Doubt, Welcome, and Peace in the Pain
A sermon on John 20:19-31
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here].
Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith, know that you are most welcome here, to receive God’s goodness, mercy, and love. Amen.
I can’t think of another biblical story that better illustrates the invitation I just spoke than the story of Thomas: It’s the story of a questioning disciple who is in a different place on his journey of faith than the other people around him, but who nevertheless experiences Jesus’s welcome, and through that welcome receives God’s goodness, mercy, and love.
Not that Thomas had any such assurance at the beginning of the story. It must have been quite isolating for Thomas to be the only one who wasn’t sure? To feel so alone in his questions, in his need for confirmation. To know that everyone else seemed to just “believe” but he couldn’t.
It’s one of the potential pitfalls in Christian community during times of crisis. The danger that – in clinging to our faith for comfort – we can fail to make space for the people whose faith is rocked by the crisis… by the questions about whether God really can or will help in the middle of the chaos and loss. It can feel pretty dangerous to name your doubts if you think you are the only one who has them.
“Whoever you and wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith…”
That “wherever” takes on a special significance when your “wherever” is separated from the group… especially when it feels like you are “behind.” And especially when your “whoever” isn’t supposed to be “behind.” When you are one of the inner circle, one of the people whose faith is supposed to be strong.
Author Rachel Held Evans knew that isolation. In her poem Easter Doubt, she describes the alienation of sitting among the faithful on Easter Sunday when you no longer feel you belong. She writes:
“…You will know they are thinking exactly what you used to think about Easter Sunday Christians:
But you won’t know how to explain that there is nothing nominal or lukewarm or indifferent about standing in this hurricane of questions every day and staring each one down until you’ve mustered all the bravery and fortitude and trust it takes to whisper just one of them out loud on the car ride home:
‘What if we made this up because we’re afraid of death?’” 
I don’t know whether you have ever had to practice that particular kind of vulnerable courage… whether the questions about why God lets devastation happen have ever pushed you to truly grapple with the raw fear of death…whether the unlikelihood of resurrection hope has ever felt too unbelievable to accept… But I expect Thomas could relate. I imagine he could testify to the courage it takes to voice the doubt no one else is claiming… to raise a flag that proclaims you are NOT where everyone else apparently is on the journey of faith.
But I also think that Thomas’ willingness to do that, to say that he needs Jesus to show up and convince him, is a witness to his understanding that faith really is a journey, rather than a destination. Because by voicing his doubt, he was refusing to stay trapped inside of it.
As Evans’s poem continues: “you won’t know how to explain why, in that moment when the whisper rose out of your mouth like Jesus from the grave, you felt more alive and awake and resurrected than you have in ages because at least it was out, at least it was said, at least is wasn’t buried in your chest anymore, clawing for freedom.”
For Evans, and for the disciple Thomas, and maybe for some of us too… asking our challenging questions, naming our doubts, is actually a step forward on our journey of faith, because it is an expression of trust. We only ask a question if we think there’s a chance we’ll get an answer. We only ask Jesus to show up and give us proof if we think Jesus can be trusted.
And Jesus validates that trust. He not only shows up for Thomas, he welcomes Thomas’s questions, his need to see and touch for himself.
Whoever you and wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith, you are most welcome here…
Can you imagine any offer of welcome more deep, more open than the invitation Jesus extends to Thomas to actually touch his wounds… to “reach out your hand and put it in my side”? Even for those who are feeling starved for physical touch right now, I doubt anyone would be eager to invite another person to explore their open wounds!
As commentator Debie Thomas notes:
“What Jesus sports are not old wounds. They are wounds so raw that the doubting disciple places his fingers inside them. Perhaps Jesus winces when Thomas touches him, but to me the wincing signals real life, lived at a level we can comprehend. It signals real engagement. Real presence. Real pain. It speaks the very words I hunger to hear: ‘I am with you. I am with you where it hurts. I don’t float thousands of sanitized feet above reality. Even after death, I dwell in the hot, searing heart of things. Exactly where you dwell.’”
Jesus’s invitation to touch his wounds is a welcome that sets aside self-protection and shows up to respond to our needs – right where we are. Even when that place is a “hurricane of questions”; even when that place is a painful open wound. Jesus extends us welcome when he extends his hands and says “go ahead and touch my wounds. This is how real my presence with you is.”
And when we respond to that welcome, what we receive is God.
Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith, know that you are most welcome here, to receive God’s goodness, mercy, and love.
When Thomas finally sees, after his questioning, after his waiting – when his need to see before he can believe is answered, his response is a joyful declaration:
“My Lord and My God.”
Thomas recognizes that even though Jesus welcomes us by sharing our human pain, he doesn’t lose his divinity in the process. Rather, he reveals what divinity is. He reveals God’s goodness, mercy, and love. It is Jesus’s very woundedness that lets Thomas recognize him as God. He recognizes that God’s nature is to bear our pain in order to welcome us in love, in order to grant us true peace.
Three times in this passage Jesus says to his disciples “peace be with you.” The word he uses for peace is eirḗnē (εἰρήνη) which is derived from a root word that means “to join.” In other words, he’s saying “have peace because you are joined with God. Nothing can separate you from God. Not even your doubts or your pain. God’s mercy, God’s goodness, God’s love they are all for you.”
And, in this end, this is the only reassurance that CAN deal with our doubts in the midst of fear and crisis. The reassurance of God showing up to offer us the powerful peace of joining us.
It’s not a peace of total tranquility where nothing is wrong… that kind of peace is pretty useless for dealing with a reality that is the exact opposite of tranquility, because it’s unreal. It’s disconnected from our pain.
No, the peace that Jesus offers is much grittier, much stronger. It’s the kind of peace that can deal with our doubts, and our questions, and our pain, because it is the peace of God joining with us in the middle of our need.
Whoever you are and wherever you are on your journey of faith, know that you are most welcome here, to receive God’s goodness, mercy, and love.
This is my welcome each Sunday, but more importantly it is Jesus’s welcome too. It is Jesus’s welcome for everyone brave enough to voice their doubts. For everyone who longs to see and touch for themselves. For everyone who needs a Savior who joins us in the pain of pandemic and grief, in the messy middle of real life and death.
We are all welcome in the middle of whatever challenge and doubt we are facing to reach out and touch the God who is here with us… to offer us goodness, mercy, and love.
Thanks be to God.
 Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday, Nashville: Nelson Books, 2015, p. 187.