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April 3, 2005 (Easter II)—“Being Faithful in the Face of Doubt”

Pastor David Barber

John 20:19-31

Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
 

Doubting Thomas--that's what he's been called throughout the centuries. But I wonder why this handle has survived through all the years. There's enough doubt to go around by the characters in the Biblical narrative, and yet, Thomas gets stuck with this unflattering title.

Don't be like Thomas! Don't imitate him. Certainly he's not as bad as Judas who betrayed Jesus and Peter who denied him, but doubt also is a part of this trinity of disobedience that we must avoid. At least that's what many of us were told by well-meaning Sunday School teachers and other Christian instructors who crossed our path.

So many of us grew up not talking about our doubts and our fears. And even in many Christian communities today, it's still taboo to bring to light our questions and our struggles because someone might judge us as being unfaithful or having an inferior or inadequate faith.

But Thomas was not the only one who was filled with doubt and skepticism. Following the resurrection, Matthew tells us, "Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw Jesus, they worshipped him, but some doubted."

In Luke, the women run from the tomb. They go to tell the apostles, but Luke writes, "these words seemed to them an idle tale and they did not believe them."

Mark, even though he doesn't mention the word doubt, doesn't paint a better picture of the disciples. He tells us, "They went and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid."

Just before our Gospel for today, we have Mary's encounter with the risen Christ. She came to faith not when she first saw Jesus standing there. She thought he was the gardener. Mary recognized him only when he spoke her name.

Thomas is not an exception. He simply stands in the same place along with many of those first witnesses, and yet, he gets stuck with the name "Doubting Thomas." Go figure!

In reality, however, the bottom line is this: Thomas does us a favor--especially for those of us who sometimes have a tough time with everything we're called upon to believe.

In fact, some folks just can't do it any longer. They can't accept the beliefs they learned in childhood so they've left the church and have become a part of the church alumni association. The big difference between this alumni association and the alumni associations of various universities is that it's more difficult to solicit funds from those who are alumni of the church.

For those of us who have stayed and call this home, Thomas is a refreshing individual and might well be called the "patron saint" for "inquiring minds" who want to know.

As I've mentioned far too often we've stuffed our struggles and our challenges because we've been afraid of how others might react to our questions and our doubts. And maybe, we, ourselves, have been afraid to look at our doubts, because if we begin to question, our faith might fall apart, and what will we put in its place?

In his first Easter evening appearance, Jesus showed his hands and sides to the gathered disciples. Thomas wasn't there, and we aren't told what he was doing.

But when he finally does show up, he doesn't ask for any more than what the rest of the disciples had already received from Jesus except to also touch the wounds of Jesus. He wants to make sure that this is the crucified Jesus and not just a ghost.

When Jesus does return, Jesus doesn't berate Thomas or even refuse to give Thomas what he's looking for. He doesn't say to Thomas, "What's the matter with you Thomas? Until you muster up enough faith, I'll have nothing more to do with you and your faithless and foolish requests."

Jesus is sensitive to the doubt that plagues Thomas and Jesus invites him: "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; don't be faithless, but believing."

We're not told if Thomas actually reached out his hand to touch Jesus, but he does come through with a magnificent confession, "My Lord and my God." And now "Doubting Thomas" becomes "Believing Thomas."

This confession is spoken by the one who comes to faith by confessing his honest doubts and struggles, and the tradition tells us that Thomas went all the way to India to be a witness to the Gospel.

In spite of the fact that this story appears every year on the second Sunday of Easter and I've preached on some aspect of this text too many times to count, I like Thomas. He's a friend who has something to say to "Doubting David."

He's the one in the class who expresses what many of us are thinking but are afraid to ask. We're just hoping that he's going to speak up one more time, and when he does, all of us are silently giving thanks and saying, "Yes, go for it Thomas."

I have my doubts and my struggles, and even though my faith has grown and changed significantly from my Sunday School days, those questions and challenges are still there. Perhaps, I'll take these doubts and these questions all the way to the grave.

Unlike those who have left the church because they couldn't swallow traditional church teachings, I've obviously remained, and my faith has grown deeper and stronger. It's not because I've swallowed what others can't digest. Some of the teachings still get stuck in my throat.

Nor is it because I've turned off my mind. My mind is a gift from God and an integral part of my faith journey along with my heart. Both my mind and my heart have helped me to grow in the wonder and the awe of this magnificent pilgrimage that God has placed before me as a gift.

In the movie Million Dollar Baby, which many of you have seen, there's a minor character who has lots of passion and lots of heart but no mind and no talent. He wants to be a world-class boxer, and he actually believes he can achieve this goal.

Although his situation is humorous, you also feel sorry for him, for his misguided perception of reality leads him into some situations where he is hurt both physically and emotionally.

We can't turn off our minds--nor stuff our doubts and our questions. This, too, would be unfaithful and a loss of integrity in terms of who we are and the people God has created us to be.

But we can let our struggles and our fears rise to the surface within a faithful and trusting community, and simply let these things exist without judgment--and often times, unanswered and unresolved.

Sometimes, and I'm speaking only for myself here, the questions and the concerns, if they're allowed to be spoken without judgment and without censure, don't have the same intensity as they once did. Why?

First of all, having these questions resolved isn't the essence of my faith. I don't have to be in lock-step with the church or the tradition to be a child of God or even to be a part of Christ's community.

Secondly, I've discovered that there are things that are more important such as love for each other, compassion and forgiveness, hope and healing, and ministry and service to those in need--especially to the poor, the hungry, and the downtrodden.

To me, this says more about the essence of our faith and our journey than our acceptance and our agreement together about all that we're asked to believe.

A few weeks ago Karen had given me an article to read written by Karen Armstrong, which had appeared in the AARP magazine. That magazine is addressed to Karen by the way. I'm much too young to be receiving it yet.

She wrote about psychologist Carl Jung who "once said that a great deal of institutional religion seems designed to prevent the faithful from having a spiritual experience. Instead of teaching people how to live in peace, religious leaders" [and I would sometimes count myself as being among them] "often concentrate on marginal issues: Can women or gay people be ordained as priests or rabbis? Is contraception permissible? Is evolution compatible with the first chapter of Genesis?" [What about Mary being a virgin?]

"Instead of bringing people together, these distracting preoccupations actually encourage policies of exclusion, since they tend to draw attention to the differences between 'us' and 'them.'" She then says, "Our differences define us but our common humanity can redeem us. We just have to open our hearts...to practice compassion."

It seems to me that when Jesus breathes upon his disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit, and when he sends them out, he doesn't send them out with doctrinal purity and agreement, he sends them out just as he has been sent. He sends them out with the power of forgiveness and the power of life in the name of Jesus.

In the midst of our doubts and questions, we, too, are sent with the power of forgiveness and the power of compassion And the power of life in the name of Jesus. And as we go, I find assurance that even with my struggles, I am in the company of those whom Jesus blesses this morning. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

I do believe. I believe that in Jesus Christ there is life and salvation. I believe that in Jesus there is hope and healing for us and for the world. And with Thomas, I, too confess, "My Lord and my God."

My brothers and sisters in Christ, will you not join me as well in this confession?

Amen.


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