Sunday, March 27, 2016

Belief and Doubt and Forgiveness of Sins

John 20:19-31

It came across my news feed this week. A young friend from another time and place is in distress.

I would not venture to offer the multiple causes of her worry, however there was this. An older friend suggested she might think about coming back to church for the support of God's people there would surely be a gift to her. And my young friend politely thanked her but said that since she no longer believes it would not seem right to ask for help only when she was in need.

I ached to read this. And not even so much because of her professed lack of belief, but because of her decision to cut herself off from those who would support her on this journey of faith which inevitably holds its ups and downs, its times when faith runs deep and in times when doubt threatens to overtake. And as you might imagine, as I thought of her struggle with faith, I also found myself thinking about Thomas as we encounter him now. Thomas who was not there with the others that first Easter night and who could not, would not let himself be convinced by their heartfelt witness. Thomas, who vowed he would not, could not believe until or unless he put his own hand in the wounds Jesus' carried still. Thomas who is known more for his doubt than his belief, but who in the end believed as surely as all the rest.

Indeed, I found myself thinking about Thomas and I am reminded of what I have long known. We simply cannot force another to believe. Indeed, I cannot even force myself to believe. On their own, all of my convincing arguments and proofs fall flat. Rather, faith comes only and always as precious gift. I will say this, though. It does help to surround myself with others who carry and are carried by their faith. It has never helped me to cut myself off from the community of believers --- no matter where I find myself on the spectrum of doubt and faith, belief and skepticism.

And yet, I am struck today that Jesus does not spend much time that first Easter day in making a case for belief in his having risen from the dead. No, even before the disciples are done rejoicing, we realize that Jesus is not so much concerned with eternal life which his rising from the dead would imply, but with this life now. Oh yes, we hear that even before they can fully take in the wonder of who is standing before them miraculously alive again, Jesus is breathing on them the power of the Holy Spirit which enables them and us to forgive and which calls upon us to discern when and where such forgiveness is called for. Jesus is inviting them and us to extend the same Peace he spoke when he entered into their fear behind those locked doors.

This should come as no surprise to us, of course. For this is the One who spoke to those who would condemn about 'casting the first stone.' This is the One whose story of the forgiving father resonates in every time and place. This is the One who uttered words of forgiveness even as he hung dying on the cross. Oh it is so that this should come as no surprise to us for Jesus came to heal that which was broken -- perhaps especially that which is broken between and among and through God's beloved children --- and what better way to do so than forgiveness?

Oh yes, I came to this long ago: one cannot simply convince another to believe. But when our faith runs deep and when it does not, we can still live as those who believe, bearing witness in our words and in our deeds the truth that Jesus lives. And is there any more powerful way, is there any more surprising way, is there any more life changing way to do so than with forgiveness? Indeed, I can't help but wonder, has the world ever needed it more?

Indeed, what more powerful witness could there be for my young friend than this? My prayer is that she will soon and often encounter others of God's Own People living the truth of Jesus' being alive. And not just in words spoken, but in outstretched arms of forgiveness and grace. And Peace.

  • I have always found the existence of 'faith' or 'belief' to be a mystery which cannot be forced but which can be invited. What is your experience of this?
  • On this reading of this familiar story, I am struck by the fact that Jesus does not pause long in proving his resurrection to the disciples. Instead he moves on to what this means for their lives, for our lives, for our whole life together. And he speaks of forgiveness which has been, in my understanding, a primary gift of his living and dying and living again. What do you make of this?
  • Where do you see forgiveness needed in your life, in your community, in your congregation, in your workplace, in the world?  What would it look like for you to be a bearer of that forgiveness?  How might you be called to be an embodiment of the Peace that Jesus brings?


  1. I am deeply and profoundly angry with a family member who has hurt my child, as well as the child of another, and who is now in prison with no real understanding of the cause or effect of their actions. I am struggling with what it means to let go and address that person's real and underlying needs instead of walking away from them. That is part of the faith/unfaith dynamic in my life. I get the formal theology, and even believe in it. I get the 'ought.' But there is part of my hanging back from the decision to bring Peace to this person. I'm aware I may not be the best one to do it, and (following Bartolome de Las Casas' insights) sometimes buffering is better than premature confrontation. I do trust that in the fullness of time things will happen to move towards letting go and moving on, and in that hope, I find peace.

    1. Thank you, Bill, for your honest reflection. I often fear that when I am called to write or to preach about forgiveness (which this text certainly calls us to) that my words will seem glib. They certainly are not meant to be. I do believe 'forgiveness' is the hardest work we are called to, precisely for the reasons you name. And perhaps it is so that on this earth when we (or those we love) are so deeply wounded, we will never fully get there. And yet, don't you suppose that even in the struggle to engage the possibility of forgiveness that we are also changed? I recognize, too, that Jesus' words today lay out the option of 'retaining' sin. And what exactly does that mean? At any rate, I do so appreciate your sincere engagement here. I am always happy to continue the conversation. May the peace you are seeking be fully yours.