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,



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