On Doubt and Witness


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 the Father 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 them; 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.

I invite you take a moment to imagine a different life for yourself – a life in which you are famous!

Your picture is on the front page of Time Magazine;

You name is flashing on the ticker tape in Time Square;

You are being interviewed on the Daily Show by Trevor Noah;

and Facebook is flooded with memes featuring your face;

Everyone knows your story.

But there’s a catch! The story that you are famous for… is a scandal. The reason that people are so eager to talk about you is because it makes them feel better about their own inadequacies, because at least they are better than you.

And to make it even worse – the public outcry is not even fair! The action for which you are being ridiculed and maligned is something that the people around you all did as well.

Besides, all you really did was ask a question, express some reasonable skepticism, ask for more evidence, the chance to see for yourself…

Do you really deserve to be known, for all of human history, for your one moment of DOUBT?

Of course, I am talking about "Doubting Thomas." The disciple who expressed the scandalous doubt that “unless I see, I will not believe.” (insert gasp of horror) He is the doubter who has provided endless reassurance to all who came after, those who know we are blessed because we “have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (John 20:29). (insert congratulatory applause)

As you can probably tell by now, I am more than a little skeptical about the traditional take on Thomas. I don’t think a warning against doubt is actually the point of this story. Gratifying as it is to compare ourselves favorably to one of Jesus’ closest followers, I don’t think the moral of this story is to beware of doubt, lest we be called out by Jesus.

There are at least three reasons why I think that “don’t doubt” is a problematic reading of this text:

The first reason is something that I hinted at already. Thomas was not unique in his doubt. In fact, if we go back to last Sunday’s reading, there is a repeating pattern that emerges in the 20th chapter of John.

It starts when Jesus appears for the first time to Mary Magdalene. It takes her a minute to realize it is him, but when she does he gives her a commission: “Go and tell.” Which she does, Mary goes to the disciples and says to them: “I have seen the Lord!” The disciples receive this proclamation, and what do they do? Do they believe without having seen? NO! They lock themselves in a room out of fear of the authorities. In other words, they disbelieve.

So Jesus shows up again, and the pattern repeats: He appears in the locked room and shows himself to his disciples. Specifically he says “Peace be with you” and shows them his hands and his side. Once they see, then they believe, and he gives them a commission to witness to his resurrection.The disciples then repeat to Thomas Mary’s exact proclamation “We have seen the Lord!” And then Thomas does what all the other disciples had done – he disbelieves. It is not until, like all the other disciples, Jesus appears to Thomas, says “Peace be with you” and shows Thomas his hands and side that Thomas believes.

There is one important shift in the pattern, however – Thomas does not go and hide in fear after he has heard the proclamation – he leans in. He asks for another appearance. He seeks direct experience with Jesus.

Maybe Thomas isn’t looking so bad now, is he? Hearing the witness was not enough for any of the disciples, they all needed to see in order to believe. But Thomas was more upfront about voicing his doubt, and essentially asking for the chance to see for himself.

Which brings me to the second reason that I don’t think the purpose of this story is to warn against the dangers of doubt – That second reason is that all through the gospel of John, people are encouraged to come and see – it’s one of the thematic threads of the gospel that biblical scholars write about.

It starts in the very first chapter when Jesus is calling his disciples. The first two to follow are disciples of John the Baptist who ask Jesus “where are you staying?” to which Jesus responds: “Come and see.” (John 2:38-39). This simple phrase becomes a watch-word for people being open to the message of Jesus for the rest of the gospel.

The very next day, one of the new disciples, Philip, is telling prospective disciple Nathaniel about Jesus and Nathaniel expresses doubt about whether anything good can come out of Nazareth, and Philip’s response is “Come and see.” (John 1:43-46).

Then it is the woman at the well, whose story we read during Lent. When she witnesses to the townspeople, what she says is “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.”

