Holding Doubts While Keeping Faith

Dr. John A. Terry, Interim Pastor

May 1, 2022

John 21:19-31

Let me mention several things about this passage before it is read:

  • The Sea of Galilee is also called the Sea of Tiberius. They are one
    and the same body of water.
  • Seven disciples are mentioned without telling us why only seven,
    though perhaps these were the disciples who made a living fishing.
  • Nathaniel is mentioned only in this Gospel. He is best known for
    doubting that anything good could come out of Nazareth but after
    meeting Jesus, Nathaniel confessed, “Rabbi, you are the Son of
    God! You are the King of Israel.”
  • Thomas was there. He is best known for doubting the
    resurrection, but when Jesus appeared to him Thomas confessed,
    “My Lord and my God!”
  • Peter called Jesus as “the holy one of God,” but when faced with
    danger denied even knowing him.
  • The sons of Zebedee, James and John, are also mentioned.
  • Two unnamed others are mentioned. One of these is “the disciple
    whom Jesus loved.” It is believed that the author of the Gospel of
    John used that title to refer to himself. Knowing that Jesus loves
    you is more important than getting your name in print.
  • There is no good theory as to the importance of the number of
    fish caught – 153. If it ever had any special meaning it is lost in
    time. It may well mean that there was an eyewitness who was
    there who actually counted the fish.
  • It says that when Peter was in the boat fishing, he was naked. It
    probably means he was just wearing a loin cloth.
  • It also says that before he jumped out of the boat and into the water
    Peter put on some clothes. It may not make much sense to put on
    clothes before jumping into the water, but he was clearly startled.
    Here is a man Peter thought to be killed who was on the beach
    giving him fishing advice. This is what happened one day after the

John 21:1-19

1 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by
the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered
there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of
Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3
Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We
will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night
they caught nothing.

4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples
did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you
have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them,
“Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some. So
they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were
so many fish.

7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!”
When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes,
for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8 But the other disciples
came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from
the land, only about a hundred yards off.
9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with
fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that
you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the
net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though
there were so many, the net was not torn.
12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast. Now none of
the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it
was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and
did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus
appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter,
“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him,
“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my
lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you
love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus
said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love
me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love
me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I
love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to
fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you
grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a
belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said
this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After
this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Faith comes in different ways and with differing intensities to
different people. The one referred to in the Gospel of John as the
“beloved disciple” was perhaps John himself. He believed upon seeing
the empty tomb. Mary believed when the Lord called her name.
Thomas said that to believe he had to touch Jesus’ wounds – although
that need seemed to evaporate once he saw the risen Christ. People have
differing routes to faith. Peter went from proclaiming Jesus as Lord to
denying he even knew him to promising Jesus he could feed the sheep of
God’ flock.

What they had in common was the simple act of gathering
together. They had met as a community of fearful doubting disciples
and to them Jesus offered his peace. This leads me to a story about a
church which has the custom as we do of passing the peace during
worship. The pastor of this church received a letter from a man who
had recently joined the congregation.

The new member was a promising young lawyer from a
prestigious law firm. He drafted a brief but pointed letter on his firm’s
letterhead which read, “I am writing to complain about the
congregational ritual known as ‘passing the peace.’ I disagree with it,
both personally and professionally, and I am prepared to take legal
action to cause this practice to cease.”

When the pastor phoned to talk with the lawyer about the letter, he
asked why the man was so disturbed. The lawyer said, “The passing of
the peace is an invasion of my privacy.” The pastor agreed with the
lawyer. He noted it does invade our privacy. We do not know the peace
of Christ in isolation. The peace of Christ was not promised to
individuals but to community.
So the pastor wrote a letter in return. He said, “Like it or not,
when you joined the church, you gave up some of your privacy, for we
believe in a risen Lord who will never leave us alone.” Then he added,
“You never know when Jesus Christ will intrude on us with a word of

Faith is not something we create on our own nor can faith be lived
in isolation. It is something that is passed on to us and we are to pass it
on to others. It is like what happened when the bridge was built across
the Niagara Gorge. It all began with flying a kite across the chasm
until the kite reached the farther shore. Then twine was tied to the
string, and rope to the twine, and wire to the rope, and cable to the wire.
In due time mighty cables were suspended from great towers and the
bridge was built.

