Sermon 4/3/16John 20:19-31
Finding Easter: Doubt
I know some people have been brought up, one way or another, in a spirituality that discourages asking questions, that looks on doubts and questions as disrespectful sometimes, or dangerous, or at least discouraged. I’ve told you before about the weekly Faith Chats I lead in Rochester where I work at the retirement community. This week, we were talking about the different accounts of the resurrection in each of the gospels, and one of the woman, a woman in her late eighties, raised in the Catholic tradition, said that she had never asked some of the questions we were asking together before. She found it both compelling and unsettling, asking questions, studying the text, sometimes encountering no easy, clear cut answer, but only, instead, uncovering more questions. I don’t want to push her or the others too hard – but I do I hope that they all experience the freedom that comes from being able to, encouraged to, even, ask questions about our faith. I consider myself pretty lucky – I was encouraged, if anything, to ask questions about my faith. And I was lucky to find people in my life that were willing to talk to me about my questions, to try to share their own answers, or, blessedly, to sometimes say the most honest words, the too-often underused words: I don’t know.
I think our faith grows through our questions and doubts. At the least, our questions and doubts at least show we are interested and engaged. I would rather have a Bible Study group, for example, full of people with questions to discuss, rather than a room full of people who just want – or already know – the answers. And at the best, I think our questions can lead us deeper in our faith, lead us beyond a surface level faith into a real relationship with the living God who created our very questioning minds! If our faith cannot withstand our questions, or wondering, our doubts, our curiosity – why would we pin our whole lives on a faith that was so unable to withstand examination? I’ve invested too much of myself to commit my life to something that will collapse under the slightest breeze of doubt.
I can point to my own life, my own faith questions, for some moments that were really pivotal, that could have led me in one direction or another, that really formed who I was, who I am. I’ve shared with you a couple already: When I was very little, and I wrote my note to God in crayon: Dear God, You know I have many questions. Please write the answers here. And then in elementary school, when my Sunday School teacher answered my question about “how could dinosaurs have been extinct millions of years before humans showed up, if the world was created in seven days” by telling me that maybe God’s time and our time were different. When I was asking questions, my mother and my Sunday School teacher were both so helpful. My mom helped me figure out the best way I could get answers to faith question – by learning to listen for God's voice. My Sunday School teacher helped me learn that science and faith could work hand in hand, rather than be at cross-purposes.
Another Sunday School incident came later, when I was in Junior High. It was in junior high that I became obsessed with Jesus Christ Superstar. In particular, I became very intrigued by Judas. Was he in hell, even if he was part of the plan that ultimately led beyond the crucifixion of Jesus to his resurrection? Was the betrayal necessary for Jesus to fulfill what he seemed sure he must do? I asked my teacher, and she told me: Judas was in hell because he committed suicide. End of story. No room for conversation. I had a really hard time with her response: for Judas, for suicide, and because of the promises from God that we’re loved in life and in death. I wrote in to a Christian youth magazine that I loved and asked the same questions. The editor wrote back a full page letter, sharing his belief in God's inexhaustible grace, in only God knowing us enough to judge our lives, and in God’s power to extend grace to us beyond any walls we erect, even the wall of death. I don’t mean to make this sermon just a trip down memory lane. But I mean to point out – questions and doubts – they can be, when handled with care – doorways, openings, pathways to a faith, a relationship, a spiritual richness that is yet unknown and unimagined.
Today, we encounter a gospel lesson that focuses on the most famous doubter of all, one forever known by his act of questioning: Doubting Thomas. So few of the twelve disciples are singled out in the gospels. We know quite a bit about Peter, but about the others, hardly anything. And for Thomas, virtually the only mention of him in the gospels is this scene today. Thomas doesn’t believe Jesus is raised until he sees Jesus with his own eyes, and he’s forever after known as Doubting Thomas.
Our text opens on the evening of Easter Sunday. At this point, only Mary Magdalene has seen the risen Christ. Peter and another disciple had seen the empty tomb, but left before seeing Jesus. Mary had told them that she’d seen Jesus, but we see today that her news apparently had little effect on them. The disciples are locked up in the house where they’re staying, afraid because of the events of Jesus’ crucifixion and death. They’re not rejoicing. They’re scared. It seems, perhaps, that they are filled with doubt and uncertainly. They’re certainly not acting like people who believe that their loved one is not dead, but alive after all. Then suddenly, Jesus appears, and says, “Peace be with you.” He shows them his wounds, confirming that he is the very Jesus they saw die. He again blesses them with peace, and tells them they will be sent as he was sent. He breathes on them, and speaks of the Holy Spirit, and gives them authority.
But Thomas isn’t there with them for some reason. The disciples share what they have seen – that they’ve seen Jesus. But Thomas says that unless he sees for himself, he won’t believe. A week later, the disciples are again in the house together, this time with Thomas too. Jesus again appears, with words of peace. And this time, Thomas sees for himself. “My Lord and my God!” he exclaims. Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
And so Thomas, then nicknamed “the Twin,” finds himself a new nickname: Doubting Thomas. Peter didn’t have this same bad luck – he denied Jesus in the critical moment, but we know so much more about him and so we’re able to see a better picture of the ‘full Peter’. We know he’s more than that one event. We know him as Peter the Rock of the Church, not as Peter the Abandoner of Jesus. But we don’t have anything much else about Thomas in the Bible. So for us, Thomas’ whole discipleship is summed up in this one event – Doubting Thomas. Imagine if your life was summed up in a label like that, based on one event, one action you took, one question you asked. What word would describe you fairly? Fully?
Besides, “doubting” is hardly a label that Thomas deserves more than any of the others – he was the only one asked to believe for sure that Jesus was alive without the benefit of seeing him. Would the others have been convinced without seeing Jesus themselves? Peter and another disciple had already been to the tomb, as we read last week, and they were still confused and locked in fear in this room until Jesus appeared before them. Apparently, they weren’t so full of faith that they were ready to venture out of hiding. I think given the chance, we would have seen all of the remaining eleven disciples do just what Thomas did – ask for some more convincing proof.
Importantly, though, Jesus doesn’t seem to mind Thomas’ doubt, as long as that’s not where Thomas ends up. I think we’re a bit afraid of doubt, or how God will react to our doubts and questions about faith. There’s so much we don’t understand about God or how God works in the world or about what God wants us to do. But sometimes, we’re afraid to admit that we don’t get it. Maybe we’re afraid that God will punish us for having doubts, or that we’re the only ones with doubts. But this passage, Thomas’ encounter with Jesus should put our fears to rest. Jesus says that those who believe without seeing are blessed. But he doesn’t say Thomas is bad or wrong or a failure because he has doubts. In fact, Jesus just gives Thomas what he needs to move from doubt to faith. He shows Thomas his wounds, a reassurance, and brings him peace, a comfort, just as he did for others. Like so many people have in my own life, Jesus just used Thomas’ questions to move him, and the rest of the disciples, to a deeper understanding of how God was at work.
Easter isn’t just a one day celebration for people of faith. It isn’t over. Christians call themselves Easter people, because we’re always people who believe in new life and resurrection, every single week. But we’re also in the midst of the Easter Season – the great fifty days of Easter. This season goes from Easter Sunday to the Day of Pentecost in May. It represents the time that Jesus spent with the disciples after the resurrection, preparing them to do the work he’d set out for them. They were filled with doubts and fears, and worries, and a lack of understanding, even still, even after the resurrection. But they believed in God, in Christ’s ability to shape and guide them. So whether you are the one asking questions, or the one trying to open a door for a curious mind, know that God always meets us where we are, and leads us on.