January 22, 2023
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
I begin the sermon today by picking up where I left off last week with a story about Brian McLaren. He shared that when he had just about reached the place where he felt like his doubts were driving him from the church, that the church returned him to faith. He felt the evangelical church in America had become tone deaf to the issues going on in our world and it was time for him to be done with church. Then he accepted an invitation to join clergy colleagues in a counter-demonstration at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA in 2017. Being surrounded by Christian leaders taking a public stance for what he felt represented the values of Jesus was faith renewing.
He explains how people who leave the church because of bigotry, close-mindedness, hostility, don’t escape those things in the world. They are all around. And that’s why we need the church, to challenge and push us toward something better. So he closes the story with these words:
I take the risk of saying something that sounds outrageous to some people, blasphemous and unpatriotic even, but is necessary, I think…only doubt can save the world. Only doubt will open a doorway out of hostile orthodoxies—whether religious, cultural, economic or political. Only through the difficult passage of doubt can we emerge into a new stage of faith and a new regenerative way of life. Everything depends on making this passage. (Faith after Doubt, p112)
Only doubt can save the world. We often talk about the power of faith, but we don’t talk about the power of doubt. And who better to help us consider the power of doubt than the disciple Thomas. He is known to us today as Doubting Thomas, which gives the impression that he is not a paragon of faith, that he is somehow the poster-child of un-faith. But that could not be further from the truth. Thomas is an example of the power of doubt to save.
Now before we jump into examining Thomas, I want to point out that this is a post-resurrection story. It takes place after Easter, which raises an interesting point. All four Gospels include examples of doubt following Jesus’ resurrection.
Matthew 28:17: “When (the disciples) saw (Jesus), they worshiped him, but they doubted.” Isn’t that a peculiar phrase. They worshiped but doubted at the same time!
Mark: “When they heard that he was alive and had been seen by (Mary), they would not believe it.” (v.11)
Luke says, “The story sounded like nonsense to the (disciples), so they didn’t believe it.” (v.11)
Now if doubt is such a bad thing in the Bible, why is it so prevalent? Why is doubt mentioned in all of the accounts of the greatest miracle in the Bible, the resurrection of Jesus? If doubt is such a bad thing in the Bible why does it say, “Be merciful to those who doubt.” (Jude verse 22) Could it be that the Bible isn’t as concerned about doubt as it is something else? Could there be a bigger threat to faith than doubt?
Let’s hold that question for just a little bit and think more about Thomas for a moment.
He’s mentioned in three stories in John’s Gospel, and these stories give us a little window into the personality of Thomas. The first is when Jesus’ learns that his friend Lazarus is sick and about to die, and wants to go see him in Jerusalem. The disciples think this is a bad idea. They remind Jesus how the last time he was there the religious tried to stone him. But Jesus won’t be dissuaded, so Thomas said, “Let us also go that we may die with him.” (John 11:16) Now this sounds like a bit of male bravado, but I agree with Ellsworth Kalas who believes this was more of a sardonic resignation as if Thomas were saying, “Everything’s lost anyway. Let’s join dead Lazarus!” (The Thirteen Apostles, p77) So one thing we can say about Thomas is he was a bit of a pessimist. He anticipated the worst.
The next mention is at the Last Supper the night before Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus told the disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them and that they knew the way where he is going. Thomas replied, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5) We will look at this story in more detail next week. For now we can say that what this shows us about Thomas is that he’s likes certainty. He’s someone who likes clarity and certainty.
Then, Easter evening Thomas is not with the disciples when Jesus appeared to them. Why? We don’t know, but maybe he was someone who needed to handle is grief in private. I kind of relate to Thomas. When I am hurting I often need to be alone. SO Thomas sought solitude.
So what we have following the death of Jesus is someone who was a pessimist, who was uncertain, and who was grieving alone. I think it’s fair to say Thomas’ faith was not in a good place.
So the other disciples, who we know have all doubted the news of Jesus’ resurrection themselves, had an experience of the risen Christ on Easter evening, so they come to Thomas and “told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.”
Raymond Brown in his commentary on John says the verb used for “tell” has a repetitive quality to it. It means they didn’t just tell him, but they kept telling him. “We have seen the Lord; really, we saw him; we did, we saw him,” as if they’re trying to help their friend they know is struggling. But Thomas replies, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”(v.25)
Think about that for a minute. Thomas isn’t just saying, “I don’t believe in God.” He’s saying to the other disciples, “I don’t believe you!” How easy would it have been for the disciples to be offended or even resentful? But they must not have. Because the next week they were together again and Thomas was with them. I find a very helpful insight into what it means to be church here. When we don’t give up on people, when we don’t get resentful because of the way people act of their own grief or confusion, and just keep welcoming them, giving them space, we make possible their transformations.
That’s what happened with Thomas. Jesus appeared to them again. And “Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” (v.27)
On the surface it seems clear that Jesus is rebuking Thomas for his doubt. But again, this is where translations can be misleading. Raymond Brown, says the literal translation of Jesus’ phrase goes like this: “And do not become unbelieving but believing.” (The Anchor Bible) In this regard Jesus doesn’t talk about doubt as a state or condition but as a progression, something that can keep growing. Jesus is saying to Thomas, “Get a rein on your doubt. Don’t let it get away from you. Don’t let it keep you from believing.” It can. Doubt can runaway from us.
I think we’ve established in this series so far that doubt isn’t bad. Doubt is an aid to faith. Doubt keeps our faith from settling. But doubt, if unchecked, can keep growing so that we don’t believe anything. We don’t believe anyone. We become skeptical and cynical and jaded. And eventually without hope.
