a sermon on John 20:19-31
preached on April 14, 2013*, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Poor doubting Thomas. For centuries, Thomas has borne the brunt of contempt in the church. Just because he was out doing something else the first time the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples, just because he insisted that he wanted to see Jesus for himself, he’s been labeled “doubting” for all time. And not only that, his story shows up in the lectionary every year on the first Sunday after Easter—it’s as if we have to keep rubbing salt in his wounds over and over again, constantly reminding ourselves about Thomas’ inability to believe without seeing things for himself just in case we are tempted to do the same.
But the story is not quite so simple. As the gospel of John tells it, Thomas wasn’t the first person to doubt the resurrection of Jesus. The two disciples who first went to the tomb saw that Jesus’ body was missing, but they didn’t understand or believe the resurrection until they themselves met up with Jesus later. And even Mary wept outside the tomb because she was so sad that Jesus’ body had been stolen—until she realized that the gardener who was comforting her was no less than Jesus himself. It was only after Jesus started appearing to the disciples that the believers began outnumbering the doubters, so they started closing ranks against those who didn’t understand it or wanted to see it before they believed it. Their own experience of the resurrection made it difficult for them to think that anyone else wouldn’t believe it!
So when Thomas missed out on Jesus’ appearance to the disciples on that first Easter evening, when he stood adamant that he would not believe them unless he saw “the mark of the nails in his hands and put [his] finger in the mark of the nails and [his] hand in [Jesus’] side,” he was destined to be shunned and set apart. There was a clear divide: Those who had seen the risen Jesus believed, but those who had not did not.
Even amidst this divide in the disciples’ experiences, everyone came together again the following Sunday evening, just as they had done on that first Easter night. They gathered in the house and closed the doors— but somehow Jesus still came and stood among them. He spoke to them right away: “Peace be with you,” hoping to calm their hearts and minds and make his presence clear and real. But he knew that they were looking for more than his peace—at least some of them were looking for proof that he was who they said he was. So he immediately invited Thomas to do exactly what he wanted and needed to do: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
That invitation seemed to be all that Thomas needed. John doesn’t tell us that Thomas actually did any of this, but he does record an immediate response: “My Lord and my God!” Jesus then spoke up again, practically turning away from the disciples and addressing those of us who read the gospel later: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Here Jesus doesn’t criticize Thomas for his doubting tendencies, and he certainly doesn’t single him out for this attention, because even most of the disciples didn’t believe his resurrection until they had seen it for themselves! Still, these words give a bit of extra encouragement to those of us who might be reading this story a bit later and so haven’t had seen the risen Christ with our own eyes.
Thomas was certainly not the last person of faith to harbor doubts. It is not a requirement of the Christian faith to never ask questions. Our welcome into the Christian life at baptism does not require us to have everything about our belief sorted out. And if we required everyone who presented themselves at the Lord’s Table to fully understand and explain what happens there, I myself would not be welcome! So I think Thomas was actually onto something when he questioned the resurrection of Jesus because had not experienced it for himself. We remember him because of his doubts, but that should be a good thing for us. As much as we might try to convince ourselves otherwise, doubts are a natural part of the life of faith. Presbyterian minister and writer Frederick Buechner put it nicely, I think:
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. (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC)
Stories of people like Thomas help us to be more comfortable in asking good questions, in acknowledging the depth of our struggles, in helping us consider our doubts in such a way that they give us space for deeper faith, in allowing our belief to emerge and enlarge over time as we grow deeper in our experience of God. Ultimately, the reality is that faith and doubt are not opposites. When we come to believe something, our questions are not so much put aside as they are honestly answered. When we take up faith, we allow God to step in and fill in the blanks on our doubts. We recognize that we do not have all the answers and trust God enough to fill in the rest. We place our trust not in our own understanding of what God has done and is doing but in the depth and breadth of God’s life among us. Doubt gives us the space we need amidst the certainties of our world so that faith can step in. So ultimately I think Thomas’ doubt was not his problem but rather the very thing that gave him the space to believe.
Now don’t get me wrong—I’m not even beginning to suggest that you ought to start doubting something if your faith is strong. But what is clear to me from this strange and wonderful story about poor doubting Thomas is that God is big enough to put up with our doubts. Ultimately, Jesus didn’t ostracize Thomas because he doubted but in fact gave him everything that he needed to set his doubts aside. In the same way, we are called to honestly engage and confront our own doubts so that we can come to deeper faith, for ultimately our experiences of God in our lives show us the things we need to believe and hope and trust in God’s work in our world just as Thomas’ experience of the risen Christ enabled him to believe the strange and wonderful story of the resurrection.
So as this Easter season continues, may we encounter the risen Christ in our lives just as Thomas did, so that we can engage our moments of doubt, experience the new life of Christ in our world, and deepen our faith and trust in all that God is doing to make the whole creation new through Jesus Christ our risen Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.
*While this is not the text for the day, I am preaching from a slightly adjusted lectionary schedule after Easter this year.