You Are Not Going to Believe This
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, May 5, 2019
Reading: John 20:19-29
I am sure that everyone at some point has had moments of doubt. I don’t mean doubt in trivial or minor things, I mean doubt in major things. Things related to faith, to our belief in God, wondering and questioning whether God’s love and providence is real, and doubting the veracity of Jesus’ claims in life. Well I have good news for you this morning, you are not alone. Indeed the scriptures themselves are full of people who had real and honest doubts. I don’t mean minor characters who pop up every now and again in a prophet’s writings or in the gospels, I am talking about some of the most significant people in the annals of religion’s history.
Take for example the great Abraham in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 17. Abraham is an old man when God tells him that he is going to be the father of a nation, that there are going to be many descendants, as many as grains of sand a beach, and people who will follow in his footsteps for ages. His wife Sarah, of a similar age, is told the same thing. And what does Sarah do? She laughs out loud. She simply could not believe that she would be the mother of nations. And if you don’t think Abraham is enough, there’s Moses. In Chapter 33 of Exodus he is in the tent with the people of Israel, who are complaining about the state of affairs and wondering if they wouldn’t have been better off staying in Egypt.
Moses calls the people a stiff-necked people. (I love that phrase). He turns on God as if to say, “What kind of a motley crew have you given me here?” — I am putting this in my own words — But really Lord, what are you doing? After all that you have done, this is their response. Moses had his doubts in God.
In The New Testament, even a great character like John the Baptist had his moment of doubt when he was in prison contemplating his potential execution, He looks at the Messiah-ship of Jesus and he says the followers of Jesus, “Go back and ask him, is God going to send someone else?” Because Jesus clearly is not the one who is going to be able to save him from his time of trial, and he wonders whether there shouldn’t be another Messiah. He had his doubts. But these pale in comparison to Thomas from our beautiful passage this morning from John’s Gospel.
Thomas is the Cadillac of doubters. It was he who really came to the very point of doubting the ultimate, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Thomas has been called many things over the years, not only Didymus, The Twin – which is the literal term – but Doubting Thomas. His name goes down in the annals of history with that reference to him, which I think, as we will see, is grossly unfair.
Thomas had his doubts, and we can see this in what I consider to be a three-act play. In the first of these acts we read that on the night of the first evening, the night of the Resurrection, the disciples are gathered in a room and they are frightened. They close and lock the door because they are worried that they are going to be associated with a man who has just been crucified for sedition and blasphemy. They are worried that by their association with him, they’re going to suffer a similar fate.
While hiding in this room Jesus appears to them in bodily form and says very simply to them, “Peace be with you.” Then he says, “If you want to touch my hands you will where the nails were. If you touch my side you will see where the spear went. I am with you. Peace be with you.” And they believed.
He actually said to them, probably in Hebrew, “Shalom, shalom.” Then he says, “Now I want you to go now and be witnesses of what you have seen.” Then there’s this incredible declaration that, “If you forgive sins as I have forgiven sins, they will be forgiven.” This was an incredible moment. This is what they were waiting for. This was a risen Christ in their midst, and he allayed all their fears.
Now the second act is a little later on. We don’t know whether it was that night or in the next couple of days, but Thomas, one of the 12, comes and sees the group. Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to the others. He had gone, to use the phrase from the military, AWOL. You can’t blame him really. The disciples themselves were already frightened and had locked the door, but he had probably realized that his commander-in-chief had been executed, that this kingdom that he was looking for had failed, and that the person to whom he had committed three years of his life to had ended up in a tomb. Thomas was really upset, and you can understand that.
The disciples told him that he had missed out. Jesus was here. He came to us; he showed himself to us. The actual term, the best way to translate the Aramaic from the Greek to what they said to him is, “Thomas, you’re a moron. You’ve missed out on the big moment. You weren’t here.” Then Thomas expresses doubt and says, “I’m sorry, but unless I can put my hands in his hands, if I can put my hand in his side, I am not going to believe.” End of the Second Act.
We’re told a week later that Thomas was once again with the disciples, and I want to come back to that in a moment. He’s with the disciples and suddenly Jesus appears again. He didn’t appear to him in private, he didn’t appear to him in another place, he appeared when he was with the disciples. He invites Thomas to put the fingers in his hands and in his side. And Thomas believed. Not only did he believe, but he makes one of the greatest statements in the whole of the New Testament, “My Lord and my God,” there was no higher declaration in the whole of the New Testament.
Jesus qualifies the moment. He ends this play that’s taking place and says, “It is so much better, not for those who have seen and believed, but for those who have not seen and believed, they are the ones who are truly blessed.” Nevertheless, Jesus respected Thomas. Jesus had addressed his doubts and reached out to him in a caring way.
Wow, there’s so much for us here because we’re all Thomases at some point in our lives, are we not? I have questioned the veracity of the Resurrection of Jesus. Have you not wondered about the mystery of God doing something incredible like this? Are we not amazed that God creates out of nothing? That God is able to put the stars in the sky?
Then again, when you think about it, even the greatest scientists are amazed and uncertain about the origin of things, yet they still believe those things exist. So too in the case of people who have struggled with things like the Resurrection, and yet lived their whole lives committed to it, and as a living Lord and presence that it has transformed them. But that does not mean that there have not been doubts.
And have there not been more existential doubts going right to our hearts when we’re disappointed with God. We doubt God cares for us, or when we’ve hit rock-bottom or seen someone else hit rock-bottom, we say, “Come on God, where were you when? Why have you not sorted this out now?”
