“Doubt and Faith” Acts 4:32-35
Rev. Sean Weston John 20:19-31
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
April 8, 2018
I want you, if you’re willing, to think for a moment of a time when you felt grief over a loss, a loss that you knew was permanent. It doesn’t have to be a death, though it certainly can be. It can be the loss of a romantic relationship, a friendship, an estrangement that seems most certainly permanent.
Now I want you to imagine that you are with others grieving that loss, with people very close to you. One of your group has been out, and she comes back with reports that the person you lost is back, that she saw with her own eyes.
How would you respond?
Imagine, then, that you have gone out from the group to run some errands, and when you get back, the others in the group say to you that the person you lost is back.
How would you respond?
I could be wrong, but I would imagine that most of us here would respond with disbelief, and probably some anger: “Why are you deluding yourselves? This loss is permanent. Bury your false hope and move on.” Denial, after all, is a healthy part of grief, but it is one that must eventually be overcome in the healing process.
That’s how Thomas responded, after he came back to the disciples only to hear them tell him that “we have seen the Lord.” Thomas responds the only way anyone could expect him to: he says I won’t believe unless I see for myself. He’s only asking for what the other disciples have already been given.
So a week later, Jesus came and stood among them once more, offering himself and his wounds to Thomas as proof. Thomas responds in amazement: “my Lord and my God.”
Thomas has been given a nickname, one that has stuck for a long time: “Doubting Thomas.” You don’t want to be like doubting Thomas! That silly Thomas, he didn’t have enough faith to realize Jesus was risen from the dead! He was greedy – he wanted physical proof! Thomas is used as a negative example time and time again to discourage people from voicing their doubts. But I wonder who among us wouldn’t respond just the same way, coming back to that room to be told that Jesus who you saw nailed to a cross is alive? Resurrection was not yet an article of faith, told from generations to generations.
Most importantly, Jesus himself doesn’t condemn Thomas. Instead, he comes back, shows himself to Thomas. Jesus does ask him a question: “Have you believed because you have seen me?” Jesus doesn’t curse Thomas, or pronounce that he shall forever be remembered as the one who doubted. Instead, the gospel writer has Jesus pivot to address the readers, who won’t see what the disciples and Thomas have gotten to see, who will have to accept his resurrection with less evidence than Thomas or any of the other disciples got. So Jesus then says “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
If Jesus doesn’t condemn Thomas, why have so many been so eager to? Why have we been so willing to turn this text into a condemnation of doubt? Even my favorite Protestant Reformer, John Calvin, writing 500 years ago, threw all sorts of words at Thomas: dull, obstinate, slow, reluctant, wicked, flattering himself, leaving no room for the word of God, improper. “The stupidity of Thomas,” Calvin wrote, “was astonishing and monstrous….”
One thing psychology teaches us is that the things that bother us most about others – things that we find monstrous or stupid or wicked or dull in others – tend to be things that bother us the most about ourselves. So for Calvin and for many people in the church and perhaps for ourselves Thomas gets labeled “doubting Thomas” and called names as a way to distance themselves and ourselves from the doubts experienced in the life of faith.
It’s time to rehabilitate Thomas. It’s time to stop dumping harsh judgments onto him, on to anyone, and on to ourselves anytime we experience doubts. Faith is about placing God at the center of our lives, rather than money or nation or candidates or any of the other little gods floating around all the time asking for our attention. But this is incredibly difficult, because God is far bigger than our minds can possibly grasp, because God cannot be reduced to any visible person or thing. Anything we humans think we know about God is by definition limited. If God is a pie, any of us is only going to really see one little piece of the pie. Every now and again we may have some sense of seeing the whole pie, but day-to-day, chances are you get the piece. Our minds are limited.
It is also difficult for many to put faith and trust in God because some of the basic Christian claims about God are quite easy to doubt. I’ll never forget the day in my own confirmation class, when I was probably 13 or 14, and the pastor introduced us to one of the oldest and most difficult questions of faith: “Traditionally Christians have described God with the three omnis: omnipresent, meaning ever-present, omniscient, meaning all-knowing, and omnipotent, meaning all-powerful. And Christians have traditionally said that God is loving, merciful, and just. Given the horrors and tragedies in the world today, how could all of those things be true? How can a loving and powerful God allow tragedy and violence and terrorism and disease and pain and death?
I remember sitting there as my classmates offered certain answers, answers that I’d heard before but didn’t satisfy me. Because I had some serious doubts that all of those things about God could be true at the same time. I still do, and probably always will. People have been struggling with that question, called the question of theodicy, for as long as there have been people. And everybody has their own way of dealing with this question. Some folks declare that God doesn’t exist; others will say God isn’t good, others will say God isn’t all powerful. All I know is that if an answer had been found that satisfied people we wouldn’t still be asking this question. But we are humans, our minds are finite and limited, and any attempt at faith we made will always – always – have an element of uncertainty. Doubt.
The temptation when doubt comes is to shoo it away, to label it as bad or monstrous in hopes that it’ll go away. The temptation when questions arise in our spirit that don’t seem to have easy answers is to assume that that there is something wrong with us that we don’t get it. Far too often when people raise questions or voice doubts they get put in the doubting Thomas box and shamed for daring to doubt, told that faith requires certainty.
True courage comes in accepting the doubts at they come. True courage comes in accepting that we will not now nor will we ever understand everything, there will always be things about God and the world and one another that we don’t understand, there will be things that don’t make sense, there will be stories people tell about things like dead people no longer being dead and you, with Thomas, will want just a bit more. The courage of faith begins where certainty ends.
Certainty is not courage. It is often the opposite: rigid certainty tends to be the result of fear and pain. Those who cannot stand to have their faith questioned by themselves or by another, who cannot handle differences, whether in beliefs or opinions, or race and sexuality, it is those who tend to be most pained and fearful.
The courage of faith is the embrace of uncertainty and doubt, the choice to live a life with God at the center anyways. Even when you haven’t seen God. Even when you doubt and question, even when some things don’t make any sense, even when you wonder sometimes if we’ve got it all wrong. The courage of faith is to set a place for those questions and to trust that God is in them, to realize that as long as you are human you will not have everything figured out, and that’s just fine. It really is. If Jesus could handle Thomas’s doubts, he can handle yours too. Whether or not we have faith in God at any given moment, God has faith in us.
Certainty wasn’t getting the disciples anywhere. The disciples had already seen Jesus in the flesh, and they were still hiding out behind locked doors a week later when Jesus came to visit Thomas! They had that proof and they were still sitting around for a week, and Jesus would show up again after showing himself to Thomas. It was not proof that got them going, but courage.
For there is in every act of faith the possibility of failure. Faith takes risks. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase,” and certainly he knew of the risks of faith.
You are never going to see the whole staircase in this life. I am never going to see the whole staircase. I cannot prove anything to you about God, much less that God is loving or just or merciful or risen or worth your time or loyalty. But I do believe this: love and mercy and justice and resurrection are sorely needed in the world. John tells us he wrote this story to encourage us to risk a life of faith: “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
Even though we will not see the staircase, John is telling us, the staircase is good. It is the path to life – for you, for me, for the world around us. So step out. Take a risk. Don’t push aside the questions and doubts, but don’t let them stop you either. Live your life with God at the center. Be a person of faith, and hope, and love. You may just find there’s life to be had. Amen.