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.
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.
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.
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.
© Rev Paul Smith