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Psalm 13

John 20.19-31

The Doubt That Believes

Second Sunday of Easter

I’m going to begin this morning by reading four brief sentences from each of the gospels, which describe different responses to Jesus’ resurrection, and ask you to see if you can tell which of the four does not seem to belong?

From Matthew:  “The angel’s appearance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow.  And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men.” (Matthew 28.3-4)

From Mark:  “And the women went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16.8)

From Luke:  “While the women were perplexed about this, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel; and they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground.” (Luke 24.4-5)

From John:  “Jesus showed them his hands and side; and the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” (John 20.20)You got it.  The first three sentences described fear and astonishment and trembling and amazement as some responses to the resurrection.  And it’s my guess that these reactions are pretty natural; they very likely would describe our response at seeing someone return from the dead.  But in John’s gospel, the disciples’ reaction strikes me as considerably too blasé to be very realistic.  Of course the disciples were glad to see the Lord!  Harold Jones was a wonderful man, and a good friend to many of us here; but if he were to come walking through that door this morning, I dare say you and I would go through a whole bunch of emotions and reactions before we ever got to glad.  It is rather striking that the disciples would greet their crucified leader’s return with such casual nonchalance.

Only Thomas had his wits about him that day.  Even though Jesus appeared to the rest of them by passing through a closed door, they treated him as though he just returned from the market.  “Oh, Jesus!  We’re glad you stopped by!  How about a cup of coffee!”  Only Thomas grasped the unreality of what seemed actually to have happened.  “You have seen the Lord?  I won’t believe it until I see him for myself!”  And even when the resurrected Jesus finally appears to Thomas, the disciple still had difficulty believing his eyes.  And who can blame him?

Yet consider what the church has done to Thomas.  “Don’t be a doubting Thomas - trust solely in his promise!” goes an old church camp song.  Why not be a doubting Thomas?   In John’s gospel, Thomas is the only one who reacts normally to seeing the dead back to life.  His response is the only one of all the disciples’ that conforms to the astonishment and disbelief we find in the other three gospels.  I think we make a mistake singling out Thomas as an example of a vacillating faith.  In fact, I would argue that Thomas’ is the only realistic faith response we have in John’s gospel in the face of Jesus’ return from death.

And yet the church so often suggests, by its preaching and teaching, that there is little place in Christian faith for doubt, that doubt is a negative quality, that skepticism is somehow unhealthy.  But if t doubt is an inappropriate aspect of faith, then how many of us must have an inappropriate faith?  How many of us can claim a faith which harbors no doubts, which asks no questions, and which basically accepts whatever the church teaches without pausing to wonder about it?  I know this congregation pretty well, and I don’t think this describes anyone of us here.  I hope most of us do wonder, from time to time.  I hope most of us do ask questions, and puzzle over how our faith can make any sense in a decidedly faithless world.  I hope some of us do wrestle with our belief, because that means we take what we believe seriously.

Not only is there ample room in our faith for doubt, I think a certain amount of uncertainty is necessary for mature faith.  Take, for example, our Old Testament lesson today.  Not only is it full of worry and despair, there is also a certain amount of fear and apprehension circling about the psalmist.  “How long, O Lord?  Wilt thou forget me forever?  How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart?”  The psalmist’s reservations have to do not just with the elements of faith, but with the basic matter of faith itself.  If it seems God has abandoned me, the writer wonders, is there anything left for me to believe, or am I left to the mercy of the enemy?  In Psalm 13 we encounter doubt with a capital “D”, the kind of doubt that doesn’t just ask questions about justice and fairness, about suffering and evil, but which calls into question the entire enterprise of faith.  And note that the psalm does not conclude with an easy reaffirmation of belief, but with a very tenuous hope which is rooted, not in God’s timely reappearance, but in the remembrance of a past where God was once experienced.  “I have trusted in thy steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in thy salvation.  I will sing to the Lord, because God has dealt bountifully with me.” Because the psalmist has known God’s assurance, he or she remains certain that God will not remain forever obscured.  Wrestling with one’s faith, it seems, is part and parcel of that faith itself. 

I think that what our doubt reveals most about us is actually our need to believe.  There is something in us that yearns for God, to possess some degree of certainty in what we believe.  What we need to remember is that doubt does not negate faith, it does not oppose certainty. Healthy skepticism, which is not to be confused with cynicism, is conducive to faith; some of the most influential figures in the Bible did not hesitate to bring questions to their belief, or even to challenge God when things did not seem quite right.  To ask questions of our faith is an indication that we take our faith seriously.

Thomas obviously took his faith seriously.  John tells us that the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.  Well, perhaps they were, but Thomas took Jesus’ presence seriously.  Yet even Thomas’ doubt was addressed, not by physical evidence, but by faith.  Now why do I say this, when Jesus showed Thomas his wounds and invited him to touch them?  If you look closely at the story, you’ll see that Thomas declined to touch Jesus; it was at the moment of Jesus’ invitation that Thomas realized neither touching nor seeing leads to faith, but only believing.  Note Thomas’ reply to that invitation:  “My Lord and my God.”  It may have been his recognition of Jesus which moved Thomas to call him “My Lord,” because that is what all the disciples called him while he lived.  But neither seeing nor touching was sufficient for him to call the risen Christ, “My God.”  Only faith can move a person to do this.  Because in the end, doubt is not assuaged by sight or by touch or by any physical manifestation.  Several years ago a lay person in my church, who was giving the sermon that morning, described her desire to see something, anything, akin to a burning bush, so that God’s existence might be proved to her once and for all.  But she concluded that our doubts are seldom suitably addressed by material proof; we will always want to see more, we will always want to touch more.  Doubt is only efficiently addressed by its partner, faith.  The Spanish theologian Miguel de Unamuno once wrote that, “A faith which does not doubt is a dead faith.” And, as we will hear in a few minutes, it was Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote, “There lives more faith in honest doubt, Believe me, than in half the creeds.”  Thomas’ faith, as with the faith of most of us, I hope, is kept vital by its own skepticism.

Thomas did not believe the other disciples.  Thomas did not believe his own eyes.  He could not.  He could only believe his heart.  And by that belief which was prompted by doubt, Thomas was enabled to confess, “My Lord and my God.”  And Jesus’ affirmation of Thomas should serve as an affirmation of all of us who still bring tough questions to our faith:  “Blessed are you who have not seen, and yet believe.” 

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United Church of Chester, 29 West Main Street, Chester, CT 06412. (860) 526-2697


From the North: Take CT Route 9 South to Exit 8 (old exit 6) (CT 148). Turn left; we are 1 mile on the right.


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