Is Seeing Believing?

This sermon was originally preached on April 28, 2019 at North Star United Methodist Church and Kenai United Methodist Church in Alaska.

John 20:19-31

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.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As God has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 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.”

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.” 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.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 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.”

 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 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.

 

Something that we hear commonly from people who are older, is that the older they get, the more they don’t know. Similarly, I’ve found that the more I talk about faith, the more I read scripture, and the more I think about God, the easier it becomes for me to say I don’t know. And there’s something liberating about not knowing for me. The idea that when I die, this elaborate thing I’ve spent my life believing could happen, but also it might not, right? We who are alive for the most part have never seen beyond life. And we can have as much faith as we want, but still, at the end of the day, who is to say what actually will happen, until it happens.

So the older I get, the more I say I don’t know, the more I actually relate to this character in our story, Thomas, who sometimes is called Doubting Thomas. Last week, we read about Mary and two of the disciples going to the tomb to see Jesus, then going to tell the others. This week, we follow that narrative. We read that the disciples all are gathered, with the exception of Thomas, where they see Jesus. They all have the chance to see his hands and his side and his scars. Jesus sees the potential for disbelief from the disciples, and so, he offers proof to them in this way. Then he calls those disciples to share the news with those around them.

Next scene, Thomas enters. Thomas wasn’t there to feel the holes in Jesus’ hands, to see that tangible proof that this incredibly miraculous thing had taken place, the resurrection. Some say Thomas wasn’t there at the original meeting because he was grieving Jesus’ death so much, that he couldn’t leave to go be with his friends. Thomas has some doubts. Imagine that.

Less than a few weeks ago, this guy had you over for dinner, where he told you he was the savior of the world, God incarnate, and then soon after, he gets crucified and buried in a tomb. And now you’re hearing he’s no longer there, but also, that he’s actually alive. We as Christians have spent 2000 years trying to understand that, yet we give Thomas grief for not fully believing it after a couple days.

I fully get his disbelief.

I fully get why he asked for proof.

Further, Thomas isn’t asking for anything that the other disciples didn’t get themselves. He’s asking to see the same holes in Jesus’ hands and his same side, just as the disciples saw when Jesus came into the house. So Thomas gets told that he needs to believe, and in response Thomas sets his guidelines for when he will believe.

He says 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.”

Unless I see what you all saw, you can’t expect me to spread the good news like you all are doing to me right now, Thomas responds.

A week later, it happens. Jesus shows up, greets the disciples, this time including Thomas, and then invites Thomas to see and touch his hands and his side. Thomas hears the invitation, and that was enough to believe. His guidelines aren’t fully carried out. It never says Thomas touched the hands, like he said he would need to do. Yet still, he believes.  He greets Jesus as “my Lord and my God”, and he believes.

The good news is that we aren’t disqualified from faith just because we don’t believe when others believe. Jesus meets us where we are. Jesus met Thomas where he was. Jesus could have heard Thomas say these things, and give him a lecture about how he didn’t have any faith, or how he was a terrible follower because he couldn’t just trust what was said. But Jesus instead showed up and showed Thomas what he needed to see to believe. Through that showing up, Thomas believed, and that belief caused him to make a powerful statement of who Jesus is.

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Thomas’ story isn’t uncommon. The fact that the resurrection was tough to understand is common, for us now even, but especially as we look to the story of the resurrection in scripture. When Mary went to the tomb, she saw Jesus wasn’t there, and her reaction was to assume he had been stolen. Peter went to the tomb and noticed the wrappings in the corner, but really didn’t have any belief that he was alive.

Our Bible is a collection of stories from people who don’t have it all together, a group of imperfect people doing their best to follow God, and messing up along the way. These people are unsure sometimes, and they doubt, and they need proof. And still, Jesus meets them where they are, just like he did for Thomas, just like he did for the disciples, and just like he does for us. And even further, Jesus not only meets us, but Jesus entrusts us with that message he gives.

Jesus allows for us to have questions and doubts and disbelief. Jesus leaves space for those emotions of ‘no way did that happen’, without judgment or fear that he will be forgotten. The story of Jesus will forever hold up. There is no expiration or sell-by date.  Jesus and his resurrection continue to live because Jesus continues to show up for each of us at the times we need his story the most. And then through that story, we are commissioned to share our small moments of ‘proof’ with the world, not so that they believe immediately, but so they receive that invitation to begin the same questioning and doubting and seeking journey that we are all on, as disciples.

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Jesus gives us power and authority, knowing fully that none of us know all the details or believe perfectly every time or even want to believe sometimes. Still, in this passage, Jesus commissioned this group of disciples to step into this huge role to share the good news, and Jesus commissions us.

Through this, through the commission to share the good news of the resurrection, we are being invited to bring who we are to the table, to not feel obligated to change ourselves or others, to never feel like we aren’t enough, to need to fix something before we’re allowed. God leaves space for us all to be a part of what God is offering.

This concept of everlasting life, this reality of grace and sacred and spirit, those are things that are offered to us because the story of Jesus happened, not because we believe it happened. Through Jesus, God makes covenant to be our sovereign God, period. Not makes covenant to be our sovereign God if we buy the entire thing without question.

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We like to blame Thomas for his doubts, but maybe this story is an invitation to doubt. Maybe God leaves room for doubts and disbelief because it is important for us to ask for proof when we need it, or to use our brains to ask what is rational, in addition to having faith in the miracles. Maybe our God is unbothered by our searching, our seeking, our wondering. And even more, maybe our God wants to journey with us as we search, seek, and wonder.

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It is okay to be like Thomas, to have questions about the resurrection, to need more information, to need some time to mull it over. God created us not to be perfect and obedient, but to journey and to be in relationship and to grow. Perhaps what Thomas teaches us today, is that our wandering and need for more answers and our skepticism is all a part of what the journey looks like, and that journey leads us closer to God.

As we leave this place, may you leave room, just as God has done already, for your questions and your doubts. May we honor those doubts as sacred parts of our journey towards our own resurrections. And may we remember that through our doubts and questions, we still are trusted by Jesus to share the good news with those around us.

God of gentleness and patience, we thank you for journeying with us, for giving us space for figure it out. Help us to be patient with ourselves as we allow ourselves to not have it all together. Guide us towards your truth, and may it convict us to spread the news to all who we encounter. In your fully alive name we pray, Amen.

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