Easter 2017 – 3rd Sunday of Easter
On the Marriage of Doubt and Faith
John 20 19-31
Pastor Donna Buell
I feel as though someone needs to come to the defense of Thomas. In many ways he has been a victim of homiletical character assassination. Countless preachers have done what we preachers sometimes do. We take tiny speck of a character’s life, and construct an entire personality based on that one thing. We create a cardboard figure that we can simply knock down in order to make whatever point we are trying to make. And I have found that Thomas is a character that gets this kind of treatment a lot. He has been forever labeled _______ (allow congregation to supply name) “Doubting Thomas,” exactly, and set up as a negative example. I’ve come across all kinds of disparaging remarks about Thomas in commentaries and sermons: That he was acting true to his character, which was always grouchy. That he was simple minded, always having to ask questions and have things explained to him. That of all the disciples he alone stubbornly refused to believe the good news that Jesus had risen. It doesn’t seem quite fair to Thomas, does it?
So who was Thomas? And what can we say about him? Thomas’s name occurs 11 times in the scriptures. He appears in each of the four lists of disciples, found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and in the Book of Acts. And the remaining 7 references all occur in chapters 11, 14 and 20 of the Gospel of John. It is only in the Gospel of John that Thomas is given a voice and an individual role in the events of Jesus’ life.
Chapter 14 is one of the places where Thomas speaks. This is where John tells of Jesus’ final evening with his disciples. Unlike the other Gospel writers who write somewhat briefly about the events and conversations that took place during what we usually call the Last Supper, John says nothing at all about the meal, but spends five long chapters on Jesus’ words to the disciples. Scholars refer to these chapters as his Farewell Discourse. In chapter 14 Jesus tells them that in his Father’s house there are many dwelling places and that he is going to prepare a place for them so that where he is, they may be also. And then he says “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” It is in response to this statement that Thomas speaks up, saying “Lord, we do not know where you are going. So how can we know the way?” I don’t think that sounds grouchy or simple-minded or stubborn. To me, Thomas sounds like the one person in the room who was willing to speak up and ask the question that was probably on everyone else’s mind. “I don’t understand. What exactly are you saying, Jesus?”
Now this isn’t because Thomas is unwilling to follow Jesus. If we go back to chapter 11, we’ll see that Thomas was perfectly willing to follow Jesus wherever he went, even if it meant facing danger. That’s the chapter where Jesus and the disciples get word from Mary and Martha that their brother Lazarus is dying. At first Jesus doesn’t do anything about it, he just continues on with his work. But two days later, he decides to go and the disciples try to talk him out of it. Going to see his friend Lazarus means going back into Judea, to Bethany, which is just outside of Jerusalem, and the last time Jesus was there the religious leaders tried to stone him and arrest him. So the disciples can’t understand why Jesus would take that risk. But Jesus insists, saying “Let us go.” And then Thomas speaks up, saying, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Thomas is willing to follow Jesus, even into the face of danger. So I think that his question about how they are to know the way is not so much about a lack of faithfulness or willingness to follow, as it is an honest desire for clarity and understanding. William Barclay, in a book of character sketches about each of the disciples, describes Jesus’ response to Thomas as if he were saying, “Thomas I know that you don’t understand what is happening. No one understands. But whatever happens, you have got me…“I am the way, the truth and the life.” (William Barclay, The Master’s Men, pg. 50) I don’t know if Jesus’ remark satisfied Thomas or not, but John doesn’t record any further response on his part.
As we move to this morning’s passage in chapter 20 we discover a little more about Thomas. It is Easter night and the disciples have gathered behind locked doors because they are afraid. That morning the women had discovered the empty tomb and Peter and John had gone to see it for themselves. Later Mary told them that after they left she had actually seen Jesus and had a conversation with him. So there they are, huddled together in fear, trying to make sense of it all, and for some reason Thomas is not with them. Has he gone to tell others about what’s happening? Does he have family there in Jerusalem, and is staying apart from the others? Does he simply need to be alone with his grief? We’ll never know. All we know is that he isn’t there when Jesus appears to the other disciples. So when he does learn about what the other disciples have seen and heard, his first reaction is to say that unless he has a chance to see and touch Jesus for himself, he will not believe what they are telling him.
Is it really that hard to understand Thomas’s reaction? It was a pretty incredible story they were telling him – something hard to believe – something you would want to verify for yourself. It seems to me that, like a lot of us, Thomas was the kind of person who needed to see and hear for himself before being willing to “jump on the bandwagon.” Based on this passage we might say that on the Myers Briggs personality indicator, Thomas would be an S, not an N: he would be on the sensing end of that scale rather than on the intuitive end: the kind of person who accesses the world more through the five senses rather than through intuition.
There are those who say that Thomas “stubbornly refused to believe what the disciples told him.” But really, Thomas was only asking for what the others had already received, a first-hand experience of the risen Christ. He wanted a chance to see and hear and touch Jesus, who he knew to be dead, and who they were now saying was alive. I don’t find it unreasonable for Thomas to have had doubts at that moment. Do you?
