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Doubting No More

Sermon - 3/30/08
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

John 20:19-20

Our text this morning is from the 20th chapter of the gospel of John, a very familiar story, I think.  I invite you to follow along in your pew Bibles, specifically those, because I am going to change the translation in two places where I have a disagreement with the way the New Revised Standard Version has translated it (in fact, the way most translations have translated it).

See if you can pick up on those two places, and I'll come back to them a little bit later:

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 [Judeans], 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 [disbelieving] 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.’

 

I want to follow-up this morning on a quote I used last Sunday, and unpack it a little more.  That quote was from retired Episcopalian Bishop Daniel Corrigan, well into his 80s.  He was asked if he believed in the resurrection, and he responded "Yes, I have seen it too many times not to believe".

Now, please note that this theologically trained leader of the church, who knew all the historical, the textual, the psychological arguments, did not say he believed it because of the arguments for and against.  He did not say he believed it because of the witnesses.  He did not say he believed it because the Bible says it and that's good enough for him.  He did not say 'Well, the creed of the church says'.

He said 'I believe it because I have seen it'.  I have experienced it.  More than once.

His answer, I think, was wise and profound.  But I find the question to be as revealing as the answer.

If you recall the story as I relayed it from Diana Butler Bass (from whom I heard it), the question came not in some public secular setting, but precisely from within the church.  From a fellow parishioner.  We, being modern people, are by nature skeptics.  And I don't think that's a bad thing.  When politicians make claims (as they are want to do in this season of elections) for what they have achieved or will achieve, we question them, as we should.

When scientists make claims about climate change or origins of the earth or cures for disease, we want to see the evidence, as we should.

When authors write sensational biographies of some child who grows up in a disadvantaged neighborhood in difficult circumstances and overcomes all the odds to achieve success as an adult, it becomes a best seller.  Until someone says 'Wait a second, I know that person', and that's not a true story.

So we have been trained, we have been conditioned, to question everything.  So when we come to church, are we supposed to lay all of that skepticism aside, all that conditioning aside, and just agree with whatever the preacher says?  Yes, of course! J

No, we bring our skepticism into church too, don't we?  And so Thomas -- or 'doubting Thomas' as he is known -- I think would be called our patron saint.  The patron saint of the skeptics.  And, in fact, I propose that doubting Thomas has received a bum rap in history.  He's not the bad guy as he's often portrayed.  Indeed, he's a hero of this story.  Thomas is a model of Christian faith for an age of skeptics.

His story is really no different than that of Bishop Corrigan.  So I invite you this morning to take a deeper look at this very familiar story, and I want to do so by focusing on those two words that I changed.

What was the first one?  Judeans instead of Jews.

Now, to say that the disciples were hiding for fear of the Jews, as the New Revised Standard and every other translation I know says, I maintain is wrong linguistically, historically, and morally.

That modern translators still use "Jews" for this text reflects just how deep anti-Semitism remains within the Christian tradition.  Now, of course, you all agree with me, right?  No no no no no  -- you're skeptics, where's the evidence?  Where's the proof?  How can I make a claim contrary to 1,600 years of a tradition of translation going all the way back Jerome, who translated the Latin (by the way, I had the privilege of being in the study where Jerome did that a few weeks ago when I was in Jerusalem).

First of all, linguistics.  The term "Jew" comes from the term 'Judah', the name of one of the 12 tribes.  That became the name by which the southern half of Israel was known -- Judah.  Judean, then, referred to those folks from Judah.  Galilean was the term used for those folks up North.  So you could be a person of Hebraic descent, live in Galilee, and you'd be known as a Galilean.  If you lived in Judah, you were known as a Judean. 

