Sermon on Doubt (John 20:19-31)

Below the fold is a written version of John’s sermon from Sunday, April 30, 2017, on John 20:19-31. This is the one in which I gave some practical suggestions for confronting doubt.

Sermon on John 20:19-31 by Rev. John R. Collins

Our Gospel reading this morning is from the Gospel according to John, chapter 20 verses 19 through 31. I want to explain a verse in here that has often caused confusion.

Jesus breathes on to the disciples in verse 22 and says receive the Holy Spirit. And then he goes on in verse 23 to say that if they forgive the sins of any those sins are forgiven. If they retain the sins of any, those sins are retained. And it’s sometimes been wondered: what exactly does that mean? Does it apply to just the Apostles?

I would think so, but I would think there’s even more to it. They’re given the ability to forgive sins right after Jesus has breathed the Holy Spirit into them. It’s not really they who are doing the forgiving. It is the Holy Spirit. And for a while at least they were to be so in tune with the Spirit that the Spirit would work through them even for the forgiveness and retention of sins. Jesus agreed that only God can forgive sins. That’s how we know that Jesus was God. Here it is God the Holy Spirit working through the apostles. Now you can forget about all that because we’re going to go on to the reading and read the whole thing. And that’s what I’m going to talk about.

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.

Sermon

This is Thomas’s big scene in the Gospel of John. This is the part of the Gospel that focuses on Thomas. Sadly for Thomas, that means we focus on his doubt. We know Thomas for his doubt when we call someone a doubting Thomas we’re referring to this passage.

But I want to make the argument before you today that that’s not really fair to Thomas. At the beginning of today’s reading, Jesus appears to the disciples. They’re all huddled in this locked room. The remaining ten of them that are there are afraid and frightened. Ten of them are in the room. Judas is dead, and Thomas is out, probably going through the drive-in at McDonald’s or getting a coffee at Starbucks.

Thomas isn’t apparently afraid as the rest of them and because he’s not afraid he’s not there the first time that Jesus shows up. So Jesus shows up, and the others see him, and they believe.

And then Thomas comes back, and he knows that these guys are on shaking ground mentally. It’s probably that Thomas has been worried about them and their anxiety for quite a while. And so when they tell Thomas that they have seen the Lord. Thoms is skeptical. Thomas says no I’m going to have to see that myself. I’m not taking your word for it.

And so Jesus shows up again, and Jesus offers Thomas the opportunity to put his finger in Jesus’s hand. Jesus tells Thomas that Thomas can put his hand in Jesus side.

It’s important to notice that Thomas doesn’t do that. He just believes, he just makes the confession, “my Lord and my God.”

To get the full impact of this, we have to go back to the beginning of the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John begins with the statement that Jesus is the Word, as such he is not only with God, but he is God. Now here, at the very end of John’s gospel, we have the book end of that: Thomas says “my Lord and my God.” It’s the first time in the Gospel of John that such a confession has been uttered by human lips.

So I don’t think it’s fair to condemn Thomas. Not for Thomas’s sake, after all, he didn’t need any more evidence than had been shown to the disciples. Not only is it not fair to Thomas, but I also don’t think it’s fair to us and to our honest doubts. For when we condemn Thomas, we condemn ourselves for something we do not need to be condemned for.

Note that when Jesus shows up. Jesus doesn’t let Thomas have it. Jesus doesn’t berate Thomas. Jesus doesn’t say “Thomas why can’t you believe?” Jesus doesn’t say “why couldn’t you take Peter’s word for it?” Jesus doesn’t condemn Thomas. Instead, Jesus offers Thomas evidence more than enough evidence.

So much evidence that Thomas doesn’t take it all. In the same way, God provides more than enough evidence for us. When Jesus says to Thomas blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe he’s not so much talking to Thomas as he is talking to those of us looking over Thomas’s shoulder. He’s speaking to us, uttering a blessing to us that we have come to believe even though we have not seen.

For that reason, I want to continue the sermon with seven practical suggestions for confronting doubts. The first of these is simply to remember past experiences of God’s presence and peace. Sometimes that presence and peace come during the midst of chaos when it appears that everything is going wrong and when it appears that stuff is going wrong that you didn’t think could go wrong. But somehow you experience the presence and peace of God despite it all. You won’t get that all the time. But you can always remember when you have had it before. Cling to that memory.

The second suggestion is simply to affirm that faith and science don’t have to be opposites. It is 2017. I honestly can’t believe we’re still having this conversation. But faith and science don’t have to be opposites. If we want to make them that way, we can do that pretty easily, but that’s not the way they were set up. Our Christian faith tells us about the God who created the world. Science tells us about the world God created. They don’t have to be seen as opposites. They aren’t necessarily in opposition. We believe God made all things and called them good. Science is simply trying to unpack what God has done.

Number three: remember that doubt and unbelief have their own problems. Christians have what’s known as the problem of evil. In a nutshell: God is good, God is all powerful, and yet evil still exists. How can those three things be true?

Yet atheists have a different problem, and that is the problem of goodness. If the world is just some random chance orb floating out in the middle of space that just happened by accident then how do you explain goodness? How do you explain beauty? How do you explain love? Doubt and unbelief have their own problems.

The fourth is to remember that Paul speaks of our need to cling to faith. Paul said in one of his letters: hold fast to your faith. And that means it’s not always 100 percent certainty. Faith is something that must be held onto. It’s something that has to be clung to during difficult times. It’s not something that’s always just there at 100 percent. When you read the Bible, it becomes clear that this was the truth for a great many heroes of the faith. When you take in the Bible as a whole, it becomes so clear that faith is not something with 100 percent certainty. If there weren’t room for doubt, there also wouldn’t be room for faith.

