The reflections of the fourth Gospel take us into a rich understanding of how faith was understood by the church communities that were being encouraged by John and his circle.
As the last Gospels, it has a greater development, nuance, and sense of inclusion than the earlier ones. Whereas Mark’s is rather breathless and toddler-like in its excitement and use of phrases like “and then this happened… and then this… and then this…”, St John has had a good few decades to ruminate on the nature of the faith in Jesus Christ.
The passage this morning (John 20:19-end) raises some vital questions about the nature of belief.
It was the first day of the week, and the disciples had locked the doors for fear of the Jews. It’s important to note, though, that:
a. The disciples themselves were Jewish, too – but Jews who were questioning their inheritance through Jesus
b. At this stage, ‘Christians’ etc did not exist in the way that we think of them – the disciples would most likely number themselves among other the Jewish sects
c. The ‘Jews’ they feared were not only the authorities, but their friends and families, and perhaps (after Judas) one another, maybe even themselves, as they could not believe what they were thinking, and where those thoughts might take them.
d. Into that setting, Jesus appears through locked doors to instruct them in the way of life: Peace be with you.
‘Peace be with you’ was an encouragement, for sure, but it was also a challenge. It feels to me like Jesus was asking ‘how can you say you believe in me, and then meet behind locked doors? This was never intended to be a Kingdom with locked doors.’
The disciples, though, didn’t necessarily get that – in their awe-struck state, they missed point of the new world in which they had found themselves. It took another to voice for them all what was happening.
Thomas was not there on the first evening, and he was not going to trust the words of his friends for something so strange. A week later, then, the risen Christ appears to his disciples, this time with Thomas present, to whom Christ says: Do not doubt, but believe.
Except he didn’t quite say those words. My own preferred, but rather clunkier translation of the written Greek would be something like: “Do not be un-trusting, but be trusting.”
The difference may, at first, appear small and insignificant, but remember – this is the last Gospel written, full of reflection on what following Christ had become in the early days of the church.
To say, as the NRSV does, that either a person doubts or believes rather misrepresents the nature of belief. It suggests that doubt is wrong, and is a voice that should be silenced from the faithful believer. As if doubt is the opposite of belief. Such an understanding of belief, though, leads us into the sort of religion where questions are forbidden, where boundaries are immovable and set by religious authorities, and where people either get with the programme, or get out – the kind of belief that Jesus criticised and rejected as hollow.
The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty leaves no room for growth or change, no space to be changed by encountering other people and experiences. Certainty leads people to fear the views of others, as if other world views will poison or erode our own faith. Certainty leads us to lock the doors and meet in secret. It is not doubt that cripples faith, but an unthinking, unrealistic insistence that ‘God be the God I want God to be’ that cripples faith.
Doubt, however, does not cripple faith – rather it corrects faith. Doubt is what drives us to ask questions; doubt is what unsettles us to seek better ways of living and speaking; doubt trips us out of our comfort zones into a more realistic, complicated, uncertain view of the world. Doubt is not the enemy of faith, but its ally.
Doubt is a part of faith, of believing, because it allows us to refine what we say we believe. It is, perhaps, that kind of refining to which S Peter was referring in his epistle – ‘even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith… is tested by fire.’ This ‘testing’ is a ‘refining’ – it is not a test sent by God to see if you’re good enough – the God of creation, life and love, does not try to catch people out like the Greek stories of the Olympic gods suggested. This refining is how faith develops in the reality of life – that is, if we let it, if we don’t lock our faith behind closed doors, but allow it to be something that grows.
In this sense, Christ invites Thomas: Do not be un-trusting, but be trusting.
This is an invitation to something that is active, living, dynamic. The object of the invitation to be trusting is not in a set of principles, but in Jesus Christ himself. The form of that trusting that was being invited was not a memorising of rules, but was relational and human.
Thomas’ response to this invitation to trust was the very thing the disciples missed when Christ previously appeared to them – “My Lord and my God.”
It is perhaps significant that this trusting came out of the one who doubted and asked difficult questions, not out of the ones who locked themselves away in fear.
This same invitation and challenge is made also to us – sure, you can lock yourself away in a Christian silo where what you believe is shared and goes un-challenged. But know that if you do, your trusting will not be given the opportunities to be questioned, refined, and grow; like a lake with no fresh water source, that kind of approach to religion soon becomes stagnate, and eventually poisonous.
It makes no sense, actually, to attempt to keep the faith in the Kingdom of heaven behind locked doors, because this faith, this trusting, is in the one who takes no notice of doors and boundaries. It is faith in the kingdom of sitting at tables with drunks and prostitutes; the kingdom of washing the feet and deeply serving others; the kingdom that goes to the cross with common thieves (and worse); the kingdom that smashed open the locked door of death to show that it is not to be feared. This is not a kingdom that meets behind locked doors; this is a public and provocative kingdom that stirs people to see beyond themselves to a life that is beyond anything we dare even imagine.
Trusting in the one who initiated this kingdom actually demands us to doubt – especially in the world as we have inherited it. Trusting in Christ is to join with him who shook the boundaries and preconceptions of his own age to reveal a better world that was being missed by the unthinking, the unquestioning, and the fearful. It is not a safe path, and it will not be without pain and suffering. As with Thomas, though, if we can resist fear and comfort, and instead strive to overcome our own un-trusting, then we, too, may proclaim “My Lord and my God.”