You Can’t Be a Christian If…

John 20:19-31

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.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. 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.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So 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.” 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.” Then 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.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But 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.

I wonder how many times you’ve heard the phrase: “You can’t be a Christian if…” How many times have you read it in the news? How many times have you heard it in idle conversation? How many times have you heard it coming from the pulpit? “Once; you just said it” How many times have you said it to someone else; or at least thought it really hard? Me, personally, I can’t even count how many. Sometimes it even turns from an “if” statement to a direct accusation – “You’re not a Christian! You might call yourself one, but you’re not!” And what’s really funny is that those of us who say this – and, hands up, I’m just going to admit right from the start that I’m totally guilty of doing this as well, so this is just as much a message for me as it might be for anyone else – but those of us who say this more often than not find that the things we put on the end of that “if” statement are usually in direct contradiction of each other. “You can’t be a Christian if you own a gun.” “You can’t be a Christian if you don’t own a gun.” “You can’t be a Christian if you support and encourage LGBTQ folks.” “You can’t be a Christian if you don’t support and encourage LGBTQ folks.” “You can’t be a Christian if you believe everything in the Bible literally happened.” “You can’t be a Christian if you don’t believe everything in the Bible literally happened.” And so on and so forth, until we find that, if all of these statements are to be believed, no one, in fact, is a Christian at all! So, who do we listen to? What makes a Christian a Christian?

Well, it may not surprise you to learn that we “Christians” have been having this same fight for, oh, around about two thousand years. It’s a “who’s in and who’s out” fight, and it’s been going on pretty much since Jesus left the scene. All it takes is a cursory look at the rest of the New Testament – particularly Acts – to see that even the earliest Christian communities couldn’t decide what you had to do or believe in order to be a part of “the Way”, as it was known back then. It wasn’t called Christianity – it wasn’t even considered a new religion, but rather a small group of folks within Judaism who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. Then they started adding a whole bunch of Gentiles – non-Jewish folk – and all of the sudden the question comes up – do you have to be a Jew to be a Christian? Do you have to be circumcised, do you have to follow the dietary laws, do you have to observe the traditional festivals, etc.? Is being Jewish a prerequisite for being Christian?

Well, these kinds of fights kept happening on through the ages, and the answers that came out of them eventually became a part of what was called Orthodox Christianity. The church would call a council, a meeting of the bishops, and they would argue back and forth, and they would vote, and the losing side would be labeled a “heresy”, and the winning side would be codified as church dogma and that was that. But the thing is, the “heretics”, who, prior to the council, were perfectly good Christians, didn’t all of the sudden start believing or doing the opposite thing just because the council said so. No, they broke off and formed their own Christian communities, and considered themselves more “Christian” than the Orthodox Christians. I mean, why do you think we have three major strains of Christianity today – Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox? Why do you think we have all of these denominations? Do we consider all of these to be Christian, or are there some who are not “truly” Christian? What about the Mormon Church? What is the acceptable level of disagreement that keeps someone from being labeled a heretic?

Well, of course, that question depends entirely on who is doing the labeling. So even if I were to answer it here today, it wouldn’t be definitive. Because I don’t have the authority to answer that question. I don’t think anybody does, really. Still, the question is important, because not everybody is a Christian, and it can’t really be that everyone who says they are a Christian is a Christian, can it? I think that most people would say that, at the very least, being a Christian comes down to what you believe about Jesus. Actually, I think most people would say that you are a Christian if you believe in Jesus, but what they mean is you have to believe certain things about Jesus. It’s less about right action and more about right belief. It’s all faith, no works. Sure, it’s nice to do good things, but what really matters is what you believe, because that’s what separates the wheat from the chaff. And that sounds great, because it means that it doesn’t matter what you do, you just have to say the words, and you’re in. This is the great Protestant-Catholic debate, right? Faith versus works. But even still, as we saw before, it’s always been about what you believe. What do you believe about the Trinity? What do you believe about Jesus? What do you believe about the Bible? What do you believe? What do you believe? What do you believe?!

