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Doubters Anonymous Acts 4:32-35 and John 20:19-31

A Christian man was sharing with me recently about his struggles with the faith. He was okay with what he felt were the basics of Christian belief in God, but had difficulty with things like the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection. These mysteries are important to the Christian faith, but questioning them need not bring the whole of faith crashing down. Afterwards I wondered about starting a group where such honest doubts could be shared and talked through in a non-judgemental way. Such a group could be called “Doubters Anonymous”!

Thomas has suffered from the adjective that we put with his name: doubting. It has earned him a dubious reputation which is neither fair nor helpful. In some ways I’m sure he wouldn’t mind being called “doubting” if it were not for the fact that we tend to think of doubts as bad, even sinful. We have doubts but we go through life feeling guilty about them, as if they were a bad habit which we’d rather keep secret. We perhaps can’t help having doubts but we still have difficulty in admitting to them. Or we envy people who seem to be so certain in their faith, so strong in the face of adversity, so sure about their relationship with God. In these ways we downgrade doubt and if we suffer from it, we think we’re failing somehow. We forget what exactly went on for Thomas and the actual way that John tells of this apostle who said that unless he could see and touch for himself, he would not believe.

Jesus’ appearances
St John the evangelist tells us about the times when Jesus appeared after the Resurrection. Leaving problems about the resurrection until a little later in this sermon, let’s look at those appearances. John chooses three appearances, each of which is about key figures in the early Church and their own struggles. Jesus first appears to Mary Magdalene, who does not recognise Jesus until he calls her by name. Then the next pair of appearances in the locked room focus on Thomas, absent at the first appearance and then present at the second. Jesus’ third appearance is the one by the lakeside when the disciples do not recognise Jesus at first. When they do, Peter has to confront his denial of Jesus and be reconciled to his Lord. In a way, we could say that the two locked room appearances are like the encounters with Mary Magdalene and Peter. There is a change from the beginning to the end. In Thomas’ case, there are two separate occasions over which the change happens for him. All are about not seeing at first and then being brought into a place where Jesus is clearer than at first. In all three cases there is a transformation of the character involved. Mary changes from grieving to rejoicing and bears witness that she has seen the Lord. Thomas’ refusal to take the other disciples’ word, sees for himself and confesses his belief. Peter and Jesus confront the breakdown in their relationship and through that, Peter’s love for his Lord is reaffirmed and he is prepared to be a martyr in the future. Each is changed by the Resurrection of Jesus. For each new life begins.

The Gift of Doubt
I don’t think doubt is a sin. I think that doubt is something to be valued. Doubt is something with potential; it has a kind of power. The power of doubt is what we have to be careful about. We can think of it as being something like salt or chillies. Too much salt or chillies is overwhelming and destroys the food it is meant to flavour. But a little used in the right way brings great flavour to the dish. Doubt is like that. Too much doubt overwhelms and erodes faith, not purely doubt itself. A small amount of doubt, even if it is persistent or nagging, can have the effect of giving depth or flavour to our faith. To change the picture, I understand the reason why exercise or doing a work-out in the gym makes your muscles stronger. I am told that each time we strain our muscles to walk faster or lift a heavier weight, the fibres in the muscles are injured – they suffer tiny little tears. They mend themselves, but do so in a way that makes them more able to withstand being torn again. In other words, they become tougher, or stronger. In the same way, the questioning that comes from doubt puts a strain on the fibre of our faith. Our faith grows stronger from being stretched or bearing heavier weight than we’re used to. Of course, too much weight will injure the muscles to the point where they are completely broken. Too many doubts can overwhelm and destroy someone’s faith. But a faith that has not been tested with honest questions is a weak, unexercised faith. That is why I think doubt is a gift, not something to shame us.

Thomas’ Doubts
Let’s look a little more closely at what John tells us of Thomas. We learn that the first appearance of Jesus amongst his disciples as a group was in the evening of the day when he rose again – that is on the Sunday evening. They were together and locked in because they feared being discovered. They were known to the authorities as followers of Jesus and were lying low after the crucifixion, hoping to avoid notice and being arrested themselves. Despite the locked doors, Jesus appears. John doesn’t tell us how, but we know that Jesus is different after the Resurrection than before. How he appeared is not important to John. It is the effect he has on them that matters. Jesus brings them peace. He quells their fear, he turns their grief and shock into rejoicing. He confirms the report they had heard earlier that day from Mary Magdalene. More than that, he breathes forgiveness over them for their failure and they receive the Holy Spirit. It is the very dawn of the Church, so far as John is concerned. They begin to be transformed from a fearful bunch of disciples into a bold team of apostles. But, crucially, Thomas was not with them. Afterwards, perhaps during the week, they try out their commission to witness by telling Thomas they have seen the Lord. John records his reaction which may not have been expected. He will not accept their word for it. He doesn’t say that he refuses to believe full stop. He says that he will only believe if he sees the Lord for himself. He will know it is the Lord because of the distinguishing marks of the crucifixion. Thomas may have expressed what we call his doubts in this way, but he is willing to be persuaded.

My Lord and my God
By the time John came to write his gospel (experts think about AD90) the Church was had developed its routines, its weekly gatherings. John says that a week later, that is the Sunday following the Resurrection, the disciples were gathered again, and this time Thomas was amongst them. Perhaps they had gathered for prayer. But Thomas made sure he was going to be present should anything happen again. He puts himself in the place where he could see for himself if the chance came. Jesus appears once again. More than that, he addresses Thomas in exactly the way that Thomas said he needed. Jesus invites Thomas to touch his crucifixion wounds. When Jesus says “Do not doubt but believe”, he is not telling Thomas off for having doubts. He is inviting him to stay in the group, to be one with the other disciples who saw the Lord and rejoiced, who were transformed by him. Thomas then exclaims something more than the other disciples had up to this point: “My Lord and my God!” We see that through his questioning, his wanting to believe for himself, he perceives more than the others did until now. He recognises Jesus as divine. Tradition tells us that eventually Thomas travelled as far as South West India with the gospel. There have been Christians in the form of the Syrian Orthodox church in India since the 1st Century.

Doubt is a gift. It helps us have a faith of our own, a faith which is strengthened by questioning. Our modern, scientific age, is built on doubt and questioning. We may not find it easy or even possible to believe things like the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection, but that needn’t destroy our faith. What matters is that in some way or other we encounter Christ, and our lives are different. It may not be more than the fact that we gather with other Christians, as did the first disciples. But being part of those who are loyal to Christ, can be sufficient. Jesus said those who could not see but believed would be just as blessed. The Resurrection is a mystery, and as such cannot be completely fathomed, explained in scientific terms. It is fine to have honest doubts, for they can help us believe more deeply and strongly.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith