusting are about relationships.  Jesus is inviting Thomas to move towards trusting him.  A trusting relationship is what this is about, not whether or not Thomas has the correct beliefs, doctrines, or creeds and is sufficiently sure about them.

We don’t know why Thomas was not with the group that first Easter evening.  But sometimes people want to be alone when their hearts are broken.  It’s likely Thomas isolated himself in shock and grief, especially those first few days after the crucifixion.  Bless his friends.  They didn’t want Thomas to remain in isolation, so they reached out to him.

They shared their experience with Thomas.  In response, he trusted them enough to be real with them: “Until and unless I see and touch his hands and side, I don’t trust,” he said.  His friends continued to hold him in their fellowship nevertheless.  They accepted him as he was, and so he was with them the next Sunday night when the congregation of Jesus’ followers gathered.

That’s the way Thomas was: he was too honest to pretend he understood when he didn’t, or to pretend he trusted and believed when he didn’t.  He’s the one who asked the questions the others probably wanted to ask when Jesus told his followers he was going away, and they knew where he was going.  Thomas immediately piped up, “But Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way?”  Even though others had seen Jesus after the resurrection, Thomas was too honest and sincere to pretend that all was well when he was still struggling hard inwardly.

That next Sunday night the community was once again gathered behind locked doors, fear still hanging over them.  Once again Jesus quietly slipped in among them and greeted them all with amazing, comprehensive grace and peace, Thomas included.

Jesus then proceeded to offer Thomas the same gift he had given the others the week before: the sight of his hands and side.  He welcomed Thomas to come and see and touch.  “Probe my hands.  Put your finger there.”  Jesus welcomed Thomas just as he was, questions and all.  He understood Thomas’ need to probe the situation.

Did Thomas actually touch Jesus?  The text doesn’t say.  The story moves immediately to his exclamation, “My Lord and my God!”  Maybe hearing Jesus’ welcome, experiencing Jesus’ grace was all it took to move him in the direction of trust.  Simple, powerful, real: “My Lord, and my God!”  If this isn’t the climax of the Gospel of John, it is certainly one of the high points.  It was a revolutionary declaration in those days when the empire declared that Caesar was lord and God.  Once Jesus’ followers went public with that statement of faith, Jesus is Lord and God, it was going to put them at odds with the empire.

Thomas needed to ask questions on his way to a more trusting relationship with Jesus.  But sometimes Christians and churches don’t take kindly to questions or to the people who ask them.  Your beliefs have to be correct.  You should be able to accept and repeat what you were told and not ask questions.  How you understand what Jesus has done for us has to be nailed down and certain.  If it’s not, keep quiet about it.

This week I heard yet another story about someone who was rejected by fellow Christians when he started asking questions.  He was a pastor in a tradition that has a very rigid system of beliefs.  For a long time he wholeheartedly subscribed to this system and preached it himself.  He remembers when the questions started.  He described a night when he was on retreat with some other men in the church.  As the others slept peacefully, he found himself wondering, “Where did the idea come from that God’s mercy towards a person stops the moment that person dies?  Doesn’t scripture clearly say God’s steadfast love is forever?”  And that sleepless night was the beginning of many.  It led to a painful journey out of that tradition, but into a deeper relationship with Christ. (See Colby Martin, The Shift.)

Jesus understood that Thomas needed to ask questions.  Thomas couldn’t draw closer and move forward with Jesus if he couldn’t be honest and say what was really in his heart.  Doubting and questioning are not the enemy of faith.  They are essential on the road to deeper faith.

Courageous questioning is essential for finding the way into the future.  Bold questions are essential in the service of the truth.  Raising questions is how we discern what’s true from what’s not, what’s truly helpful and what’s quackery.

Raising questions is essential as we move through the COVID-19 pandemic and find our way into the future.  We are not going to be able to return to a settled past, relying unquestioningly on former ways of doing things.

On one level there are practical questions.  The other day our governor outlined a multistage approach to returning to more normal activities.  It will unfold over time, and being able to move forward to a new phase will depend on accurate data about what’s happening.  For example, new cases of the illness will need to start falling and continue to fall, while our ability to test and determine who actually has the virus must rise.

Congregations will not be able to gather in person for activities for some time yet, and when we do, we will still need to be super vigilant, and our practices may need to be altered.  For example, passing an offering plate from hand to hand may not be wise.  We will be asking procedural questions, but also we’ll be asking questions such as, “Is there a way to maintain a connection so that people can continue to join the congregation for worship remotely?”  I really like having friends and family joining us from far away.  And think of what this could mean for people who are shut in in general.

