Redeeming Thomas (and Our Encounters with Doubt)


Second Sunday of Easter, April 19, 2020
Preached from John 20:19–31 at Danville Congregational Church, Danville, CA via Zoom

Of the many characters we read about in the New Testament, one I feel a particular connection to—and empathy for—is Thomas.

Thomas.

Yes, the one known as Doubting Thomas.

Thomas was one of the original 12 disciples called by Jesus. We are told nothing about Thomas’ personal life or background—save that he had a nickname “Didymus” which means “the twin.”  [Twin of whom, we do not know.] But John’s gospel does give us a few indications of what kind of person Thomas was.
John tells us that Thomas was a most ardent follower of Jesus. When Jesus told the disciples that he intended to return to Judea because of Lazarus’ death, the disciples pushed back at the idea out of fear for Jesus’ life, and, undoubtedly, theirs: “Seriously—you’re going there after they were trying to kill you?” Undeterred, Jesus insisted he return to which Thomas dauntlessly replied to the others, “Fine. Then let us all go so we may die with him.”

[OK, he didn’t really say “Fine” but that’s how I imagine him saying it.]

John also gives us an insight into Thomas as a person whose faith was practical.  When Jesus, (using spiritual metaphor), spoke of leaving the disciples to prepare a place where they would all be together, Thomas is IN, all the way in. And not wanting to be left out, Thomas observes that Jesus has not shared exactly where he’s going or how to get there. Jesus’ response to Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” no doubt settled on Thomas in a particular way in the days that were to come.

But millennia later, we don’t remember Thomas’ devotion to Jesus or his determination to follow Jesus no matter where. We remember Thomas instead as someone characterized by an encounter with doubt.

Picture it:

You and those closest to you are sheltered-in-place, filled with anxiety and grief and fear.

The person you believe in the deepest areas of your heart to be the Messiah has been executed.

Now, you’ve heard one of the women talk about seeing him.
You’ve heard from some of the others who say they saw the empty tomb firsthand.

But you’ve also heard the rumors that someone had stolen his body—a plot to silence the movement you had left everything to become a part of. And word on the streets is that your association with Jesus still puts you at risk.

But most of all…

Most of all your heart just aches and you don’t know what to think.
Jesus’ assurance of the Way and the Truth and the Life has become dashed by disappointment and grief. Your hope fades to but a glimmer as you arrive at the conclusion there’s no way to follow him now.

And so you slip away to be alone with your grief.

Later, you return to find the mood of the place has done a complete 180—everyone is excited, joyful even. When you ask what’s going on, they tell you Jesus has appeared to them. Earnestly, they try to convince you it was Jesus, telling you they were sure it was him because they had seen the marks of nail and sword on his body.

You are completely discombobulated, thrown off center, confused. No. No—this can’t be. “Why did I have to leave? How could I have missed this?” you say to yourself. Your face flushes with anger at yourself for leaving and with envy toward those who got to see him. Speaking before you can think your words all the way through you snap, “Whatever! I won’t believe it until I see him myself.” Like a petulant child, you leave in a huff. And for the next week, you stew in yet another disappointment and perhaps frustration over your response, all the while sitting with the mystery, wondering what if it were true.

And then one day out of the blue, you hear that familiar voice—the voice of the one you would have followed anywhere— “Peace be with you.” You turn around and he’s standing right in front of you; a gaze of compassion meets your eyes. Time seems to stop as you look back at him hardly able to catch your breath; the doubt and the anxiety and the confusion evaporate from your body. He speaks again, saying your name, asking you to believe, inviting you to place your hands where the metal had been.

But you don’t need to. Jesus’ presence in that moment is all the evidence you need and you, in that moment, confess a faith stronger and bolder than it had ever been before.

Ah, yes: this story of Thomas is one that I can relate to.

Now Thomas is far from the only person found in the ancient texts whose faith in God was both tested and shaped by doubt. Yet he remains forever judged for what is widely perceived as a lapse of faith—a moment when his doubts overwhelm the conviction of what he believed.

For much of my life, I thought of doubt, in the context of faith, as a failing, a flaw—something to be ashamed of and something to never speak aloud or share. But I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps I misunderstood the role of doubt in faith—hence my present qualms with Thomas’ vilification. Thomas, I think, did not disbelieve as much as he had simply lost hope.

20th century German-American philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich suggested that “doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it’s an element of faith.” Following this line of thinking, American theologian Frederick Buechner would characterize doubt this way:

“…if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts,” he said “are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”

Viewed this way, doubt can serve as a tool of discernment, of clarifying what it is we believe.

Yes, Thomas experienced doubt; he had encountered some “ants in the pants” of his faith. But in the end—as our Holy Moly story this week reminded us—Thomas believed.

So, understanding the role of doubt in this light, what might we learn from Thomas’ encounter with doubt?

Unabashed, Thomas named his doubt—he confessed it. Thomas needed evidence; Thomas wanted to know where Jesus was going—where Jesus was actually going—so he could follow him there. And if Jesus had in fact indeed risen, Thomas needed firsthand confirmation of that resurrection, same as all the other disciples in that room had received.

