John 20:19-31 New International Version
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
I want to start today with a series of short questions, just to make sure that you are paying attention. We all know what a toaster is, right? What do you put in a toaster? If you said “toast,” you are wrong. You put bread in a toaster, it makes toast. (points to anyone that said waffles)
If red houses are made from red bricks, and blue houses are made from blue bricks, what are greenhouses made from? Glass.
You are running in a race and you are currently in last place. You speed up until you pass the person who is in third place. What place are you in now? Third.
And finally, a math question. You dig a hole that is 3 feet long by 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep. How much dirt, in cubic feet, is in the hole? None, you just dug it all out.
Last week I preached what was probably one of the headiest sermons that I have ever delivered. I spoke about Penal Substitutionary Atonement, Christus Victor, and Girardian Mimetic Theories of atonement. I was a little worried going in because I feed off your energy level on a Sunday morning. If I sense that you are not with me or that I am boring you, I often get more boring. But if I feel like you are with me and are engaged, I usually feel like I am able to become more engaging and energetic.
One of the things that I love and appreciate about this congregation is that you want to learn. You’re so smart already, yet you want to walk out the doors knowing more than when you walked in. You seem to want to be challenged, you want to be engaged, and you don’t mind picking up a few more big, fancy words along the way. I’m really glad that you like to learn because I really like to teach. And in order for me to teach something I have to learn it myself. That is fun for me. I like to dig into books by theologians and Bible scholars to answer some of the most difficult questions that we as a church face, and I like looking at things from different perspectives and considering the ways that other people view certain things. I don’t always agree with what others believe, but engaging with their thoughts helps me to gain knowledge and wisdom, which I try to pass on to you.
However, I know from experience that when you are a person who is always asking questions and searching for answers, that sometimes your faith can experience some highs and lows. There are times when I think to myself that maybe it would just be easier to be the kind of person who can just accept what someone else tells me about God without having to ask the, “Yeah, but…” kinds of questions. But that’s not who I am, and I don’t think that’s who you are. I would say that we are living in a time when very few people simply accept what they are told without questioning “why?” Even my children, from a very young age, began asking “why?” every time I asked them to do something.
I heard a story a few years back about an older pastor who stood up on a Sunday and spoke about how back when he was just getting started in the business nobody in the congregation would ever question anything that he said and always assumed that anything that the pastor said was correct. And he lamented the fact that today people could question him, question his authority, and question his preaching.
After the service the pastor was approached by a man who said, “Pastor, I hear what you’re saying about people today questioning what you preach about, but I just don’t think that’s true.”
The pastor just kind of looked at him, smirked, and said, “If you never questioned my authority, then why would you doubt that to be true?”
I believe that the days where the pastor is seen as the only source of wisdom are long gone, and I’m happy about that. I’m happy because we were made to think, to use the thing between our ears. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was he replied, “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, all of your soul, and all of your mind.”
It is okay to ask questions. It is okay to have a certain level of doubt. I’m not talking about doubting just for the sake of doubting, but questioning for the sake of digging deeper. Asking questions and having certain kinds of doubt can actually lead us to a better understanding of and relationship with God.
Our text for today is a rather familiar one, and has even found its way into contemporary idioms. Surely we have all heard someone called a “Doubting Thomas.” Our scripture begins with 10 of the 11 remaining disciples gathered together in what may be the same upper room where Jesus and his disciples had their “last supper.” Judas is no longer in the picture, having committed suicide, and Thomas is out running some errands, probably picking up the dry cleaning. We are told that the disciples are together in this room with the doors locked, and we are left to assume that the doors are locked because they are fearful for their own lives. They are afraid that they will be next on the list of potential rabble-rousers to be put to death.
As they are sitting there, minding their own business, trying to stay alive, Jesus appears next to them and says, “Peace be with you.” There was something different about his physicality because he was able to appear out of nowhere or pass through walls and closed doors. Yet he was still physically present. They could touch him, and verse 20 tells us specifically that he showed them the scars on his hands where the nails had pierced him and the hole in his side where he was stabbed with a spear.
Then in verse 21 we find Jesus’ words as he speaks to them again, “‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
Let’s just be honest, Thomas picked a really bad time to be gone. Not only did he miss seeing Jesus in the flesh, he missed the giving of the Holy Spirit. World’s worst timing, right there.
Thomas finally gets back with the dry cleaning and the disciples tell him, “We have seen the Lord!” And Thomas replies with what seems to be a very strange reaction: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
Thomas’ requirement of being able to put his fingers in the nail holes seems strange, and indeed it is a little freaky. But the fact that the nail holes and the gash in Jesus’ side were both mentioned earlier suggests that these were important pieces in Jesus’ previous interaction with the other 10 disciples. They probably mentioned it to Thomas, “Thomas, we saw where the nails went right through his hands, man! It was him!” This adds to the certainty that this was not some lookalike of Jesus’. The very man who just over a week ago was put to death on the cross had stood before them, wounds and all.
We are not told whether Thomas doubts that Jesus was alive or whether he doubts that the disciples saw Jesus. Regardless, I feel like I can connect with Thomas. You see, none of this was within Thomas’ understanding of Jesus. We don’t have a lot of information on Thomas, but we do find him popping up a few times through the New Testament. We find Thomas speaking in John 11, where he rallies the rest of the disciples to follow Jesus back to Judea, even though doing so meant an almost certain death for them all. In John 14 we find Thomas asking directions to where Jesus is going, which leads to Jesus’ famous line about his Father’s house having many, many rooms. So Thomas is a passionate, yet very practical person.
