Simul Iustus et Dubium

by Jason Micheli

Length: 25:00

John 20.19-31  (click to see Scripture text)

April 24, 2022

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“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.”

Uh….

What’s that about?

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book!?!?!?!?

Did John’s first draft come back to him marked up with red ink? Did John have a word limit?  Did inflation impact the price of papyrus? Should our response to scripture reading be: “This is most of the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God”?

Think about it. Is it not remarkable? John believes he’s telling you the most important thing that’s ever been told— in the original Greek, John narrates the Gospel in the historical present tense. It almost sounds and feels like he’s breathless and exasperated, attempting to relay this news as quickly and widely as possible. John’s convinced and convicted that he’s got the most mind-bending, life-changing, world-altering, assumption-upsetting, status-quo upheaving announcement that ever before has been heard and he left stuff out. John believes he’s reporting news of the most important person ever delivered into this world— a person delivered back into this world whom Death could not hold. John believes he’s announcing an event of cosmic proportions, the hinge of history, the turning of the ages, and he decided to leave material on the cutting room floor?

Why would John leave anything out?

If the whole point of the Gospels is to convince beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus Christ is Lord; if the whole point of the Gospels is to prove to us that the world responded to God’s love made flesh by crucifying him but that God vindicated him by raising him from the dead; if the whole point of the Gospels is to explain to us why he came and why he died and why God raised him from the dead and what that means for us today, then why would John not include every last detail?

Why would John not submit every possible piece of evidence? What kind of witness edits their own eyewitness testimony? If the whole point of the Gospel is to convince us, then shouldn’t John’s Gospel be Stephen King long not Ernest Hemingway brief?

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.”

Of course, the operative phrase there is “…in the presence of his first disciples.” Because we weren’t there. Philosophers call it Lessing’s Ditch; that is, there is an uncrossable chasm separating us from the events of revelation that makes doubt unavoidable and certainty impossible.  And is this not a problem if the Gospel is true that we are justified through faith alone?

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of those disciples. 

Not these disciples. 

Not you or me. 

We weren’t there.  We weren’t there like John was. We weren’t there like Peter was. We weren’t there like Matthew or Andrew or Mary Magdalene. We didn’t get to see with our own eyes the things Jesus did. We didn’t get to sit at Jesus’s feet and listen to him with our own ears. Jesus didn’t wash our feet. Trust me— I get it. I understand that just because you come to church doesn’t mean you don’t harbor serious doubts about God, in general, to say nothing of God raising a crucified, Galilean Jew from from the dead. I’ve also learned over the years that the Easter season is an occasion when many Christians think they need to hide their doubts. And usually we hide our doubts by acting as though others shouldn’t have any doubts of their own. As my mentor and friend, Stanley Hauerwas, puts it: 

“We try to assure ourselves that we really believe what we say we believe by convincing those who do not believe what we believe that they really believe what we believe once what we believe is properly explained.”

He means: Easter is an occasion for doubt as much as it is an occasion for faith. So why don’t we just admit it? This whole believing business would be a lot easier if it weren’t for Lessing’s Ditch, if we weren’t two plus centuries removed from the resurrection. This whole having faith thing would be a lot easier if we had just been there ourselves. 

But then again— Thomas was there.

With Jesus. 

Every step of the way. With his own two eyes, Thomas saw Jesus feed five thousand with just a few loaves and a couple of fish. When Jesus raised Lazarus, called him out of his tomb, stinking and four days dead, Christ’s word bringing “into existence the things that do not exist,” creating ex nihilo, Thomas was there. And Thomas was there to hear for himself when Jesus identified himself as the one who appeared to Moses in the Burning Bush, telling Martha, the grief-stricken sister of Lazarus: “I AM the Resurrection and I AM Life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live.” I cannot imagine firmer grounds for certainty to stand upon than the soil in front of Lazarus’s tomb, yet all the first-hand evidence, all the eyewitness proof, all the personal experience wasn’t enough to convince Thomas. Because on Easter night, after the women have run from the tomb terrified to tell the disciples that he is risen, the disciples run. 

They too are terrified. They’re hiding behind locked doors when the Risen Christ comes and stands among them— JUST AS HE’D PREDICTED HE WOULD— and he gives them the Gospel in just four short, beautiful words, “Peace be with you.” But Thomas wasn’t there. The Gospel doesn’t give even an inkling of Thomas’s whereabouts. John just says “Thomas was not there with them when Jesus came.” “Seeing is believing” we say, but three years of seeing for himself, of hearing for himself, of being right there with him wasn’t enough to convince Thomas that Jesus really as advertised. It wasn’t enough for Thomas to take Jesus at his word. 

Afterwards when the disciples tell Thomas what had happened, Thomas doesn’t respond by saying: All ten of you saw him? Alright, that’s good enough for me.

