CERTAINTY VS. HOPE
24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So 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.’ 27Then 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.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
(John 20:24-29, NRSV)
One week ago our daughter, Alina, and I were returning from a trip to Tennessee where we saw my parents, and Matthew, our soon to be 21-year-old son who moved to the Volunteer State in January. He’s doing very well by the way but he hasn’t been gone long enough for the sibling rivalry to simmer down. A few weeks ago Joan Walter said to Alina, “So I hear you’re going to Tennessee to see Matthew.” Alina replies with a snarky quip, “I’m not going to Tennessee to see Matthew. I’m going to Tennessee to see my grandparents!” Ouch! I’ve been promised by people who should know that they will mature out of this phase, which could be true, but it doesn’t mean I’ll live long enough to see it!
Since I spent the first 28 years of my life in the South, I’m accustomed to the culture and the emphasis on extremely conservative religion on the part of many southerners. A part of this brand of Christianity is an emphasis on certainty, there is never a place for doubt, even a little bit. In my youth, at the end of each service people were invited to walk down the church aisle to either get saved (think “born-again”) or to recommit their lives to Christ. Sometimes when no one had walked the aisle, the preacher would ask, “Are you 100% certain that if you died tonight that you would go to heaven? Being 99% certain isn’t good enough. You must be 100% certain. If you are even 1% uncertain, you need to walk down this aisle and get right with God.” As you might guess, this always got people down the aisle. This call to 100% certainty caused me great anxiety at one point in my life. I told myself I was 100% sure, but in my heart of hearts doubt lingered at least until I made it to a left-wing seminary where I learned that doubt was no sin!
This brings us to the disciple whom history wrongly labeled “doubting” Thomas. “A day late and a dollar short,” aptly describes Thomas in today’s scripture lesson. He missed it—the appearance of the risen Christ to the other disciples. They were all there, except for Judas, who took his own life after betraying Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. All the rest were together: Peter in all his bluster, John with his quiet kindness, Matthew with his IRS credentials. They were there with all the rest except for one guy, the guy who, when he finally shows up, is a day late and dollar short—Thomas.
Where is Thomas anyway when his band of brothers is all together in a room trying to figure out the next step since this whole Jesus thing had not panned out as they’d hoped? And then it happens, some way, somehow, it happens. The disciples tremble behind locked doors when suddenly Jesus appears to them in his glorified body, his resurrected state. As always seems to happen when a heavenly being pops up out of the blue, great fear ensues. Understandably so! It happens when the angel Gabriel appears to Mary telling her that she is to bear a son whom she should name Jesus. The same knee-knocking fear strikes the shepherds on Christmas Eve as they are out in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night. When the first angel appears, followed shortly by the heavenly host, the poor shepherds are left quaking in their boots—which is exactly why the angel says, “Do not be afraid.”
We find a similar response when Jesus shows up in the room with the disciples unannounced, despite the locked doors and the high-tech security system. Nothing could keep Jesus out and nothing did. His first words to his trembling disciples are these, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19b). It’s what they need most after all. They are scared to death even before Jesus arrives. With Jesus dead, they fear they might be next on the hit list. When Jesus shows up unexpectedly it is not a joyous occasion, at least not at first. The disciples don’t high-five one another and breathe a collective sigh of relief. On the contrary, their fear ratchets up. When Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” perhaps their minds drift back to that life-threatening day on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus calms the wind and the waves saying, “Peace, be still.” In offering them peace, Jesus is trying to calm their inner turbulence and fear. At some point it works as fear gives way to joy, and anxiety to jubilation.
The next verse (v.20) is crucial for those of us who think the so-called doubting Thomas got a bum rap. Verse 20 says, “After…[Jesus] said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” Without even being asked, Jesus voluntarily shows the disciples his scarred hands and side. Later when Thomas shows up and hears the wild tale of Jesus appearing to the other disciples, he says he won’t believe until he sees Christ’s wounded hands and side. Poor Thomas has been condemned throughout history for merely wanting to see for himself that which Jesus showed the other disciples without even being asked. Jesus instinctively knows that the disciples need something besides his familiar face and voice. They need to see proof that the one standing before them is indeed the crucified and risen Christ. So why for 2,000 years has Thomas been criticized for wanting to see the same?
