April 11, 2021
Today our gospel reading comes from John. And it is the same gospel reading that we always do the Sunday after Easter. I don’t know why the lectionary does that. Today the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples in a room where the doors are all locked… but one particular disciple isn’t there. Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you today.
READ John 20:19-31
So yeah… I don’t know why we have to hear about doubting Thomas every year. As someone also named “Thomas”, I know that in previous years I’ve shared with you my case as to why I think this is a bum rap… that Thomas… as a disciple… was so much more than this one instance of doubt. If we can even call it that. I mean… I can understand his desire for wanting to also see the resurrected Christ. Can’t you? Everyone else in that room had… so why not him? But if you look at the story… and what happens when Jesus appears again a week later… when Thomas has the opportunity to then reach out his hands and touch the resurrected Jesus… in the story… he never does. That’s an important piece to remember as we move through this.
Because as I read this story again this year… it’s not doubt, per se… it’s the conditions Thomas places on his belief that really jump out at me. I can argue that doubt… as we might experience it… is healthy because through doubt we are both able to express our beliefs or what we understand… and at the same time remain open to something else that might change our mind… or might move our heart in another direction. Doubt isn’t necessarily a closing of the door and locking it tight so that nothing can get through. The beginning of the story shows us that the resurrected Jesus doesn’t respect locked doors anyway. Coming back a week later and speaking directly to Thomas shows that the resurrected Jesus isn’t going to respect Thomas’s locked doors either. Think about this… if Thomas’s doubt had shut him off from faith… he wouldn’t have been there a week later. Thomas would have left and gone back home by then and that would be the end of it as far as he was concerned.
So doubt isn’t the end of faith. It could actually be the beginning. It could be that opportunity to leave that impediment behind so you can move forward in faith. Doubt could be the mechanism that helps to get you unstuck. Again… in the story… Thomas never does reach out his hand to put his finger in the mark of the nails… or to place his hand in Jesus’ side. All that becomes unnecessary in the moment. Thomas is able to move to a different place in his faith without having to satisfy the conditions he had set the week before. And we know that Thomas’s faith journey goes on beyond this one story in John. We can see that historically… how the name Thomas is important. His name gets attached to a few non-canonical gospels. There is a church in India that traces its existence back to the work of Thomas. I mean, just imagine the faith journey that took him from this room in this one gospel story all the way to India… spreading the gospel as he went.
Now to take a few steps back from all that… I think the real issue in this story in John is our setting the conditions for our faith. Again… I don’t think doubt is the real issue here. It’s that after Thomas is told about Jesus appearing… he then sets the conditions for his faith. “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 think that’s key word. That’s not a statement of doubt as much as it is a conditional statement. And when we set the conditions for faith… that’s when we shut ourselves off from the possibilities of faith. Unless this… no faith. Unless that… no faith. I will not be convinced by anything else. Only when my conditions are met in full… then will I believe.
When we read the stories in the gospels and Jesus comes into conflict with the religious authorities of the day… how often is it a conflict with their particular conditions for what makes for real faith. I love the stories where Jesus heals someone and there is an objection to the healing because of some condition that was not met. You healed this person on the Sabbath and because you healed on the Sabbath and not on any of the six other days of the week and broke our Sabbath conditions… no faith. No faith despite what we just witnessed. Despite that we could never do anything like that ourselves through our own conditional faith. Despite the obvious good that was done in God’s name. No faith. You may have just commanded that crippled man to get up and walk, but because you dared to say you can forgive sins… which breaks our condition for forgiveness… no faith.
Or later on with Paul… he fights against those who would set circumcision as the condition. Unless a person is circumcised then they don’t meet our conditions and we declare because they have not met our conditions for faith… they have no faith. Even though Paul’s letters are full of this fight against the setting of some outside condition as a sign of real faith… we still have a hard time learning the lesson. We just replace circumcision with some other condition. Unless you read and understand scripture like us… no faith. Unless your theological conclusions are the same as our doctrines… no faith. Unless you have been baptized this way… belong to this church… practice these politics… have this sexuality… don’t violate our middle class values or scare us in anyway… no faith. Setting the conditions… whether it’s done by someone else who sets these predetermined conditions upon us… or we do it by ourselves setting our own conditions under which we will accept the gift of faith… all of it is just another feeble attempt by us to be in control and tell God who God will be. We are quick to tell others that God does not exist outside of our conditions.
But the resurrected Jesus is no respecter of the locked door… or the locked mind… or even of the locked heart. If God through Christ had any respect for our preset conditions…there would be no resurrection. There would be no resurrection because there would be no cross. The plot to kill Jesus in the gospel stories always come to life after he violates some condition provoking anger and violence as the response… causing an uncontrollable jealousy that forms out of ambition… creates fear that position and privilege might be taken away. If God was interested in satisfying all the preset conditions we place upon God in order to earn our faith… there would be no grace. Grace is the ultimate disregard for what we want and our attempts to control the way things ought to be. God’s grace is not concerned in whatever conditional boundaries we create. God you can’t love that person. God you can’t save that person. God you must only show wrath to that person. “Wanna bet?” says the God of grace.
So when the resurrected Jesus appears to Thomas and says to him, “Is this the way you want to go? Here are my hands. Put your hand in my side. Go ahead and use me to satisfy your conditions for faith.” Jesus gives him a choice. And Thomas’s conditions immediately fall away. None of them matter anymore. His demand to touch the resurrected body of Jesus rang hollow in that moment. But if his preset conditions hadn’t fallen away… if they hadn’t… then his faith would never travel beyond those conditions because whatever conditions get set becomes the box that is constructed to contain faith. And once that faith gets put into the created and limiting box… anything that may occur outside that box is a violation of the conditions of the box. The only way to get beyond is to deconstruct the box… and that… as these gospel stories illustrate… is hard to do.
Hard. Not impossible. Because we tend to focus so much on Thomas in this story… and get so hooked on worrying about his doubting… often the first part of our reading gets ignored and overlooked. But I think in his first appearance to the disciples… Jesus gives the key to unlock all the boxes we will later make with our desire to create conditions to help us be in control of faith and where that faith will then take us.
Jesus first appears and gives the gift of the Holy Spirit. When we get to Pentecost and the story as told in Acts… that gift is used to comprehend and to speak other languages so that the disciples can spread the good news in a way that others can understand. A barrier is removed so the good news can be heard. Here the power to forgive or to retain sins is given through the Holy Spirit. How interesting is it that both options are given? Choice is given by the one who was just crucified for the forgiveness of sin. Do you think that maybe… maybe this choice… well, I hate to use the word “test”… but I can’t think of a better word at the moment. Put yourself in that situation. You’re standing there before the resurrected Jesus. The one who just a few days earlier asked for the forgiveness of those crucifying him… while they were crucifying him. He now gives you the gift of the Holy Spirit. And then tells you that you can forgive sins… or you can retain sins. Imagine Jesus… after forgiving the sins of a certain crippled man… tells him to get up and walk… and he does. Imagine Jesus then turning to the Pharisees and the scribes whose conditions about forgiving sins he just violated in performing this healing miracle… imagine Jesus saying to them, “Look you can retain his sins and make him a cripple again… or you can forgive his sins and allow him to walk. It’s up to you to decide.” Retain and keep your conditions intact. Forgive and dare to let God’s gift of faith take you someplace new. Which of you will retain? Which will answer… “My Lord and my God!” Amen.