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Doubting & Believing

Doubting & Believing

John 20:24-31

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

14 May 2023

               Normally this story is preached the Sunday after Easter, as that is when it appears in the Revised Common Lectionary—the list of weekly Bible readings that most Mainline Protestant denominations utilize for worship.  It’s a fitting location, as one Sunday we celebrate the resurrection and the next Sunday we are already raising questions and doubts about it.

               This particular year we decided to spread out the resurrection stories in the Gospel of John, giving them closer, more focused attention.  So, here we are on the Sixth Sunday of Eastertide finally getting to this passage.  Throughout this season I’ve focused on the various ways the Risen Jesus is experienced by the various disciples and the effects that his appearances have upon them—Peter and the Beloved Disciple running to see the empty tomb, Mary weeping in the garden, those gathered afraid in the upper room who are then empowered to go forth, and now Thomas, the doubter. 

Thomas is known for doubting, even though Thomas never says that.  He never says he’s skeptical or doubting, he just says he needs empirical proof if he’s going to believe.

And the cool thing is, he gets it.  Jesus does appear, just for Thomas.  And many commentaries focus on this aspect of the story.  Jesus meets us where we are.  Jesus enters into our fear, our questions, our needs, even passes through locked doors, to come to us, to encounter us, to show God’s love and compassion for us.

The result of this appearance is that Thomas believes, and all the disciples believe, and then the author of the Gospel proclaims that all of this has been written so that we might believe.

So, what is being asked of us?  What does it mean to believe?

In my pastoral library is a book entitled The Predicament of Belief which actually tries to give an account of the resurrection that it believes will satisfy a contemporary, rational, scientific mind.  I don’t care for this book.  It just seems wrong-headed to me.  I pulled it down off my shelves again this week and perused it, trying to determine if there is anything useful in it.  I decided there wasn’t, and after a decade of it being in my library, unused, I decided it could be donated to the book sale.

Because I really don’t think the Gospel of John, or our faith, are trying to develop a rational, scientific account of the resurrection.

I much prefer Warren Carter’s commentary on this Gospel and how he describes belief.  Carter is a Professor of the New Testament at the St. Paul School of Theology, and he describes belief, as portrayed in the Gospel of John, this way:

Believing [is] the means whereby humans encounter God’s salvation.  It is the means of participating in God’s work of rescuing the world from its present way of life and transforming it to enact God’s life-giving purposes.

               In other words, belief is about entrusting ourselves, committing ourselves, choosing to join up and participate in something.

               Believing is one of the key themes of the Gospel of John.  The verb appears almost one hundred times in this Gospel.  John never actually uses the noun belief, Carter points out.  He thinks this usage is significant.  He writes, “believing is not static, not an inner possession, not a private disposition.”  What is it instead, then?

               Carter answers, believing “is an activity that constitutes and expresses an identity in an ongoing way of life, an active and continuing commitment.  It has the sense of living faithfully and loyally, of acting with fidelity.”  He adds later that it is an ongoing process, even an “experiential, relational encounter with God.”

               And as a relational, ongoing process, believing, according to Carter, includes “insight, adversity, and social interaction.”  Believing isn’t something we do once and are finished with.  It’s not even something we do alone.  Believing is about participating in the community of God’s mission.

               So, what results for those who believe is a commitment of their life to the realm of God and away from sin, death, and evil.  Believing is about an allegiance to Jesus and the life Jesus modeled.  It is claiming an identity as a disciple of Jesus and taking concrete actions to live out that way of life.  Believing brings with it insights into Jesus and his life-giving purposes, an understanding of ourselves as beloved children of God, and membership in a community of other believers.  SO much more than some rational acknowledgment of a set of propositions.

               And what is it that we are committing and entrusting ourselves to when we believe in Jesus?  According to Carter the answer is that other great theme of the Gospel of John—life.  We are committing ourselves to and entrusting ourselves to the life-giving, life-affirming, life-renewing mission of Jesus Christ.  Symbolized most powerfully in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

               So, we normally preach this story as a text about knowledge, doubt, and faith. But theologian Shelly Rambo is critical of this approach.  Instead, Rambo invites us to pay attention to something else in this story.  She invites us into a different reading that focuses instead on the wounded body of the resurrected Jesus.  For isn’t it strange, interesting, even provocative that the risen body of Jesus bears the wounds of the crucifixion?  Wouldn’t we imagine that  a resurrected body is healed of all wounds?  That it is purified, even the ideal version, the “perfect” version?

               But it isn’t.  The body of the resurrected Jesus bears wounds that Jesus even invites Thomas to touch. 

               What does it mean to carry wounds into the resurrection?  Why does Jesus expose the wounds to the disciples and invite Thomas to touch?  And why has theology failed (with few exceptions) to explore the wounds in this scene?  Or preachers to preach much about it?

               Rambo, in her book Resurrecting Wounds, explores all of these questions and leads us on a fascinating journey through Christian tradition.  Her focus is on how we can continue living beyond trauma.  She invites us to grapple with the questions: When we are wounded, how do we rise again?  How do victims find healing and hope?  How do we bear our physical and emotional wounds into new life? 

               Rambo concludes that we must surface our wounds, we must pay attention to them, acknowledge them, be aware of them.  And then we have to engage with them, but in contexts that are safe and compassionate.  So we need to foster and develop communities where each of us can engage our wounds safely.  The idea, of course, is that the church should be such a community.

               And when we engage our wounds, what need is healing touch from that safe and compassionate community.  And it is through that healing touch that we can integrate our wounds into new life. 

               I believe Shelly Rambo’s reading of this story is an example of what it means to commit and entrust ourselves to the life-giving purposes of God.  The act of believing isn’t about knowledge, but about participating in life. 

And one of the most important ways we can participate in the life-giving purposes of God is to be a community in which people can safely engage with their wounds.  Where people can share their stories and expect compassionate listening instead of a critical or judgmental attitude or unhelpful advice.  Where we each acknowledge our woundedness and vulnerability and our need of each other’s care.  A people who openly explore and share what we need to live well.  And who are committed to developing and strengthening these skills and ridding ourselves of attitudes and actions that are unhelpful.  A place where we can receive a healing touch and rise again into a new life that integrates those wounds.

               I go back to what Warren Carter said believing is:

Believing [is] the means whereby humans encounter God’s salvation.  It is the means of participating in God’s work of rescuing the world from its present way of life and transforming it to enact God’s life-giving purposes.

               So, lets be God’s agents of rescue, a safe and compassionate, believing people, offering salvation to a wounded world.


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