My fifth suggestion is to change the dominant narrative of your life by immersing yourself in the Christian story. By dominant narrative of your life I mean the story you tell yourself about yourself. Maybe or maybe your story goes something like this: I’m an American. I was born here. I grew up here. I was raised by loving parents here. I went to school here. I work here. And then there’s a little footnote to your story this whole story about yourself. There’s a little footnote that says “Oh, and I believe in Jesus” or “I believe in God” or “I’m a Christian.” And this is little more than a footnote tacked on at the end of your story. A footnote at the end of the story that can be easily overlooked.

You need to move God’s story up into the story of your life so that instead of seeing yourself as an individual with a little bit of Jesus tacked on you’re looking at the story of Jesus and finding yourself there living between his resurrection and his final return in glory. Put yourself there, and it becomes easier to hold on to faith.

We’ve been going through these pretty quickly, and those of you who are happy are about to be disappointed because this next one takes a little while it takes a little unpacking: Better understand the meaning of faith.

I am a worrier. I come by it genetically. My grandpa was a farmer and being a farmer takes quite a bit more faith than being a preacher. But my grandpa was also a worrier, and he had this rock that was called his worry rock, and it had a place about the size of his thumb carved out of it. And he would rub it with his thumb. As a little kid, I thought my grandpa had worn the rock down that way. My Grandma later told me that he had gotten it that way, but he had his worry rock, and like him, I am a worrier. And so when I hear that we are saved by faith I want to make really sure I know what faith is. I want to make sure I have all my bases covered. And so for at least the last 25 years, I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what faith means. You don’t have to worry about this because I’m worried about it for you.

In biblical Greek, the two words used are pistis and pisteuo. Pistis is normally translated into English as “faith.” Pisteuo is normally translated as “believe.” They are a noun and a verb. They are two sides of the same coin. We translate them into faith and belief in English and have been doing so for a long time. So long in fact, that when we first translated the words pistis and pisteuo into faith and belief, the words faith and belief had a different nuance of meaning. The meaning of faith and belief have shifted over time. Typically when we say we believe in something now what we mean is “I agree that that’s true.” So it’s perfectly possible (for example) for someone to say they believe in global warming and still drive an SUV [1]. In this understanding, a change in behavior doesn’t necessarily follow the process of mental assent. But if you go back to what these words meant when pistis and pisteuo were translated as “Faith” and “Belief” in the middle ages, then it was the case that faith and belief always included more than just mental assent. They were richer than that. They meant more than that. For that reason where “The Apostles Creed” in the hymnal says “I believe in God,” “I believe in Jesus Christ,” and “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” We instead say “I commit myself to God,” “I set my heart upon Jesus Christ,” and “I place my trust in the Holy Spirit.” We do that because that’s what the world believe used to mean. It had a broader meaning.

Now it sounds like I’ve just made things harder because I’m asserting that belief and faith are more than you think. But it also means that they aren’t exclusively something that happens up in our head and that it is possible to have doubts and still be faithful.

And I’m not the only one thinking this way. It’s always nice to have smarter people than you thinking along the same lines. On of these smarter people is Matthew W. Bates and he’s written a whole book titled Faith by Allegiance Alone arguing that a better way to understand faith and believe is as allegiance, as a question of whose side are you on.

The Apostles’ Creed becomes the pledge of allegiance to God in that way of understanding. And when you think about it, when you pledge allegiance to someone when you make an alliance with someone you believe they exist. That part of belief is covered. You trust in them. That part of faith is covered. Bates makes an excellent argument that allegiance does a great job of tying up all the multiple meanings of pistis and pisteuo.

It’s a convincing argument, and as you go back and re-read through the New Testament with that understanding, you find that parts of it make a lot more sense. Believe and faith are still in there but the translation of pistis and pisteuo as allegiance brings a lot of clarity.

One of the places it brings a lot of clarity to is the understanding of Christ as King. Christ is king and kings value allegiance. Early Christians recognized themselves in opposition to the Roman Empire because the Empire wanted their unquestioning allegiance and they were only willing to give that allegiance to God.

And 7th is an old saying of which a version of was said to John Wesley when John Wesley was having doubts. He was already an ordained minister in the Church of England, but he was struggling with doubts. He was afraid that he didn’t believe enough, he was afraid that his faith wasn’t enough. He was afraid he didn’t really have faith. Finding himself in this state, he thought that maybe he should stop preaching, but a friend named Peter Bohler said to him “preach faith until you have faith and then because you have faith you will preach faith.”

In other words, Keep acting out of loyal allegiance to God and faith will follow. Or to put it in words that work for more people than just preachers. “Act as if you have faith and it will be granted to you.” I can’t come up with where that quote comes from. It’s too old, and its usage is too broad. It’s been said too many times to know exactly who said it first. But it is those things because it is true.

When you’re facing doubts, when you’re facing uncertainty, when you’re asking “do I really believe or am I just going through the motions,” simply act as if you have faith and it will be granted to you.

But while you’re acting, while you’re waiting for faith to be granted to you, my prayer is that the peace of God may be with you. Christ offered that peace to the disciples. He offered that peace to Thomas who had his doubts. And he offers it to us as well. Amen.


[1] I’m not condemning anyone for driving an SUV, I used to drive an SUV, that’s why I thought of this as an example.