On Doubting Thomas and Discomfiture - John 20:19-31

There are several lessons we could extrapolate from this story. None of them are that Thomas was wrong to doubt in the first place.

On Doubting Thomas and Discomfiture - John 20:19-31

John 20:19–31

There is an old belief about preaching that says it ought to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. I mean to do a bit of both this morning, if I can.

How do I intend to do this? you ask, perhaps a bit nervously. It's quite simple, actually. I want to talk to you about doubting Thomas.

You must understand, first of all, that Jesus' appearance to his disciples on Easter night is itself a comfort to the afflicted. Despite what they have seen and heard on Easter morning, they are anxious. They have locked themselves in a room to protect themselves from the religious authorities, whom they imagine might put any of them to death next.1

Peace be with you, Peace be with you

So when Jesus appears to his friends, the first thing he says is "Peace be with you." This is so important that he repeats it, after first proving his identity to them by showing them the wounds in his hands and his side. Peace be with you, peace be with you, he says. For good measure he gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit so they can continue his ministry in the world.

Now, much has been made of Thomas' absence and his hesitation to believe what his friends tell him about Jesus' appearance to them. So much so, in fact, that we call any persistently skeptical person a "Doubting Thomas," as if disbelief were some sort of character flaw. In fact, Thomas only asks for the same opportunity the other disciples have had. He wants to see Jesus in person. He wants to be sure that this appearance is the same person he knew and loved before Good Friday came around.

It is, and if you read with care, you'll see that Jesus neither reprimands nor scolds Thomas. He simply provides him with the evidence. John doesn't tell us if Thomas actually touches Jesus, but he does record his reaction: "My Lord and my God!" He's gotten what he needs to believe, and believe he does.

Notice what constitutes the proof here. Jesus doesn't appear to Thomas seated on a heavenly throne. He doesn't show up attended by angels. There are no shining clouds, no earthquakes, no trumpets, no celestial fireworks of any kind. It's Jesus himself, showing off his injuries.

In other words, Jesus doesn't show his strengths to prove his identity. It's his weaknesses, his vulnerabilities.

Words of comfort

This is as I say a comfort to the afflicted. His disciples need bolstering after their loss, and Jesus gives it to them. When one of them misses it the first time, he comes back to make sure he receives it as well. So this is not a story about Thomas' doubt. It is a story about Jesus' gracious activity to provide comfort to the anxious, grief-stricken people of God. 

There are several lessons we could extrapolate from this story. None of them are that Thomas was wrong to doubt in the first place. We learn that Jesus once again takes the initiative to care for his disciples, like a good shepherd does for his sheep.

We also learn that Jesus is present to us in anxiety and grief and loss and confusion. We don't have to hide or deny our pain or our suffering to be in his presence. In fact, he shows up bearing the marks of his own pain and suffering, his own vulnerability. That identifies him, God in the flesh, with human suffering, which is the greatest comfort we can get in our affliction.

But we learn as well that Jesus wants us not to suffer, not to worry or be anxious. This is where the affliction comes in for the comfortable.

I know that might not make sense at first. Jesus doesn't want us to suffer, but if we're comfortable he wants us to be afflicted?

Words of discomfort

Well, Jesus doesn't want us to suffer, or to worry or to be anxious. But believe it or not, there are people who will cling tight to their pain or suffering because it gives them a sense of control. They are comfortable in their discomfort. And yes, Jesus wants to afflict us right out of that kind of perverse, comfortable groove. He wants us to believe — to trust — in him and his good news, not in the bad news we know all too well in the world.

Lucky for us, there are not many people like this. They do exist, but they're pretty sick. Unless you get hoodwinked by one of them, they're not much to worry about.

What is of more concern are the people who hold on to their anxiety or their worry. You know people like this. They're in your community, in your family or friends. Because it's easy to pass off worrying for the sake of worrying as legitimate concern, it's not always so obvious what they're doing. That means they can cause real trouble. 

We often call such people "glass half-empty" types. But in my experience, they tend to see the glass as all the way empty. They have this very negative outlook that bleeds into everything they see or talk about. There's never enough time or money or anything for such people. They always have one hundred and one reasons for thinking things aren't going to work or are going to turn out wrong. Sometimes it boils down to it being their way or the highway.

Other people hang onto their anxiety as a way to control what goes on around them. They don't say "Do it my way" directly. Instead they come up with complaint after complaint until everybody else gives in and does it their way. You can imagine the effect this has on people. Who would want to do anything if it's just going to get turned into roadkill by way of criticism?

It is very difficult to get these creatures of anxiety to trust. What if this happens? They say. What if that? What if, what if? Again, they have a hundred and one reasons why they can't let go of their worries. They can't hear that it is possible to push back on anxiety, to face it down and bring it under control a little at a time. Sometimes they don't want to. "You can't change 'em," people say, but this is not true. With work, even the biggest fears can be brought under control.

Jesus challenges the disciples to let go of their fears and to be at peace.

Now, as my wife the psychology professor will tell you, anxiety often comes along with irrational ideas. Somebody develops a fear of going outside because they're convinced that a satellite is going to fall on them. Because they are so afraid, they can't see how irrational this fear is. You treat this kind of anxiety by identifying and challenging the thoughts. You might calculate the likelihood of getting hit by space junk, for example. Or you might ask what the worst outcome could be. So nobody comes to your birthday party. What would that mean? Well, you'd still have a birthday, and you'd have to figure out what to do with the extra cake. So now let's make a plan for the cake, and so on.

In other cases, as in persistent grief, the fear is rational. I would be very anxious about balancing the checkbook or doing my taxes were something ever to happen to my wife, for example. I know full well what that would look like, and I sure as heck don't want to go back to it. This is not uncommon when elderly couples are separated. People feel, with more or less justification, that they just can't cope without their spouse around.

Continuing presence

One way to address that sort of anxiety is to offer the reassurance of a continuing presence. That's how I taught my son to jump off a dock: I went down into the water and he jumped into my arms again and again until he could do it alone. Since then, the kid has been supremely confident and my back has been shot.

This, my friends, is what Jesus does with Thomas, and with all the disciples. He shows them that he is still with them, albeit in a new and unexpected way. And then he challenges them to believe, to trust in him and let their actions reflect that trust. He challenges them to let go of their fears and to be at peace.

The proof he gives them, the motivation he shows them, is the marks on his hands and the hole in his side. Not his strength, but his vulnerability. It is as much as to say, What if you get crucified? Well, you suffer and you die. But God is still with you, and I am still with you. So be at peace, and act like you believe in me.

That's the challenge Jesus leaves with his disciples. It's also the challenge John leaves for the readers of his gospel. When he says that he has written of these signs "that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name," the you is plural: you all should believe and be at peace.

I think it is fitting, then, to end with my own version of this challenge. Jesus is with you and with me, after all, no less than he was present to his disciples. And as he called them to let go of their fear and anxiety and trust in him, so he calls us to do likewise. Therefore, may Jesus indeed give you his peace, and may you believe in him, that by believing you may have life in his name. Amen.


1It's important to note that John refers to "the Jews" because his community is in the process of splitting from the mainstream of Jewish believers. This is particular to his situation and should under no circumstances be taken as authorizing antisemitism today.