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April 27, 2014
"Blessed are the Doubters"

Barbara Lorbach

John 20:19-31


19When 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.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So 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.”

26A 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.” 27Then 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.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But 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.

One part of this story may be familiar to almost everyone because we use a colloquialism from this story yet today—“doubting Thomas.” Some of us may have even referred to ourselves as a “doubting Thomas” at some point in our faith journey. We know this part of the story. Thomas, one of the disciples, wasn’t there at the tomb. He hasn’t seen Jesus and it seems he really doesn’t believe the other disciples. In essence he says, “I won’t believe it unless I see it.”

Another phrase in this story is “peace be with you.” We are familiar with passing the peace in worship, but may not have realized this is something Jesus said to the disciples on the evening of the day they found the tomb empty. The passage also includes something about the forgiving of sins and receiving the Holy Spirit. We also hear that they were behind locked doors for “fear of the Jews.” So many things to consider. We can’t cover it all in the time allotted for this day so let’s look at a couple of things.

This Gospel is known by the name John and who, in church tradition, is “the Fourth Evangelist”—one who tells the good news. The one we call John but who goes unnamed in the Gospel itself (except perhaps as “the one Jesus loved”) is writing for a community of faith that had never seen the resurrected Christ. It is believed the Gospel of John was written some 90 years after Jesus’ time on earth. They had the testimony of others, but they hadn’t known him personally.

We tend to hear Jesus’ words to Thomas as a rebuke—a reprimand. It is more likely that right near the climax of the Gospel, Jesus doesn’t so much reprimand Thomas as he blesses all those who read this story and come to faith through it. It even says there were many stories about Jesus but these were written down so that others, which includes future readers like us, might come to know that Jesus is the Messiah. Blessed are those who have not seen… not seen the physical, human Jesus… and yet they believe. I think that took courage on Thomas’ part. So maybe we need to rename him “Brave Thomas” and make doubt something that is okay to have, that takes courage to express, that is blessed.

Another phrase in this passage has influenced the world in modern times and may have incited the shootings that recently happened at the Jewish Center in Kansas City. The story says the disciples were behind locked doors for “fear of the Jews.” Too many times that phrase has validated anti-Semitism and contributed to genocide like the Holocaust. In your bulletin is a brief note about this kind of language in scripture and how it was never meant to discredit all Jews. It was certainly never a license to hate Jews, blame them for Jesus’ death, or name them as something less than human as Hitler’s regime believed.

The context of the time in which John’s Gospel was written tells us most of the followers of Jesus were Jews who, because of their faith in Jesus, were put out of the synagogues. In John’s usage especially, “the Jews” functions as a technical term for those among the people who did not accept Jesus as Messiah. It is a term that reflects the growing antagonism that developed in the latter part of the first century between church and synagogue. This is important for us to remember. The Jews did not kill Jesus. And I believe there is no valid reason for us as Christians to try to convert Jews to Christians. They are people of God. They are loved by God just as they are. After all, Jesus was Jew and I don’t believe he ever intended to begin a new religion called Christianity. Humankind did that.

This becomes important when we think about someone shot for being a Jew or the recent reports of Ukrainian officials requesting registration of all Jews. While those reports may be exaggerated, we must not use scripture to sanction hate. These words “fear of the Jews,” like so many others in scripture, are not to be taken literally.

William Sloane Coffin, a great preacher of the United Church of Christ once said: “As I see it, the primary religious task these days is to try to think straight.... You can't think straight with a heart full of fear, for fear seeks safety, not truth. If your heart's a stone, you can't have decent thoughts—either about personal relationships or about international ones. A heart full of love, on the other hand, has a limbering effect on the mind.”

Think about that for a moment — “You can’t think straight with a heart full of fear.” So much of the rhetoric spewed in our day is fear-based. We are told on a daily basis that we should be afraid—be afraid of someone who is different from us, be afraid of someone because of their religion, race, culture, appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression and the list goes on. Being limber with respect to our physical bodies is important, but we also need to be limber of heart and mind. “A heart full of love has a limbering effect on the mind.”

Being accepted and not feared makes a difference. Others have shared how the ministry of St. John helped them find acceptance in a place that had rejected them. In a conversation, Wes Brazel shares what I believe is a powerful testimony about his life and finding acceptance in a church.

Wes’s testimony

Thank you, Wes, for your courage and for trusting St. John. God has given us this ministry. We are the evangelists — the ones who are appointed to go tell others about the life-changing love of God known to us in the resurrected one, Jesus.