Monday, November 26, 2012


 John 20: 19-29                                                                                                               March 30, 2008

INTRODUCTION: This story is often used to say that Thomas' faith, which seems to need physical evidence, was inferior to the others who only 'saw' Jesus. Thus he has been Called 'doubting Thomas' through the centuries. If that is what the author meant to teach, what does that mean for us now? It would mean that any person since those days right after Jesus' death who have the same temperament of Thomas,(They need to have physical evidence for most of their decisions and beliefs. Wouldn't that be most of us modern folks?) is incapable of any faith in Jesus at all. For to have faith like Thomas would mean to have sufficient evidence for it. But no one since those ancient days has been able to physically see or touch Jesus. So most modern people could not be people of belief. (some might argue this is precisely why there is not more belief, not enough evidence to support it.) This would seem very unfair and few would accept such a conclusion about the lessened likelihood of present day people being believers.
I think this observation could set many present day people free to understand that believing is not at all about having physical evidence. Neither is it necessarily believing what someone else tells you about Jesus.(Thomas did not believe based on the other apostles' reports.) Physical or reported evidence were not the basis for believing then nor is it now. Perhaps this author does not at all have Jesus saying that Thomas' faith involving physical proof was less than those 'who believe without seeing or touching' but that any real belief is never based on such physical evidence. This could be a profound thing to learn for most present day Christians. Because we are such 'evidence based' people even when it comes to our ideas of faith. This observation may change the very nature of faith as it is usually described and as most of us have been taught. And it is fascinating that this idea may have been precisely the intentional deeper message this highly creative gospel writer intended to teach. Here are some practical implications of the nature of such belief, whether of the original believers or ours.

  1. Belief, which in John is not an intellectual agreement to some physical fact but a trust and confidence in Jesus being alive and active, is what is important -not how we come to have it.
In the final analysis belief or trust in God is something that God gives, not something that we can conjure up by our own effort and intellect and examining a body of evidence. It has truly never been something that can be proven by physical sight or physical touch. This is true now but it was also true then(there should be no such then vs now gap. That is of our own making.) It is spiritually always the nature of belief. The story says that Jesus 'appeared' to them. One says he appeared even though the doors and windows where he could have physically entered were closed. The effective teaching of the story taken spiritually is that belief arrives not by literal seeing or touching but by mystery, by gift , by one's heart awareness and assurance, by spiritual seeing and touching.
Please do not misunderstand. As humans our physically touching loved ones and friends with their permission and also our physically, sensitively and appreciatively seeing other humans is a profoundly important experience. One that we likely need to value as far more serious and precious than we often do. Such physicality with others perhaps has much to do with our coming to believe in God. But this story is given to us now, people who have never experienced physically seeing or touching Jesus. And it is given to help us to know him in a deeply spiritual way. This may have been the way also how those who did touch and see him physically when he was alive came to 'believe' he was alive even after he was killed on the cross and buried.

When we casually read this story through the eyes of 21st century people influenced by science and recent centuries of acquired objectivity, we get the idea that belief is something that one comes to have by some kind of tangible , material proof. We tend to force that which is spiritual into being something physical. This is why many modern Christians crave such proof, whether finding Noah's ark, a burial shroud or a statue of Mary that cries literal tears or an image of Jesus in a potato chip.

The story is best understood as the ancient writer seeking to explain how these grieving, disappointed, hopeless followers of Jesus became convinced that He was not dead but still with them. That meant that his love for them and his goal for a just world where all were equally valued was also still alive. As our song says, “He lives within my heart”. That is the faith, the belief, the trust that the author of these stories is explaining. So belief comes by heart, not physical, seeing and by being spiritually touched, not physically touching God. Any person who believes that The Christ is still alive in his/her world has been blessed by God by a gift of God. There is no such thing as an inferior belief in God if we understand that it means to be convinced in one's insides that the Spirit of Jesus, of God, is real and alive. And that that living reality is to be trusted and acted upon. That belief can be our motivation to live 'the way' Jesus lived with the values that Jesus had.

  1. Two results, according to John's story, are to be expected from such a belief in Jesus
1. Peace. Twice Jesus says to these beleaguered and losing friends of his. 'Peace be with you'.
He does not declare them winners over other humans or superior to others because they believe. He simply says the gift that goes with belief is being at peace with life and with yourself and not at war with life, yourself, with God or with others anymore. That all is well with your soul.
2. The willingness to use the power of forgiveness in all your relationships. Not the power to change people or to control others or to prove things about God to others. But the power and the desire to forgive others as you absolutely know you are forgiven of any and all errors.

CONCLUSION: So we need not, and should not, take this story to sit in judgment on the quality of Thomas' belief and love of God , any more than we should make such judgment against anyone else. The point of the story is that all belief comes not as the result of physical seeing then or now but by the heart sensed presence of God. Belief is the result of the impact of the Spirit of God upon the individual and upon the community of believers. The story is a tool for us to better 'see' with our heart and 'touch' with our understanding that Jesus is alive. He is alive in our own time and in our own heart; in the very same way he was with the first believers, not in some different less or more miraculous way. And because of this spiritual reality modern people potentially can still carry a living hope that Peace and Forgiveness will one day be the norm of human life and communities throughout the world. Amen.

Note: Since writing this sermon I've become acquainted with the second century Gospel of Thomas found in the Egyptian desert 70  years ago but only in recent decades  fully made public. This shows that very early there were different ways that sincere early Chritians interpreted the role of Thomas. A very good  introduction to the Gospel of Thomas is Beyond Belief, the secret gospel of Thomas  by Princeton professor  of religion Elaine Pagels.

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