From these three stories in which Thomas appears and speaks we might be able to say a few tentative things about Thomas: that he may have been the kind of person who wants to see and hear and experience things personally, before making a commitment; that he had shown himself to be a faithful follower of Jesus, but that up until this point following Jesus had meant literally following the living Jesus; and that as long as he could physically see where Jesus was going, he had no problem with following him, wherever he went.
The character of Thomas plays an important role in the Gospel of John. When the author of this Gospel was writing toward the end of the first century, he was addressing people who had never seen or heard Jesus in the flesh. There may still have been some eyewitnesses around, but they probably would only have been children at the time of Jesus. Most of his audience would have been born after Jesus’ death and resurrection, so the stories they heard about Jesus came second or third-hand at best.
John’s problem, which is a continuing problem for the church, was how to encourage people in the faith when Jesus was no longer around to be seen or heard or touched, and when those who were actual eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and ministry, death and resurrection were no longer around to bear witness to what they had seen and heard. The story of Thomas gave him a way to address that issue, and it’s as if John took the words right out of our mouths and put them into the mouth of Thomas. “Unless I see the risen Jesus for myself, how can I believe?”
This question of how people come to believe in Jesus is one of the major themes of the Gospel of John. Early in the Gospel, as Jesus is beginning his ministry, he says to those who are curious about him, “Come and see”- come and see for yourselves who I am and what I am about. And the first disciples used those same words when inviting others to follow Jesus, “come and see,” they said. The Samaritan woman at the well tells the people of her village, “come and see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” And the people of her village do come and experience Jesus for themselves and then they say to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” So while Jesus was alive, people were introduced to him through the witness of others, and by their own direct experience of Jesus, through his teachings and through the signs and wonders he did among them. But that was no longer possible, for Jesus had died, and though he was risen he was not physically present in the same way that he was before his death. So how was the faith to be passed on?
By telling us this story about Thomas, John shows us a Jesus who understands Thomas’s need for a first-hand experience, and so He appears again to the disciples a week later, when Thomas is present, and singles him out, saying, in effect, “Come and see. Come on over here, Thomas, and get a good look at me with your own eyes and touch me with your own hands, do not doubt but believe.” And immediately Thomas proclaims “My Lord and My God.” He believes. And his proclamation echoes the words John wrote at the beginning of his Gospel, that the Word that was with God from the beginning of creation was made flesh and lived among us. That Word was with God and that Word was God. “My Lord and my God.”
When Jesus responds to Thomas, saying, “Do you believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe,” it is as if Jesus were speaking over Thomas’s shoulder to all of us. Our faith and our belief cannot be based on our own first-hand eyewitness experience of Jesus Christ, as he lived and walked on this earth. All we have is the testimony of those who were eyewitnesses as recorded in scripture, and the ongoing witness of the community of believers empowered by the Holy Spirit. And according to Jesus, that is enough.
Jesus’ understanding of Thomas’ need for first-hand experience also allows John to explore the legitimate role of doubt in the life of faith. Some are quick to pit doubt as the opposite of faith, as if doubt were a sign of faithlessness. But I don’t believe that is the case. The assertion of many of the quotes I included in the bulletin insert this morning is that questions and doubts can be a sign of a vital and lively and active faith, and that they may actually lead us to a far more profound faith than if we never wrestled with any questions or doubts at all.
As a pastor I get excited when someone is really wrestling with questions of faith. I see it as a sign of God’s Spirit stirring within them in order to lead them to greater understanding and deeper faith. I appreciate the fact that they aren’t simply accepting everything they receive from others at face value, but that they want to understand it and to claim it for themselves. I appreciate it because it shows me that they aren’t just sleep-walking through faith, but are awake and alert. They are leaning forward on the edge of their seat, they are actively engaged with God and with God’s word. That’s a good thing because their questions and doubts are coming from a place that reveals a genuine and honest desire for a deeper understanding and a first-hand experience.
I am less patient with the kind of questions and doubts that come from mere intellectual curiosity and speculation. There’s a place for that, especially in an academic setting. But it can become a way of holding the faith at arm’s length. And I really don’t care for questions and doubts that come from an attitude of hard-edged cynicism, from people who seem to have already made up their minds and then sit back in their chairs with their arms crossed, saying “Prove it to me. Come on, convince me.” The fact is that there are some who will spend their whole lives wrestling with questions of faith, but who will never be satisfied, for they will demand proof that cannot be provided and evidence that is not available.
