Read John 20:19-31 here.
The old proverb says that necessity is the mother of invention. There’s much debate about who the father of invention is . . . which might explain why it takes so long for us to accept new inventions.
The reality is that the we humans are creative and if there’s a need, we’ll find a way to fill it. As you might imagine, this current crisis we’re in, the global pandemic, has inspired some creativity. For example, people have come up with different ways to enforce social distancing and stay six feet apart.
- In Louisiana, a young man and his father created a 12-foot circle out of tarp and PVC pipe. They cut a hole in the center and put shoulder straps there, and whenever they wear it, nobody can get near them.
- There’s an autobody shop in Virginia that gave each employee an innertube to wear to help them keep their distance from each other. They call it the “donut of distance.”
It turns out that social distancing is not a new idea. Back in the Victorian era, dresses with giant crinolines and hoop skirts were not just a fashion statement; they were a way of making sure that men would keep the appropriate social distance from the ladies.
And, fun fact: In 1666 Isaac Newton was sent home from Cambridge because of the Great Plague. It was social distancing that gave Isaac Newton the time and space to discover gravity and to begin the work that gave birth to calculus, and to work out his theories about the physics of optics. His year at home is called his “miracle year” because of all the discoveries he made during that time.
So what are you doing with your time at home? Just teasing. No pressure and no judgment!
In our reading today from John 20 we find the disciples at home behind locked doors. It’s the same day as the resurrection. Last week we read about how Mary and Peter and John went to the tomb and found it empty, and Mary got to see Jesus for herself. She ran to tell the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!”
And now the disciples get their own first-hand encounter with Jesus. He shows them the wounds in his hands and his side, and they tell Thomas, who wasn’t there, “We have seen the Lord!” But Thomas wants to see for himself. Eight days later, the disciples are again or maybe still behind locked doors and Jesus comes again, shows Thomas the wounds, and then Thomas says, “My Lord and my God!”
We’re used to hearing Thomas called “Doubting Thomas” and he is often harshly judged for his doubts, but theologian Paul Tillich says that “doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” It’s part of the process. Thomas doesn’t jump straight to believing what the disciples have told him, but once he does see, he makes a strong profession of faith: “My Lord and my God!” (20:28)
One might argue that the opposite of faith is actually fear, in which case we should be chastising the other disciples who were hiding behind locked doors because of their fear. But instead of criticizing them, let’s be encouraged that though they had different experiences and different responses, Jesus comes to each of them. We see in these accounts of Mary, the disciples, and Thomas, that we each respond in different ways, but also that we each need to see Jesus for ourselves. Maybe we can’t literally see Jesus, but we do see Jesus figuratively in ways that give deeper meaning to our understanding and our faith.
We see the disciples hiding behind locked doors. We are doing something similar with our stay-at-home orders. But fear also causes us to hide behind locked doors in a figurative sense. We guard our hearts and minds and hunker down in what’s safe and familiar. When this happens, we’re less open to new ideas. Maybe that’s one of the reasons that it takes necessity to prompt us to innovate.
I find it comforting that locked doors don’t keep Jesus out. John tells us that Jesus is suddenly there among the disciples despite the obstacle. Jesus knows they need to see him for themselves. Jesus is able to overcome our obstacles and our fears.
One commentator says that instead of calling him “Doubting Thomas” we should call him “Demanding Thomas” because he demands to see Jesus for himself. Thomas was asking specifically to touch the wounds in Jesus’ hands and to put his fingers into the wound on Jesus’ side (v.25).
When Jesus comes to him eight days later, Jesus directly answers Thomas’ request by telling him to touch the wounds and put his fingers into his side (v26-7). Maybe that tells us something about Thomas’ personality. I wouldn’t want to look at the wound, let alone touch it or put my fingers in it. I’d be in danger of fainting if I did that. But Thomas needed to do it. And because he did it, because he was able to see for himself and touch those wounds himself, his faith grew stronger.
We need that evidence, too, in different ways. We might need to hear something differently, or we might need to see an action that makes it more real. We heard the governor of Georgia a week ago telling his state that he hadn’t instituted stay-home orders sooner because he didn’t know that the virus was so easily transmissible. Some scoffed at his statement. How could he not know? But I think this was an example of not believing. It’s likely that he’d heard the same information we were hearing, but something changed that made him believe it, and believe it enough to act on it. He took it to heart.
