2. Easter: Doubting St. Thomas

Second Sunday of Easter

15 April 2012

 

The United Church + Die Vereinigte Kirche

Washington, DC

Doubting St. Thomas

 

Based on St. John 20: 19-31

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

            Doubting Thomas. Doubting Saint Thomas that is. Thomas the supposed doubter was the only apostle to travel outside the Roman Empire to spread the gospel, and according to tradition, the only one to witness the Assumption of Mary into heaven. Today in the Middle East and South Asia, there are still St. Thomas Christians, such as the indigenous Mar Thoma Church in India, which trace their founding to St. Thomas’ evangelization among the people of India. In short, while Thomas sometimes gets a bad rap in the life of the Church, he was truly a vital part of the early Church and is a saint we can still learn from.

            Jesus appeared to the disciples, who were fearfully locked in a room. When they told Thomas later, he could not believe it. But this is no surprise- Thomas knew what happened on Calvary. He knew his Master died a brutal and excruciating death, and knew that was the end. All of the apostles knew this, that is, until once again, Jesus turned their world on its head. The other apostles had seen Jesus risen. Of course, they believed, they had the proof. Thomas simply wanted the same.

            We are not so unlike Thomas. In our world so colored by rationalism, we can sometimes find the more miraculous claims of the Christian faith difficult to accept. We want proof, something to see or touch before we take the risk of faith. That’s what Thomas wanted too. St. John, the author of this gospel knows this, and it is appropriate that he closes this chapter, the second to last chapter in his gospel, by writing “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe* that Jesus is the Messiah,* the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” The story of Thomas and the many others who saw and whose lives were transformed by the living Christ have been written and saved for generations, precisely “so that you may come believe,” that these accounts might warm our hearts and minds in the midst of doubt.

            But sometimes this is not enough, and we wrestle with what we believe and what is true. This is not an easy place to be, when you want to believe something, but can’t find it within yourself to believe, to make a leap of faith. I know this is hard. I have watched with sadness as a very close friend and confidante has struggled about what she believes, questioning how we know which religion is right, the authority of the Bible, the Resurrection, who Jesus is and if he is the only way, salvation, and what happens when we die. For my friend, this has been the source of much anxiety – moreso than any other person I’ve met. As I spoke to a friend in this congregation about my friend’s struggles, he stated that it was too bad that this friend wasn’t able to participate in our adult forum, where long-time members often wrestle with these profound questions of our faith. I know some here have struggled with the very question of God’s existence. But what is key, I believe, is remaining in the faith community, to wrestle with our doubts and questions amongst this community of support that can help us on our journey, showing love and nonjudgment. One of the real gifts of this congregation is that it isn’t dogmatic about believing the finer points of doctrine, but that we are invited to bring our questions and doubts as we live our Christian faith. I like to say that we don’t have to leave our brains at the door here. Rev. Dr. Jane Fisler Hoffman, the former conference minister of the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ recently told me, “When my pastor admitted to doubt in a sermon many years ago it changed my life.” You see, Jane thought she was the only doubter in the church – but was able to see then that even the most faithful doubt from time to time. In fact, this week in the clergy Bible study I participate in, two elder clergymen in their 70’s (conveniently one was UCC and the other United Methodist) both stated that their times of doubt led to their times of greatest spiritual growth. All this is not to say that all clergy are great doubters – but that when we are honest, clergy often wrestle with the very same issues as laypeople. Doubt and questioning can lead us to greater understanding and growth. Frederick Buechner reminds us, “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. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”[1] But it can also be dangerous if we let it consume us.  Our doubting can be accompanied by anxiety like it was for my friend, and fear that we have lost our faith. But remember that Jesus does not condemn Thomas, but says “Peace be with you.” Jesus offers Thomas peace, and I believe he offers it to us as well.

            Swiss theologian Paul Tillich said, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith, it is and component of faith.” Doubting and questioning is not the end of faith. In fact, it is taking our faith seriously enough to wrestle with tough issues, to try to discern what we believe and why. Doubting does not destroy faith, but can help make it stronger, by truly exploring what most Christians affirm and why. One example is the life of Lutheran pastor Edward Marquardt, who writes that:

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.” 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 the seminary my beliefs. I did. I told them I had lots of questions about God and Jesus, and didn’t really believe in them except as symbols.  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.[2]

So, you see, even when we are plagued by doubt, we can come out on the other side. All of our questions won’t be precisely answered. But Jesus doesn’t offer us certainty, but the peace to accept that he is present with and for us. Thomas the Doubter? Thomas who said he had to put his finger in Jesus’ wounds to believe, he never does it. He sees Jesus and believes. In fact, Thomas utters the most profound confession of faith in all of the gospels, saying, “My Lord and My God!” Nowhere else in any of the four gospels does anyone call Jesus Christ God. Thomas is the one. So you see, our doubting can lead to greater, more profound faith.

            So remember Thomas when you find yourself in the scary place of not knowing what you believe. Remember that it is ok to question. It is okay to ask why we believe what we believe. When you do that, may you discover how deeply rooted and grounded our faith in the Risen Christ is. While you may not end up founding a whole new branch of Christianity like Thomas, may you be able to accept the peace Christ grants and say “My Lord and My God!”

+To God be the Glory. Amen.

 

 


[1] Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2004, 85.

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