Permission to Doubt (a sermon on John 20:19-31, part 1)

Hi friends,

I was thankful to be able to guest preach a couple weeks ago at Normandy Park United Church of Christ. I thought I’d share a written version of the sermon here, too.

Because I feel like I benefited from having to think a lot about Thomas, and faith, and doubt, and “believing without seeing,” and holding all the contradictions of these things together in our lives. And I hope you might enjoy thinking about these things too.

I’ve split the sermon into two parts. Here’s the scripture text:

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors were locked where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 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.”

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.” 27 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.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 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.”

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

And here’s the first part of the sermon:

A few weeks ago, I went out to lunch at a place I hadn’t been to before, with my husband Ken and another friend. I stepped away for a moment, and when I came back, the two of them were giggling about something, and I wasn’t sure what. Ken said, “gullible is written on the ceiling,” and they both burst out laughing.

I thought, I’m not going to fall for that one. That’s one of the oldest tricks in the book. You can’t fool me! But they insisted that it really was written there. So eventually I caved and looked up, and sure enough, someone really had written the word “gullible” in small white letters on the dark ceiling. 

I share this story because I think it’s funny—it was just so unexpected to actually see the word gullible on the ceiling—but also because I think it can get us thinking about gullibility, and doubt, and belief. 

I share it because I wonder if it helps us understand our scripture text—about Thomas, and the way he responded when he heard that the other disciples saw Jesus and he didn’t.

He often gets called “Doubting Thomas.” As though his doubt sets him apart from the rest of the disciples. And as though his doubt is a bad thing. As if it’s a cautionary tale we have to learn from so that we can be different. Because we are all shining examples of constant, amazing, wholehearted, complete, unwavering, infallible, total faith, right? . . . Maybe some of you are; I sure know I’m not.

But I’m not so sure Thomas’ doubt is all that bad. Because really: Who among us would want to be the person who looks up at the ceiling every time someone says “gullible” is written there? I think most of us believe, at some level, that some amount of doubt is actually a good thing. 

We don’t want to be so ready to believe anything we hear that we end up believing a ton of things that aren’t actually true. We want to be wise. We want to be discerning. 

When people talk about this passage we often talk about “Doubting Thomas,” but the word that’s used over and over and over in this passage—five times, to be exact—is not doubt but belief, or believe. This is a word that could also be translated, have trust in, or have faith in.

Even the word that’s translated often as “doubt”—when Jesus tells Thomas, “stop doubting and believe”—is not actually its own separate word in the original Greek language. It’s just the negative form of believe. Literally, Jesus tells Thomas, “do not be unbelieving, but believing.”

This story is all about believing. But it isn’t about believing mindlessly or thoughtlessly.

I think about this when I think about what it means to believe without seeing. Our text says that Jesus told Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” But I feel like this is complicated.

What does that mean? What does it mean to believe without seeing? When I read the last couple chapters of the gospel of John, I’m struck by the observation that no one in these stories really believes without seeing. 

Take the “disciple Jesus loved,” who was probably John the gospel writer. The text says John believes when he sees the empty tomb and Jesus’ burial clothes lying there—although what exactly he believes seems a little unclear, since right after that we find out that John and Peter, who was with him, did not yet understand that Jesus must rise from the dead (v. 8-9).

Or take Mary Magdalene. The text doesn’t say that Mary “believed” in that exact language, but she sees and recognizes the risen Jesus, and then she goes and tells the other disciples that she has seen the Lord (v. 16-18). She got to see him.

Or take the group of disciples who got together in that locked room, the first time, without Thomas. They got to see Jesus’ hands and side (v. 20). And it’s then that the disciples recognize Jesus and rejoice.

No one really believed without seeing. 

I feel like this was just generally a confusing time for everybody. Mary thinks Jesus is the gardener (v. 15). Peter and John just go home after seeing the empty tomb, because they don’t understand what’s happening (v. 10). In the next story right after ours, Jesus stands on the beach while some of the disciples are fishing, and they don’t recognize them until he helps them catch a miraculous haul of fish (chapter 21).

Everyone’s confused. Everyone’s doubting in their own doubting ways. Everyone’s processing what’s happening in their own different ways that we all process things. Everyone’s taking their own time to come to their own conclusions about Jesus rising from the dead and appearing before them. 

And that’s okay. That’s what’s real about these stories. Maybe that’s where we find ourselves.

I’ll be back next week with the second half. Peace to you until then,


Peace to be fearless

Hi friends,

This Easter week has me thinking about what most of Jesus’ disciples did, as recorded in John’s gospel, right after Jesus’ resurrection. Just that morning, Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty and then saw the risen Jesus (looking a lot like a gardener; John 20:11-18). And now the disciples have gone and locked themselves in a room because they’re afraid (John 20:19-23). 

They’re hiding, afraid of what the religious authorities might do if they found them. 

I feel like we can look back and read this now and think, That’s silly. Jesus literally just rose from the dead that morning. What do they have to be afraid of? Don’t they know God’s power by now?

But I would also like to say this: Religious authorities can be terrifying.

Perhaps when we blame the disciples for being afraid of them, it’s a form of victim-blaming. Really, it isn’t really people’s fault that they feel afraid. It’s the religious leaders’ fault for making them feel afraid. 

