Sermon on John 20:18-29: I’m a Thomas Apologist
It fascinates me when I notice something new in passages I preach on regularly. Every year I preach Thomas’s understandable response to his friends telling him Jesus rose from the dead and understand his doubt a bit more.
I noticed something I cannot believe I missed before. I seriously questioned if I had ever actually read the passage critically before, it jumps out that obviously:
I saw this. Read verse 20 again:
20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy.
– John 20:20 CEB
Now read verse 25:
25The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”
But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”
– John 20:25 CEB
See something similar? The disciples did not rejoice when Jesus said, “Peace be with you!” They rejoiced after Jesus showed them his wounds. They needed the same proof Thomas demanded, and yet we remember Thomas’s doubt vividly and gloss over the other ten disciples not fully believing Mary Magdalene.
Listen to the story in a slightly less flattering light for “The Beloved Disciple.”
When Mary came to find Peter and the author, they ran to the tomb to verify what she said, concluded that Jesus had gone missing, and then ran and hid like cowards.
No judgement – I would run, too, and hide like the coward I am – but the author glosses over his cowardice, instead saying they “went back to their homes.”
After Jesus reveals himself to Mary Magdalene, she tells the disciples the amazing news and yet Jesus still has to show them the wounds for them to rejoice what Mary had told them. No mention of why they paused and did not immediately start rejoicing. Mary only needed to hear Jesus say her name to believe; the disciples need to see the wounds to believe.
Again, I cannot judge. I cannot grasp their level of fear. An unrecognized man appeared behind the locked door they hid behind from people who wanted to kill them. They should have screamed like children. They get a pass for not recognizing Jesus in that moment, but author glossed right over the fact that they needed to see the wounds while making sure we know Thomas needed the same thing.
Verse 25 paints the image of “Doubting Thomas” as written, but read it again, only with some transliteration by me:
Unless [I get literally what you all needed to believe, even though Mary Magdalene had already told you he was alive], I will [continue to doubt the same way you all doubted].
– John 20:25, Pastor Rob’s Transliteration
Then Jesus appears, encounters Thomas where he stood, and Thomas responds to Jesus exactly as anyone would: “My Lord and my God!” A recognition, a celebration, an acknowledgement of the truth of Jesus.
How I wish I could experience Jesus responding to my doubt as he did for Thomas.
I have more sympathy for Thomas than a significant portion of the church. Some of the western church loves to make verse 29 the judgmental lesson of this passage:
29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
– John 20:29 CEB
They make verse 29 into this lesson: do not doubt; just believe.
Some like to condemn doubt as proof of weak faith and weak relationship with God. Some call doubting the work of the devil and struggling with faith the devil making us weak. If we simply had stronger, most wholesome faith, we would not doubt.
I do not believe that in the slightest. If the devil causes doubt and wrestling, the devil has written more than a couple of my sermons. If the devil makes people wrestle with scripture, the devil made seminaries. If the devil causes doubt and makes us wrestle with scripture, the devil is giving us all the deeper meaning we find in scripture beyond cursory reading.
Me personally, I give credit to the Holy Spirit for my doubt and wrestling because it makes me a better student of scripture. I refuse to believe the devil makes me think about scripture critically, and I find that thought process fascinating because Jesus does not respond to Thomas like that. Jesus does not scold Thomas – or the other 10 – for doubting
What he gives speaks to a reality: faith without doubt can be a blessing.
He tells them to desire the faith of a child, the faith of innocence without doubt, but he does not condemn them because they cannot have that faith anymore.
I miss the faith of my youth. I have three years of academic study basically in faith, I have written hundreds of sermons, and I pray multiple times a day, and yet I have a much more fragile faith than I did in my youth. How wonderful does believing without seeing feel? How much blessing and comfort does it provide?
But I cannot have that faith anymore; that faith cannot mature into deep faith. You must wrestle and think more critically as you mature, making the innocent faith of childhood impossible in adulthood.
Look at what actually happened in the story. Thomas doubted – with good reason as we all would do the same – and Christ encountered him where he stood and deepened his faith through that encounter.
Thomas’s doubt lead to deeper faith.
Stop ignoring and denying your doubt. Thomas spent three years with Jesus, he saw the miracles and had 11 trusted friends tell him Jesus came back to life, and yet he doubted. You are not somehow less broken or less human than Thomas.
And Thomas’s doubt did not violate his love of God and did not violate the love he felt for his friends; he did not sin by doubting despite what the gospel of judgement would love us to believe.
Jesus did not condemn or even scold Thomas; he responded to Thomas’s doubt and deepened his faith.
Lean into your doubt, wrestle with scripture and with God, even shout to God with what you need to deepen your faith and what you need to believe. I can guarantee that your faith will become more fragile and you will doubt, but wrestling and doubting will also make your faith more honest, more real, and it will open you up to deepening your relationship with God.
Blind faith is shallow; faith built from wrestling and doubt is deep. More fragile, more confused, but deeper and built with God, not dictated by humanity.
Doubt, wrestle, and build your deep faith with God. Amen.