Several times throughout the New Testament we are reminded of the meaning of Thomas’ name, which is “twin.” Thomas is simply the English version of the Aramaic toma; the Greek version is Didymus.
We are never told who the other twin is, though there are some interesting theories out there and even some apocryphal writings that suggest Thomas looked so much like Jesus that they called Thomas Jesus’ twin.
Scientifically, we know that twins come in two different kinds of pairs: fraternal twins and identical twins. Fraternal twins don’t necessarily look alike and can even be different genders. For instance, Jacob and Esau are the twin children of Isaac and Rebecca, but they are said to have looked different. We probably all know at least one set of identical twins, who generally look, well, identical. I have two friends whom I cannot tell apart. They sound alike, they act alike, they are the same size and shape. Apart from environmental influences like diet, sicknesses, and injuries, identical twins appear to be the same. And if you want a biology lesson sometime on how the different kinds of twins come into being, I would love to give that lesson and we can talk about fun things like gonadotropin releasing hormone, follicle stimulating hormone, and other interesting things. But I’ll save that for later.
When two people wear the same shirt we sometimes jokingly call them twins. When you buy two of the same product joined together with plastic wrap at a discounted price, we sometimes call it a “twin pack.” It is clear that when we refer to something or someone as a twin, we don’t always mean that they shared a womb with another person. So perhaps there might be something to that idea of Thomas and Jesus looking so much alike that people called Thomas Jesus’ twin (which might explain why Judas had to give Jesus a kiss to reveal to the soldiers which person was Jesus).
It seems to me to be significant that Thomas’ name is translated as “twin,” not once, not twice, but three times in John’s gospel. It is all the more interesting because there is no more information given about his twin. Thomas’ name surely was not actually Thomas; this was probably a nickname because what parents would name their child “twin.” So it would seem that John wants us to identify someone with Thomas, someone as his twin.
I can’t say for sure what John intended, but when I read today’s text, I am reminded that Thomas’ twin is me. We can be so hard of Thomas for showing his doubt, but if I was expecting one thing and something totally out of my understanding of how the world works took place, I would want proof as well.
Being the very passionate and yet practical person that he was, Thomas had a very passionate and practical way of understanding Jesus and his role as the messiah. And that passionate and practical way of thinking surely did not include Jesus rising from the grave and standing there in front of the other disciples. It was going to take more than just the babbling of some grieving disciples going through some kind of post-traumatic experience to convince Thomas that Jesus was among them once again. He wanted to see it for himself.
Thankfully, one week later, Thomas got what he needed to believe. Jesus once again entered the locked room and spoke the words, “Peace be with you!” And this time he instructs Thomas to put his fingers on his wounds, on his hands and his side. And Jesus says to him, “Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas responds by calling Jesus not only Lord, but God.
I believe that this is the first time that any of the disciples refer to Jesus as God. Peter once called him “Son of the living God,” but never “my Lord and my God” as Thomas just did. And if Thomas didn’t have a certain amount of questioning, a certain amount of doubt or uncertainty, he may never have come to understand Jesus in this way.
Thomas’ doubt made his faith stronger.
Jesus does not chastise Thomas for not believing. Yes, he does say that those who believe without actually seeing will be blessed, but he doesn’t shake his finger in Thomas’ face and say, “Shame, shame, shame. How could you have ever doubted?” Jesus knows that people don’t come back from the dead every day, and those who had come back from the dead had done so when Jesus made it happen. Now that Jesus was gone, who was to bring him back from the grave?
The story of Thomas is probably the most famous story of doubt in the Bible, though it is surely not he only example. The next one that I think of is found in Mark 9 where we find a father who brings his son to Jesus because the son is unable to speak and suffers from seizures, which he attributes to an unclean spirit. The man wants Jesus to heal his son, so he asks Jesus, “If you can heal him, take pity on us and help us.”
Jesus gets a little hung up on the “if” part of that request, so he asks the man about it. And the man says, “I do believe. Help me with my unbelief!”
There’s no shaming of this man, just as he doesn’t reprimand Thomas for doubting. You see, when our thought process and all that we know comes into question, doubt is a very, very natural response. The man’s son had been sick since a very young age. Jesus had been dead for three days. Why would they expect anything different if they didn’t have reason to believe?
We have probably all experienced changes in the way that we view Jesus over our lifetime. My first understanding of Jesus was that he was a divine genie, ready to grant my three wishes if only I prayed enough. I started to have my doubts when those things didn’t come true. I moved on to a Jesus who wanted me to be good and listen to my parents, and if only I was good, good things would happen to me. I would be healthy, happy, and rich. But I began to doubt that Jesus when I saw good Christians get hurt. I questioned that Jesus when a friend who was as devout a Christian as I had ever known died in a car accident when he was in his early 20’s.
Doubt can do some bad things to a person’s faith, but never asking any questions can perhaps be worse. Because if I was not allowed to question God when my friend died in a car accident, I probably would have lost my faith all together. But I was allowed to ask the difficult questions and I was allowed to show some doubt. And eventually I came to see that the understanding of God that I had was simply misguided. Like Thomas, I asked the difficult questions, dug a little deeper, and eventually came to a better understanding. And today, like my twin, Thomas, I can call Jesus my Lord and my God.