The Second Sunday of Easter, April 7, 2024

March 11, 2024 | by Paul Nancarrow

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Psalm 133 1 John 1:1-2:2 John 20:19-31 Acts 4:32-35

I typically trust the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible as my go-to translation. To me, it has the best balance of vivid and readable English, and accurate scholarly rendering of the original Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek.

But not today.

In today’s assigned Gospel reading, at this pivotal moment when the Risen Jesus meets the thoughtful Thomas and calls him into faith, I think the NRSV uses the wrong words.

The translation reads “Do not doubt but believe.” The original Greek says something more like “Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”

Where the translation uses simple active verbs – “doubt,” “believe” – the original uses adjectives (or, if you want to get really technical, verb gerunds acting as adjectives) – “unbelieving,” “believing” – and I think that wording makes a difference.

Simple active verbs describe things we might or might not do, actions we might or might not undertake. Verb gerunds acting as adjectives describe the way in which we do the things we do, the manner in which we activate our creative energy to participate in bringing events into being in the world. As we might put it in process-relational terms, verb gerunds acting as adjectives indicate a stream of influence that flows through a succession of occasions, imparting a shared and continuing character to each.

Simple active verbs like “doubt” and “believe” pose a binary choice, two opposing activities Thomas might evaluate and analyze, and then decide to enact one rather than the other. Adjectives like “unbelieving” and “believing” point to different dispositions of Thomas’s spirit, his inner being, and pose an invitation to move from a lesser mode of relationship into a greater one.

Because in John’s Gospel, “to believe” is less an action one undertakes than it is a relationship in which one participates. In John’s Gospel, “to believe” does not mean so much an intellectual decision to accept a proposition as true – whether or not it can be proven to be true by logical demonstration – as it means a personal commitment to place your trust in someone – and specifically in Jesus – and to shape all your subsequent life decisions and actions in accordance with that trust. John’s Gospel invites us to think of “believing” not as a single act, but as an ongoing and unfolding relational pledge to prove the truth of Jesus’ love in the fabric of your own life.

This is why the first chapter of John’s Gospel says that “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12): “believing” opens up a life-transforming potential that brings the believer into the same quality of relationship that Jesus has with God.

This is why the twentieth chapter of John’s Gospel (in what some scholars believe was the original ending of John) says that the entire book has been 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” (John 20:31): “believing” is not just accepting the information contained in the book, but is taking the book to heart, and coming to trust in Jesus’ love as described in the book, and joining with others to love one another as Jesus’ love is described, and thereby to discover in yourself with others the life that Jesus lives.

The way the word “believe” is used in John’s Gospel, we really need three English words to capture its meaning. To “believe” in John’s sense involves truth, trust, and troth. It means to accept the truth of Jesus’ teachings by word and example, which is what we often mean by “believe.” But it also means to put your trust in Jesus’ words and example, and to seek to experience their truth for yourself, reenacted in your own actions and feelings, not simply at second-hand or in an abstract way. And that involves making a commitment – or, as older English vocabulary would put it, pledging your troth – to follow Jesus’ pattern of action in all aspects of your life, not just when it is convenient or obvious or easy, but in all aspects of how you take in what the world gives you and give out to the world what you have within. Truth, trust, and troth – assent and assurance and commitment – are all wrapped up in “to believe.”

And all of that is present in Jesus’ invitation to Thomas, on that second Sunday evening when he appeared to the disciples in the locked room. Jesus invites Thomas into truth and trust and troth. Jesus invites Thomas into a renewed and deepened relationship with him, an ongoing pattern of relationship that will open Thomas’s own potential into greater and greater co-creative realizations of Jesus’ love.

Because the root of Thomas’s problem in this story is that Thomas has been holding himself back from full relationship. Thomas’s problem is not that he “doubts”; in fact, the word doubt, the actual Greek word for doubt, doesn’t appear at all in this story. “Doubting Thomas” is a complete misnomer, and always has been, despite its having been popular for a long time. We don’t need to try to blame Thomas for “doubting” – or to defend him for “doubting,” for that matter – or to use this story to mount a defense of anyone who has ever questioned authority or ever been skeptical about dodgy truth-claims or ever wanted to experience something personally before giving assent, as I’ve seen in recent years – because doubt never actually enters into the story.

