important present participles from the fourth gospel: doubting

John 20:19-31

Through the years, the decades, the centuries, the millennia—in worship services across the world, in sermons and prayers, in Bible studies, in personal devotions, in every language known, he is named “doubting” Thomas—the one who wouldn’t believe without evidence—the one who had to see to believe—the one who, according to Scripture, could not possibly be named a paradigm of the faith that is the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1)—the one Jesus was looking at when he said, “Blessed are those who do not see and yet believe.” Doubting Thomas. What a way for a disciple of Jesus to be known.

Twice before this particular defining moment, Thomas is introduced in the Gospel of John. First, in the eleventh chapter, Jesus receives news of Lazarus’ illness. Dependable Martha sent word from Bethany. You may recall though, Jesus does not head to Bethany immediately. Scripture doesn’t elaborate, but the disciples were probably relieved—for after a few days have passed, when Jesus then does declare himself ready to go to Bethany, the horrified disciples urge Jesus not to risk going to that region so close to the powerbase of the religious authorities. “Rabbi,” they ask incredulously, “your enemies were just now trying to stone you, and you are going there again?” (John 11:8) But Jesus will not be dissuaded, and it is Thomas who finally says to the other disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). He was serious. That was his concern—his fear. That was his expectation. How’s that for commitment? “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Thomas is then named again in the fourteenth chapter of John, when Jesus waxes eloquent in typical Johannine poetic style and elegance: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going” (John 14:3-4). And into the silence following that, it is Thomas who says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. how can we know the way?” (John 14:5)

A no-nonsense kind of guy. Bluntly right to the point. Practical. Down to earth. Both feet solidly planted on the ground. You know people like this—those who say it like it is. Does it come as any surprise to you that Thomas is the patron saint of carpenters and architects—those devotees of exact measurements and precise angles? (Clemens Jöckle, Encyclopedia of Saints [Old Saybrook, CT, Konecky & Konecky, 2003] 408)

So when Jesus showed up in the room that the disciples had locked out of fear (as if you can lock out fear), Thomas wasn’t there. Not given to flights of fear or fancy, our concrete thinker—our literalist—our unimaginative friend who doesn’t get carried away—he went out for a reflective cup of coffee—grabbed some time to browse through what the newspapers were saying—found a wireless hotspot. Who knows.

But when he came back, he was greeted with the most amazing news: “He was here, Thomas! Jesus—he was here! All of a sudden, he was here, and the doors—the doors were still locked! He scared the be-jesus into us! Mary was right! And we’ve seen him now too. He said as God sent him, so he sends us! Thomas, we’re to be just like him!” (Be-jesus. Get it? Scared the be-jesus into us?)

And Thomas took it all in, a solid quietness in the chaos and enthusiasm of the room. standing there kind of nodding his whole upper body. “Be just like him,” he mused. “It is what he always said—that we were to be like him, but look where it got him—dead on a cross.” He pauses. “On the other hand, if death isn’t the end of the story … if death isn’t the end of the story, how can we know the way?” And then, very matter-of-factly, he concluded, “Well, unless I can see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” It’s not belligerent. It’s not antagonistic. It’s just Thomas—our see-it-to-believe-it kind of guy for whom leaping without looking is anathema.

One week later, they were all still in that room … or, to give them the benefit of the doubt, they were all back in that room. At least the door wasn’t locked anymore! Or Scripture doesn’t emphasize that locked door. And then Jesus was there. After the requisite “Peace be with you”—after heart rates settled down again—after someone at the back of the room muttered, “Doesn’t he ever use doors anymore?” Jesus turned to Thomas.

“Well, hey there, Thomas. What’s up? Besides me—heh! heh! I’m kidding—I’m kidding. Look, see my hands? Put your finger here, Thomas. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” Isn’t that interesting? Word for word, Jesus knew the conditions Thomas set for believing. Remember? “Unless I can see the mark of the nails in his hands ….” “Here are my hands, Thomas.” And put my finger in the mark of the nails ….” “Put your finger in the mark of the nails, Thomas.” “And my hand in his side ….” “Put your hand in my side, Thomas.” Word for word. “I will not believe.” “Believe Thomas, believe.”

Good news, isn’t it? A gospel word. God knows the questions we have. God knows the conditions we place on believing, God knows how hard it is, and it’s okay. Now it’s not that God will meet any and all conditions we set. We all know that. How many bargains have you tried to negotiate? “I’ll believe if You ….” “I’ll get to church more regularly if You ….” “I’ll give more to the church if You ….” It’s not that God will meet every condition. Nor is it that Thomas, as a disciple, gets preferential treatment. No, it’s that this one particular condition will always be met. “Here are my hands. Here is my side.” For God to be God is for God’s wounds to be obvious. For God to be God is for God’s wounds to be obvious. This is who I am.

Two instances in our text this morning reveal, again, the inadequacy of our translations of scripture. The first such instance is right here. Many translations of Jesus’ next words to Thomas read, “Do not doubt, but believe.” That’s where we get “doubting Thomas,” but the word “doubt” does not actually occur at all in the Greek manuscripts. A literal translation would read: “And do not become unbelieving but believing.” (Gail O’Day, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes: Volume IX [Nashville: Abingdon, 1995] 850) Not only does Jesus know that doubt is not the opposite of belief, Jesus even knows that far from representing absolute polar states of being, belief and unbelief take their place on a dynamic range on which we locate ourselves here and there. What was Luther’s prayer: “I believe. Help my unbelief.”