And then there’s the whole question of where is God in all this.  People are asking, and some are quickly offering answers that are not helpful, and even harmful.  As they do whenever there is a disaster, a few are quick to proclaim that God is punishing somebody, usually blaming particular groups of people.  How will we answer that question?  Where do we discern the presence and activity of God?

If we’re going to call Thomas anything, we should call him “Honest Thomas.”    Be like honest Thomas.  His example is one to follow.  Be fearless questioners.

Jesus held out his hands to Thomas, welcoming him just as he was.  Welcoming Thomas’ searching, questioning heart.  The next thing you know, Thomas was entrusting that heart to Jesus.  

See, Jesus is holding his hands out to us.  Welcome, beloved.  Just as you are, questions and all.  AMEN.


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'North moasaic 01 - Resurrection Chapel - National Cathedral - DC' photo (c) 2011, Tim - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/Here is the sermon I wrote for the second Sunday of Easter in 2012.

Making Room for Thomas
A Sermon on John 20:19-31

Ever since that Sunday night, Thomas has been stuck with a label, a negative label, an epithet: doubting Thomas.  Don’t be a doubting Thomas.  You don’t want to be like him.

This week I saw a cartoon that shows Thomas with his arms raised and his eyes wide open exclaiming, “All I’m saying is we don’t call Peter ‘Denying Peter!’ Why should I be saddled with this title?”

Why indeed?  Nobody in the story calls him that.  Nobody in the scripture lesson scolds Thomas.  Not the disciples.  Not Jesus.  No, not even Jesus.

Look closely. In this passage and in all the Easter stories, all the disciples had doubts and fears at one time or another.  All were struggling.  All needed help to recognize the living Christ.  It’s not fair to criticize Thomas for wanting what the others had received on the previous Sunday night.  None of them had recognized the risen Lord until he showed them his hands and side.  That’s what it says in verse 20.  He showed them, then they recognized him.

What’s more, in Luke’s version of the first Sunday evening encounter with the risen Christ, he INSISTS that they all look and that they all touch him.  Their reaction is a messy mix of joy and disbelieving and wondering.  In the Matthew 28, when the eleven see Jesus, they worship him, but some are still struggling with doubt even as they look and worship.

It’s not fair to make a negative example out of Thomas.  I think that view of Thomas comes out of reading a negative tone into Jesus’ voice that’s not really there.  Imagining that kind of tone, some artists’ paintings of this scene show Thomas in a very unflattering light.  They make him look hard-headed.  No, you sure don’t want to be like him!

One reason we read a negative tone into Jesus’ voice is that it is very difficult to translate the Greek text into English there.  “Stop doubting” is not a good translation of the Greek.  The Greek actually reads like this, “Don’t be apistos, but pistos.”  Pistos is an adjective that means having faith or believing.  Apistos means not having faith, disbelieving or unbelieving.  A more accurate translation is, “Don’t be unbelieving but believing.”  Jesus is inviting Thomas to move from not trusting towards trusting.  The tone is gracious and inviting.

Jesus doesn’t say, “What’s wrong with you?  Why didn’t you take the others’ word for it?”  Jesus came, spoke the word of peace to them all, including Thomas, and invited Thomas to look and to touch, which, remember, is what he invites everybody to do in the story in Luke.

Jesus is not saying, “Stop doubting this minute, and don’t ever doubt again.  Never, ever question again, and something’s wrong with you if you do.”

If that were the case, we would have to either ignore huge sections of scripture, many of Psalms, for example, where people are in pain and filled with struggle and questions and wondering where God is.  We either have to ignore those scriptures, or else write all those voices in scripture off as doubting Thomas voices, too.

That mix of faith and unfaith, trust and lack of trust, belief and unbelief is often how it is for the people of God.  The desperate, grieving father in the Gospel of Mark is a kindred spirit to Thomas when he cries out to Jesus, “I believe!  Help my unbelief!”  It’s not either or, either you’ve got your spiritual act together, or you don’t.  It’s both and.  It’s a continuum, it’s a spectrum between unfaith and faith, sometimes we’re closer to one end or the other.  Jesus invites us towards faith, and he doesn’t scold when we struggle in the middle.

As I looked at a number of paintings of the scene between Jesus and Thomas, I saw several that do a better job of interpreting the story.  They show Jesus with his arms out open, inviting.  He looks warm and welcoming. They look warm and welcoming.  And one artist even shows Jesus wrapping Thomas in his arms.  Jesus’ wounded hands are resting on Thomas.

Jesus is gracious and reassuring to Thomas and his kindred, but sometimes Christians are not.  They are less than gracious when they or someone else is having a struggle of the soul.  (more…)

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