And then there is the man born blind – the one whom the Pharisees interrogated about how it is that he could see (after Jesus had healed him). The same Greek verb for see, horaō, comes up over and over in that story, including Jesus rebuke of those who refuse to see him for who he is, and thus are spiritually blind. (John 9:39-41)

Even the story of Lazarus – the last long gospel story from Lent includes “come and see,” the response of the people when Jesus asked where Lazarus was laid.

Over and over, in the stories of the major signs of power around which John organizes his gospel, he also includes this exhortation to come and see. It is the recommended pattern for how one is to respond to testimony about Jesus.

It is expressive of openness to believing in the incredible things God is doing through Jesus.

Jesus even promises the disciples in one of his predictions of his death and resurrection: “I will see you (horaō) again, and your hearts will rejoice”(John 16:22). It is this seeing that Thomas is essentially asking for – a fulfillment of Jesus’ promise.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to SEE Jesus – Thomas is just following the pattern that Jesus established in the very first chapter of this gospel – in his questioning Thomas is expressing his openness to believe if only Jesus will show himself.

Which, of course, Jesus does! To Mary, and to the other disciples, and to so-called doubting Thomas. This is my third reason that I don’t think Jesus really has such a problem with expressions of “doubt” – because of what he says and does when confronted with the fear and doubt of his followers.

First, He says “Peace be with you” – twice to those who had been most afraid, and once more to Thomas. His first words are not of condemnation, but of comfort.

Second, Jesus shows them the scars on his body, inviting them to not just see, but even to touch the evidence of his brokenness. The marks in his very body that teach us that faithfulness is NOT about visible perfection, that faithfulness can be messy; Scars that show us we do not have to hide the marks of our pain, or fear, or doubt, but we can rather offer them as evidence of the power of resurrection.

Third, “(Jesus) breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain any, they are retained.”[1] (John 20:22-23). In his commissioning of the disciples Jesus gives them the Spirit, the source of faith and the power of God, and he tells them what to do with it. He sends them out to forgive as people who have been forgiven – forgiven for betrayal; forgiven for fear; forgiven, yes, for doubt. Because those who have been forgiven, those who have seen the scars and recognized their own brokenness in the broken body of their Savior, are best able to communicate the power of forgiveness.

In just a few minutes, I will get to baptize little Hudson, and as part of the baptismal rite, I will anoint his sweet, almost-bald, baby head with oil and speak to him this eternal promise: “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

The same Spirit that Jesus breathed into his disciples, is given to Hudson today, and has been given to all of us who are baptized, whether we remember that moment or not. We are sealed, and marked, and commissioned to “go and tell,” to witness to the forgiveness we have received.

And that witness does NOT have to be free of all doubt. As Hudson grows in his faith (as all of us grow in our faith) we are sure to have questions! We are certain to want to see for ourselves, to want to poke our fingers into the holes that defy our expectations of perfection, because we think faith is supposed to be perfect, and resurrection isn’t supposed to leave scars.

As Hudson grows in his faith, and as we all support him in that journey, I hope that we can all look to the example of Thomas. I hope we can teach Hudson, and ourselves, that it is OK to lean into our questions. That it can even be good to yearn for the chance to see with our own eyes; to want to understand how God’s fulfillment of God’s promises stretches our expectations.

And I hope, when we do see Christ – in the bread and the wine; in our faith community; in the work of God’s Holy Spirit in our own lives – then we can be bold to say. “Come and See.” Come and see a Savior who doesn’t expect us to be free of all doubt, who shows us his own scars, and then breathes on us God’s empowering Holy Spirit,

So that, broken or sometimes-doubting as we may be, we can witness to the life-changing power of forgiveness. That kind of open, honest, forgiveness is something I believe the world desperately wants to come and see.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Many translations of this passage, including the NRSV provided at the beginning on this post, translate verse 23 as “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained,” but the words “the sins of” in the second phrase are not present in the original Greek, which leaves much greater ambiguity about what is being retained.

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