Updated: Nov 1, 2019
John 20:24-31 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So 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.” 27 Then 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.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus 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. 31 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.
This story’s always a fun one. It’s kind of a Rorschach test: for a lot of Christians “Doubting Thomas” has a kind of policing function, where if you’re questioning your faith or you read something in the Bible and you’re not sure you agree with it, this is like the fundamental example of how you’re just supposed to shut up and go along with what you’re being taught, because you don’t want to be a doubter like Thomas—don’t ruin this for everyone else! But lately people have been doing some different things with this story, too, reading Thomas more as an exemplar than a cautionary tale. We know doubt is not a bad thing, in Scripture or in our lives, it’s just a part of being like an empathetic humble person rather than a sociopath, so sometimes you’ll hear Thomas as the champion of the inquisitive, that his doubt is actually a deep faith.
But the funny thing to me about how Thomas comes to be known as “Doubting Thomas” this symbol of spiritual struggle, is that in this story, Thomas doesn’t doubt his beliefs at all. Thomas is not having any kind of crisis of faith; he’s quite sure of himself. After Jesus dies, Thomas isn’t this dissenter bucking the dominant system of belief—his friends are saying Jesus is alive and Thomas like most everyone else in the city was like, “Uh, no he’s really not. Y’all know what the Bible says. The Bible says, cursed is he who hangs from a tree; the Bible says, the Lord will protect his anointed; the Bible says that the wicked are overthrown by calamity. Even if he is back, those wounds in his hand, in his side just prove all over again that Jesus is not lord of anything.
Thomas might actually be more of a fundamentalist, who knows what he knows and won’t hear about anything else, whose faith rests upon a set of principles (fundamentals), derived from a very particular reading of the Scriptures, so that any novelty in the world either has to corroborate those principles or it is cast as outside the realm of what people can believe. Unless I can touch his side, I’m not believing it, which from his perspective is saying “I’m never gonna change my mind.” Which is why it’s all the more poignant when Jesus comes to him and does exactly as he asks; and it’s in encountering Jesus, in being invited to touch, to participate in, to join Christ’s Body that he finds God’s Spirit making things possible beyond what he could ever have imagined.
As Jesus goes to leave, he says, “Did you believe because you have seen? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed.” Did you believe because you saw it was possible after the fact? Blessed are those who believed before they saw new life made real and anticipated it anyway. Did you believe because it was socially acceptable to believe? Blessed are those who discerned what was right and changed their minds before it was obvious. I don’t think this is really a story about what we think of as doubt; I think its a story about two different ways of interpreting our world, two different ways of reading: one way takes the devastation of our world as given, as necessary; the other way finds cracks in the given, cracks that open up on other possibilities for how we might live together.
At the end of this little story, like a moral telling us what we might take away from the whole thing, the writer says: 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. The purpose of this story, but also really the purpose of the Scriptures as a whole is to help us know God in that second way, to help us believe in such a way that gives us life, not in the sense of excluding doubt or honest questioning, but believing in a way that makes us sensitive to possibilities that are not immediately apparent in the world as we know it. We read the Scriptures together because we believe that when God’s Spirit shines through these words like light through stained glass, we see into a different world and that reality impresses itself on our eyes so that we become sensitive to the cracks in our devastated world…and then we know where to go to work together. As we’ve put it in our statement of faith for this week: We believe the Scriptures are the testimony of God’s work in the world, and when read in the Spirit they provide pictures and patterns that guide our life together.
We read the Scriptures because God’s Spirit irradiates these words, showing us how God is still at work in the world. What the Spirit shows us is that God is constantly choosing those on the bottom of the world’s hierarchies to tear down those systems: if you want to know how God is working in the world, the Scriptures tell us that God doesn’t choose the oldest son, the monarch, the empire, the elite; the Scriptures tell a story of God constantly favoring the younger sibling, the enslaved, the colonized, the pregnant girl, the hick worker, the policed, the crucified. Where the powers of this world are always telling us that the most important things are to be successful and self-sufficient and independent, the voice of the Spirit in the Scriptures describes people living together in humility, in need, in dependence on each other and God, organizing together to sing our songs until walls come tumbling down. When the Powers of this world say work, there are Scriptures telling us to rest; when they say be ruthless, there are Scriptures saying show grace; when they say throne, the Scriptures think cross. This is the life that is embodied in the flesh of Jesus, who is the true Word of God. The collective story of the Scriptures is the story of God healing our devastation by amputating the Powers and building again with those on the bottom. That’s why we read these words together week in and week out, it’s why we look at them in such detail, and keep coming back to them again, because we believe that through them God’s Spirit shows us how God is at work in the world still and so when the Spirit flows through these words they open up possibilities for new creation here and now beyond the world as we know it. We read Scripture so that we might believe and that through believing we might have life. We read for New Creation.