Ironically, the English word “doubt” in verse 27, is nowhere to be found in the ancient Greek manuscripts. Instead of reading, “Do not doubt but believe,” the literal translation is this, “Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” And if we are honest, we must acknowledge that we are all agnostics to some degree, a hodgepodge of faith and skepticism, some times experiencing unbelievable faith and other times undeniable doubt.
Besides, when it comes to matters of faith and belief, is Thomas really all that different from the other disciples? Dr. Susan Hylen, a professor at Luther Seminary, doesn’t think so. She writes, “Although Thomas is often singled out as deficient in belief, his story shares much in common with the response of the disciples as a whole. The twin accounts present the disciples as both believing and disbelieving…Thomas is missing when the other disciples encounter Jesus. Yet he hears from them the same proclamation they heard from Mary Magdalene: ‘We have seen the Lord!’ (20:25; cf. 20:18). Like Thomas, the disciples were not immediately transformed by Mary’s proclamation of the good news. They remain behind locked doors…[quaking in their boots!] (20:19)…Although ‘doubting Thomas’ gets his reputation from this story, his response of non-belief is not unique, but instead is typical of [the] disciples of Jesus…The disciples are not presented simply as believers, even after Jesus’ resurrection. Even after his first appearance…the disciples remain behind locked doors the second week as well (20:26). They proclaim the Easter message, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ but their actions do not fully match their understanding. Although the narrator proclaims ‘blessed’ the one who has not seen and yet has believed (20:29), this is true of none of Christ’s disciples. Instead, John portrays the disciples as still reaching toward belief in Jesus…The disciples embody a belief that reaches toward but never quite achieves complete understanding of Jesus.” But then again, who of us does?
So what does it mean to believe anyway? Clearly it does not mean attaining a complete understanding of God. If it did, then none of us would qualify as believers. It doesn’t mean having all of one’s doubts allayed and questions answered. None of us will ever achieve that either. So what does it mean to believe? What does it mean to have faith?
Frederick Buechner writes, “Faith is different from theology because theology is reasoned, systematic, orderly whereas faith is disorderly, intermittent, and full of surprises. Faith is different from mysticism because mystics in their ecstasy become one with what faith can at most see only from afar. Faith is different from ethics because ethics is primarily concerned not, like faith, with our relationship to God but with our relationship to each other. Faith is closest perhaps to worship because like worship it is essentially a response to God and involves the emotions and the physical senses as well as the mind, but worship is consistent, structured, single-minded and seems to know what it’s doing while faith is a stranger and exile on the earth and doesn’t know for certain about anything. Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch.”
So what does it mean to believe? For me it is not about certainty; it’s about hope. It doesn’t mean having all the answers, but it does mean asking honest questions. It doesn’t mean being fully informed about our ultimate destination, but it does mean keeping an open mind on the journey. It doesn’t mean being able to articulate the meaning of life in all its fullness, but it does involve finding meaning along the way. It doesn’t mean the mystery of life is solved, but it does mean being touched deep down by the mystery that is life.
Until that day when we reach our final destination and stand face to face with the Eternal, may God grant us endurance as we travel, wisdom as we search, love as we strive, and peace as we believe and doubt all at the same time…even if we, like Thomas, are a day late and a dollar short. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
April 15, 2018
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
God of new beginnings, we rejoice that through your powerful love Jesus Christ has risen from the dead. In the resurrection you have shown that neither trouble nor persecution, hardship nor poverty, danger nor death can separate us from your love. Free us to trust in you that we may live as your children.
In the resurrection you were victorious over sin, violence, and oppression. Free us to risk ourselves in the struggle for justice and peace.
In the resurrection you bring new possibilities out of hopeless situations. Free us from all despair that we may bring your hope to those who have lost heart.
Through the presence of Jesus Christ among us, draw us into a community of freedom, hope, and love. Work your new creation among us that we may serve you without fear.
God Most Holy, God Most Loving, God Most Knowing, we praise your name forever, through Jesus Christ our risen Savior. AMEN.
(adapted from Book of Worship United Church of Christ, p. 497)