Do not doubt; believe. In the church calendar, we are a week removed from Easter. In our story from John, though, it is still Easter day. It was just that morning when Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty and tipped off the disciples. John and Peter sprinted to the garden to see for themselves. Once they leave, Jesus greets Mary by name. She then runs and tells the disciples the unbelievable word of resurrection.
We have no record of how the disciples received this news. What we do know is that they are still locked away, fearing what their fate might be. After all, the powers that be saw fit to execute Jesus. What might they do to his followers?
And that’s when Jesus just materializes. “Peace be with you.” They see his hands and side. They rejoice. And Jesus disappears into thin air.
Poor Thomas – he must’ve been out running errands or something, because he misses the whole thing. The disciples try to share with him what they just experienced. Thomas responds, “If I’m going to believe this nonsense, I need to see it for myself.”
And this is how Thomas the Twin came to be known as Doubting Thomas.
I don’t know about you, but this strikes me as unfair. So far, everyone who has encountered this news of resurrection has doubted. Mary was convinced that grave robbers were at work – that is, until she sees him face to face. John and Peter, we are told, believed but did not understand, which I take to mean that they had some kind of faith experience that took a while for their mental processes to catch up with. The rest of the disciples are hiding, even though Mary told them she met the risen Jesus. When he appears to them, he shows them his hands and his side.
Thomas, it seems to me, is more the victim of bad timing than doubt. He is not asking for any more proof of resurrection than anybody else has had the opportunity to experience. And once he sees, he believes, just like everyone else. And yet, we still know him as Doubting Thomas.
Do not doubt; believe.
How many of us are like Thomas? We want to believe in this outrageous thing called resurrection, and all we are looking for is a little proof. Is that so much to ask? Unless we see his hands and his side, we might not believe, either.
I am enough of a product of the 21st century that I am naturally skeptical of anyone who tells me that have met Jesus. At the same time, I have had enough encounters with people’s faith experiences that I know it can happen.
I was fresh out of my seminary book-learnin’ experience when I worked as a hospital chaplain in Chicago. On my rounds, I met a young woman who had gotten a dangerous infection when recovering from surgery. Knowing that she was possibly near death, she had a late night vision of Jesus, standing at the foot of her bed. And that was all she needed to know that no matter what happened, he was suffering right there with her. And I knew, no matter what my critical thinking might say to the contrary, that she was telling the truth.
Do not doubt; believe.
Is this the message we are supposed to get from this lesson, that doubting is wrong and believing is good? Sure – somewhat. That said, I think there’s something much deeper going on here. And the last few verses we read today shed some light on that. You see, the stories about Jesus that are shared are not just for the select few in that initial first or second century audience. They are meant to shore up the faith of those to come many, many years later. That includes us.
So when Jesus confronts Thomas, he already knows the pattern. Even those closest to him have trouble believing until they see. And so Jesus adds this little tweak at the end: “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who do not see and still believe.” (I think he’s talking about us!)
You see, here’s what happens to Doubting Thomas. According to tradition, Thomas headed east and ended up bringing the gospel to India. The members of the church he founded there are often referred to as “St. Thomas Christians”. They were part of the larger Eastern Orthodox Church in the early centuries, but by the 1300s, they were essentially cut off and isolated. In the 1500s, European nations began expanding their colonial reach. When they arrived in India, they were stunned to find these dark-skinned non-Europeans worshiping Jesus.
In short, this amazing legacy is what remains of Thomas’ work. Things like this don’t happen if doubt still has a stranglehold. At some point, Doubting Thomas became Believing Thomas.
Do not doubt; believe.
We tend see doubt and faith as opposites. Either you doubt, or you believe. But I’m not sure that’s a helpful approach. What would it look like if we embraced doubt as a way to serve faith?
Let’s take this ridiculous example of the cup and the cardboard. Why does it work?
Maybe I gamed the system. There’s something weird about the cup, or the cardboard has some kind of adhesive on it. We know when we see magic that there’s something else going on, something that has deceived us, if only we knew.
In this case, it’s a matter of science. I am no scientist, but as I understand it, because there is no air in the cup but just water, the water pressure pushing down on the cardboard is less than the air pressure pushing up, and that’s what keeps it in place. In other words, it’s not a trick. We just needed more information in order to understand why this works.
That, I believe, is the kind of approach we should take to faith. I don’t think it’s wrong to question, or test, or prove (a word which means “test”, by the way). In fact, I think it’s a healthy, even faithful thing to do. After all, as the saying goes, Jesus came to take away our sins, not our brains. At the same time, I think it’s important to keep the goal in mind. And that goal is faith.
Think about the cup. The purpose of asking questions is not to disprove that this weird thing happened. It did. We saw it. Instead, it’s to understand how it happened. And I think that taking this kind of approach to faith in Christ Jesus might transform both us and the church in amazing ways!
We don’t understand? That’s great! Then let’s ask! Let’s search! Let’s dig and explore! All the while, let’s trust the outcome, knowing that the purpose is not to disprove, but to improve. You see, the world we once knew doesn’t exist anymore. There was a time when a church could open its doors and expect people to show up on a Sunday morning. But that time is past. So we can’t just throw around our insider language and expect people to understand it.
“Greet the session in the narthex after the benediction.”
“Greet the who in the what now after the huh?”
We have to be translators of the gospel. And in order to do so, we have to ask those questions: of each other, of ourselves, yes, even of God! And friends, if I know Oglethorpe Presbyterian, then I think we are well-suited for this kind of work. We have always been a place that welcomes questions and examination. It’s no accident that we were birthed on a university campus 65 years ago. We have always been a community that lives with heart and head intimately connected.
Do you know how unusual that kind of church is, where doubting and questioning are par for the course? And do you know what I think? I think that means that we have an opportunity to offer the world a very different image of what church can be, a community where intellectual curiosity and compassionate service come together in a potent mix of smart faith.
We do not need to fear doubt. In fact, if faith is really as powerful as it is supposed to be, if God is really God, then they can handle doubt. They can field our questions. They can absorb our confusion, our troubles, our anger.
Friends, I trust that doubt can have a transformative purpose, that it can be a powerful means to serve our faith, to strengthen our belief, and to move us closer to understanding.