One of those quotes in the bulletin insert makes an important distinction between doubt and unbelief, and I recently read something that illustrates that idea. The author mentioned an article he had once read on the op-ed page of the Los Angeles Times, entitled I Cannot Will Myself to Believe. The author wrote: “It was written by the editor of the opinion section of the paper. It was a thoughtful piece which chronicled his struggle with the Christian faith. Caught up in the spirit of the Christmas season, he wanted so much to believe, but he couldn’t. It was a poignant confession, and refreshingly honest. But in the end he admitted he could not will himself to believe.” The author went on to comment, “How true. One cannot will oneself to believe. Thomas couldn’t, try as he might, and no other serious seeker can either. But one can be willing to believe, and that makes all the difference in whether or not one finds faith.” (Glendon E. Harris, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 20, No. 2. pg.13)
I mentioned earlier the quote from William Barclay where he had Jesus respond to Thomas by saying “I know you don’t understand what is happening, Thomas. No one understands. But whatever happens, you have got me…“I am the way, the truth and the life.” Barclay goes on to write: “In this world, in the last analysis, what we need is not an argument but a presence. No argument is convincing, and what Jesus offers us is not an argument, but himself.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
According to John’s Gospel, on Easter night Jesus appeared to his disciples and said “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I send you.” And then he breathed upon them saying “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and empowered them to continue the work he had begun. This is John’s version of Luke’s Pentecost story and Matthew’s Great Commission all rolled into one. Jesus breathed the power of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples – the Spirit of his living presence that would abide with them – and he sent them out to bear witness in his name. And that’s exactly what they did for the rest of their lives, Thomas included. He went all the way to India, apparently. But it wasn’t only their testimony that the disciples shared with others. By the power of the Holy Spirit, they and those who would follow them became the fellowship of believers in whom others experienced the very presence of Christ. And that is something that continues to this day; it is the ministry into which we have been baptized and for which we have been commissioned as members of the Body of Christ.
There may be times in each of our lives when we find ourselves or others around us struggling and wrestling with questions and doubts about the faith. And my experience has been that no amount of intellectual argument is ever completely sufficient to convince us or anyone else. Because belief is not only about intellectual assent, it is also about relationship and commitment. So all we can do is to offer what Jesus offered—his presence. And because we cannot access that presence first-hand in the way the first disciples did, we do what we can do, which is to immerse ourselves in God’s Word found in scripture, in the stories of Jesus Christ that come to us by way of those who did have first-hand experience of his life and ministry, his death and resurrection. And we spend time with the community of believers; with those who are seeking to live their lives, however imperfectly, as disciples of Jesus Christ, for it is in that community that the living presence of the risen Christ abides by the power of the Holy Spirit. And then, we have to allow ourselves to rest in some mystery. For you see, there are things we can know, and learn, and understand, but there are some things that we may never know or fully understand. There are some things that will never be explained to our complete satisfaction. And so at some point we simply have to surrender ourselves to the mystery and the wonder of God’s love, and to the promise that Christ will always be with us, by the power of the Holy Spirit. And if we do that; if, like Rilke, we allow ourselves to “love the questions and to live the questions, perhaps someday in the future, we will gradually, without even noticing it, live our way into the answers.” (Rainer Marie Rilke) We will experience the gift and the blessing of faith, which has been beautifully described as “reason at rest in God” (Charles Haddon Spurgeon), and we will be able to proclaim along with Faithful Thomas, “My Lord and My God.”
For blessed indeed are those who have not seen and yet believe, for they have life in Jesus’ name. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Let us enter now into a time and spirit of prayer.
Gracious and loving God, we give you thanks for your steadfast love and faithfulness to all generations. We thank you for your saving work in the world from the beginning of creation to this very day. We thank you that you loved the world so much that in the fullness of time you sent Jesus Christ, your Word made flesh, who came and dwelt among us full of grace and truth, and that through his life and ministry, his death and resurrection we have the gift of life that is abundant and eternal.
We thank you for the first disciples who bore witness to what they saw and heard. We come to know your gift of faith to us through their eyes which saw you standing with them and through their hands which touched your risen body. We give you thanks that Jesus breathed upon them, giving them the gift of the Holy Spirit, and empowering them to carry on the ministry which he began. And we thank you that by the power of your Holy Spirit, Christ’s risen presence continues to be made real among your people. Fill us, we pray, with the awesome certainty their senses told them. Give us the assurance not of sense, but of faith and imagination, and send us out into the world to speak new life to others, in his name.
When we are lost or uncertain about which way we should go, may the breath of the Lord breathe upon us, pointing to the presence of Christ who is the way.
When we find ourselves struggling with questions and doubts, when we are confronted with issues and concerns that stretch our minds and our challenge our faith in new directions, may the breath of the Lord breathe upon us, pointing to the presence of Christ who is the truth.
When we find ourselves searching for meaning and purpose, struggling through pain or grief, may the breath of the Lord breathe upon us, pointing to the presence of Christ who is the life, life abundant and life everlasting.
Let the breath of the Lord breathe upon each and all of your people, now and always, that through us and through the gifts that we offer, may others may come to know you and to follow you. We pray in the name of Jesus, our Lord and our God. Amen.