What began with a single kite string became a mighty bridge.
Faith in us all began with the frail strands of people like Thomas and
Peter and the rest. From the beginning we have depended on the faith
of one another. When Thomas was absent, he depended on the faith of
others who encouraged him to be present to meet Christ in his own

It is like a story told by a professor of theology. He said: “My
wife died a few years ago on the day before Easter. She became
suddenly ill that morning, and by evening she was gone. I found myself
the next morning seated in a pew at my church in a congregation full of
Easter smiles, new clothes, Easter lilies and a full choir singing alleluias
that stuck in my throat.
“I didn’t believe in the resurrection. Not that day. Not with what
had happened to me. But as I listened to the congregation sing, I
realized, I don’t have to believe in the resurrection today. They are
believing for me until I can believe for myself again.” Herein is the
nature of faith and doubt.
I took my sermon title from a book written by a pastor by the name
of Martin Copenhaver. I never read the book, but I like the title: Living
Faith While Holding Doubts. Doubt is often considered the opposite of
faith, but we find that honest doubts are what led Thomas to faith. I
think he should not be known so much as “Doubting Thomas” but as
“Absent Thomas.”
That is the heart of his problem. The rest of the disciples were
there but for some unexplained reason Thomas was not. Maybe he had
gone to check on a sick relative or to tend to his business. Maybe he
had gone off hiding in fear or maybe he just wanted to be alone in his
grief. We do not know. We only know that he was absent and that
seemed to make the difference.
Being absent led him to doubt, but doubt is not a bad thing. One
of my favorite writers, Frederick Buechner, wrote: “Whether your faith
is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any
doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in
the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
Some like Thomas say, “I have to see it in order to believe it.” But
seeing is not always the best route to belief. There are the illusionists
who saw a woman’s body in half on the stage for all to see. We see the
illusionist separate the two parts of the box with a woman’s head
sticking out of one end and her feet the other and a large space in
between. Are we to believe what we are seeing? Life is filled with
illusions of all kinds.
Understanding and believing are not necessarily related.
Understanding how the electronics in our car work was not necessary
for us to be able to drive here this morning. Understanding the
chemistry of how food creates taste is not necessary for us to enjoy
today’s lunch. Understanding is not required to believe in the

I like the words of a St. Anselm of Canterbury who a millennium
ago prayed, “I do not seek to understand so that I can believe, but I
believe so that I may understand; and what is more, I believe that unless
I do believe, I shall never understand.” The order is important: first
faith, then maybe understanding.
Why do we operate on the assumption that if we do not have proof
of the resurrection, if it is not explainable in terms a scientist or engineer
can understand that it did not happen? I do not understand why
tomatoes and potatoes and cucumbers grow. But I will plant then this
month in my garden in the full faith that I will have a harvest.
I think it is important to note that Jesus did not blame Thomas for
doubting or Peter for denying him. Jesus did not condemn the disciples
for doubts or disappearance but sought to restore them to the fullness of
life. Rev. M. Craig Barns, now President of Princeton Seminary, told
of a member of the church he was serving who broke into the choir room
one day during worship and stole his wife’s purse. The thief looked
enough like his wife to use her driver’s license for identification when
writing bad checks all over town. She had stolen an identity and was
pretending to be someone she was not.
He said, “It is not unlike what all of us try to do in presenting
ourselves as something we are not. We write resumes and applications
to schools pretending to be smarter than we are. We go into business
meetings and sales calls pretending we can deliver more than we can.
We go out on dates pretending to look better than we do. We come to
church pretending to be more religious than we are.”
When the police finally caught this woman who had been
pretending to be the preacher’s wife, she was exposed, and the shame
was overwhelming to her. She thought she was finished in that
church. But at the church they worked to keep her in the fellowship.
The turning point came during a communion service when she took her
place in the line of people coming forward for communion.
When she was next in line the only place open was the one where
the preacher’s wife was serving the elements. As she sheepishly
walked up to the woman from whom she had stolen, they experienced
the miracle of forgiveness and freedom. The only words said were,
“The body of Christ.” The victim from whom the purse was stolen
administered the shame-evaporating grace of Jesus. And two women
found their freedom. One was freed of shame, and the other freed of

After finding the disciples and restoring peace to their souls, Jesus
grants us the capacity to forgive sin. If we do not forgive the sins, we
are stuck with anger or guilt. In the words of Professor Lewis Smedes,
“When you forgive, you set a prisoner free. And then you discover that
the prisoner was you.” Forgiving those who hid in fear when he most
needed them was part of Jesus’ resurrection.

Thomas may have doubted, but when he returned to church, he
found the resurrected Lord present and faith again took root in his heart.
And once faith took root Thomas cried, “My Lord and my God!” He
was then sent to tell the world that the Lord lives, forgiveness had come,
and life has triumphed over death.

Let us pray with these words of St. Anselm: Lord, I am not trying
to make my way to your height, for my understanding is in no way equal
to that, but I do desire to understand a little of your truth, which my heart
already believes and loves. I do not seek to understand so that I can
believe, but I believe so that I may understand; and what is more, I
believe that unless I do believe, I shall never understand. Amen. St.
Anselm 1033-1109