John 20:19-31 “Doubt in Community”
April 7, 2013 – Caitlin Trussell
Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO
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.” 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, which are not written in this book. 31 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.
Very, very few people have been able see and touch the wounds of the Risen Christ as he is standing in the living room. So, for those very few people, I celebrate what faith must look like and feel like beyond the shadow of a doubt. There are a few more people who have told me that they have never struggled with their faith in Jesus – it just has simply always been there for them and remains with them as pure gift. I have to imagine that this group is more widely represented in churches around the world than the first group. Again, I celebrate the fullness of their faith with them and am grateful for the ways in which those people of great faith have impacted my own faith.
Then there’s a third group of people for whom the Gospel of John was expressly written. Check out verse 31 again, it says that, “these [signs] 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.” If the number of people in the pews of the church around the world is any indication, this is by far the largest group. While conversations and theories abound as to why this is so, the Gospel of John presumes this is so. There are people who believe and there are people who don’t. Just as there are today.
At Luther Seminary, I took a course called ‘Jesus the Savior and the Triune God.’ Our first reading assignment was a named Doubt: A Parable. As a class, we had a lively discussion about doubt and its place in conversations about faith. The various opinions about whether doubt or skepticism should be part of faith conversations are missing the point. The reality is that most conversations about Christian faith in the western world are fraught with questions and skepticism pretty much since about the 17th century and the Enlightenment.
Many of the conversations people have with me about their own faith are on the very topic of doubt – as if faith and doubt are mutually exclusive, as if faith cannot exist while doubt exists or vice versa. But they aren’t mutually exclusive, they are connected. It’s right here that I need to give a shout-out to something called a dialectic. A dialectic is when you take two ideas that seem in complete opposition to other but yet they are connected. Today, the dialectic in this sermon is faith and doubt. One of Martin Luther’s favorite dialectics is Law and Gospel. Rather than saying that one cannot exist while the other does, a dialectic connection acknowledges their coexistence and allows the tension between them to reveal meaning.
In the Gospel reading for today, Thomas is on the outside of faith looking in at the disciples who have seen the risen Christ. I wonder if he’s listening to all of that excited faith-filled testimony of the rest of the group and feeling left out, feeling frustrated that he missed out and wondering if he could ever trust as they seem to trust, could ever be comforted as they seem to be comforted. Or maybe it’s something else entirely. Maybe Thomas thinks the disciples have truly lost it. The trauma of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion was simply too much and they were under the power of some kind of group delusion.
Regardless of his motive and tone, we can learn from Thomas. Not only does he own his skepticism, he talks freely about it with his friends, his community. He struggles, wondering about the truth of the risen Christ, and the people who know him best make space and hold his doubt. That first day in the locked house, Jesus appears to the disciples but not to Thomas and when Thomas shows up later that same day he makes his big speech about what it would take for him to believe. Then we are told that it’s a week later, the disciples are still in the house and Thomas is still with them. He is still with them! He responded to the disciples with skepticism but he is still there in the house…with the disciples.
So, yes, we can learn from Thomas. But I think today we also learn from those disciples, those disciples who hold the space for Thomas even as they hold to their witness of the resurrected Jesus. They are true to the story as they received it without ridding their group of one who stands resolutely against what they say they saw.
A few weeks ago in the Gospel of John class, I asked everyone to break into twos or threes and talk about something that they had heard or learned. Two people from the same pair then shared their thoughts with the larger group. I asked them if they agreed with each other or did they agree to disagree because at that moment it was unclear. The conversation moved on without an answer but then a hand from the pair went up after they chatted a bit more and realized that they were, indeed, in disagreement on a particular point. Their capacity to discuss and hold this disagreement is a powerful example to us all.
When I begin teaching a class, one of the things that I like to say is that, “Jesus is Jesus; what we say about Jesus, sing about Jesus or construct about Jesus is not Jesus.” It is so tempting, so unbearably tempting, to hold up what we say about Jesus and slip into believing that whatever it is that we say is actually Jesus. Listen to Thomas again. He says, “My Lord and my God.” This claim and confession of “My Lord and My God” is the starting point. And in saying this with Thomas, we are freed into the conversations about Jesus that deepen our faith and expand our witness of Jesus in the here and now by the power of the Spirit.
Thomas is not an example of meek acceptance of the status quo. He stands in the middle of that house and makes a demand – a demand that allows for the possibility of faith. And who is able to respond to Thomas’ request? It is the risen Christ Himself. As Thomas stands in the presence of his friends who faithfully witness to the risen Christ, it is Christ who yields to Thomas’ demand.
The story of Thomas gets at some of the most daunting dimensions of faith because it’s clear that faith is not self-generated, nor can we generate it in others. Faith can only be generated by God in Jesus through the Spirit working through the witness that people hear. As readers of the Gospel, we are the ones who have not seen the risen Christ, we receive only the witness about Jesus. This means that seeing is not a precondition for faith as it was for Thomas but rather “faith is evoked by words from and about Jesus…through the work of the Spirit in whom the risen Christ is present and active.”
By the work of the Spirit, the risen Christ is revealing his wounds and birthing faith. He holds out his wounded hand as he challenges us to a new reality through the scriptures. He turns and offers love from His side as He forgives, strengthens and renews the Body of Christ, His church, to make space for faithful testimony as well as doubt. He immerses with us into the waters of baptism as He washes through our sin and brokenness to reveal the power of His resurrecting grace. Christ beckons us through His meal as His wounded and resurrected presence offers love and forgiveness unknown except through Him.
May God grant that you be born out of Christ’s wounded side,
and be drawn to faith in Him.
 John Patrick Stanley, Doubt: A Parable (2005).
 Craig R. Koester, Class lecture, NT3211 “The Gospel and Epistles of John” (St. Paul, MN: Luther Seminary), December 18, 2010.
 Craig R. Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 73.