By Pastor Mack Owings
Scripture: John 20:19-31
Our scripture for today is the infamous story often called “Doubting Thomas,” and no doubt, you have heard many sermons on this particular passage. Maybe some used this story as a cautionary tale warning against the dangers of too many questions, or maybe some were just the opposite, encouraging questions as a way to deepen faith. With that in mind, I hope to bring a different perspective to this story, to illuminate it such that you get something new out of it, and not the message you’ve heard a bazillion times before.
In the Fall of 2019 my fiancé, Pastor Monica, had to have surgery. Now this was a fairly minor procedure, it was to have her gallbladder removed, and she’d be able to go home the same day. But right before she went back for the procedure, the surgeon came in and told us everything that could possibly go wrong, every way that the surgeon could accidentally kill Monica. And even though all of those things had a .0001% chance of happening, I was still terrified. The whole time she was in surgery and I was out in the waiting room with her mother, my legs were bouncing up and down. I was so nervous that I couldn’t even stay distracted by Twitter or games on my phone. Especially after the two hour mark had passed, the amount of time they said it would take. I sat in my uncomfortable, green chair going over every possible outcome and praying incessantly, trying to calm myself and to believe that everything was okay. Finally, after close to 3 hours, the surgeon came out and told us that Monica was now in the recovery room and that the surgery went well with no complications. She said that we weren’t allowed to see Monica until she woke up. So for the next 20 or so minutes, my legs continued to bounce with anxiety and I continued to pray. I did not believe that Monica was okay until a nurse brought us back and I saw her with my own eyes sitting there eating a popsicle.
The Gospel story for today starts with the disciples hiding in their locked room, the same evening that Mary Magdalene told them all that she had seen Jesus and that he had been raised from the dead. It’s at this point that we can wonder whether or not they believed the Good News that Mary shared with them- the Good News that Jesus was risen and that they would have life abundantly, that the world had been turned upside down and was open to new possibilities. I would wager that they did not believe, since they continued to hide in fear.
But I don’t blame them for their fear and hiding. Just three days ago their best friend and teacher had been brutally beaten and then slowly killed on a cross. They were grieving this great loss, while also knowing that they could also be arrested and killed for associating with Jesus. So of course, when Mary shows up and says Jesus spoke to her, they probably thought she had hallucinated the whole thing out of her own grief. After all, no one really comes back to life if they were truly dead.
But then, Jesus appears to the disciples too. Just shows up in the middle of their locked room, injuries and all. But Thomas was not there for this. So when the disciples tell him that they saw Jesus, he doesn’t believe them, just like they hadn’t believed Mary. I think this part is key to our understanding. Thomas saying he needed to see Jesus to believe is him simply asking for the same thing the other disciples needed to believe. Again, it was just days ago for Thomas that he lost Jesus. A lot of his life right then probably felt pretty surreal, and he needed to make sure that his brain wasn’t playing tricks on him. Of course he hoped that Jesus was alive again, but that would be impossible. In essence, he was saying “I just saw this man tortured and killed, and now you’re telling me that you saw him walking and talking. Pffft, yeah right. I’ll believe it when I see it!” And that, friends, is very relatable.
After Monica’s surgery, even after the surgeon herself came out to tell us that Monica was okay, I did not believe it until I saw it. A secondhand account was not good enough. Logically, I had every reason to believe that what the surgeon said was true, but my heart and my feelings didn’t trust the good news yet.
It’s that word–‘trust’-that is just as important to this scripture as the word ‘believe.’ As New Testament scholar Rene Such Schriener points out, there’s this special Greek word, pist, p-i-s-t, that has a broader definition than our English language gives it credit for. In its verb form it is translated as ‘believe,’ as it is here in our text. And when it’s a noun, it’s translated as ‘faith.’ However, those words don’t fully encompass what this Greek word means. To us, ‘believing’ is focused on cognitive understanding. Our brain either agrees or disagrees with something, it says something is true or it is false. But the Greek word pist includes a few definitions at once: 1. believing that something is true, 2. relying on someone or something, and 3. trusting in someone or something.
So it’s not just about believing it’s true that Jesus is the Son of God and has returned from the dead, but it’s also about trusting him. Trust is more about feeling and less about thinking; it’s not an explicit yes or no. It exists along a spectrum and is relational. We believe with our heads and we trust with our hearts.
