Believing as Abiding

These are some reflections on John 20: 24-29. They are excerpted from a longer sermon I preached several years ago.

“Doubting of Thomas” by Michael Astrapas and Eutychios; public domain

Believing is at the heart of John’s Gospel. It’s why the Gospel was written. It’s why God sent Jesus to us: “that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” And in this dramatic scene between Jesus and Thomas, it is believing that wins out over unbelieving when Thomas declares: “My Lord and my God!”

But what does “believing” mean for the writer of John? You know those people who hold up John 3:16 signs at football games? I feel fairly confident in saying that John doesn’t mean what they think he means. I find this explanation from biblical scholar and seminary professor Karoline Lewis particularly helpful:

“Always a verb, never a noun, believing for John is a statement of abiding in Jesus. To believe in Jesus is not an assertion of certain doctrinal commitments, nor is it something that is strong one day but wavering the next. To believe in Jesus is the same thing as saying ‘I abide in you and you abide in me.’”

For Thomas to believe in Jesus means that Thomas abides in relationship with Jesus. Which is why he is willing to die with him. (See John 11: 16). Which is why he is hurt to think that Jesus would show up on the one Sunday Thomas misses church. Which is why he would want to touch the wounds of Jesus’ hands and side. Which is why he finally declares: “My Lord and my God.”

Believing as abiding. . . . It’s hard to know what intellectual agreement looks like. But we know what abiding looks like.

We know what it looks like when we abide with our families–our parents as they age, our children as they grow. We know what it looks like to abide with those we have chosen to love–as friends or as spouses—for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. We know what it looks like to abide with a community—perhaps a church–through difficult times.

Thanks to Thomas, we know what it looks like to abide with Jesus.

Thomas, we can assume, leaves behind whatever life he has grown accustomed to to traipse after this interesting yet itinerant rabbi. He watches Jesus heal. He listens to Jesus’ words that sound strange and yet true. He asks Jesus questions. He tries to understand what Jesus is up to. He offers to die with Jesus. But instead he watches helplessly as Jesus is arrested, tortured, and crucified. He keeps meeting with all the other disciples, worshiping and hoping and . . . he doesn’t really know what it is he’s doing. He just keeps doing it. And, finally, Thomas bears witness to the resurrected Christ. Thomas claims his eternal relationship with Jesus: “My Lord and my God.”

Believing as abiding.

When we understand belief as holding to specific doctrines, then doubt quickly becomes the enemy, the opposite of belief. But if belief is about abiding in relationship, then it makes sense that those with the most intense relationships will not only have–in our contemporary understanding of the terms–the most intense belief, but also the most intense doubt.

“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

This passionate, committed disciple is not Doubting Thomas, but Abiding Thomas. And his relationship with Jesus can serve as a model for our discipleship today. Thomas shows us that whether at any moment we experience belief or doubt, there is a deeper anchoring–an abiding.

We are called, like Thomas, not to give assent to a specific set of propositions, but to root our lives in our relationship with Jesus Christ. To walk with Jesus. To listen to Jesus. To talk to Jesus. To be willing to sacrifice for Jesus. To abide in Jesus and claim for ourselves, “My Lord and my God.” Amen.

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