Now Thomas obviously saw the wounds on the body of Christ. Scripture does not record whether or not Thomas placed his hands on the wounds. He had said he would need to, but maybe seeing the wounds was enough. Maybe seeing Jesus was enough. Maybe it was enough to know that Jesus knew his concerns. Maybe it was enough to know that Jesus cared about his questions. When divine grace initiates restored relationship, how and when are so much less important than that. And Thomas utters his simple and profound confession: “My Lord and my God.”

There have been earlier confessions in the gospel of John. Peter says at one point, “You have the words of eternal life. we have come to believe and know that you are the holy one of God” (John 6:68-69). Peter tends to get all the credit for confessing Jesus—mainly because of the way Matthew, Mark and Luke have him confess Jesus at Caesarea-Philippi where Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” and Peter responds, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16; Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20). You might take note, Peter does not say that in the gospel of John. It’s Martha who says that—dependable Martha—who so often gets the short end of the stick in comparison to her sister Mary. But in the gospel of John, it’s Martha who gets it—who says, “Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world” (John 11:27).

Important confessions. But Thomas’ affirmation is the most complete and powerful confession in the entire gospel (O’Day, 850). Thomas’ confession is the profound recognition of the full identity of Jesus (R. Alan Culpepper, The Gospel and Letters of John in Interpreting Biblical Texts [Nashville: Abingdon, 1998] 243). “My Lord and my God.”

Given what we know of Thomas—what we’ve learned of Thomas (Mr. Look-Before-You-Leap, Mr. Feet-Planted-Firmly-On-The-Ground), in the now third introduction of Thomas in the gospel of John, his confession comes as the perfect culmination of the Gospel of John. Most scholars suggest that this story actually comprised the original ending of the gospel—that chapter 21 was added later. This gospel was written to affirm and explore Thomas’ confession. What does it mean to confess Jesus as Lord and God?

According to tradition, Thomas’ subsequent missionary activities carried him east where he was eventually martyred in India (Jöckle, 408-9)—martyred—killed for his faith—for his Lord. “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Again, according to tradition, he was speared (Jöckle, 409). The wound he wanted to feel in Jesus’ side was the wound he did feel as he died. Isn’t that something? But he died having seen Jesus alive. Isn’t that more than something! He died knowing that death was not the end of the story. He died in the assurance and the trust that if Jesus indeed went and prepared a place, he would come again and would take Thomas to himself. And lo, Thomas did know the way to the place where Jesus went—a way that stretches ahead of all who confess Jesus to be “Lord and God!”

And here’s where the translations can fail us again. Many translations read, “Have you believed me because you have seen?” As if Jesus were asking Thomas this question—a question we tend to read as derogatory. But the Greek phrasing can suggest that this might have rather constituted an affirmation: “You have believed me, Thomas, because you have seen me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” It’s not a matter of putting Thomas down—it’s not a comparison in which Thomas comes out on the short end. It’s a matter of blessing these others—these who don’t see, yet are in the process of coming to believe (George R. Beasley-Murray, John in Word Biblical Commentary [Waco: Word, 1987] 386).

And who are these others Jesus is talking about? Not the other disciples. Can’t be. They saw too, after all—a week earlier. Our text goes on, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” “That you may come to believe.” We are the ones who are blessed! We are the ones who read and hear the stories—the witness—who come to believe that we may have life and life more abundant.

And so for the Thomas in all of us, Jesus leads us and our questions and our doubts and our wondering and our wanting—Jesus leads us through the waters where we are buried with Christ in baptism. We are baptized into death (“Let us also go that we may die with him”) and raised to newness of life. And for the Thomas in all of us, Jesus meets us here at this table as often as it is set. “See the wounds of this body broken for you? Here is my body, take and eat. See the blood shed for you? Take and drink. We eat and drink death and the life death cannot end. And for the Thomas in all of us, Jesus meets us whenever we gather here to study and worship—learning how to be like him. “How can we know the way?” “Do you see the community of faith? As God sent me, so have I sent the church—my body—as witness—testimony—still being broken on behalf of others—still bleeding for the world to see—still suffering wounds for the world to touch. This is how people will know you’re mine. This is how people will know me. Do this in remembrance of me—live a dying kind of life that cannot die.

This is our living we’re talking about—yours—mine! We receive the same commissioning that the disciples did. We’re to be just like Jesus who did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8).

The water and the table, our study and our worship are all sustenance and symbol. They provide us strength for our task as they illuminate that task. They nourish as they demand. They challenge as they comfort. So let us also go that we may die with him—in the full trust and assurance that Jesus is alive—that Jesus indeed went and prepared a place, and will come again and will take us to himself, so that where Jesus is, there we may be also—with our Lord and with our God. For we do know the way. It begins here with a living that is a dying. And it doesn’t end there with a dying that is a living. For when we don’t consider privilege something to be exploited, God will always take the lives we empty in obedience and overflow them with grace and love, joy, wonder, abundance and presence.

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