The term "Jew" did not come to refer to both of those groups until the 2nd century.  The term, however, could be used in the first century for both of those groups, as witnessed by the Apostle Paul, who used the term 'Jew' referring to both groups.  But most scholars today recognize that the gospel of John uses that term exclusively to refer to those associated with the southern part of the nation, with Judah.  Because of its proximity to the Temple, the Judeans were those who were invested in that hierarchical structure, controlled by the Sadducees, who were in collaboration with Roman authority.  Those are the Judeans.

Throughout the 4th gospel (John), Wes Howardbrook (a scholar) writes:  "The text works to establish opposition not between Christians and Jews, but between Galileans and Judeans".  And of course Jesus and his disciples are all Galileans -- they all come from the North.  And hence when they go to the south they begin to have conflict when they're among the Judeans.

The gospel, then, Howardbrook says, is not anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish, but anti-Judean, where Judean is a symbol for those whose allegiance is to the world.  So linguistically, it is not correct to say they are hiding from the "Jews".

Secondly, historically.  All of the disciples, of course, are also Jews in that broader sense of the term.  To say that they are hiding for fear of the Jews would be like saying African-Americans who identify with the preaching of Jeremiah Wright (something else we talked about last Sunday, the pastor of Barack Obama), would be like saying they are angry at Americans.  But that would imply that they're not Americans. 

So, you see, you can't say that.  You'd have to say 'Angry at what Americans?'  Well, white Americans.  All white Americans?  No, Obama made that clear, Jeremiah Wright has very good relationships with many white Americans, so it would refer to a specific sub-set within white America, as defined by the use of power to continue racialized policies of the past that still make true equality a difficult dream to achieve. 

By the way, before you join in the condemnation of those harsh judgments by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright against our nation, I invite you to take note of the insert in your church bulletin from the Community Alliance of Lane County, made for the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, happened on April 4th, 1968.  So we are celebrating that 40th anniversary this week. And look on the third panel, there you will find a quote from a speech he gave to the Memphis Sanitation Workers in the midst of their strife to achieve better working conditions and wages.  The speech was given 40 years ago this March 18th -- I read from the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs (King is talking about the story of 'Dives' as he has become known in tradition, the rich man, and Lazarus the poor man.  Remember that story -- Dives is in the torment of Hell because he had ignored Lazarus.  Lazarus is in the bosom of Abraham, and Dives wants Lazarus to go up and warn his relatives of the peril that is pending for them if they don't pay attention).  So, King says:

"Dives didn't to to Hell because he was rich.  His wealth was an opportunity to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus.  Dives went to Hell because he passes by Lazarus every day, but he never really saw him.  Dives went to Hell because he allowed Lazarus to become invisible.  Dives went to Hell because he wanted to be a conscientious objector in the war against poverty. . . .

I come by here to say that America, too, is going to Hell. [Keep in mind King is preaching to the sanitation workers and their supporters]  If we don't use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God's children to have the basic necessities of life, she too, will go to Hell."

 

No different, really, than the preaching of Jeremiah Wright, and this is a man for whom we have a national holiday.  By the way, I checked with some of the black religious leaders in our community to ask if this is the kind of preaching they're used to.  And they said 'Oh yeah'.  No surprise in that.  We're initiating a dialogue that hopefully we will take public in some way about these issues.

So is this anti-American?  Or is it just pro-Jesus?

My point is just that it is no more accurate to say "the "ews" killed Jesus than it is to say "the Americans" killed Martin Luther King.

Lastly, morally, you cannot say that the disciples were hiding for fear of the Jews even if it were linguistically correct and historically correct.  It would be morally wrong, for if we do not learn the lessons of 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism, then the condemnation of people like King and Wright upon us is well deserved.

The disciples were hiding on that Sunday night of the resurrection because they feared not the Jews (like themselves), but the Judeans -- those who were part of the established powers that crucified Jesus three days before.

It is, thus, in this context of oppression and fear, John tells us, that the church was born.  Opposed not by another religious group, but by the social, political, economic, and military power of the day.  And in light of such opposition, can anyone blame Thomas or anyone else for being just a little skeptical?