We’re like the character Job in the Old Testament, who in one day lost his livelihood, his work, his wealth, his seven children, yet still believed. His wife on the other hand did not. She would not believe. She would not accept that there was a god; and she cursed God and wanted to die because of her curse of God. She had this radical sense of unbelief, but not Job, even in the midst of disaster Job believed, but he had his doubts, and questioned God time and again. When his friends bait him, Job rises to the bait and wonders whether God is with him. The Story of Job illustrated that in the midst of it all, God is with him. Nevertheless, Job had his doubts. We have our doubts; we’re like Job. We’re like Thomas. We wonder what’s going on.
I love what a friend of mine, Caesar Molebatsi, a minister in Johannesburg said, years ago, “Even if you question God, even if you challenge God, in so doing you believe in God.” In other words, if you’re really wrestling with God, you’re wrestling with a God you believe in so you haven’t lost your faith, you’re just having doubts and you’re struggling with God. But you still believe in God.
What does this mean for us? How do we move through our doubts? First we have to recognize that there is a difference between doubt and disbelief. Disbelief is something that is much more strident and that Jesus had problems with. Doubt is something that Jesus was willing to address. I went back and looked at a sermon from 1887. I’m really digging deep here to find something, right? Henry Drummond, a preacher from Northfield, Massachusetts preached a sermon in 1887 called “Dealing with Doubt”. As I read it I was overwhelmed by this particular passage, and trust me, this is gold, people. “Christ never failed to distinguish between doubt and unbelief. Doubt is can’t believe; unbelief is won’t believe. Doubt is honest; unbelief is obstinacy. Doubt is looking for light; unbelief is content with darkness, loving darkness rather than light.” That is what Christ attacked unsparingly.
For the intellectual questioning of Thomas, of Philip, or Nicodemus, and the many others who came to him to have their problems resolved. Jesus was respectful, generous, and tolerant. How did Jesus meet their doubts? The church, as I have said, says, “Brand him.” Christ says, “Teach him.” He destroyed by fulfilling. When Thomas came to him and denied his very Resurrection and stood before him, waiting for the scathing words and lashing for unbelief, they never came. Christ gave him himself.
That’s some sermon from 1887, isn’t it? Drummond is right on the money. There is a difference between having doubt and unbelief. I think for us who sometimes have our doubts, Christ still comes to us. How does Christ come to us? If we look at Thomas there are some clues. First of all Thomas maintained his fellowship with believers. Remember Act 3 in all of this? After he had basically been called a moron by the disciples a week earlier, there he was still having fellowship with them. He was with them again when Jesus appeared the second time, when Jesus honored Thomas.
Why? Because he was there. He maintained contact with the fellowship of the church, with the community of believers, with the apostolic foundation of the faith. Jesus did not as I mentioned before, appear to Thomas when Thomas was doing his daily work. He came when he was in the upper room with the disciples again.
You know my friends, I believe this is so important because I see people drift away. They’ve had they’re existential crisis, they have their theological questions – and rather than staying within the community, rather than working them out, and genuinely asking for prayer and support, they drift away and lose the community of faith. They miss out on so much.
Even for those of you who are watching today, and I’m delighted you are, there’s still a sense that you’re missing something. You’re missing the fellowship and the presence of the Holy Spirit; the singing of hymns, and the communal prayer. You’re missing the opportunity to meet with and have fellowship with other believers. The gathered community is still so important, and what happens amongst the gathered community can help us with our doubts.
A conversation with a friend, the offer of prayer, support, a conversation with somebody who’s a stranger with you in the pew, you can find ways Christ comes into the midst of this and ministers to you. Had Thomas decided never to come back after he challenged the disciples he would’ve missed out for good, but he maintained the fellowship.
He also questioned, and there’s nothing wrong with questioning. Our faith is not a leap of faith. It’s not throwing yourself into the abyss; it is a faith with content, a faith based on a person; a faith that has theology underneath it and behind it. It is rooted in something substantial. Our faith hasn’t lasted 2000 years because someone decided to make a positive leap of faith into something. Rather it is into someone.
To question, to ask, to learn, to grow, these are important things. I’ve seen a lot of people when they’ve had their doubts die on the vine, move into unbelief, because they have not taken the step to ask the questions, to learn, and grow. That’s why we have a Minister of Congregation Life in this church to help us. Questioning is good, but so is witness. All of this was designed for the disciples to bear witness to the risen Lord, to what they had seen. And even Thomas, who had all these doubts, who questioned all of what he was told, eventually had an encounter with Christ and made the greatest statement, “My Lord, my Messiah. My God, God in the flesh, God incarnate. My Lord and my God.” The doubter had turned into the greatest witness for the faith. Those who have struggled with their faith, who have wrestled with their faith, and t who have gone toe to toe with God but have finally had an encounter with him in Christ, they are the most powerful witnesses. They are the ones who shake the world.
I didn’t say it because it was too sensitive I think, and not the crowd for it, but after the bombing in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, I thought of Saint Thomas, the patron saint of India who witnessed to that Christian community in its very origins in Sri Lanka. It is Saint Thomas who brought Christianity out of the bounds of Asia Minor and extended it to India. There are millions of Christians today and throughout the many years since he was there who’ve believed because of Thomas.
Never call him Doubting Thomas! Never. Call him Questioning Thomas, or Profoundly Witnessing Thomas, because it is he who took the faith way beyond the bounds that others would imagine. This morning, if you have doubts, maintain your fellowship, and ask the questions. If you’ve had your doubts and now you believe, bear witness and let others know of your Lord and your God. Amen.