Now, at the same time, perhaps you’ve noticed that’s not the only way these words can be used. We can read in the Spirit, or we can read only the Letter, and if the Spirit gives life, the Letter kills. We can miss the Spirit altogether, forsaking what can’t be seen, what’s not practical, what’s too good to be true, for what we see all around us over and over again. If there is a spiritual, life-giving kind of reading then there is also a devastated kind of reading that uses the words of the Scriptures to justify the world as it is, to give the divine mandate of the Word of God to the many contingencies that shape our days, so that our moral and compassionate impulses are slapped away with an emphatic, “The Bible says…”
And we can find plenty of verses that lend themselves to that because the Bible was written by people, even sinners, living in the world and so even these words bears traces of our devastation. There are the obvious places where the Scriptures command the death of innocents, where they tell women to be silent, where they tell slaves to return to their masters. But even stories that speak our freedom can be twisted and used for our bondage—remember, the Devil quotes Scripture in the desert. Just because the Letter says something, doesn’t mean the Spirit is saying it too, and we discern which is which by their fruits: if it kills, if it exploits, if it demeans, it’s not God’s Word; if it gives life, if it stands in solidarity, if it loves, it is. These words were written so that you might have faith and so that through believing you might find life.
One writer in the early church named Irenaeus wrote that the verses and stories of the Scriptures are like tiles in a mosaic. It’s possible to arrange those tiles into any shape at all, but reading in the Spirit means arranging them into a picture of the face of Jesus, so that the individual verses and stories only make sense within a larger picture of who God is. The Scriptures are not just a book about God that let us grasp God like an object, they’re meant to be read with God, so that only in the Spirit are we able to understand them. And that means that some Scriptures are morally binding for us at times while others might not be. The Rabbi Maimonides wrote Just as a physician is sometimes compelled to amputate the limb of a patient in order to save his life and general health, so those in authority may at any time decree the...suspension of some laws in order to secure the fulfillment of the religious law in general. Remember, Jesus himself invites us to bind and loose God's commandments inviting us to discern with the Spirit every time we hear these words.
Maybe right now there’s a voice in your head, your own or someone else’s saying, “Oh so the Bible just means whatever you want it to mean.” And to that voice I think you can say “No, God’s Spirit is infinite and when an infinite Spirit lights these finite words on fire, like the burning bush before Moses, they mean more than I could ever imagine or even have known to desire.” In the Spirit, the Scriptures always mean more— there is a plenitude, a depth to these stories that means if some use of these words, if some habit of reading, is taking away life, you don’t have to submit to it, you don’t have to hold to those fundamentals. When you set out to unlearn, to doubt, devastated reading, racist, misogynist, homophobic reading—which is lifelong work for those of us in positions of power—the Spirit is expanding your desires not reducing the Scriptures to fit them.
The writer of the Gospel of John, remember, says that Jesus did more signs than are written here. What’s written in the Scriptures was never supposed to be exhaustive, only suggestive. The Scriptures give us patterns for life that can exercise our faith but our faith was never supposed to be reduced to these words alone, as though we can’t experiment, as though we can’t try things out, look for new ways to make a picture of Jesus with our lives. So the next time you’re talking to someone and they say “The Bible says…” just say back, “The Bible says the Bible doesn’t say everything.” The Scriptures invite us into the hard struggle of discerning what is right and acting on it in our own time. Through them the Spirit invites us to struggle for life.
Our lives can be so precarious and scary, I think a lot of people want a trump card that gets them out of having to engage in moral discernment. We just want to know we’re right without having to consider the alternative. So rather than entering into new struggles, considering new possibilities even when we discern goodness and beauty in those novelties, we just say “the Bible says…” and know that we’re good by association with the Bible and other people who read the Bible like us. But reading in the Spirit, reading for New Creation, means placing liberation, which is to say the flesh of Jesus, at the center of our reading and then seeing through that lens what kind of struggle we might enter. The Scriptures are not a trump card that closes off possibilities; they are an invitation to discern with God and each other where the Spirit is leading us in our time.
So my friends, as we hear the Scriptures together, may we listen for the Spirit showing us new creation, may we say no to the voices that tell us to double down on the bad things we see, and may these words grow our desires for God and for each other, setting us on the move so that our lives mimic the pattern of God’s. Amen.