Sunday, April 19, 2020

Sermon: "What Is It We Believe?", John 20:19-31 (April 19, 2020)


Imagine that you were one of Jesus’ disciples who had followed him devotedly throughout his ministry. Imagine that you cared deeply for your teacher, insisting on accompanying him in dangerous situations[1] and wanting to follow him everywhere he went, forever.[2] Now imagine that, just a few days after your beloved rabbi had been taken from you in a horrifying, violent way, your friends insist that he’s not dead after all. Sure, he’d been saying that all along, but none of you REALLY thought that was possible. Not only that, but he’s appeared to them and NOT to you. These are the same buddies who’d been known to argue over who was the best disciple, and who’d probably joked around with you plenty over the past several years. This was a pretty mean joke to play on you, though, just to “prove” that Jesus loved them best. So you respond, “I won’t let you trick me that easily. It’s mean to get my hopes up. The only way you can convince me is if I see his wounds with my own eyes. I KNOW you can’t fake that.”

It doesn’t seem very fair to have the adjective “doubting” disparagingly added to your name in popular consciousness, does it?

We tend to make an awful lot of assumptions about Thomas when we read this passage from John. We assume that his response to his friends is the result of some sort of moral defect that makes him inferior to the other disciples. We assume that he’s arrogantly making selfish demands for his own benefit. We assume that after everything he’d seen following Jesus, he almost wound up an atheist. We assume that the “Doubting Thomas” story is a cautionary tale.

But scripture doesn’t say any of this. It doesn’t even necessarily imply it. The scenario I outlined at the beginning of this sermon doesn’t contradict scripture at all. It just interprets what’s already there and fills in some of the gaps imaginatively—and in the process, changes our understanding of this familiar story.

The fact is, while we often assume that the issue at stake is Thomas’ belief in the facts of the resurrection or Jesus’ divinity, it’s not clear at all. Thomas simply says, “Unless I see these things, I won’t believe.” Not “I won’t believe that Jesus is alive.” Not “I won’t believe that Jesus is the messiah.” Just a vague “I won’t believe.” I wonder if Thomas was even experiencing active doubt, as his modern nickname implies. I wonder if he was choosing not to believe out of stubbornness or skepticism, or if he was just finding belief to be frustratingly elusive in his time of grief. I wonder if his declaration that “I won’t believe” would be better interpreted as “I refuse to believe” or “I can’t believe”.

Even Jesus’ eventual appearance doesn’t clarify matters; he doesn’t specify in what way Thomas’ perception should change. We often read his words to Thomas as a criticism, but that, too, is an interpretation. All scripture says is that Jesus offers his wounds as evidence and issues a simple invitation: “Believe.” I wonder if Jesus’ priority really is for Thomas to get the facts of the resurrection right, as we often assume. That doesn’t seem likely to me; after all, if Jesus were preoccupied with factual accuracy, don’t you think he would have been a bit less enigmatic in his teachings? If not that, then, what on earth is the point of this passage?

Maybe scripture leaves Thomas’ and Jesus’ statements vague on purpose. Maybe the issue of “belief” isn’t meant to be about specific facts and details, but about larger ideas and truths. Maybe the “problem” isn’t whether or not Thomas adhered to the correct doctrine or whether or not his lack of belief was a choice. Maybe, the real point of this passage can be found in Jesus’ words at the end of this chapter: “Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

If we interpret this traditionally, from a biblical literalist’s perspective (“Happy are those who don’t see that Jesus has been resurrected and yet believe that it’s true”), it leaves us with a distressingly narrow definition of who gets to be blessed, who belongs, who’s “in”. You don’t need to have been there, but you MUST believe in this fact in this way. No room for grace. But if we take Jesus’ statement at face value and allow ourselves to interpret it more broadly, it could mean all sorts of things, with all sorts of implications. And these implications go far beyond which religion we belong to. They touch every aspect of human life throughout human history.

Early in the book of Acts,[3] the disciples ask, “Okay, Jesus, NOW are you going to restore the kingdom of Israel, now that you’ve conquered death? It’s what we’ve been waiting for. Surely, that’s the next step!” Perhaps to them, Jesus would say, “Happy are those who don’t see the totality of God’s plan, and yet believe.”

During the Holocaust, Anne Frank famously said, “It's a wonder I haven't abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” Perhaps to her, Jesus would say, “Happy are those who don’t see the goodness of humanity, and yet believe.”

Many today are struggling to understand how our being confined to our homes or wearing face masks when we don’t have any symptoms of COVID-19 can help others—it doesn’t seem logical, and aside from some abstract graphs, we can’t see that it’s making any difference. Perhaps to us, Jesus would say, “Happy are those who don’t see the consequences of their loving actions, and yet believe.”

Belief is bigger than just buying into a particular set of facts. Belief is about being able to imagine the world the way God imagines it, and being willing to do something about it, even when you don’t understand it completely. It’s about knowing, in the deepest part of yourself, who God is and how God works in the world, not just at one particular moment over 2000 years ago, but every single day.

THIS type of belief is more real, more powerful, more complete, than simple “orthodoxy”. THIS type of belief opens the door to a relationship with God that touches every part of your life. But this type of belief also has consequences. It demands action. Belief in doctrine doesn’t require anything beyond assent: you answer the questions correctly, and you’re in. That’s why so many people are drawn to this version of faith—even to the point of hostility towards other perspectives. But real belief in God’s essence and identity demands a response. If you know who God is, then you understand the goals of God’s kingdom and the desires of God’s heart. And you know that you have a role to play in making them a reality.

When Thomas cried, “My Lord and my God!” it was a cry of deep recognition. He’d had an epiphany, finally able to fully comprehend through Jesus’ appearance what three years of ministry together had been leading up to. The Lord is a God of compassion, of reaching out to people wherever they are, of overcoming impossibilities to meet the needs of humanity. The Lord is a God of infinite mercy and love. And the Lord is a God who expects the same from those who call themselves disciples. After all, a disciple is more than a follower—a disciple is an apprentice whose goal is to imitate the life of the teacher in every way.

So, fellow disciples…what is it we believe? If we believe, like Thomas, that the Lord is a God of compassion, mercy, and love, then how are we living our lives in imitation of our teacher? What is it that our beliefs are demanding of us in this very moment? And when is it that we’ll finally listen and respond? Amen.


[1] Cf. John 11:16.
[2] Cf. John 14:5.
[3] Cf. Acts 1:6-8.

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