Thomas, an Honest Doubter
Easter 2 A, B, C John 20:19-31
Today is Easter Sunday. Last Sunday was Easter Sunday and we pulled out the trumpets, pulled out all the stops on the organ, pulled out the panorama of Easter lilies, and pulled in the crowds to celebrate the resurrection power of God who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. But the Spirit of Easter Sunday continue today. For Christians, every Sunday is Easter Sunday. In fact, every day is an Easter day. Easter is every day in which we are freed from the power of pessimism and death. Easter is every day when there is a rebirth of goodness and gladness in our hearts because of the living presence of Jesus Christ. Easter is every day when there is a renewal of springtime in our minds and hearts. Easter day is today. Easter day is every day. Easter is not merely one liturgical Sunday of the year, and so we shout, CHRIST IS RISEN, and the congregation shouts back, “HE IS RISEN INDEED.”
It always amazes me that at the very heart of the Easter gospel, when the mightiest act of God is occurring, when Jesus has just been raised from the dead by the power of God, when the blaring trumpets of Easter have exploded in celebration, that there is doubt. That there is plain, old fashioned doubt. On such a grand occasion as Easter morning, you would have expected the disciples to have been filled with awe and adoration. But the Bible tells us on that first Easter morning, there was doubt. I would like to share with you four examples of doubt found in the Biblical resurrection stories.
For example, we know the story of Mary Magdalene and how she came to the tomb early on that first Easter morning. The morning darkness was beginning to give way to the morning light, but she was told by a messenger that Jesus was not there. Suddenly, miraculously, the risen Jesus spoke to her, saying her name, “Mary.” She turned and it was Jesus. They spoke a few words and then Mary ran to tell the disciples what she saw. And what was the disciples initial reaction? “There goes Mary again. Excitable Mary. Emotional Mary. Hallucinating Mary again.” The first report of Jesus’ resurrection and there was doubt lingering in the disciple’s minds.
A second example. Later that night, the disciples were huddled together in their large upper room, and suddenly, miraculously, Jesus appeared to them. The doors were shut; the drapes were drawn; the widows were closed and the disciples were scared spitless. And what was the disciples’ reaction to Jesus suddenly appearing to them? Did they fall down on their knees in adoration and praise? Did they hit each other on the shoulder and say, “Hey, just like we said. Hey, we knew he would come back. Hey, we won the bet. We knew he would come again.” No, the first disciples were startled. They were afraid. They thought they were seeing a ghost or a hallucination. Jesus asked them, “Why are you having all these doubts? Why are all these questions in your mind?” … So you see, at the very heart and core of the Easter message, there is doubt. Plain, simple doubt.
Third example. Doubting Thomas wasn’t there in the upper room with the other disciples that night. Doubting Thomas wasn’t there. … Have you ever been to a party or a ball game or a concert and the next day a person comes up to you and says, “You should have been here last night. That was a fabulous Sonics game. Or, the Mariners won last night in the ninth. Or, you should have been at that Neil Diamond concert last night.” So it was with the early disciples. “You should have been here last night, Thomas. You missed something else. You missed it. You missed a great party. Jesus came back to us and he was alive.” And what was Thomas’ reaction? “I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it. Until I see the holes in his hands and wrists and side, I won’t believe.” He didn’t go along with the crowd. He didn’t vote with the ten disciples. He stood alone against the crowd and expressed his doubts and incredulities. …So once again, you see doubt on Easter.
The fourth story. It is one more example of doubt being at the core of the Easter story. We finally come to the last resurrection appearance of Jesus. We come to the very last resurrection appearance of Jesus and he was on the Mount of Ascension. Jesus was ready to leave this earthly existence. Jesus had just told his disciples to go into all the world and make disciples of all people. This was their last great moment together. This was their last time together. This was their last goodbye to each other. And the Gospel of Matthew says, “Some believed but others doubted.” And so ends of the Gospel of Matthew on that old sweet song of doubt.
