Blessed Doubt

Steve Lindsley
(John 20: 19-31)

The story of Thomas is a familiar one us.  His “fame,” for lack of a better word, has spread not only within Christian circles but outside it as well.  The phrase “Doubting Thomas” is a cultural expression, used to reference someone who is wallowing in skepticism.  It’s not exactly a compliment. Some time ago I ran across a website called “Doubting Thomas Anonymous” – it’s for those who want to examine Christian beliefs through a critical, even cynical lens.  The “Anonymous” part I find particularly interesting, as it seems to suggests that people who want to be skeptical about the faith should do so in secret, that asking questions is something you don’t want others knowing about.  Thomas has been heralded as the patron saint of cynicism at best and weakness at worst – a man who doubted the news of Jesus’ resurrection when he first heard it and had to physically see him before he would believe it.

There isn’t much we know about the man Thomas, other than this story. He’s not mentioned a lot outside the gospel of John.  The only other time we encounter Thomas is earlier in the gospel, when Jesus receives word about the death of his friend Lazarus.  And somewhat ironically, it is Thomas and only Thomas who speaks in favor of Jesus going to see the family in Judea, even though that region was known for being hostile to Jesus and his followers.  Which is interesting, is is not – that a man who possesses the courage to do something like that would later be vilified as one “weak in faith.” 

Makes you wonder if perhaps this guy has gotten a bad rap over the years. 

I mean, it’s almost as if we seem to take some sort of pleasure in recounting the story of Doubting Thomas, the story of the man who just couldn’t believe in the resurrection, even though he was alive at the time it happened.  So, while we believe in Jesus some 2000 years after the fact, the guy who was actually there was not able to grasp what should have been so easy for him.  I mean, we may doubt and struggle with some things in the faith.  But at least we’re not like Thomas, who was there, who actually walked with Jesus, talked with Jesus, lived with Jesus, and still didn’t believe.  At least we’re not like him.

It’s a mindset I’ve never fully understood, to be honest.  I’ve never understood it because the Christian faith is not just about what happened way back when, it’s also about what’s going on right here, right now.  The gospel of Jesus Christ, we believe, is just as alive and vibrant today as it was back then.  So you and I don’t get to cut ourselves any slack just because we’re living in 2018.

Not only that, but I imagine, had we been in Thomas’ shoes, that we would’ve found ourselves equally skeptical and demanding of hard proof, don’t you think?  I mean, let’s put ourselves in his shoes for a moment: here we are, a disciple of Jesus, a man we followed for three years; who we saw hauled off by the Roman soldiers that chaotic night, knowing full well what was going to happen to him.  This man would die the next day of a horrible death reserved for the worst of criminals; a man whose body was laid to rest in a tomb.  And then this woman comes to us three days later and tells us that Jesus is alive – that the stone has somehow been moved, that the tomb is empty, and that our Lord has risen. 

Don’t you think, had we been there, that it’s entirely possible we too would’ve arrived at some conclusion, some explanation other than what was shared with us?  Maybe the body was stolen as the Pharisees feared – maybe that’s what happened.  Maybe these women are suffering from the shock of it all, a temporary disconnect from reality as the psychoanalyst might say.  Pick your justification, pick your rationale; but we have to consider the possibility that, had we been in Thomas’ shoes that day, our response to the women’s good news might not have been all that different from his.

Which is why Thomas, I think, does us a tremendous favor.  A huge favor.  In the midst of the greatest news the world had ever heard, the most profound act of God in humanity, Thomas gives us permission to wrestle with what that means.  Not accept it blindly and without reservation but ask questions.  Seek out answers.  Give us permission, give us room for the presence of doubt in the midst of faith.

If you’re like me, you’ve been reared in a religious environment that tends to denigrate doubt – viewing it, in some circles, as the antithesis of faith.  A sign of spiritual weakness.  Our culture is full of people who are held captive by this type of thinking: a person prays that a loved one won’t die and they eventually do; leaving them to think their faith wasn’t strong enough to save them.  A teenager has significant questions and “doubts” about what they learn in sermons and youth group and Sunday school; but they’re afraid to ask because they don’t want to be seen as “falling short.”  An older adult has borne the weight of a past sin for so many years that they simply cannot bring themselves to let go of it – and so they remain trapped in their guilt and unable to experience the healing nature of God’s grace, all because of the stigma of doubt.

