Do not doubt, but believe - Jn. 20.27
I am not gullible – at least I like to think I’m not. I like to think that I am not easily tricked or scammed. I like to think that it’s not easy to pull the wool over my eyes. I may not be the most sophisticated guy in the world, but I like to think I at least have enough street smarts to make it through the day.
However, like most people I wasn’t born with any street smarts. I’ve had to learn them, beginning in childhood. For instance, the time my older brother saw me eat an entire apple when I was only 4 or 5 years old and he told me that I was going to have a tree growing inside my belly because I had eaten the apple seeds. I believed him, that is until I went running to my mother and she set the record straight. I learned something about street smarts that day, and today as a seasoned person in my late 30’s I like to think that I’ve learned much of what I need to know; that I can spot a scam or a trick before it’s too late. Just a couple of years ago when Kendyll & I moved to Dorchester we were looking online at apartments and we came across one listing that looked a little too good to be true. I knew right away that it was a scam, because if I want to rent an apartment in Dorchester, I should not have to send my money to Asia. It’s just that simple - but it won’t keep some people from trying. Let me make a suggestion, if you ever want to see how quickly scam artists can swarm like vultures, just open a church email account. The first time I set-up a church account it only took about two days before messages started pouring in by the dozen. They were addressed “Dearest in Christ,” or “My Beloved in Christ,” even “My Brother and Sister in Christ” – and every single one of them was a scam for money.
Do not doubt, but believe.
It’s kind of sad when you think about it, but we live in a world where scams are all too common. It’s nothing new. As long as people have been living together, they’ve been taking advantage of each other. Sometimes we can understand why people throw decency out the window and do whatever it takes. Entire races and classes of people have been beaten and oppressed and they’ve had to fight to survive. We might question their tactics sometimes but we can at least understand why. Today I’m not talking about those kinds of situations. I’m talking about the everyday pattern of people taking advantage of each other – just because they can. It runs deep in our world, and heaven help us, even sometimes in our churches: get as much as we can, however we can, whatever the cost. And somebody always ends up getting burned. So we’ve all learned to be a bit guarded, to look for warning signs, and to protect our stuff. Because if we don’t do it then it won’t be very long before we lose the shirts right off our backs.
Do not doubt, but believe.
This is the world we live in, and it was no different in the world of Jesus. After all, it was Jesus who said, “You always have the poor with you” (Jn. 12.8). And it wasn’t some excuse for allowing poverty. It was just another way of saying, “You always have people using each other, taking advantage of each other” - and odds are, it’s going to keep looking that way. So this morning, it’s tempting to hear the story of doubting Thomas along these lines (Jn. 20.19-31). When Jesus tells him, “Do not doubt”, it’s tempting to think we hear Jesus tell Thomas that his street smarts have taken him too far; he’s too cynical and too jaded for his own good. We may think, just below the surface, Jesus is telling Thomas to lighten up or to become more trusting. But I’m not so sure that’s the point.
For starters, the little bit of evidence we have about Thomas suggests that he wasn’t exactly nervous about taking a leap of faith. Earlier in John’s Gospel, when Jesus announces that he wants to go see Lazarus all of the disciples say, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” (Jn. 11.8). Everyone doubts Jesus, except Thomas. When everyone else was doubting, it was Thomas who, “said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him!’” (Jn. 11.16). Thomas was a big faith kind of guy.
And not only was Thomas a big faith kind of guy, Jesus was also a street smart kind of guy. Jesus knew that people take advantage of each other, and he told his disciples to keep their wits about them. He said, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10.16). Perhaps a bit of cautious skepticism isn't just a good thing, but even a Christian thing.
Thomas didn’t have a faith problem. And really, I don’t think any of us do. I think C.S. Lewis got it right about sixty years ago when he said that 99% of the things we believe, we believe on faith. He wasn’t talking about complicated stuff like theology. He was talking about everyday stuff like geography. Lewis had never been to New York, but he believed in a place called New York – he believed on faith because maps and pictures were trustworthy kinds of things, not to mention all of the stories he heard from his friends. And most of us would say the same things about satellite images and GPS. Most of the time, we’re following by faith (and when that little GPS steers you in the wrong direction - boy, is that frustrating!).
So if we use that image, if we think about geography and maps, then Thomas didn’t have a faith problem, he was just using the wrong map. He believed in Jesus - but he was looking for Jesus in the wrong place. Maybe Thomas had put power in the middle of his map so he was looking to find Jesus in a military battle. After all, Jesus had power. Each of the Gospels tell us that more than anything, certainly more than his obscure parables, it was Jesus’ power as a healer that attracted followers. So maybe Thomas was following power, and he was looking for something like another Exodus, where Messiah Jesus defeated an army and led God’s People into the Promised Land. This is the kind of guy who might go charging into danger shouting “Let us also go, that we may die with him!”
But with the crucifixion, Jesus walked right off that map. Because for all his power, Jesus didn’t defeat his enemies with thunder and lightening and legions of armies. Instead, he chose to walk into the heart of human darkness and to let darkness and evil swallow him whole - almost like Jonah was swallowed in the belly of a beast. And here’s the key; here’s what Thomas couldn’t see: by his death Jesus was actually winning the greatest victory of all. Crucifixion and Resurrection were the only way that Thomas, and others, could see that Jesus’ power was the power of life itself. It’s something John’s Gospel tells us right up front, right from the very beginning: “in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (Jn. 1.4). The only way to reveal that kind of power isn’t to go around killing others, but to walk right through death - and out the other side.
Jesus says, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” And Jesus isn’t trying to prove anything. He’s giving Thomas a new map. He’s trying to help Thomas become a different kind of person – a resurrection believing person. And this is what he says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (Jn. 20.21). That’s the pattern - the map - for Thomas and for us. As the Father has sent Jesus, so Jesus sends you and me.
Just imagine what kind of world that would be. A world where we worried less about street smarts, and more about giving our gifts, our resources, and even our very lives for the sake of others. Trusting that just as Jesus was raised to new life, so shall we be raised to new life by the same power of God. My prayer for this church, St. Chrysostom’s, is that we become a community that shows Quincy the resurrection of Jesus by the shape of our lives. As we prayed a few moments ago at the beginning of our church service: “Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ's Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith.” May we serve each other and our neighbors so powerfully that “the light [of Christ] shines in the darkness, and the darkness [does] not overcome it” (Jn. 1.5). Do not doubt, but believe. Amen.