Jesus Doesn’t Stop (Where We Wish He Would)
I’ve probably preached half a dozen sermons on “Doubting Thomas” over the last decade or so. Thomas and his doubt show up faithfully in the lectionary readings each year after Easter Sunday. Thomas and his stubborn needing to see to believe. Thomas and his demanding what his fellow disciples received as a gift and the surprise of a lifetime. Thomas, the recalcitrant empiricist.
There are many of us, I suspect, in the postmodern, post-Christian, post-everything West who kind of silently nod along with Thomas each year. Thomas is our guy. Thomas doesn’t just follow the herd. He thinks for himself. Thomas isn’t just going to believe something because there have been whispers and rumours or because he read it on the internet. I didn’t revisit my past sermons on Thomas, but my guess is that they would fall into some well-worn grooves. Thomas’s story is in our bibles to show that doubt is a part of the life of faith, that it’s not a sign of failure or weakness, that Jesus meets us in our doubt, etc. Jesus’s first words to Thomas (and, by extension to us) are, “Peace be with you.” Jesus speaks peace into our existential turmoil. Jesus knows how hard it is to believe and meets our doubt with compassion and understanding, etc. All of this is true, and gloriously so, so far as it goes.
But this year I was feeling a little bored of this narrative. It doesn’t tell the whole story, for starters. And any sermon that is all comfort and no challenge probably comes up at least a little short. This year, I noticed that Jesus has this exasperating tendency to rarely stop where we think he should. He says more than, “Peace be with you,” to Thomas, after all. He says, “Do not doubt but believe.” Well. We rather like the “peace be with you” part. But that last bit doesn’t sound particularly sympathetic toward the ups and downs of our spiritual journeys, does it?
This is hardly the only time Jesus does this. This pattern of comfort and healing and then challenge (or even rebuke!) shows up all over the gospels. To the woman caught in adultery Jesus says, “Where are your accusers?” and “Neither do I condemn you.” And we cheer him on while he puts those insufferable religious men in their place. We love Jesus’ response for the deep and liberating truth it displays, and we love Jesus for saying it. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He follows it up with, “Go and leave your life of sin.” Which sounds like a rather insensitive thing to say to a woman who is clearly the victim here.
To the paralytic by the pool of Bethsaida—a man who had been lame for thirty-eight years!—Jesus tenderly asks, “Do you want to be made well?” He follows this up by telling him to take up his mat and walk. On the Sabbath, no less. Again, we cheer Jesus on as he puts the powerful elites more concerned about religious observance than healing in their place. But Jesus doesn’t stop with “Stand up and walk.” A few verses later, he says to the man, “Do not sin any more so that nothing worse happens to you.” Which is a rather awkward and embarrassing thing to say. Not to mention, how does it square with Jesus’s response to the “Who sinned that this man was born blind?” question elsewhere. Come on, Jesus, give the dude a break. He’s been dragging his broken body down to a pool for four decades. How much opportunity for sin has he had?
The examples pile up. To the woman at the well, Jesus follows up his boundary-crossing, dignity-conferring offer of living water with a not-so-subtle critique of her adultery. To Nicodemus, Jesus appends to “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn but to save” the more chilling “those who do not believe are condemned already because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” To terrified disciples in the middle of a violent storm, Jesus says, “Take heart, do not be afraid,” but also, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” This pattern doesn’t fit every interaction Jesus had with people, but it sure does point to a trend. Jesus so often refuses to stop where we think he should. Or wish he would.
Last Sunday, I decided that it would be a bad idea to stop before Jesus does in his interaction with Thomas. I decided to tell my congregation (and myself) to stop doubting and believe. Because Jesus seems to care an awful lot about what we believe, unpopular though this may be in the more progressive wings of the Christian church that I inhabit. I’m all for the ethics and example of Jesus. I’m all for the Jesus who was for the poor and the downtrodden and the ones kicked to the side. I’m all for upending crippling power structures. I’m all for the Jesus who heals and meets us in our weakness and faithlessness offering tenderness, compassion, kindness, and love.
But I’m also all for a robust conviction that Jesus is the son of the living God to anchor all of the above. If Christianity ever ceases to be first and foremost about the hope and the life and the meaning and the joy that radiated out of the discovery of that empty tomb, then I think the church will become, as Paul said, “objects of pity.” Our preaching and our faith will be useless, both for our world and for ourselves. People can find political and social agendas in abundance elsewhere. What cannot be found elsewhere—what people need more than anything else—is forgiveness and hope. People need to hear the truth about who they are and who God is. People need to believe.
In the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, there is a crowd gathered around Jesus. They want to see a sign. They’ve heard how he multiplied the bread for the masses. They’re ready for him to take over and start making long-overdue changes. They ask him, in effect, “Where do we start, how do we get this train rolling, what must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus responds simply: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Again, they might have wished he had stopped a bit sooner. But they needed (and we need) to learn that it’s unwise to stop before Jesus does.