On the one hand, we experience the grandest event in human history when God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead; and within that story of that exquisite event, we see the lurking of doubt in the shadows.
And so today, we are going to take a good hard look at doubting Thomas. Doubting Thomas has a certain appeal to all of us because Thomas is an honest person and honesty is attractive. Thomas did not believe just to believe. He wasn’t the kind of person who blindly accepted the faith without question. Thomas questions, doubts, thinks, ponders. He has a challenging and inquisitive mind. We find two moments in the gospels where we meet Thomas and on both occasions he was inquisitively asking questions: For example, one time Jesus was teaching about going to prepare a place for them, a heavenly mansion. It was Thomas who scratched his thoughtful head and asked, “Jesus, we don’t know where you are going and we don’t know the way.” Thomas did not understand what Jesus was saying and so he asked Jesus the questions. None of the other disciples raised their hands and expressed their curiosity. Thomas did. And the second story about Thomas is the gospel story for today when ten disciples expressed wonder and amazement that the resurrected Christ had revealed himself to them, but Thomas didn’t go along with the crowd and say, “OK, that must be true. You all said so.” Instead, Thomas expressed his reservation and doubt: “Unless I see him with my own eyes and touch his wounds with my own fingers, I will not believe.” … Thomas was not the kind of person who would rattle off the creed without thinking of what he was saying, e.g. “I believe in the virgin birth, descended into hell, ascended to the right hand of the father, the only Son of God, the same substance with the father.” Thomas would not rattle of those statements without thinking them through.
We are like Thomas. We, too, have doubts and express those doubts and inquiries. We have questions about God, Jesus, the Bible, the Christian faith. We have big questions such as, “Is there a personal God?” or “Is Jesus the only Son of God? Is there no validity to the other world religions?” or “How do we know the Bible is true?” or “Why is there so much evil in the world?” Or we often have personal questions such as “Why did I get this heart attack? Why cancer? Why did the child die so young? Why am I and my family having all these troubles?” So we are like Thomas: we also have questions and we often express those questions. We don’t hide them.
We are like Thomas in another way. We too want proofs and signs. We would like God to prove that God really exists, that there is truly another dimension to existence. We are like the person in the rock opera, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, who sang: “Jesus Christ, if you’re divine, turn my water into wine. Prove to me that you’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool.” We would like God to work some miracles in our personal lives so we could more easily believe. We would like God to rearrange the stars up in heaven to spell out, “I exist” preferably in English as a sign that there really is a personal God who personally cares for us and our lives.
So today, we are going to closely examine Thomas and the role of doubt in our faith.
Point number one for all those confirmation students who no longer have to take notes but still appreciate clarity. All Christians, sometimes during our lives, we have doubts, questions and skepticisms. That is the way that God wired us: to ask questions, to inquire, to think, to sort out, and during our lifetimes, we will have many questions for God. And there are times in our lives that we ask more questions than others. I have also discovered that there are a variety of personalities in this world and a variety of religious personalities and some Christian personalities have much more doubt and many more questions woven into that personality than others have.
The other day, a young person came to my office, and wanted to talk about the Christian faith. This person told me that if he became a Christian, he no longer would have doubts and questions. I tried to explain to this young man that he was being rather foolish; that Christians in various time of our lives have more questions than at other times. But he persisted in the illusion that once a person became a Christian, doubts and questions and skepticism would fade away.