This morning, my friends, I’d like for us to consider something that, for some, may not be that big of a deal, and for others may be a huge shift in thinking.  I’d like for us to consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, it’s not such a bad thing to be like Thomas.  You know, it’s kind of ironic that the Resurrection, the one act that ultimately and finally defeated death, also makes things on our end a little more challenging.  Had the saga of Jesus ended with his death, his message would’ve been a simple one – one of loving neighbor and honoring people and living by a moral code.

But that’s not what happened, was it?  Last Sunday we experienced the scandal of the empty tomb and all that that means for us and for the world.  So now, instead of simply being people of a moral code, we are an Easter people; one who hold at the very crux of our existence this outlandish conviction that Jesus rose from the dead.  And as heirs to this miracle, we have been changed, thoroughly changed, inside and out.  We are called to proclaim and believe in that which is utterly unbelievable.  As wonderful as an empty tomb is, it also makes our lives as Christians a lot more complicated!

And this is the reality that Thomas and the other disciples faced that morning.  It’s the same reality you and I live with every day, as we stand witness to the resurrection – regardless of the fact that none of us were there to see it.   It really is no wonder that Thomas had a hard time believing what he had heard.  It’s no less a wonder when you and I struggle to do the same.

Commentator David Lose takes this whole thing a step further when, in recounting Thomas’ story, he coins the expression “blessed doubt.”  Here’s what he means by it:

It is true, Thomas does come to believe. He not only consents to the witness of his comrades but makes the most profound confession of faith about Jesus contained in the New Testament, calling Jesus “my Lord and my God,”   But all of that comes after he has a chance to voice his doubt. And sometimes faith is like that – it needs the freedom of questions and doubt to really spring forth and take hold. Otherwise, faith might simply be confused with a repetition of creedal formulas, or giving your verbal consent to the faith statements of others. But true, vigorous, vibrant faith comes from the freedom to question, wonder, and doubt.[1]

This “blessed doubt” – and I really like that term – it actually has the effect of pointing to a faith in action.  That all of it is a natural by-product of the struggles we encounter in our journey, struggles that are bound to occur when a person of belief tries to justify that belief in a chaotic world.  Don’t you see?  It stands in contrast to one who passively accepts whatever is handed to them.  The doubter doesn’t take everything at face value; they’re more inclined to ask the hard questions and venture into the murky, gray areas of faith.  Doubting isn’t at all about discarding faith; in fact I would suggest to you that it’s about engaging it.

It is our Trinity favorite Frederick Buechner who describes it best when he says that “doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.  They keep it awake and keep it moving.”  The ants in the pants of faith – I like that!  I like it because it speaks to an almost symbiotic relationship between faith and doubt; that you really can’t have one without the other.

It also rebukes the common misconception that faith depends on our understanding.  I’ve seen those entrapped in this kind of thinking where Christians are divided into spiritual “haves” and “have-nots” and a hierarchy forms with those who supposedly possess more religious knowledge than others. 

And yet, one of the core convictions of our Reformed Tradition is that there is so little our limited human vision can see of the mind of God.  That, as I’ve said before, it’s not about us; it’s about God.  So we take comfort in the fact that faith is not just about understanding – it’s about believing and following.  It’s about taking what we’ve appropriately come to call a “leap in faith” and going beyond what can be proven to what can be lived.  Beyond what can be measured or quantified to what can be testified to.

It’s why we, along with Thomas, serve as witness to the empty tomb and resurrection, even though we weren’t there to see it.  It’s why we can share with others the story of our faith, even when that story originated thousands of years before our time.  And it’s why we can speak about God’s transforming power, even when we have no way to prove it other than to share what lies in the depths of our heart.

One commentator put it best when he said that “faith is a belief held in the presence of doubt rather than a belief that removes all doubt.”  I think Thomas knew exactly what that meant.  And that’s why I like the guy.  Thanks to the never-ending grace of God, you and I have permission to doubt in the midst of faith – as we struggle with what we believe and how we live out that belief.

For some, faith comes easy.  For others, faith takes some work.  May we be a community of faith that makes room for both.  Blessed doubt, my friends.  On this side of Easter, on every day.

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!

 

* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2016/03/easter-2-c-blessed-doubt/, visited 4.7.2018.