“Doubtful Design” John 20:19-31 4/23/2017
“His elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top floor.”
If you’re being less than charitable, that’s a euphemism you might use to describe someone who’s not very bright — you know, someone who’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer, whose light bulb is a little dim, or who’s dumber than a bag of hammers.
But what happens if that person is an architect and his elevators literally don’t go all the way to the top floor because, well, he forgot to design the building that way, leaving the multi-million-dollar project standing empty and useless?
According to news accounts the building in question is the InTempo, designed as a 47-story showpiece building in the Spanish coastal town of Benidorm. When (and if) it’s finished, it will be the tallest residential building in the European Union.
It was supposed to open in 2009, but has been plagued by accidents, bad loans and bankrupt builders, along with one major, hand-slap-to-the-forehead design flaw: The elevator only goes up to the 20th floor, leaving the possibility that potential residents on the top 27 floors would have to walk themselves (and their furniture & groceries) up the stairs.
The building was originally only supposed to have 20 floors, but the designers fell in love with their own work and decided to add the additional floors, forgetting (somehow) that people in the penthouse might actually not want to have a cardiac event every time they came back from shopping down the street. No elevator shaft was planned in the blueprints, no space was provided for it, and, unbelievably, nobody noticed this until after the building was actually built.
Of course, the architects in Spain are not the first to neglect one really important construction detail. In London, a new building with a glass exterior was built with a concave shape that led the locals to nickname it the “Walkie Talkie” (because its shape is similar to old walkie-talkies that became popular after WWII.
Martin Lindsay made the mistake of parking his black Jaguar XJ near the building one day and came back to notice that the exterior of the car had melted. Seems that the “Walkie Talkie” was actually more like the laser dish on the Death Star from a Star Wars movie, concentrating the sun’s rays on a particular spot on the pavement that made Mr. Lindsay’s Jag, and some pedestrians look like some ants fried with a magnifying glass.
A local barbershop reported that its carpet was set on fire by the building’s death ray, and the owner of a neighboring Vietnamese restaurant demonstrated what the 196.3-degree beam of light can do by frying an egg for reporters on the front steps of his establishment. Apparently, nobody had bothered to think about what effect sticking a giant concave mirror in the middle of London might have on unsuspecting ants, I mean people.
In a world where a book titled Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff can be a bestseller, we forget that sometimes it’s the detail that really matters. Leaving out one important detail can cause the whole project to be useless. But what if that project is faith?
- What happens when we forget some of the important details of a faith where the spiritual elevators are supposed to go all the way up?
- What happens when the light goes out inside and instead begins to burn everyone around us?
- When we forget the details of faith, what we’re often left with is the empty shell of doubt.
The story of “doubting” Thomas is one of the more famous stories in all of the gospel writings because it speaks to a deep human condition.
In the face of confusion, conflicting evidence and a world that requires empirical evidence before making a decision, doubt seems to be the norm for many people. Sometimes that doubt can be useful. Had the architects on these building projects been skeptical enough to not get dazzled by their own designs, they might have discovered the flaws in their plans. But other times, doubt can lead to wasting away and emptiness, especially when it causes us to neglect the hope of faith in the risen Jesus.
When the story opens, we find the other disciples (minus Thomas) cowering in a house in fear (v. 19). If Thomas is the one who often gets branded as the doubter, we must remember that the other disciples were equally guilty of doubt after they heard Mary Magdalene’s announcement, “I have seen the Lord!” (v. 18).
They would not have been huddled together like a firm of architects trying to figure out how things went wrong with the project they had been working on for the last three years. It’s not until the risen Jesus actually shows up that they believe and understand. Thomas isn’t any different than his colleagues. It’s just that he’s a little behind in assessing the situation.
Doubt permeates the whole situation after Jesus’ crucifixion and the discovery of the empty tomb. It’s doubt that leads the disciples to temporarily be as useless as a skyscraper with no elevator and Thomas as skeptical as a guy who just had his Jaguar melted like butter.