One particular theologian has been helpful to me. His name is Henry Drummond who makes a distinction between a doubter and an unbeliever. I have found his distinction between a doubter and unbeliever helpful and I hope this distinction may be helpful to your life as well. Let me explain. A doubter is a person who searches for God and the godly life; the person is on a journey, a quest, a search to find God and the love of God. Not an unbeliever. An unbeliever isn’t searching for God but for the pleasures of this world. An unbeliever is not searching for God or the god question or the love of God but for situations in life which will bring happiness. A doubter is a person who has a thousand questions for God; questions about life, love, God’s existence, purpose, the divinity of Christ and many other questions. No the unbeliever. An unbeliever isn’t asking questions about God, the divine dimension. The unbeliever is apathetic to God and the God question does not really come up in his or her daily life. A doubter struggles with God and struggles to live a godly life and struggles to find the purpose of life, but not an unbeliever. An unbeliever simply struggles to pay the bills, find a spouse, find a job, find a house. That is all. And so there is an enormous difference between an honest and questioning doubter and a secularized unbeliever who does not struggle with the God question and the divine dimensions of life.
All Christians, a sometime during their life, sometimes more than others, some personalities more than other, will doubt and question God.
Secondly, doubts, questions and skepticism often lead to deeper faith and larger faith. Let me give you some illustrations of this. As you know, we pastors teach confirmation to your kids and some of your kids can be at a phase in their lives that they “bug” us and this is normal. Some kids bug us because they chatter too much and need their lips sewn up. Other kids bug us because they are a little more snarly and rebellious and refuse to do their homework. And still other kids bug us because they have thousand and one questions about God, Jesus, the Bible and every aspect of the Christian faith. One of the worst kids in my memory was a kid named Duane Anderson who had thousands of questions about God, the Bible, Christ, etc. That was some twenty years ago now and I feel that there is justice that he is preaching in a church this morning as a pastor of a congregation in Spokane, Washington. The thousands of questions and doubts that he had as a youth were leading him to a deeper understanding of the Christian faith. And that is what doubts and questions often do: they lead us to a deeper and larger faith.
Centuries ago, Copernicus doubted that the earth was the center of the universe and Christians round him were using the Bible and quoting the Bible to prove that the earth was the center of the universe. His doubt of their reading of the Bible lead him to a larger and deeper understanding of the Christian faith.
Centuries ago, during the time of Columbus, certain Christians were using the Bible and quoting the Bible that the earth was flat and had edges and if you sailed too far, your boat would fall over the edge off the earth. Columbus doubted the Christianity he had been taught, and his doubts led to a deeper and larger faith.
I personally believe it is important for many but not all Christians to outgrow their Sunday school theology. Not their faith in Jesus that they learned before they ever went to Sunday school. But some Christians still have a theology and thought pattern about God and the Bible that reflects the wooden literalism of Sunday school years. Such Christian people occasionally try to force their Sunday school theology, not only on their children but on me. In my life, I am grateful that I have had other Christian teachers who have led me to a theology that, from my point of view, is deeper and wider than the theology I learned in the basement of the church in Jackson, Minnesota, so many years ago. The childlike faith in Christ that I learned before Sunday school is still the most important thing I know in life.
I would like to share an autobiographical sketch for a moment. I have been taught not to do this, but I will. I was born into a Christian family, was baptized as an infant, and grew up in the faith. My mother and father were sporadic church members. In ninth grade, my parents were having troubles with the family business and each other; and at Bible camp, I experience a conversion. My doubts went away for three years, but my doubts fully blossomed and flowered when I was in college. I took several courses in Comparative Religion, Anthropology and Psychology. I became a walking question mark about God. No matter what it was about God, Christ, the Bible and the Christian faith, I questioned it. The essential question was this: did God create man or did man create God? I basically answered that question with “man created God.” With Sigmund Freud and his book, THE FUTURE OF AN ILLUSION, I concluded that man created God so that we humans would feel more secure with our mortality in our time here on earth. As I finished college, I was still a walking question mark, but thought that I still wanted to be a pastor. Yes, I know that was weird, but I wanted to be a religious social worker or a religious psychologist. I was required to write a paper for the seminary and tell them my beliefs. I did. I told them I had lots of questions about God and Jesus, didn’t really believe in them but as symbols, but I wanted to come to the seminary and explore these questions. The seminary turned me down and sent me a rejection slip. I was surprised that the seminary had some standards and so I wrote the paper again, using the right buzz words that would get me into the seminary. It worked. I got into the seminary and studied hard the knotty questions of my life: God, Jesus, the Bible, the miracles, virgin birth, the resurrection, evolution, and every other question that was bugging me. I don’t know how it happened but over time, the Holy Spirit got into me in such a way that my questions and doubts were addressed if not answered and my doubts and questions began to fade into the woodwork, like a scar in a tree fades over time. I believe that my questions and doubts and skepticism led me into a deeper and wider faith.
