Today’s message pertains to one of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. The apostles are gathered together, minus Thomas, and the air is thick with expectation. Then Jesus arrives. Once the miraculously appearing Jesus says who he is, his friends rejoice. Jesus revealed his physical wounds and convinced those gathered that the situation was real.
The biblical text sums-up the situation: “ ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’ “ (John 20:22b-23). Notice that Jesus conveyed the Holy Spirit to his friends, marking the first-known post-resurrection mention of God’s spiritual essence. Even more significant is the pledge of forgiving power.
What’s wrong with mere mortals having the privilege and authority to forgive sins? The problem is that many of us in the church have been conditioned that only God can forgive sins (or at least certain sins). Now, given the verse quoted above, Jesus seems to have conveyed divine power of forgiveness to at least his inner circle. Other interpreters make an entirely different case. They claim that Jesus wasn’t really conferring a new power but that he was saying that any of God’s people can assure others of forgiveness. In this line of thinking, it follows that if someone does not believe in Jesus’ sacrifice, then we as Christians also have the responsibility to not convey a sense of forgiveness.
Now, the second major theme in today’s message focuses on the so-called doubting Thomas, who returned to his friends after Jesus left. Thomas would not accept that Jesus came during his absence. To remedy this unbelief, Jesus reappeared and had Thomas place his hand in the crucifixion wounds. Then Jesus lectured Thomas about how blessed it is to believe without having to see. Doubting Thomas has become a religious by-word used against people who question otherwise accepted and popular truths. Many Christians argue that they and others should just accept whatever is already a part of their faith and not encourage questioning. Proponents argue that the Thomas episode reminds us how cynicism and skepticism can erode our faith.
A different view is that questions and doubts arise from a thinking person’s legitimate investigation. These folks remind us that our theological traditions must be continually tested against reality and adjusted accordingly. To not question is to not think, and both are bad for us and for the health of Christianity. Seen this way, Thomas’ behavior opens a new window of opportunity for sorting out good religion from bad religion.
Perhaps you find yourself caught between the opposing forces of questioning and often blind acceptance. Sure, it can be helpful when the process of debate and dialogue about our religion reveal logical fallacies, historical inaccuracies, and unrestrained hubris. But let’s return to Thomas, whose motivation might be key here. Recall that Jesus didn’t dispute Thomas’ motives. Believing without seeing is a blessing, Jesus said, but this doesn’t undermine the value of questioning.
In his defense, Thomas felt better after confirming Jesus’ identity. We may also derive some benefit from testing and confirming so that what we think we believe is true. The caution is that we don’t want to go too far in this direction because Jesus challenged Thomas by saying blessed are those who believe but who do not necessarily see (and in any case we can’t always see aspects of our faith). Does this mean that people who act and believe primarily through blind faith are happier? Or, do we celebrate Thomas’ approach and try to get confirmation whenever possible? And so the debate continues. Combining both approaches might be the best solution. Where are you in all of this and how does it help move you forward in your faith journey?
–Reverend Larry Hoxey