How could this happen? What did Thomas and the others forget that led them to hole up with their doubt?
The text from John’s gospel points to three key things or elements that the disciples forgot to include in their faith-building project; three things that, I believe if we don’t remember them ourselves, will lead to spiritual bankruptcy and uselessness.
The first key element is the peace of Jesus. Three times in the text Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” On one level, this is a conventional greeting — a basic building block of community. But the repeated mention of it here is a reminder of something that Jesus had said to his disciples earlier: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27).
The peace that “the world gives” is peace that seeks to alleviate fear by relying on the security of wealth, the protection of armies or the isolation of a locked door or a built wall. But there’s really no peace in these things, because, like a building with no elevator, all of them will eventually become useless.
The peace that Jesus offers, however, is an eternal peace made possible by his resurrection from the dead. Jesus knew that his disciples would be under constant scrutiny and danger — that there would always be someone lurking on the other side of the door threatening to destroy the whole project.
But the peace of Jesus is grounded in the fact of his resurrection. As the risen Jesus stands before them, with his nail-scarred hands, feet and side, he demonstrates to them the fact that death will not have the last word with them. “Because I live, you will also live,” Jesus had told them earlier (John 14:19).
When we forget the peace of Jesus, we tend to become gripped by fear and doubt, and our sense of hope can’t access the top floor. We need to remember that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection has made a new future possible — a future that’s ready for us to move into right now through faith in him. We don’t have to live in fear because we have a savior who has guaranteed our future through an empty tomb.
The second key element in the spiritual architecture of Easter that we need to remember is the ongoing presence of Jesus. Today’s reading says that Jesus “breathed” on the disciples and gave them the Holy Spirit, the very presence of him in their lives (v. 22).
Again, earlier in John’s gospel Jesus said that the Spirit would give the disciples the power to do “even greater things” than he, Jesus had done (John 14:12) and provide the comfort, advocacy and peace that enabled them to carry out God’s mission in the world.
When doubt and fear creep into our lives, we must rely on the witness of the Holy Spirit to remind us that our lives matter and have purpose in Jesus Christ. It’s the Spirit that enables us to be people who forgive sins, who speak boldly and who demonstrate the character of Jesus (v. 23).
You know that those architects in Spain probably never had any outside agency check their work before they built. The Holy Spirit provides us with the internal check of the presence of Jesus, which reminds us that our lives will never be useless when the Spirit is working within them.
The third key element that doubters like Thomas (and us) need to remember is that our faith isn’t in an idea, or a concept or a principle — instead, our faith is in the person of Jesus Christ.
Jesus shows up in person a week later, when Thomas is present, and invites the doubtful disciple to touch his wounds. It’s a touch that’s only possible if Jesus is more than a concept, but a person who was “in the flesh” like us; who suffered as we suffer; who was tempted like we are tempted; who dwelt among us and gave his life for us (1:14).
Thomas finally believed because he saw Jesus — not just on that day, but on all the days he had spent following Jesus around Judea & Galilee. Thomas knew what kind of man Jesus was; that Jesus was worthy of Thomas’ trust and faith; that Jesus never backed down from a promise even when he was nailed to a cross.
Now, with the risen Jesus standing in front of him in the flesh, Thomas’ faith went from a blueprint to a building block he would never forget. Thomas’ confession in the person of Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” is one that provides a foundation for our own faith (v. 28).
It’s a faith that doesn’t subscribe to the old adage, “Seeing is believing,” but rather the Jesus-brand of faith that reminds us that “believing is seeing.”
God has come to us in Jesus, who continues his mission through skeptics and misfits like Thomas and like us.
- Faith is a willingness to follow Jesus, even when we’re not sure where it will lead us.
- Faith is a willingness to build because we know the One who holds the blueprints of the world in his hand!
The InTempo building will require a super-expensive fix, like putting elevators on the outside of the building in order to make it useful.
Our doubt can be fixed a lot less expensively — by remembering that Jesus offers us his peace, his presence and his person.