Sunday, May 01, 2011

Dealing With Doubt (John 20:19-31)

Peter ran away, but poor Thomas gets saddled with the nickname. Even though he's the one who committed to going to Bethany and facing death alongside Jesus, something Peter didn't actually manage to do, he's always going to be "Doubting Thomas."

Many folks have noted that Thomas has some pretty solid reasons to doubt these witnesses when they claim the impossible has happened and Jesus is alive. A cynical Thomas could point out these guys haven't gotten anything right yet -- they spent their last night with Jesus arguing about which one of them was the greatest -- so why would they get it right now? A more sympathetic Thomas might suggest that the grief and guilt they all feel, including him, has moved them so much they're fantasizing about Jesus returning from the dead, or that they're seeing spirits.

Either way, he says he wants to see Jesus for himself, and touch his wounds as evidence that who he's seeing is the same man they followed around Galilee and Judea. When Jesus appears, Thomas doesn't need those things at all, it turns out, as the risen Savior's presence alone is enough to convince him.

Then Jesus says some words we've often focused on when we read or study this story, about how even though Thomas is blessed for seeing and believing, even more blessed will be those who believe even when they can't see, or encounter the actual person of the risen Lord. We've tended to see that as a message of encouragement to those of us who follow Jesus now, since we haven't met the physical risen Christ like the disciples did. It's a good word of reassurance to us that our faith is not in vain.

But we can also look at what Thomas wanted to see in order to believe Jesus was risen, and we might learn some things about what the body of Christ might be and do today. Remember, he wanted to see those scars from the nails and the spear -- those would prove he was seeing an actual human being instead of a spirit. The common belief about spirit beings at the time was that they had no physical needs or sensations. They didn't eat or drink, didn't need sleep, didn't suffer pain and they couldn't really be wounded like a person could. IN other words, spiritual beings only pretended to be people, and Thomas was having none of that. For Jesus to have meant anything, he had to be a real person and not an ethereal pretender.

Think about people who doubt Christianity today: Why do they do so? What causes their doubts? If you talk with people who know the Christian story but don't believe it, you'll probably hear several variations on the idea that no matter how much they may like Christ, Christians themselves give them plenty of reason to back away from Christianity. We preach forgiveness but practice condemnation and judgment, we're hypocritical in setting a standard we fail to live up to, we not only fuss with people outside the church but within what we'll say is the body of Christ, we think our God makes us better than other people are, and so on. Is a lot of that true? It certainly can be, if the guy in my mirror is anything to go by.

Now, I'll freely confess that even though accusations like this carry some weight, I don't find them adequate reasons to turn our backs on Christ. After all, if the problem is that we see the same flawed people inside the church as we do outside the church, then the truth is we see the same flawed people outside the church as we do inside the church! The church is full of hypocrites? Yes it is, and there's always room for one more. Christians judge too easily? They surely can, but who in the world does much better?

Of course we should be working on ending these things about us! Jesus told his disciples that their love for one another would show people they followed him and that is the mark we should be aiming at and working towards, as well as asking forgiveness for when we fail to meet it. We should definitely be ready to admit our wrongs and move towards what is right. It is what Christ asks of us all, isn't it?

It is when we admit our flaws and confess our wrongs that we show the world how we are the body of Christ, the way Jesus showed Thomas his true body following the resurrection. We are not perfect and to say otherwise is pretense. The body of Christ that's made up by the church has marks and scars on it -- a lot of them self-inflicted, unlike the actual body of Christ which was injured by others. We won't win anyone for Christ if we pretend we have fewer flaws than others; if we are perfect then what flawed person would feel welcome and if we are not what flawed person would believe anything else we have to say?

We claim today that the flaws and imperfections of our sin have been healed and are being healed by Christ -- according to Isaiah, by the wounds that the Savior himself suffered. When we as the church confess our mistakes and own our flaws -- our real ones, not just ones someone made up -- then we might find ourselves opening the door so that others may enter this place, and find healing for themselves as well.

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