What hard evidence do they have that the way of Jesus would achieve any other result than crucifixion on a Roman cross?

This brings me, then, to the second mis-translation in our text, the response to Thomas by Jesus.  It literally reads, not as we're used to hearing and reading "Do not doubt but believe", instead it reads "Do not be disbelieving, but believe".  The word is the same word, only in the negative.  Do not be unbelieving, but believe. 

There is a common misunderstanding that to have doubt is incompatible with Christian faith.  To the contrary, I think doubt is quite normal.  Indeed, if you don't have any doubts about the claims of Christianity you aren't thinking hard enough.

Our vision team talked about putting up some banners on the outside of our church to let folks know that we may not be the kind of church they think we are. That we dare to think outside of the box of tradition because we follow a Lord who thought and acted outside of the box of tradition.  So here's a banner idea to let folks know they might fit right in -- what if we put on the outside "Doubts welcome here".  "Questions welcome here".

Doubt is not the opposite of faith, it is a normal product of faith.  Our task is not so much to remove doubt as it is to instill faith.  To move people from unbelief to belief.

See, I have a lot of doubts about whether or not a 40-ton machine filled with 250 people and all their luggage can stay in the air for 12 hours!  But that doesn't stop me from flying across the Atlantic.  I don't enjoy it -- all those doubts keep going through my mind, how is this possible?

Any doubts that you have about the many claims of Christian faith should not keep you from believing that the way of Jesus is the way that God wants us to live and to be.

Thomas, therefore, is a model for us precisely because he does not let his doubts get in the way.  Instead, he voices them.  He raises his questions.  He cites the evidence he's looking for, and he's still hanging out with the disciples.  By the way, he's no different than them.  They didn't believe Mary when she came back with her report about seeing the Lord.  They needed to have the same experience that Thomas is now asking for.  He's no different, he wants to see for himself, he wants his own experience of the resurrection.

And so Jesus comes not to shame him for his disbelief, but to provide him that experience that he needs.  The grace in this story is that the risen Christ fulfills the desire of Thomas to give him his own resurrection experience.  Just as Mary and the other disciples had.  Just as Peter testifies on that day of Pentecost -- "We are all witnesses of the resurrection". 

And I think that the gospel writers, when they write that, they don't just mean those who were living in that time, they mean ALL followers of Christ are witnesses to the resurrection.  And so the witness of Bishop Corrigan 2,000 years later is that the risen Christ fulfills that desire still to this day.

I've seen the resurrection too many times not to believe.

And John notes that even in a closed room with locked doors, the risen Christ comes.  Even amidst our doubts and fears, the risen Christ comes.

What's our evidence to make such an audacious claim?

I can tell you only what I've seen:

I've seen homeless families come into our interfaith shelter, living in our trailers, who have gone on to find stable housing.

I've seen alcoholics and drug addicts who changed their habits, broken their addiction.

I've seen ex-cons given a second and third chance living and working among us.

I've seen people diagnosed with potentially fatal diseases go on to live full, healthy, and in some cases long lives.

I've seen families adopt handicapped children and raise those children to be incredible young people full of life and potential.

I've seen sexually abused people work through their own personal trials to end the long years of victimization, even after the abuse stopped, to reclaim their wholeness, dignity, and pride.

I've seen sexual abusers change their ways and develop healthy sexuality, to become new people.

I've seen those who have lost their jobs, careers, lost their standing in the community, lost their self-esteem, rediscover their meaning, their value, their purpose.

I've seen victims of discrimination because of their race, their sex, their sexual orientation, find here a place where they are affirmed and regarded as a full brother or sister in Christ.

I've seen women told they could not preach who have been ordained into Christian ministry, right here.

These are not people I've read about, they are people I've come to know here in this congregation, people here in our midst.

It's because of them, it's because of you, that I can say:  I've seen the resurrection too many times not to believe. 

May we all have that experience.

 


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