Sin and Doubt on the Eighth Day

Week of Sunday April 27 – Easter 2
Gospel: John 20:19-31

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 27Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. 

The new minister quickly learned that Trev's enthusiasm was rarely followed up by matching action. Things promised did not materialise on time, or at all. What was done was half done. She changed her expectations accordingly, and delegated the more important tasks to other folk.

Then she began to hear the whispers. Apparently Trev's enthusiasm and support in Church Council contrasted with his attitudes elsewhere. She began to understand there was a constant white-anting of plans and visions by Trev's grumbling and, much as she didn't want to say it, by his lies.

Trev was a destructive force. Some discreet conversations indicated it had been happening for years, and was a constant bleeding problem that no one had known how to face, or had the courage to confront. Trev was noxious.

She quietly educated folk she could trust about the destructive and acidic sin we call being passive –aggressive. Together they devised a strategy to confront Trev. Over time, she preached around forgiveness and honesty, and finally described what passive aggressive means, naming it as sin. She and other council members visited Trev and confronted him with his behaviour.

It was not a pleasant time in the congregation's life. It takes courage to call someone out publicly and remind him of the decisions he had supported in church council. It takes courage and huge energy to push back against misleading and plain untrue statements. Trev had his supporters. The relative peace of the parish exploded into anger and confrontation.

The miracle came when Trev's mother lay dying in hospital. She had hated the minister on her son's behalf, but the minister's presence at her bedside, and the minister's true compassion for Trev at the graveside, melted something within him.

It was a slow healing for him, for the minister, and for the congregation, who all gradually began to forgive and trust him, and to trust each other again.

•••

Why tell this story on the Sunday after Easter?

It's because the second part of John Chapter 20 is the story of the church. Meeting on the first day of the week is a picture of the church at worship. In church the risen Jesus comes and stands among us. He sends us out to the world: as the Father has sent me, so I send you. He breathes on us: Receive the Holy Spirit. It means we can do this task on which we are being sent; the Paraclete, the Helper of the Poor, and the Defender of Victims, (Nuechterlein) is with us.

This is for the good: Peace be with you.  Jesus says it twice. It means our life as congregation is to bring us into the consciousness of the eternal. Eternal life is not simply some individual experience or possession. The gathered people of the congregation are meant to be an environment where we have particularly opened ourselves to the presence of God; a place where we are lifted out of time. A time and place where peace reigns in a manner far deeper than the mere absence of war.

It is no place for sin. After 60 years of church— two generations of believers— what has John imagined Jesus saying to the church at his resurrection? What essence of being church has he distilled from all of this?

Firstly, let go of me and look to That to which I point, (John 20:17), and then, in this verse, deal with the sin among you. Only then does he come to the issue of Thomas's unbelief.

But Jesus does not tell us to drive out sin, or sinner. Instead: If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.

If the congregation had somehow simply kicked Trev out, what would have happened? All the factors that meant it could not manage him and help him be healed, would have remained. They would have retained the sin. I have seen this happen; especially when we scapegoat someone, the cause of the problems is untouched. We retain it. And Trev, like too many people in real life, would have taken his sin into another place.

The healing comes only when we forgive Trev. And that means Trev has to own his behaviour, and to repent; that is, stop. This is long hard work, not the subject of a sermon or two and a single pastoral visit. It is high stakes ministry; you can lose your job over this, and you can lose your health. Big givers can blackmail the finances of a parish, others can play dirty with a lawyer.

It is no wonder that we retain so many sins.

Indeed, I wonder if places where Doubting Thomas and arguments about the true nature of belief are a problem, have not yet dealt with the sins among them. What I mean is that where sin has been forgiven, the Thomas's among us— I am one— will have plenty of healing and saving wounds to see on the body of Christ. We will see the marks of the cross and yet see that we are in a risen body, and say, My Lord and my God! It is seeing the wounding and healing of sin— the healing of all the shitty, foul, and evil muck of life— that brings me to belief. Even in tiny congregations, insignificant in the eyes of the world and the Synod, it is this evidence that brings me to trust God.

Such power frees us from that insecurity which is driven to define right belief, and to exclude those who do not conform.

Nothing turns me away more quickly from that trust in God which we call belief than the violence and sin of manufactured community that does not deal with the Trevs, but is Trev, and which violently enforces the doctrine of its local orthodoxy. This is not the presence of Paraclete. This is the demon of "your father the devil. (John 8:44 ff)

Such congregations are at best psychologically naive, hoping against hope that their forced belief and denial of Thomas's hard headed realism, will somehow help them be convinced to trust God. At worst they are deeply manipulative and evil. They are truly a sin against the Holy Spirit, blaspheming Her by forcing the body of Christ into the shape of their own self aggrandisement.

Thomas was absent on the first Sunday of the church, and refused to believe that such a forgiveness filled and fuelled resurrection and repentance could even happen.

He does not doubt. There is no Greek word for doubt in the text. The word NRSV translates as doubt in verse 20:27 is a-pistos, which means without belief, or as the old King James has it, faithless.

That changes everything.

There is more ultimate faith in the person who insists on being sure than the one who glibly repeats things which they have never thought out, and which they do not really believe. It is doubt like that which in the end arrives at certainty.... Thomas doubted in order to become sure; and when he did become sure, his surrender to certainty was complete. (William Barclay I have edited the masculine biased language of his era.)

We need people who doubt. Bruce Epperly says

John 20 concludes with a portrait of the heroic Thomas, who misses the excitement of Jesus’ resurrection, but stays with the disciples, faithfully opening to what may come. He is rightfully agnostic, and so should we, given the many wild and unsubstantiated claims by spiritual leaders today and throughout history. His faithfulness is found in his willingness to participate in the resurrection community, despite his missing the community’s mystical encounter with the Risen Christ. Surely, he felt left out, and yearned for a resurrection experience. But, Thomas did not sacrifice his questioning mind for the sake of going along with the crowd. His agnosticism is an openness to experience, not a closed mind.

What takes the partial faithfulness which comes to church seeking,  and gives it the certainty of trust in Jesus' resurrection, which characterises Thomas by the end of the story? What so convinces him that God is somehow embodied in this person that he calls him "My Lord and My God?"

What convinces him is the resurrected wounded Body of Christ he meets in the Community of the Eighth Day.

The eighth day of the week was that  time very early on Sunday when slaves met for worship before attending to the needs of the household. There was no other time available to them. The claim is that the Greek kai meth hemeras octo  (and after days eight) which NRSV translates as "a week later" refers to this practice. Others claim that really it's a figure of speech which simply means "one week later," and that the tradition of the eighth day was read back into John. (See more on Eighth Day here.)

It is clear that John is referring to weekly worship in the appearances of Jesus to the gathered disciples. It is clear that forgiveness is key to that community; it is the first thing of which he talks.

So does it matter if the church fathers read the notion of the eighth day back into John when John simply meant one week later?  Would not a community of radical repentance and radical forgiveness be a community like no other, that would bring a hard headed rationalist like me to say, "Here is proof of resurrection! Nowhere else is there community like this, with a love that spreads beyond an hour on Sunday into everything they do!"?

You see I have introduced the word love— agape.

I opened my computer this morning to discover a long and profound response to our Easter services from a member of the congregation. I am deeply moved by this email. As I considered this First Impressions post I wondered, "What does it mean if we then ask that person to say to me, in our congregational life, "Andrew, you also sin..."?" And then I realised that perhaps there is no one better than that person to confront the Trev in me, and call me to repentance, because I know their love for me!

If we will love on another as he loved us, (John 13:4) then repentance and forgiveness can be done.  And this means that we would be worthy of a name like The Community of the Eighth Day. Truly we would be blessed because, hard heads and all, we will not have seen the risen Christ, but we will trust him because, in the Body of Christ, in the Community of the Eighth Day, we have seen him.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

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