No, Thomas’s problem is that he is being “unbelieving”; that is, he is holding himself back from the possibility of deeper relationship. The other disciples have told him “We have seen the Lord!” – and Thomas finds this incredible, literally beyond his ability to imagine as possible. This is simply prudent of him: wild claims should always be considered carefully before being accepted.

But these are his friends who have told him this: they’ve all been with Jesus together, they’ve all experienced for themselves and with each other how Jesus has done the unexpected and made the impossible possible, they’ve all heard Jesus call them into a clarity of relationship with each other by calling them not just servants but friends. The other disciples are trying to invite Thomas to a new depth of relationship with them, to trust them that they think it is true that they’ve seen Jesus even if Thomas himself cannot see its truth at the moment. The other disciples have tried to love Thomas in the Way that Jesus loves, by sharing with Thomas the good news they’ve experienced; Thomas, in return, for the moment at least, is failing to love the others as Jesus loves, because he is closing himself off from the possibility that they are sharing with him their truth.

And that is why it makes such a difference that, when the Risen Jesus does appear to Thomas, he says “do not be unbelieving, but believing.” When the Risen Jesus appears to Thomas, he does not just admonish him to quit asking questions and dutifully accept what a higher authority tells him. When the Risen Jesus appears to Thomas he invites him into a new and deeper relationship in which he will experience truth and trust and troth, not at second hand or at an abstract remove, but for himself and with others, not only in one place or circumstance, but for the rest of this life and into the next. Jesus’ call to Thomas to “be believing” is not a slapdown for his “doubt,” but is an invitation into more abundant life.

And Thomas accepts that invitation. His outburst, “My Lord and my God!” is an acceptance of the truth and a declaration of his trust and a pledge of his troth to seek life in Jesus’ Way of receiving and offering in freedom and gratitude, his pattern or receiving divine aims and enacting them in human occasions and offering them to be felt as influence for new occasions, as a disciple and an apostle and a believer.

And Jesus accepts his acceptance. When Jesus says “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” he is looking forward to future believers, people who could not have been eyewitnesses to the Resurrection, as Thomas has now become, because they weren’t around when it happened. These believers-to-be will be blessed by the way they experience the presence of Jesus, the Way of Love of Jesus, the abundant life of Jesus, as it is represented in those whose truth and trust and troth shapes them to re-embody the characteristics of Jesus in their own lives. Thomas himself, now that he no longer holds back from relationship, now that he is newly enabled to offer himself in faithful relationship, will become the evidence that will persuade others of the reality of Jesus. Thomas himself will show the “marks” of Jesus on his body and his selfhood, in the way he practices receiving and offering in freedom and gratitude in the name of Jesus, and by loving others in the way that Jesus loves will draw them into believing, into loving relationship in Jesus, as well. As “believing” becomes more deeply the adjective that modifies all of Thomas’s actions, so he will help others to become “believing” in turn.

That transformation in Thomas goes so much deeper than just “Do not doubt, but believe.” That transformation is a reorientation of the Way in which he thinks all his thoughts and feels all his feelings and enacts all his actions, as he moves from being “not unbelieving, but believing.”

Thomas’s renewed relationship with the Risen Jesus is an invitation to us also to be “not unbelieving, but believing,” as we accept the divine ideals of Jesus as influences for our own occasions of becoming, and act out Jesus-like love in all our patterns of relating.

The Rev. Dr. Paul Nancarrow is an Episcopal priest, whose theological work has focused on process-relational interpretations of religion and science, spirituality and liturgy, and especially on the co-acting of divine action and human action and natural action in sacramental work and worship. He has taught Theology for ordination training in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia, and is currently the author of the theology blog “Transfigurations” at He can often be found contemplating the Adventure of the Universe as One from the saddle of his bicycle on back roads and rail-trails in the Midwest.