Today’s story of Jesus appearing to his disciples after the resurrection is often used as a cautionary tale for those may doubt the truth about Jesus. We label this disciple “The Doubting Thomas” as if that were a bad thing. We do little to try to understand what is behind this story.
We are beginning a new series this morning to talk about doubt and what questioning our faith does for us. We will re-visit three familiar gospel stories over the next three weeks, in an effort to strengthen our faith in the resurrected Christ. In these weeks just after Easter, it is important that we find ways to make the stories relevant to our context and that we maintain the excitement of this miracle.
I have said before that being a follower of Jesus in 21st Century America is not an easy task. Questions and doubt are inevitable. We must not be ashamed of our questions and we must not be afraid to ask them. I invite you to spend some time with us over the next few weeks exploring your own questions and seeking thoughtful answers.
As we take this journey together, I pray that we will all find out where doubt leads each one of us.
#1 in series of 3: “Where Doubt Leads”
This may be one of the more familiar stories from the Bible; preachers love to bring this one out every year to point out how easy it can be to doubt Jesus, even for the strongest disciple. Personally, I think we may have given Thomas a bum rap over the years. We like to point out that he refused to believe unless he got to see for himself. The thing is, the other disciples were no better than Thomas. They had run away from the scene on Calvary; now they are hiding behind locked doors, “for fear of the Jews.” They were skeptical of the reports that Jesus had risen from the dead. Even when Jesus appears in their midst, he shows them his wounds…then they rejoiced and believed. Sounds to me like there was plenty of doubt to go around. That is the important message for me from this passage today; everyone has doubts and God is big enough to handle them.
Let us pray…Lord, we come to your word this morning with our own questions and maybe even some doubt. Give us strength to hear your truth and courage to overcome our weakness. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
We have always heard “doubting” Thomas and assumed that’s what the Bible says…It is not. The Greek word used in the text is “apistos,” which means “unbelieving.” So, this is not a story about doubt as if Thomas thinks his friends are pulling his leg. This is a story about Thomas’ relationship with Jesus…a relationship shattered by the crucifixion. In John’s gospel, “believing” is the same thing as saying, “I abide in you and you abide in me.” Believing isn’t about reciting a creed; it’s about a close personal relationship with Jesus.
Second, nowhere else in the gospel is Thomas portrayed as someone weak of faith. Remember the story in Chapter 11, when Jesus declares his intention to return from Galilee to Judea where he will face certain death. The disciples were afraid and urged Jesus to reconsider. It was Thomas who said: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” This doesn’t sound like a man who would then come to doubt his faith in Jesus Christ. Maybe a better way of looking at it is to think of Thomas as a realist. Kind of like someone with a terminal disease, who has accepted their fate, might react to reports of some new miracle cure. Tom has a healthy bit of skepticism.
Finally, is Thomas asking for anything the other disciples haven’t already received? Think about it…Jesus appeared to the other disciples behind locked doors the week before…Thomas just happened to be absent. We don’t know why he wasn’t there. He may have had a legitimate reason. Sick friend, kid’s soccer practice, dinner with Mom…Who knows? The point is, all the other disciples saw Jesus, saw his wounds, and then they believed. All Thomas wants is the same thing they’ve already gotten.
So why has the Church been so hard on Thomas for 2,000 years? Perhaps we have misunderstood the nature of faith itself. Do we assume that the more faith we have the fewer questions we will ask? I don’t think this is the correct viewpoint. The Bible offers us a different picture of faith. Scripture shows us that faith and doubt are actually intertwined more than we realize. Faith, after all, is not knowledge or certainty. Paul told the Hebrews that faith: “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) I believe that the more we learn about our relationship with God, the more we want to know. In other words, the more we know the more questions we have. This is not doubt or a lack of faith; it is love and a desire to grow closer to God. Questions are not bad things.
I think the great lesson of this story comes out of Jesus’ words at the end of the scene. (V 29) Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Jesus does not rebuke Thomas; he is no better or worse than any of the Apostles. They all believed in the Resurrection only after they saw Jesus in the flesh. We must not single Thomas out for unfair criticism – they were all in the same boat. Jesus’ words in this scene are really a blessing for us and the generations of believers who have come to know Jesus never having seen him. If we can re-visit the story today from this perspective, we can see that Thomas is not an unfaithful disciple; rather he is a model disciple – a model we can emulate. Thomas shows us how to become a disciple. He looks at it realistically and counts the cost. When he decides to follow Jesus, his eyes are open and he knows what he is getting himself into. He doesn’t merely believe, he boldly confesses: “my Lord,” – a title reserved for Caesar; “and my God,” – the highest praise given to Jesus in the New Testament.
What we need to hear in this story is that believing in Jesus and becoming his disciple is not about accepting someone else’s experience of the Risen Christ. It’s about each one of us having our own personal encounter with Christ – the Word made Flesh…God with us, dwelling among us. This kind of encounter requires that we ask questions and find the right answers.
Doubt – honest questioning – is not the enemy of faith; it is an essential ingredient of faith. Seeking to know the truth is not skepticism, it is an asset to vibrant faith. We must be free to bring our questions and our insights into our Christian lives. We must feel safe to voice our skepticism and our trust as we sit around the table. This is the Christian conversation; it is the healthy dialogue that strengthens and deepens our faith – this is how we prepare ourselves to be faithful disciples in a world that often doesn’t believe anything it cannot see, touch, taste, or smell. As time passes and we get further and further from the actual events described in the gospels it becomes easier for the skeptics to make their case.
We live in a culture where people still doubt the United States space program and the facts of space flight, moon landings, and space exploration. We live in a world where some people can deny the Holocaust and find a sizable group of people who believe them. Every day we hear new conspiracy theories, denials of global climate change, and people who ignore the facts in front of them. Is it any wonder that so many people have a hard time believing that two thousand years ago a young carpenter from a little town in Palestine worked miracles, died on a cross, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven to be ruler over everything? It really doesn’t surprise me in the least.
Just as those first disciples demanded and received their proof – the resurrected Body of Christ, our world is seeking the same kind of proof. That’s where we come in – We are the Body of Christ, commissioned by Jesus to go make disciples of all nations. We put ourselves out there every day and let others put their fingers in our wounds and their hands in our sides. In the midst of their pain and suffering and grief, we walk with our brothers and sisters in the world and show them that Christ is standing with them no matter what. Imagine what a difference we can make when we help the skeptics begin to recognize Jesus without having seen him…When all they can see is US – The Body of Christ. If we are to follow the splendid example of Thomas we must be prepared to boldly confess our faith as he did and give witness in a world that desperately wants and needs something in which to have faith. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.