Rumbling with Vulnerability

Jesus was a vulnerable leader who created safe space for questions and doubts.

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John 20:19-31

Today’s sermon title “Rumbling with Vulnerability” is also a chapter title in Brene Brown’s book Dare to Lead.  In that chapter, she says:

“The courage to be vulnerable is not about winning or losing, it’s about the courage to show up when you can’t predict or control the outcome.”[1]

Sometimes church can be unpredictable, so kudos to us all for showing up today!

One of my vulnerabilities, or maybe more of a shortcoming, is with Greek. Greek is one of the languages we were required to study in seminary, but halfway through my second semester of Greek, the professor was fired. So I am thankful for Rev. Mark Davis who does the hard work of digging into the Greek text and writes a blog about his translations called “Left Behind and Loving It.”  He is quite good at digging into the nuances of the Greek that my limited understanding would miss.


For this week’s Gospel reading, I was curious to see what Davis had to say about Jesus’ words in verse 23 where Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into the disciples and tells them, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”  That sounds like too much power to give any human being.  Davis proposes a way of understanding this that I hadn’t seen before, and that I quite like.  He says:

The Greek word aphiemi ἀφίημι is often translated “forgive,” especially when it is used in relation to “sin” (ἁμαρτία). But…the potential definitions are quite varied and ‘forgive’ is not among the first choices. It may be that in the later Christian church we have a more moralistic understanding of ‘sin’ than in the first century.

Davis then asks

What if ἁμαρτία means “brokenness,” rather than some kind of moral failing, often associated with ‘sin’? What would be the meaning of Jesus’ gathered followers having the spirit and power to “release” or “retain” brokenness?

This would make a lot of sense considering that on their last night together, Jesus gave the disciples a “new” commandment, to love one another.  Might this be further instruction in how to love one another?

This is similar to what Paul calls our ministry of reconciliation 2 Cor 5:19 “that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.(O) And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”

In the very next sentence after Jesus tells the eleven disciples that they have the power of reconciliation, verse 24 tells us that Thomas wasn’t with them when Jesus was telling them this.  I have joked that Thomas picked a really bad time to go out for ice cream, but Davis says that the verb tenses used could indicate that Thomas had actually stopped hanging out with the disciples altogether.  We can see how that would make sense.  They’d been sticking together because they were all following Jesus, but now that Jesus had died, what was the point of sticking together?

Maybe Thomas was the sort that needed to process his grief alone.  We don’t always accept that as a viable option. We try not to leave those who are grieving alone too much. But we all deal with life and death in different ways, and some of us need our alone time, especially when something traumatic has happened.

If Thomas had stopped hanging out with them, the disciples would need to do the work of reconciliation to invite him back, even if he wasn’t ready to believe yet that Jesus was alive. That must have been successful, because Thomas was with them when Jesus showed up again.


And I love how Jesus handles Thomas’ doubt.  Thomas has said he won’t believe Jesus is alive until  “… I see the nail wounds in his hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand into the wound in his side.” (John 20:25)

And then when Jesus shows up eight days later, he doesn’t scold Thomas for doubting. Instead, he invites Thomas to do exactly what Thomas had asked. Jesus says, “Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side.” (John 20:27)

Thomas sees and believes. 28 “My Lord and my God!” Thomas exclaimed.

Jesus says, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.”

None of us have been able to see what Thomas saw, the wounds of Jesus, or put our fingers into them.  And yet we have believed and it has been a blessing.

As much as we would like that to be consistently the case, I think if we’re honest with ourselves, it isn’t. Like Thomas, we have doubts.  We have questions.  Sometimes life isn’t working the way we thought it would, and we are disillusioned.


Psalm 44 expresses this disillusionment:

23 Wake up, O Lord! Why do you sleep?
    Get up! Do not reject us forever.
24 Why do you look the other way?
    Why do you ignore our suffering and oppression?

Psalm 44

Sometimes God feels so distant that we wonder if he’s even there at all.  And maybe we’re afraid of that feeling when it happens because we’ve been told that doubt is a sin, and that we shouldn’t waver in our faith.  It can be scary.  We sing, “On Christ the solid rock I stand,” but sometimes it feels like that rock isn’t so solid as we thought it was.


Do you have doubts?  Often we’re afraid to admit we have doubts because we’re expecting to be scolded or made to feel ashamed. Or we feel like there’s something wrong with us.

