Oh Thomas…good ol’ Doubting Thomas. How awful it must be to have one action earn you a nickname that stays with you for the rest of history — as if it is the only the only way to describe him. It is such a poor way to remember a disciple of Jesus’ for one simple request he made. Tradition and history would have us maintain this negative view of Thomas – in part because we live in a time in which it makes us feel safe to silence those who would question what we believe. However, I’m not sure that that is how scripture would have us remember Thomas. Let’s look back at a few details of the story.
First, we are told that the disciples were locked in a room in a house because they were afraid. They were afraid that those who crucified Jesus were coming for them next. We are also told that someone was not in the room with them — and that person would be Thomas. Where is Thomas? Well, that is the beauty and the frustration of scripture. There are often so many details omitted that we are left to use our imaginations. Had Thomas returned to his day job after Jesus died? Was he simply running out on a quick errand for the group? Was he so broken over the events of the weekend that he left the group and was trying to figure out what was next for him? We will never know, for certain. But we do know that the others were huddled up afraid; and Thomas was not.
Second, we are told that when Jesus shows up in the room to the disciples, he recognizes their fear, shows them his hands and side; then he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit”. They never had a chance to express their skepticism or doubt like Thomas did – they got to see the evidence and then receive the Holy Spirit, which no doubt helped them out a little bit. So, later when the disciples see Thomas and drop the bombshell that Jesus is back from the dead, let us not be surprised that Thomas expresses uncertainty.
Most good teachers will begin class with some kind of statement about the importance of asking questions. They will often say something like "If you have a question, go ahead and ask it. Chances are, someone else in the room has the exact same question, but they are just too afraid to ask it.” Most students take a while to warm up enough to ask their questions, but there is always someone whose curiosity will not let them be shy about asking questions. Thomas was that person. He asks the questions and says the things everyone else is thinking but is too afraid express.
Can you imagine how he must have felt when the disciple said, "we have seen Jesus?"
It probably felt like a cruel joke or maybe he was worried about their grip on reality. Returning from the dead was not an everyday occurrence. When people died, they tended to stay dead – end of story. Maybe Thomas was just not ready to lean into hope.
Throughout the years we have given Thomas such a hard time for his doubt. I have heard many a lesson and read many a commentary that say, “Don’t be like Thomas.” This is usually based on the thing that Jesus says to Thomas about those who will believe without seeing. But, what if we think about this in a different way? What if the lesson were “Be like Thomas. Don’t be afraid to name your uncertainty and doubt. Be like Thomas.”
This works because when we take time to think about it, we can understand that doubt and faith go hand in hand. It is impossible to have faith without doubt. The book of Hebrews tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” By it’s very nature, we cannot prove what we have faith in. Frederick Buechner, a theologian and a writer, said, “Faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than as a possession. Faith is not being sure of where you are going, but going anyway.”
Faith is not something we are able to prove by any of our measurable ways of proof today. We cannot apply the scientific method to the resurrection; we cannot observe it happening; we cannot even read about it in a multitude of sources to verify that it happened. All we have is the story as it is told in the four gospels and they don’t even agree on all the details. The fact is, if there is no room for doubt in the equation, it’s not faith – it’s a fact. Paul Tillich said, “doubt is not the opposite of faith, it is one element of faith.” The two go hand in hand.
This is hard for us. We live in a time in which verifiable proof is important. People love to throw statistics and studies around to prove their point or their cause. The more you can prove something to be true, the more weight it seems to carry in our culture. And so the more power we have to get people on our side. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking and acting has leaked over into our religious speak. We think that if we can prove our way of understanding God to be absolutely true then more people will come over to our side. But that is not how faith works. Faith is something we do because of some experience or feeling we have. We do faith…we have faith…even when we aren’t always sure why.
So, in this story why did Thomas feel the need to ask – to demand proof that Jesus has risen from the dead? Well, there is another way to think about faith – faith can also be an allegiance to a person or cause; it is having complete trust in something or someone. So, Thomas did that. He placed all of his trust in Jesus, completely and totally -- he went all in – and then…Jesus died. I imagine that for all the disciples, when that happened, something inside of them broke; and it is pretty clear that something inside of Thomas broke.
We all know what it feels like for trust to break. A friend lies to us or talks about us behind out back, a business colleague sells us out and makes a fool of us, a parent shares more than they should and leaves us feeling vulnerable and exposed – when things like this happen, we lose faith in the person who broke our trust. And finding our way back to placing faith in that person is a process. It takes time. It takes evidence or proof that things will be different.