And meanwhile, we’ve all completely missed the point. Being a Christian may be about believing, sure – I’d be willing to claim that. But it’s not really about what you believe, but rather whether you believe. We can see that in our text today, the infamous “Doubting Thomas” text. In John’s Gospel, belief is never a noun – it’s always a verb – and it’s always about Jesus. The litmus test in John for whether you are in or out, so to speak, is whether you believe in Jesus. That’s it. No Nicene Creed, no Trinity, no heaven or hell or sacrificial atonement or any of that stuff. Now, that’s not to say that that stuff’s not important, or that John doesn’t have his own theology that he wants to push on us. But the reality is that, in John’s Gospel at least, all you really need to do is believe in Jesus. And, though again, I am not the be-all end-all authority on this, I would tend to agree with his assessment. That’s why I like the creed of the Disciples of Christ so much – “No creed but Christ”. “But Chris,” you say, “How is believing in Jesus different than saying what you believe? Isn’t saying what you believe and whether or not you believe it the same thing?” Well, not exactly. There’s a difference between believing in Jesus and believing that Jesus… is the Son of God; is fully God and fully human; is of the same essence as God; died on a cross; was raised from the dead; and so on and so on. Because one of those is an act of agreeing with a statement, while the other actually involves doing something. Again, in John, belief is a verb. One does not believe things about Jesus; one believes in Jesus. Jesus is not the object of belief, but the vehicle.

What that means is that faith is not something you just say “yes” to. Faith is something you do. So there is in fact no either/or when it comes to faith and works. As my Gospel of John professor Dean O’Day is fond of saying in class, it’s a both/and! Faith works. So when I say, “You can’t be a Christian if… you don’t believe in Jesus,” what I really mean is that a Christian is someone who, in and through the power, grace, teachings, what-have-you of Christ, faiths. It is someone who does the work of faith as understood through the lens of Jesus. Now, we are free to debate back and forth about what that means, but the point is that Christianity is not about right belief, it’s about believing right.

And that’s where Thomas comes in. Now, all too often Thomas gets a bad rap because of this text. He will forever be known as Doubting Thomas, and of course that word gets thrown around negatively so often in Christian circles that, if you’ve hung around churches long enough, you might start to think that doubt is in fact one of the seven deadly sins – it’s not, by the way. In fact, you might even say that that word – doubt – more often than not ends up at the end of our “if” statement from before – You can’t be a Christian if… you doubt. Well, I – and, incidentally, John – respectfully disagree. Because I see nowhere in this text where Jesus condemns Thomas for his doubt. So often we read Thomas’s character in a bad light because Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” But we never stop to realize that Jesus doesn’t actually say anything bad about Thomas. Jesus doesn’t say, “Have you believed because you have seen? How dare you?!” No. Jesus merely asks him a question, and then says something about future believers. If anything, Jesus is saying something good about the future believers, but that doesn’t imply that Thomas is a bad person for doubting. If we think it does, then we’ve completely missed what was going on in the earlier interaction between Thomas and Jesus. What does Jesus do when Thomas sees him for the first time after the resurrection? “Here are my hands, Thomas, put your finger in them. Here is my side, stick your hand in! Believe!” Jesus doesn’t tell Thomas to bury his doubts, to cling to his beliefs without question, and that if he is unable to do so then he simply cannot be a Jesus-follower anymore. Jesus has Thomas confront his doubt, test it, chew it over, weigh it against the evidence. Now, it doesn’t say in the text exactly what Thomas does in response to Jesus’ invitation, but sometimes you just have to have a little imagination. See Thomas poking the holes in Jesus’ hands. See him inspecting the side to make absolute sure. And this – this – prompts Thomas’ statement of faith: “My Lord and my God!”

If you were looking for a picture of what it means to believe, this is it. Thomas didn’t start believing after touching Jesus’ hands and side. Thomas’ doubt is a part of his belief. He believes all throughout the story – though he may claim he doesn’t. When he tests his doubt by inspecting Jesus’ hands and side, he is doing the work of faith. And when he comes out on the other side, his faith is stronger. The other disciples, when they first see the risen Jesus? They rejoice. They’re happy. They believe, sure, but Thomas? He makes the strongest confession in the entire Gospel – he calls Jesus his God. Thomas, as a result of his doubt and confronting that doubt, now has a testimony that no one else has. Thomas has put his fingers in the nail holes. Thomas has put his hand in his side. Can you imagine the kind of witness Thomas was after that experience? How many people he brought in to the church? In light of this, I move for a reclamation of the name of Thomas. Let him no longer be known as Doubting Thomas. From this day forward, let’s call him Believing Thomas, shall we?

After all, you can’t be a Christian if you don’t believe. And, among other things, believing involves doubt. It involves acknowledging that doubt, bringing it before God, confronting it, wrestling with it. Sometimes what we believed before we doubted is confirmed. Sometimes, though, believing involves changing what we believe. Either way, we will have a new testimony, our own, one that no one else has. I think, perhaps, that those who push their doubts deep down and attempt to bury them are for the most part afraid – afraid of losing the object of their belief. But if we truly trust the One in Whom we believe, what then is there to be afraid of? Amen.

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