In other words, today I am standing before you as a pastor who is a recovered skeptic. That is important. Not all Christians are recovered skeptics. Their faith was wonderfully simple and pure throughout most of their lives. Not me. I am a recovered skeptic and this is important. By analogy, if you are having troubles with alcohol, it is important to be in conversation with a recovered alcoholic. A recovered alcoholic knows the nuances and subtleties of argument of an alcoholic. He knows their thought patterns and habits and weak points. So also with a recovered skeptic. I believe that I can deal with many people in our society who are skeptical about God, Christ, the Bible and the Christian faith. I sense I know their arguments, their logic, their reasoning, and I can be helpful in that situation.
That is also true of Thomas. Thomas, too, was a recovered skeptic. Thomas was enormously skeptical of the news he heard about the resurrected Christ and he voiced his skepticism. At the close of the story, Thomas falls on his knees and says, “Christ, you are my Lord and God.” I believe that the story of Thomas is a story of a recovered skeptic.
Point three: Jesus and the Bible says: Thomas, stop doubting and believe. There is a time in all of our lives where God says to us, “It is time to stop your doubting. It is time to move past your doubting. It is time to believe and experience the power of belief.”
In the Book of Job, Job went on doubting, complaining and questioning God for thirty eight chapters and God finally got tired of Job’s doubting and said, “Be quiet Job. I am tired of your wailing and doubting. Be quiet and believe.”
As a recovered skeptic, I have discovered that there comes a time in life where we begin to doubt our doubts, question our questions, and become skeptical of our skepticisms. We start to understand that our doubts, questions and skepticisms are a phase of our life and that we actually become fixated with our questions, doubts and skepticisms. That was true of me. I had become fixated on my doubts and questions for about ten years, and I called that reason, but it wasn’t reason but only a phase in my life where I was a walking question mark. I discovered that Christians can become fixated on their Sunday school theology and not move beyond it; and I also discovered that a person can become fixated on their doubts and not move beyond them. I gradually discovered that my doubts and questions were becoming a waste of time and waste of life and waste of intellectual and spiritual energy. These questions and doubts were beginning to fade like a knife carving made into the bark of a tree. They weren’t so important to me anymore.
At the same time, I became aware that there is power to believing as Jesus wanted to believe. That there is a power to believing that is not weighed down and slowed down by doubts and questions. Jesus said to many people, “Great is your faith.” He said that a hundred times in the Bible. He never once said, “I commend your for your great questioning.” There is power to faith, power to move mountains and carry momentous burdens. Jesus said that: ‘If you have the power of faith and do not doubt, you will be able to move mountains, do great works of love and move mountainous burdens.”
I thought of my heroic examples of great faith. Mother Theresa of Calcutta. What faith shone through her. Dr. Mark Jacobson of a hospital in Tanzania. Aseneth Omwega at Lutheran World Relief in Nairobi. And when I look across the faces of this congregation today, I see so many of you who have deep faith, who have grown past your doubts, grown past your questions, grown past your skepticism and I see how powerful your Christian love is today.
Yes, there is great power in a life that believes in Christ, loves in Christ, walks in Christ.
And so we come to the end of the sermon and the end of the story of Thomas. Thomas, after all that questioning and doubting and skepticism, came to the time when he fell on his knees and he said. My Lord and My God. Words of a recovered skeptic. And those are my words as well. Amen.
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