When we are at this kind of place, like Thomas is, our questions and our doubts, become the things that protect us. We ask questions because we are curious about how things are going to work after the heart break we have experienced. We doubt because we are not sure that it is safe to trust again…to have faith again.
When I was in seminary, I went through my own time of doubt. Now, I hesitate a little to share this story because I don’t want you to hear that seminary destroyed my faith, because it did quite the opposite, and I don’t want you to hear that I don’t believe in God, because I do. But, I did go through my own crisis of faith – and I did for a lot of reasons. One day, all of the pressure of seminary and trying to understand what I was thinking and feeling about my call and where God was in some really difficult experiences I was having was too much. So I went to the office of one of my professors and I shared a good bit of my struggle with him. I was crying and upset, and then I said to him words I had been terrified to say, but could not ignore them any longer.
I said, “What if none of this is real?”
Then he said, “What do you mean?”
I responded by saying, “I just don’t know if it’s real, if I really believe in God anymore.”
And he started at me for a good long minute, letting me know he understood, and then he said, “Good, good.”
I have to admit, I had no idea what he meant when he said good, but I felt a sense of comfort and a feeling that it was going to eventually be ok.
In the 12 years sense that conversation, I have thought about it a lot. And I think I know something about what my professor meant – I think what he knew, that I did not know, was that until I could name out loud my uncertainty, I could not really engage the work of faith.
A dear friend of mine said, “Faith is the bridge over doubt.”
So if there is no doubt, there is nothing to bridge over it. My professor knew that now that I could see what is was that I questioned, what it was that made my doubts creep up, I could also see how faith would get me over them.
My guess is that many of you in this room have had experiences that have left you with questions about where God was in it and how God could let certain things happen. When a miscarriage comes after years of trying to start a family; when an illness happens that leaves you with a disability you don’t know how to deal with; when a child dies; when a spouse leaves; or a teen gets into more trouble than you know how to handle – all of these kinds of things can leave us reeling and wondering where God is. But everyone around wants to hear us say that we are making it through with God’s help.
But here is the thing – If we never ask where God is, we may never really know that God is there at all.
After I shared my struggle with my professor I had a couple of choices. I could have ended it right there and walked away—choosing to either pretend I had never struggled in this way or to wash my hands of it and leave my call and the church for good. The other thing I could choose to do was to show up to my questions and doubts, to struggle with them and to ask them over and over again.
You see, when we ignore our doubts and questions, when we refuse to question our own faith and follow blindly – we are lessening the power of our faith and we are running the risk of missing out on God’s work in our world. Faith that is unquestioned leads us to some scary places. If no one ever questioned what they were taught to believe, we would still have preachers saying slavery was ordained by God from the pulpit. We would continue to have experiences like the crusades and the holocaust. And If Paul and Peter had never taken time to ask the questions about non-Jews becoming followers of Christ, most of us would not be here today. Many things in our history have been set right because people were not afraid to ask the questions their own faith brought up for them.
Likewise, when we listen to our doubt, but refuse to engage it, we also are choosing to disengage our faith. By asking the questions and engaging our doubt we are doing the important work of faith. By showing up, by not being afraid to name what we are not sure of, we are inviting the opportunity to grow more deeply in our faith and to understand something new about God and God’s community.
When we have our own experiences of being broken, just like Thomas, we must summon the courage of Thomas and say, unless...unless I take the time to see what this is all about; unless someone will hear my concern and my struggle; unless, someone will wait with me as I struggle to see God at work in my life; unless, unless, unless...I will not know if it is really safe to trust again, to have faith again.
So, like Thomas, we must name the truth of our doubt. And also like Thomas, we must show up. You see, a week later, Thomas showed up in that same room. He was there when Jesus appeared to them again. And here’s the beauty of it all – when Thomas showed up, Jesus did too. Jesus was there, he knew what Thomas needed and he did not berate Thomas at all. He acknowledged that there would be those of us who would have to trust all of this without seeing and that would be so much more challenging, but he did not ridicule Thomas. He did not rename him, Doubting Thomas. He made himself available. And because Thomas listened to his doubt and what it needed, he was able to heal from what had been broken when Jesus died. As soon as he laid eyes of Jesus, he said, “My Lord and My God.” Thomas could have faith, could trust Jesus again.
And this is where my faith lies, when we show up, God will always show up too – whether we can prove it or not. But then, that’s not the point, is it?