Though Jesus blesses those who are able to believe in a given moment without seeing, he does not condemn Thomas’ doubt. He sees it, he holds it, and he waits for Thomas to meet him there on the other side of doubt.

I don’t know about you, my faith is not the same as it was when I was baptized 42 years ago. In fact, it’s not the same as it was last year. My faith journey has not been without moments—even entire phases—of doubt; yet here I am, more grounded in my faith than ever before.

Doubt is not the enemy but rather can serve to nudge us to into deeper encounter with God.

Were it not for doubt, I might still be hiding in the closet, still trying to believe in a God constructed for me, one who hated me for who I was.

Were it not for doubt, I would not have been liberated from a vengeful, toxic understanding of God to discover a God who loves me unconditionally.
Were it not for doubt, I might have continued to spread a Gospel that harmed rather than healed.
Were it not for doubt, I might have just abandoned my faith altogether.

It is uninterrogated doubt, doubt that is hidden away, that can be dangerous.

With that in mind, here is another truth Thomas’ encounter with doubt has revealed to me.

Upon learning he had missed out on seeing Jesus, I suppose Thomas could have said, “Whatever, I don’t believe it” and then walked out forever. Instead of keeping it to himself and allowing it to fester, however, Thomas named his doubt in the presence of those closest to him while he sat with the mystery and worked through his crisis of faith.

I wonder if anyone listening today struggles with naming their doubts, afraid that they are alone or that something is wrong with their faith?

Where is God in all of this?
If God is love, then why is my heart broken?
Why can I not sense God’s presence in my pain?
I don’t know if I have what it takes to get through this.

The space doubt and uncertainty occupy inside our hearts and mind can be lonely, isolating. Debilitating.

Author Rev. Ben Young writes about the loneliness of doubt in his book Room for Doubt: How Uncertainty Can Deepen Your Faith. He writes,

“Loneliness makes us feel that if we do not have certainty about God or our faith in God, then we are on the verge of losing faith altogether.”

Let me illustrate this with a modern story:

Toward the end of the final installment of the Star Wars saga The Rise of Skywalker, the situation is bleak. Well actually—what’s worse than bleak? Yeah, it was that.

As the remnants of the Resistance consider the utter impossibility that they would be able to prevail against the death-dealing First Order, doubt saturates the air so thick you could cut it with a…lightsaber.

Newly in command, Poe Dameron, who moments earlier experienced his own crisis of doubt but reached out for the help of a friend, shared with all who could hear words given to him in a prior moment of need:

“The First Order wins by making us think we are alone.”

Liberated from doubt and renewed in his faith in the Force, Poe assures them, “We’re not [alone].”

In an effort to fend off despair and hold onto his faith, Thomas chose not to remain alone in his doubt. And there in that shared space, perhaps instead of trying to convince him, Thomas’ friends comforted him. Perhaps they shared their own doubts or spoke of how they, too, doubted before they encountered Jesus risen among them. Perhaps they simply listened to Thomas, giving him the space to feel what he was feeling. And as we learn from the story of Thomas same as those who made up the Resistance, despair most certainly did not win.

There is power in naming our doubts and holding them with a trusted other. Further, sharing our doubts may assure us that we are not actually alone, allowing us to work through the doubt and encounter a deeper faith waiting for us, too, on the other side.

Let me tell you one more story about Thomas.

Sometime after this scene—we’re not told how long—the disciples and members of this early Jesus Movement left their self-imposed quarantine. They emerged back into the world that lay outside the safety of the room where they had sheltered-in-place. As they attempted to return to their lives, they must have done so in at least some amount of uncertainty and even fear about what yet might happen to them. Further, the world outside that room had changed. They had changed. Things for these folks would not return to normal—at least not the normal they had known before; how could they?

It is daybreak. We encounter some of the disciples alongside the sea; we are told Thomas is among them. Some had been fishermen so that’s what they returned to. The sun is starting to rise and they have caught nothing. A stranger approaches, offering some fishing advice to help them compensate for empty nets and empty bellies. Jesus is recognized and without hesitation they rush back out to the water for one more try.

In the morning light, they return to the shore with full nets. Jesus has built a campfire and prepared a meal of fish and bread for them. And there, around the fire, the friends shared breakfast together. The text says that not a one of them doubted whether it was indeed Jesus among them, because, the text says “they knew it was the Lord.”

Especially, I like to think, Thomas.

My friends,

I do not know what will happen on the other side of this pandemic.
But I sense things will never be the same.

I have no idea what each of you is feeling in this moment.
But know this: I’m not here to tell you that you must believe.
Or to attempt to banish your doubts with a blanket, “it will be ok.”

I am here this morning to speak to your doubt. And to mine.
To hold those doubts here in the presence of God and community.
To name them for what they are.
To wrestle with them.
And to assure us that “the safest place to have questions is in the presence of God.”

Unable to always see evidence of what we believe, our faith is nothing if not adaptable.

Doubt may not bring us certainty, but it can help generate clarity
clarity about what it is we believe, and
assurance about God’s place in all of it, even if—and especially when—we cannot see all ends.

Fresh from his encounter with doubt, Thomas emerged with a deeper belief.

That’s a story I want to hear: Tell me more about Believing Thomas.

Because in the end, that’s how God remembers him too.


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