We take it to heart when our faith goes from being a matter of intellectual assent, something we know theoretically, to becoming a matter of experience and trust in the person of God. For many of us, this doesn’t happen instantly. This grows over time. Faith is a leap, a risk. Trusting in God who we cannot physically see is a leap. Trusting God for things we don’t fully understand is a risk. Sometimes it takes a crisis for us to take that leap, much in the same way that necessity is the mother of invention. During this worldwide crisis, more people are taking that leap. The Bible app on our phones called Youversion reports that more people are using their app in the past six weeks than ever before. More people are asking for prayer, more kids are using their children’s app, more volunteers using the app to offer help, more people turning to God for hope and peace.
Our trust needs to be renewed each day. We need to keep seeking to see Jesus. The writer of Psalm 5 says, “Each morning I bring my requests to you and wait expectantly” (Ps. 5:3). Lamentations 3:22-23 reminds us: “The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning.” Some mornings are harder than others, but God’s love is there every morning.
There’s no room for judgment. We might be used to judging Thomas for his doubts, but we shouldn’t. And we shouldn’t judge each other, either. We all experience faith in different ways, and Jesus offers us enough grace to be gracious with one another. Similarly, we’re all experiencing the uncertainty of this pandemic in different ways. We’re all experiencing the grief of loss in different ways. We’ve lost some of the same things, but we’ve also lost different things. We cannot compare our losses. In a podcast with Brene Brown recently, psychologist David Kessler who studies grief, said that, “The worst loss is always your loss.” My loss might not be something that was big to you, but it’s big to me, and that’s what matters. We don’t need to compound the problem by judging each other.
Like most of you, I’m struggling with the uncertainty of this time in various ways. What discourages me the most is when people are judging each other for what they’re experiencing or feeling, or when people are shaming each other for what they are or aren’t doing during this time. We’re going to come out of this much better if we do it together, without judging or shaming each other. As Christians, we have a big responsibility to offer grace. Jesus tells the disciples in our reading today, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you don’t, they aren’t forgiven” (20:23). That’s a pretty heavy responsibility. We can shrug it off as something that was just for them and not for us. Or we can see this as a call to us to make sure people know about Jesus’ forgiveness and grace, and to make sure that we are grace givers, just like Jesus.
We need to give Thomas some extra grace because he spent eight days living with the tension of his unanswered questions and grief over the death of Jesus. When we settle for quick answers, we sometimes are stifling growth. But if we will allow the tension of unanswered questions then we allow ourselves the space to keep inquiring of God and keep looking at different aspects of the question. Eight days in the grand scheme of things is a relatively short time. Some will go a lifetime living with the tension of unanswered questions and yet trusting God even in the midst of that tension.
Author and pastor Tim Keller says, “A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it.” Our faith will be stronger if we’re willing to admit our doubts and ask hard questions, so that we aren’t basing our faith on someone else’s experience of Jesus, but instead on our own experience of Jesus.
Maybe, like me, you’ve been asking God some hard questions during this time. What is God doing in the midst of this? What will the future hold? What will we need to do to be ready? Here’s the answer I’m getting most of the time:
Be patient and trust me. That means
- letting go of our fears,
- continuing to work on our relationship with Jesus,
- not judging or shaming each other,
- offering grace, and
- living with the tension and continuing to seek answers,
- trusting that God is still good, and
- that God loves us very much, just as he always has and always will.
Jesus knows we need to see for ourselves. Sometimes that happens in a word from the Bible, or in the words of a song. Sometimes that happens in the face of a friend or in a gesture of kindness. It’s not always the same, and it’s not always how or when we expect. What are some ways that you have seen Jesus for yourself?
We’ll have good days and bad days, but God’s love is with us in all of our days. I pray that we will each see that for ourselves more and more. The disciples were in the midst of doubts and fears, much like our situation today during this pandemic, and their faith grew in the process. Ours can grow, too, as we endeavor to trust God even in the midst of our uncertainty. God will bless our faith. As Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29).
 Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Volume 2 (University Of Chicago Press: Feb. 15, 1975), PP 116-7. As found at https://afterall.net/quotes/paul-tillich-on-doubt-as-an-element-of-faith/
 Cameron B.R. Howard at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5426