A few months back, one of my fellow church elders—another “younger” person in the group (which, in the Presbyterian world, means under forty, lol)—told me, You aren’t afraid of anybody

I got what he meant. Sometimes I ask questions or share opinions in our elder meetings that could evoke a negative reaction. I took my fellow elder’s comment as high praise.

But, of course, in a literal sense, he was wrong. It isn’t at all true that I’m not afraid of anybody. I’m afraid of most people, much of the time. But I’ll still say potentially unpopular things if I feel like they’re important. 

It feels important to me that—where I have a choice, like with churches—I’m not sticking around in environments where fear is a governing force. Sure, it may feel scary to put certain thoughts out there in a room where others might disagree or might not understand. But people’s responses to my thoughts at our elders’ meetings have not reinforced my fear. People have generally been appreciative. No one is trying to intimidate me into silence.

I say this because I feel like there are many religious environments that are not this way. Not unlike the religious authorities that the disciples were hiding from in that locked room two thousand years ago, many church leaders today still try to intimidate people into conforming to particular ways of thinking and living. 

Most churches I know of aren’t trying to do crucifixion-type stuff, or Inquisition-type stuff. But the psychological terror of no longer belonging in a community you once called home and family is very real. These are, still, high stakes.

What does it mean, then, for Jesus to appear today and speak “peace”—the first thing out of his mouth when he walked into that locked room so long ago? Maybe it involves some of these things:

Peace, to know that God is more powerful than the religious leaders who claim to represent God but do not. 

Peace, to be fully yourself, to be honest about who you are and what you really do or don’t believe.

Peace, to know that you are okay, you are good, you are enough. 

Peace, to get out of environments where people are telling you otherwise, where you’re made to feel like you’re not okay, where your honesty is seen as a threat rather than a blessing. 

Peace, to no longer place yourself under the leadership of religious authorities who evoke fear in you.

Maybe this is (part of) what Easter means. Maybe a belief in resurrection can help make us fearless—not in the sense that we don’t feel fear, but in the sense that we aren’t controlled by it. 

So, peace to you this week.


On Palm Sunday (a poem)

Hi friends,

Reflecting on Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey greeted by crowds crying “Hosanna!” (meaning “Save us!”), I wrote a poem about some of the things we might need salvation from (and for).

If you connect with any of it, or have something you’d like to add, I’d love to hear.



On Palm Sunday 

The masses weren’t thinking of pie in the sky
in the sweet by and by.
They were unwashed and shouting and impolite and 
They turned not to the strong-looking warrior in a suit of armor*
but to the unarmed rabbi riding on a donkey.
To him they yelled out, “Save us!”

Save us, oh God, save us.
I don’t know where we go when we die
but I trust it’s a place of love, of peace, 
of communion and community.
That’s the easy kind of salvation.
But what we need is salvation now.
Save us, now. We need it, now.

Save us from the fears that tyrannize us
and keep us unjustly silent.
When we fear death, we fail to live.
Save us from the forces that immobilize us
when we could be on the move.

Save us from those who want to save us
with their own ideas, but do not know us.
Save us from those who make their own plans for us
and do not care for our wellbeing.

Save us from callousness. Save us to care.
Save us to become soft spaces where weary ones can land.
Save us when we are those weary ones;
make room for us then, too.

Save us from the ones who want our sacrifices
but do not want us to flourish,
from those who want us to value everyone else but ourselves.
Save us to choose us.

Save us from the lie that we can do it on our own,
or we are superior if we do.
Move us to lean on one another
and become those who can be leaned on.

Save us from our dreams of greatness
for ourselves, at the expense of others.
Make our hearts happy for those who rejoice;
their successes, our own.

Save us from untimely death,
from officers’ guns and civilians’ assault rifles, 
from anti-abortion laws that care nothing for women’s lives.
We simply want to live, to not be robbed of years.

Save us from accusations of weakness when we weep.
Save us from our own survival strategies,
self-destructing by holding onto habits
that served us well once, but not anymore.
Save us to feel, and in so doing, to hope again.

Save us from constricting notions of masculinity and femininity.
Save women from being trampled on.
Save men from thinking they’re manly for doing the trampling.
Save us all to be more fully human, compassionate and strong.

Save Earth who trembles and breaks
and rises up to protest what we’ve done to her.
We cannot survive without her.
Save her, God.

Save us from those who say “peace” when there is no peace,
who suppress the voices of those who suffer.
Save those who have no homes from abuses
hurled at them because they are vulnerable.

Save us from pastors who think they know best 
but do not listen, do not know, choose not to know.
What they teach will not save us.
We need more.

Save us from the judgment of those who think they are holy.
Free us from the need to conform ourselves
to their expectations of what righteousness looks like.

Save us from self-righteous Christians
and from the self-righteousness within us.
Save us from power-hungry politicians.
Save us from every force that silences,
every burden that oppresses.
Save us from injustice.
We carry the weight of it, and we perpetrate it too.

Save us.
Save us, God.

*This is a reference to Roman imperial governor Pontius Pilate's simultaneous entrance into Jerusalem on the other side of the city. Empire's military power vs Jesus'...very different kind of power.