If we rework our scripture to say “trust” instead of “believe,” we get this: Jesus says to Thomas, “Do not be distrusting but trusting.” and “Are you trusting because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to trust.” And then the purpose of this Gospel from verse 31 reads “... these things are written so that you may come to trust that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through trusting you may have life in his name.”
What, then, does it mean to trust? Trust has a component of relying on someone, that they will follow through with what they say they will do. Trust is feeling that a person won’t do you harm, even when given the opportunity. And that’s something about trust that we don’t often think about, it involves risk. Have you ever stayed in an Airbnb? Or taken an Uber or a Lyft? Or maybe you’re on the other side of these companies and have risked opening up your own doors as a host or a driver. With these services, we trust strangers with our lives. We trust that they will not enter our rooms without our permission, and we trust that they will get us safely to our destination.
Just the other day Monica and I were in the process of getting her a new car. After getting a copy of Monica’s drivers license, we hopped in the car for a test drive. The salesperson, Jay, tagged along in the back seat. This man, whom we had only known for less than an hour, trusted us enough to hand Monica the keys and let her drive with him in the car. On our short trip we were chatting about the car and about life. He told us some fun facts, like why pirates wore eyepatches. But he also told us that sometimes car salespeople get kidnapped. And that he always has to feel people out, get a vibe check, before he gets in a car with them. Fortunately, Monica and I passed. But I could tell that he was seriously worried that one time he may trust the wrong person and end up in a car accident, or worse, actually kidnapped or harmed in some way. Trusting someone is more of an instinct, and it’s something that takes time to build. It’s also trust that opens doors.
Trust opens house doors, car doors, and the locked doors of the disciples. For the likes of Airbnb and Uber, it’s about opening doors to enter another’s space or to let people into yours. For Jesus, it’s about opening the door so that the disciples will go out into the world. For the disciples to trust Jesus enough, that they will go out to fulfill their commission from Jesus, despite the inherent risks in doing so.
This is how trust and risk go hand in hand. You have to take a risk in order to grow trust. You have to give someone the opportunity to show that they can be trusted. After Jesus’s death and resurrection, the disciples have the perfect landscape to grow their trust in Jesus. They are rightfully fearful of the religious authorities, but by leaving their room, they would give Jesus the opportunity to be trusted. Vulnerability is necessary to growing trust and relationships; vulnerability is not something to be avoided at all costs. And in that same vein, we cannot avoid all risks if we want to grow our trust in God, in other people, and in the church.
Aren’t we as the church also in the business of opening doors? We open our doors to let others in, and we open our doors so that we may go out and spread God’s love. We also hope that others trust us enough to open their doors to us when we ask to serve and spread God’s love– when we volunteer at their school or their library or their food pantry.
When the disciples first heard Mary’s news, they didn’t go running to the garden to look for Jesus. No, they stayed locked in their room, and Jesus had to seek them out. The disciples were not convinced until they experienced Jesus firsthand, and Thomas was not convinced until he had his own personal experience with the risen Lord. I know for me, I did not fully believe or trust God until I had my own experience of God’s grace in my life. Actually, I needed more than one personal experience. And so it is awfully presumptuous of us to think another person should believe and trust in God before they have had their own firsthand experience, whatever that may be for them. We are allowed to ask for that experience of God ourselves, and we can, and should, be a part of that God experience for others.
This is a big part of what it means to be the Church. We are called to go out and show other people what God’s love looks like however we best can. We are not called to hiding and waiting behind locked doors. The church is not a building, it’s us, it’s all God’s people. And God asks for us to spread the Good News of abundant life for all, to spread God’s love. Jesus did not ask his disciples to come to him. Instead, he went to them, he met them where they were. And he didn’t force them out of their room, but reminded them of God’s love and reliability, then encouraged them to go out and spread the news, to spread life. Jesus didn’t send others to the disciples or tell the disciples to invite people in, he told them to go out. The Great Commission in Matthew says “GO and make disciples,” not “stay and ask people to come to you.”
We, as the church, must be intentional about opening our doors and serving. We are called to invite folks in, just as much as we are called to go to them. Inviting strangers in or leaving our safe, comfortable space does involve some risk, but God enables and strengthens us to do just that. We can rely on God and trust that God will follow through for us. Just as Jesus sends the disciples out with the power of the Holy Spirit, so too have we been given the gift of the Spirit. Trust that God has equipped you, equipped us, with all that we need to succeed in God’s mission. Amen.
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