Unbelievers in Church

25The other disciples were saying to him [Thomas], “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail prints in his hands and put my finger into them, and put my hand in his side, I absolutely will not believe.” 26And after eight days the disciples were again inside and Thomas was with them. Jesus came while the door was shut, stood among them and said, “Peace be to you!” — John 20:25-26

One of my great interests is the way in which we treat those who don’t believe, and especially those who disagree with us in the church. I’m not going to argue here that there is no way someone can be separated from fellowship. There is such a thing as apostasy. But often we treat minor or temporary disagreements as apostasy and drive people away.

Yesterday, as is my habit, I attended Rev. Geoffrey Lentz’s “Lectionary at Lunch” study at First United Methodist Church. If you live in the Pensacola area and have time at lunch (12-1pm) on Wednesdays, you should try it. Geoffrey pointed out something about this passage that I had never noticed before. (You would probably get more perspective if you read the whole passage, John 20:19-31.)

At least ten disciples see Jesus and they report this to Thomas. Thomas refuses to believe them. The key fact of their lives at that point—Jesus is risen!–is rejected by one of them, one who has been with Jesus all this time. There he is, a resurrection denier, and it was a time when the church was not large, not powerful, and not stable.

Now ask yourself just what you would do if you encountered such a person in your church. Today the church is large, and in the United States it is quite powerful. I suspect the range of options for most churches would be to marginalize that member or even move him out the door. Certainly if ten of us had given testimony to him of something, we’d be offended that he didn’t believe us. Many times we’re more offended that people don’t believe us than that they don’t believe God.

But look what happens to Thomas. Eight days later they’re together in a room. The door is shut. What do we see? The unbeliever is there with them! He’s breaking bread with them. He’s sharing their hiding place. Far from being cast out as a traitor and an unbeliever, he has remained fully part of their fellowship.

We tend to focus on how Jesus made Thomas into a believer. We like the happy ending. But maybe that week between the first appearance and the second is closer to our lives. We live in a world of disagreement and distrust. We suffer from crises of faith. What do we do when someone is having a crisis of faith? Do we drive them away, or do we draw them closer through fellowship and love?

Let’s learn something from the disciples. When you have someone sitting around the table with you, eating with you, sharing fellowship with you, there is still an opportunity for more faith. Keep the opportunities open!

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