No.

Thomas insists with an honesty we should honestly admire. The shame of the cross was to great for him to believe God would redeem it. Resurrect it. And it’s not fair that Thomas gets the moniker “Doubting Thomas.” He wasn’t the only one. Luke reports in his Gospel that following the resurrection— WITH THE RISEN JESUS RIGHT THERE IN FRONT OF THEM— the disciples worshipped the Risen Christ but “some doubted.” 

I will not believe unless, Thomas says.

Unless I see his hands and his feet.

Unless I can grab hold of him and touch his wounds.

Unless I can see for myself what Rome did to him.

I need proof. 

I need facts. 

I need evidence. 

Before I will believe.

A few years ago, I was at the gym (does anyone remember gyms?) exercising this remarkable specimen of a body. My head was covered in a bandana. I was wearing running shorts and a ratty old t-shirt and sneakers and looked, I thought, unrecognizable from the robed reverend I play up here on Sundays. I was grunting and sweating and listening to a podcast so nerdy I’m embarrassed to name it now. I had the dumbbells halfway through a curl when a man, not a lot older than me, came up, tapped me on the shoulder and asked: 

“Don’t I know you”

“I don’t think so,” I lied. 

“What do you do for a living?” he pressed. 

“Me? Oh, I’m a…uh…a marine biologist.” 

He chuckled. 

“Yeah, I’ve seen that episode of Seinfeld too. You’re a priest aren’t you?” 

I set the weights down and pulled out my earbuds and steeled myself to hear a litany of the Church’s many sins and transgressions. Instead he told me he’d met me at a funeral service— a funeral I had done just days earlier for a boy named Joshua, a little immigrant boy with brain cancer from my boy’s elementary school. I pulled at my shirt and wiped the sweat from my hands on it and I shook his hand. And I suppose it was the mention of the boy’s name, his memory sneaking up on me like that, but neither one of us spoke for a few moments.  We just stood there in the middle of the gym looking past each other, and probably we looked strange to anyone else might be looking at us.

“I couldn’t do what you do,” he said, shaking his head like an insurance adjustor. I assumed he meant funerals, couldn’t do funerals, couldn’t do funerals like that boy’s funeral.

“Couldn’t do what?” I asked.

“Believe,” he said, “as much as I’d like to have faith I just can’t. I have too many doubts and questions.” 

Thinking especially of the boy, I replied: “What the hell makes you think I don’t have any doubts? The Bible says faith is a gift given to us. That means doubt is the default for all of us.” He nodded like he was thinking about what I’d said, but he wasn’t or he hadn’t understood because he then said, “I guess I’m just someone who needs proof.” 

The first Easter wasn’t just a day.

The Risen Jesus hung around for fifty days, teaching and appearing to over five hundred people.  Seven days after the first Easter Day, Jesus appears again in that same locked room— the Upper Room— as before and Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” And this time, this time Thomas is there. Jesus offers Thomas his body: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

And Thomas reaches out to Jesus’ body.

And Thomas touches Jesus.

And Thomas grabs at the wounds of Jesus.

He grasps Jesus’ wounded feet.

He holds his hands against the holes.

Puts his hand on Jesus’ pierced side to see the proof for himself…

Actually…no.

He doesn’t.

That’s the thing. 

Read it again.

We assume that Thomas touches Jesus’s wounds.  Artists have always depicted Thomas reaching out and touching the evidence with his own hands. Duccio drew it that way. Caravaggio illustrated it that way. Peter Paul Rubens painted it that way. Artists have always shown Thomas sticking his fingers in the proof he requires in order to believe.  And that’s how we paint it in our own imaginations. 

Yet, read it again, it’s not there. 

The Gospel gives us no indication that Thomas actually touches the wounds in Jesus’s hands. John never says that Thomas peeked into Jesus’s side. The Bible never says Thomas actually touches him.

No.

That’s got to be important, right? The one thing Thomas says he needs in order to believe is the one thing John doesn’t bother to mention.  What Thomas insists he needs to see is the one thing John doesn’t give you the reader to see. Instead John tells us that Jesus offers himself to Thomas and then the next thing we are told is that Thomas confesses: “My Lord and my God!” Which— pay attention— is the first time in John’s Gospel that anyone finally and fully and CORRECTLY identifies Jesus as the same Lord who made Heaven and Earth.

“Doubting” Thomas manages to make the climatic confession of faith in the Gospel.

After so many stories about the blind receiving sight and those with sight stubbornly remaining blind to the identity of Jesus, “Doubting” Thomas is the first person to see that the Jesus before him is the God who made him.

And “Doubting” Thomas makes that confession of faith without the one thing he insists he needs before he can muster up faith.