There’s a story about a skeptic during the days of the French Revolution when people were being executed left and right. Three men were facing the guillotine. The first one brought forward was a priest. He was asked if he had any last words. He said, “Yes, I believe God is going to save me.” He put his head into place, the blade came down and stopped two inches above his neck. The executioner said, “That’s a miracle,” and let him go.
The next man was also a priest. When asked if he had any last words, he said, “I believe God will save me.” He put his head down, the blade came down and stopped right above his neck. Again, the executioner said, “It’s a miracle,” and let him go.
The third man was an atheist. When he was asked if he had any last words he said, “Yes, I believe I see the problem. Something is jamming your gear mechanism.”
Doubt can eventually work against us. We can doubt to the point that we leave no room for the miraculous, the eternal, the mysterious. We can reduce life to that which can be figured out and proven and explained and be left with nothing more than what is humanly possible. Sometimes we have to doubt our doubts.
So what was Thomas being asked to doubt?
Let me propose an answer by first showing you a picture. (pic) This is The Incredulity of Thomas by Italian artist Caravaggio. You can see Thomas putting his finger in the wound in Jesus’ side as the other disciples look on. It’s vivid, intense, poignant, and I think terribly wrong. It’s not actually biblical. In the story, Jesus chides Thomas. Telling him to stop doubting and believe. And the next thing it tells us is, “Thomas answered him ‘My Lord and my God!” (v.28) It does not mention Thomas touching Jesus and that was not accidental. It was very purposeful. It is John’s way of saying that Thomas let go of a need. He said he would have to put his hands on Jesus’ wounds before he believed, but now he let go of that.
In other words, Thomas chose faith over certainty. Thomas was someone who wanted certainty in life. He thought he would have to have certainty in order to believe, but when he had his experience with the Risen Christ, he let go of certainty. What does this mean for us? That doubt is not the opposite of faith, certainty is.
Let me illustrate…(invite someone up to demonstrate)
I know that’s kind of a silly illustration but you get the point. Being certain is not faith. Faith requires trust. Eventually certainty will require being right. And being right tends to erode trust.
I remember visiting a woman whose husband had left her. She was a devout woman, very committed in her faith and especially her beliefs. She was big on absolutes, truths from which there is no doubt no wavering. Many people appreciated her teaching and counsel because she made things plain and simple.
When I visited her to see how she was doing, her hurt and rejection came out at me. She felt I hadn’t done a good enough job in preaching clear absolutes. After all, the Bible is clear about divorce. God hates it. If I just did a better job, her husband wouldn’t have left, and what I needed to do was go preach to him.
So I asked her if she wanted a husband who would come back because of fear of failing a religious obligation or because he truly loved her? She said one will lead to the other.
Maybe it can. Perhaps it’s possible, but I know this, which one you choose changes your approach drastically. Being right just requires being forceful. But love, love requires trust, and genuine trust is more beautiful than certainty.
John Ortberg in his book Faith and Doubt, discusses the verse in Hebrews, “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” (11:6) It’s a rather intimidating verse for a lot of people. How can I know my faith is ever strong enough to please God? But as Ortberg points out, “Without faith it’s impossible to please anybody. Try making a friend without having faith. Try getting married without having faith. Try raising a child without having to learn about trust.”
He illustrates by imagining someone asking him if his wife is faithful to him? He says, “yes,” and when the person responds, “But how do you know?” He would say, “Because I know my wife.” And if the person said, “But wouldn’t you like to know for sure? Wouldn’t you like to remove all uncertainty. What if you could have your wife under 24 hr surveillance just to rest easy because you are certain? Would you want that? And Ortberg says no. He would rather have trust than certainty. Because when you trust someone you give them a gift.
Maybe that’s why we call faith a gift. It’s a gift God gives us, and a gift we give back to God and to other people. It doesn’t mean faith comes without doubt. Doubt is necessary. Doubt is what helps our faith develop deeper trust. But when our doubt becomes a need for certainty is turns faith into something else.
The scene with Jesus and Thomas ends with Jesus speaking some final words. They are directed to Thomas but they sound like Jesus is talking to others, to you and me. He says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Jesus is not saying we shouldn’t doubt. He’s not even saying we shouldn’t explore and ask questions in faith. He’s commending us not to depend on certainty, not to let faith become a need for certainty. Because there will always be something that challenges our certainty. Rather, what we need is trust, because a faith that learns to trust can give us what we need to overcome incredible things.
Following World War II, words were found written on the wall of a cellar in a building in Cologne. It was written by an anonymous Jewish fugitive. https://www.debisimons.com/the-true-story-behind-the-text-of-even-when-he-is-silent/
Some years ago, on a tour there, United Methodist professor of worship, Dr. Mark Miller, took these words and put them into a song. We will close hearing this song…
“I believe in the sun
even when it is not shining
And I believe in love,
even when there’s no one there.
And I believe in God,
even when he is silent.
I believe through any trial,
there is always a way
But sometimes in this suffering
and hopeless despair
My heart cries for shelter,
to know someone’s there
But a voice rises within me, saying hold on
my child, I’ll give you strength,
I’ll give you hope. Just stay a little while.
I believe in the sun
even when it is not shining
And I believe in love
even when there’s no one there
But I believe in God
even when he is silent
I believe through any trial
there is always a way.
May there someday be sunshine
May there someday be happiness
May there someday be love
May there someday be peace….”