Think for a moment about how you “came to believe.” Was there something you saw or felt?  Was there ever a time when you felt like you met Jesus? How did you come through times of doubt or struggle? How do you feel Jesus saying “Peace be with you” in your life right now?[6]

I love what Paul Tillich says about doubt, that it’s a normal part of our faith lives. 

Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.… Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful. —Paul Tillich[7]

Pastor and author Brian McLaren wrote a book called Faith after Doubt.  I love his introduction so much. He says:

I understand, because I too am a doubter. And I am a believer. And a doubter. Sometimes I flip back and forth five times in one day, and sometimes, I’m both at exactly the same time. …

My first sustained spell of doubt came over me like a fever when I was in high school. I thought I could fight doubt and vanquish it, and it would never return.

Some years later, when wave after wave of doubt kept rolling in, I thought that doubt would vanquish me and my faith would never return.

I felt that I was peeling an onion, layer by layer by layer, and feared that when I was done, there would be nothing left but the burn and sting of tears.

Eventually, I came to realize that doubt was a companion, every bit as resilient and persistent as faith, and she wasn’t going away. I realized that she had some things to teach me, and I decided that since I couldn’t shut her up or drive her away, I might as well learn from her.

She has turned out to be a tough but effective teacher and a difficult but faithful friend. ….[8]

It’s ok to have doubts.  Actually, it’s good to have doubts, because in the long run our faith will be stronger if we’re not just believing because we’re supposed to, but because we have kicked the tires and looked under the hood and found a deeper faith.

We encourage faith in Jesus Christ, but sometimes even that faith in Jesus can cause divisions between.  Maybe without meaning to we’ve made people feel like they couldn’t be a part of our fellowship or be accepted as friends unless they believe the same way we do.

When Jesus told the disciples that he was commanding them to love one another as I have loved you, he also says that their love is the way that people would know that they are Jesus’ disciples.  We sing about this in a classic song, They’ll Know We Are Christians by our Love, by our Love…”  Not by their ability to recite the Apostle’s Creed, or memorize Bible verses.

Notice in our gospel story for today, that the disciples bring Thomas back before he believes.  And then, while he’s there among them, Thomas sees Jesus.  It’s not an uncommon faith story.  Augustine, the 4th century theologian, initially went to church only to hang out in the doorway and listen to the preacher because he was impressed with the preacher’s skill as an orator.  He had no interest in Jesus, but he kept listening to the preacher’s skillful arguments, and eventually Augustine became a Christian and went on to write some of our most influential theological texts.

Rev. Heidi Haverkamp, in her commentary for Christian Century, tells about a college friend who was an atheist. She says, “He was a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Chicago, specializing in ethics. He did not believe in God and thought religion was a joke. But [he] couldn’t stay away from church.” She met him in a new member class.

“He told [her] he was endlessly fascinated that people whom he deeply respected, who were clearly highly intelligent, believed in things he could not. He felt there was something good about church people—a goodness he felt drawn to. He said he had no capacity for faith or belief, but it haunted him all the same.”[9]

They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our friendship, by our kindness and goodness, by our welcome and hospitality.

I used to be afraid to be around people who believed differently than I do because I thought they would cause me lose my faith, but I came to realize that my faith was deeper than that, and that nothing could separate us from God’s love, not new ideas, not even our doubt.

Thomas is willing to be vulnerable and question the resurrection. Jesus was a vulnerable leader who created safe space for questions and doubts. and Jesus after Thomas sees Jesus, he makes one of the strongest professions of faith in the Bible:  “My Lord and My God!” 

Faith and doubt go together, and we don’t need to be afraid. God’s love never leaves us, even when we’re doubting whether God really loves us.

Thanks, God.

[1] Brown, Brené. Dare to Lead (p. xviii). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] Photo by rosario janza on Unsplash

[3] Carravagio

[4] Photo by Bruno Fernandez on Unsplash

[5] Photo by Simon Berger on Unsplash

[6] Heidi Havercamp

[7] McLaren, Brian D.. Faith After Doubt (p. xv). St. Martin’s Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[8] McLaren, Brian D.. Faith After Doubt (pp. xii-xiii). St. Martin’s Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[9] Haverkamp, Heidi. April 16, Easter 2A (John 20:19-31). Christian Century.

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