St. Athanasius says that Christ, as our Great High Priest, not only mediates the things of God to man but Christ also mediates the things of man to God.

Including, especially, faith.

We think of faith as something we have, something we do. We think of belief as something we will, mustering it up in us in spite of us, despite our doubts. 

Believing is our activity, we think. Our act.

But— 

If we think of faith as something we do or possess, as an autonomous act within us, we’re not speaking of faith as scripture speaks of it. In scripture, faith— our faith— is made possible only through the agency of God: “Lord, help my unbelief,” the father in Mark’s Gospel must beg Jesus, as we all must beg. Jesus doesn’t just put on our flesh and live the life we live.  He puts on the belief, lives the faith and trust in God we owe God as creatures of God. Jesus doesn’t just stand in our place when it comes to our sin. He stands in our place when it comes to faith too. This is what we mean when we stand at the baptismal font and pray the words, “Cloth him in Christ’s righteousness…” 

Baptism reckons to us the faith of Christ. 

What holds Good Friday and Easter together, what makes cross and resurrection inseparable, is that Jesus never stops being a substitute for us, in our place, on our behalf. The Risen Christ remains, even here and now, every bit a substitute for us as the Crucified Christ. It’s not simply that we’re at once justified and sinful.  It’s that we’re simultaneously justified and doubting. 

Unbelieving. 

On account of Christ, God justifies not only sinners.  God justifies doubters. His faith not our own is what God credits to us.  And our faith, our belief, such as it is, is made possible by him. It’s his work not ours, and like a parent’s hand grasping a little child’s, our faith, such as it is, is enfolded within his perfect faith; so that, in him, enclosed within his faith, our faith is mediated to God the Father. That’s what the New Testament means by calling Christ “the author and the finisher of our faith.”  The faith we possess is the work of the Son within us not our own, but the faith by which the Father measures us is the Son’s not our own.

So often preachers make the point of our passage today a kind of permission for us to have our doubts, that its okay we’re all like Doubting Thomas, that “doubt is a part of faith” goes the cliche. But John would not have you see here simply Gospel approval for your doubts. This is the freaking climax of the Jesus story where someone finally and fully and correctly calls upon Jesus as his Lord and his God. “…but its okay to have your doubts too.” What kind of crappy whimper of an ending is that?!  That’s not the takeaway John intends Thomas to leave with you.  No. John wants you to see Jesus, the Risen Lord.

The same God who created from nothing.

The same God who called Israel— who had been no people— to be his People. 

The same God who, Paul says, calls into existence the things that do not exist. John wants you see the Risen Christ bringing into existence in Thomas, who had insisted unless I can touch his hands and feet for myself, a faith that can confess Christ as Lord and God.

Doubts are okay, sure. I’ve got plenty of doubts. I’ve got incurable cancer. I’ve buried more kids than I care to count. I read the same stories out of Ukraine as you.  You think my pandemic experience was magically easier than mine? No.  I’ve got as many reasons to doubt as you do.

Sure, you’ve got doubts. 

But if faith is a gift, then doubt is natural.  So as far as your doubts go— big deal.  Your doubts are not very interesting. If faith is Christ’s work in us then doubt is just our natural human disposition, like Adam and Eve wondering in the Garden “Did God really say?” Thomas’s doubt is not what John would have see.

What John would have us see:

Is that Thomas’s faith—  It’s the work of the Risen Christ.

The Good News is NOT that you are saved by faith.

Think about it: that puts all the onus on you.

It makes faith just another work. Your work.

It empties the cross of its saving significance and it makes his substitution in your place partial. Imperfect because its incomplete with out your faith.

The Good News is NOT that you are saved by faith.

The Good News is that you are saved by faith by grace.

By the gifting of God.

By the agency of God.

By the mediating activity of the Risen Christ.

Who is every bit as present to us now as those ten disciples hiding behind locked doors.

You are saved by faith through the gracious work of the Risen Christ, who can compel you- against your natural disposition to doubt- to call upon him as your Lord and your God.

Such that whatever has brought you here

Whatever of the Gospel you are able to trust and believe

Whatever Word from the Lord you can hear in this sermon

Whether your faith is as meager as a mustard seed

Or as mighty as a mountainside

Your faith is NOT

YOUR doing.

It is a miracle. Grace. An act of the Risen Christ.

In you and upon you and through you.

And it makes you— even you!

It makes you exactly what Thomas insisted he required.

It makes you proof that he is risen. He is risen indeed.

You.

You’re why John ends his Gospel the way he does. You’re the reason John doesn’t need to write down everything Jesus did among those disciples. Because Jesus is neither dead nor disappeared from this world. He’s alive and still doing work among his disciples. And for proof you need look no further than your own faith, your own ability to call him your Lord and your God.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin*), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I 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.’

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 27Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But 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.

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