Sunday, April 15, 2007

A Little Doubt

Now I’d like to begin by playing a little game of word association. I’m really going to test your skills, because we’re going to play using Biblical characters. I’ll go easy on you though and start with some people I’m sure you’ve heard of. Let’s start with Noah…OK, Ark… and Moses….Burning Bush, or maybe 10 commandments…or maybe Charlton Heston…What about something we’ve been talking about lately…the disciples…can you name all 12? Or what if I just name them one by one…. Judas…. Betrayal…..Simon Peter….maybe rock? What about Thomas? What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you hear the name Thomas? There is little question that most of you are thinking about doubt. In fact, so many people over the course of history have associated doubt with Thomas, that we have even coined a phrase to describe him: “Doubting Thomas.”

It is interesting to consider that in the other three gospels, we actually read very little about Thomas. He may be mentioned, but it’s only in John that he emerges as a distinct personality among the rest of the disciples. But even then, there are only about 150 words about Thomas.

There just isn’t much about the disciple Thomas.

Among those 150 words however, there is more than one description, but we rarely hear about the others, or even hear about anything except for Thomas’ doubt. Let’s take another look at the Gospel of John, and see what he has to say about Thomas.

In John 11, when Jesus was looking toward Jerusalem, the disciples thought that it would be certain death for all of them. Of all the disciples though, it was Thomas who said: “Then let us go so that we may die with him.” It was a courageous statement, but we hardly ever remember Thomas for it.

Our next view of Thomas is in the same story that we normally think of him as doubting, but I want to take another look at this story. We normally fail to point out that in this story, we have one of the very few, if not the only place where the divinity of Christ is bluntly and without question stated. The same story that gives Thomas his infamous nickname is the same story that has Thomas making an earth shattering confession of faith. Thomas’ confession in verse 28 of our passage this morning, responds to Jesus, saying “My Lord, and my God.” Thomas doesn’t say teacher, Thomas doesn’t say just Lord. Thomas doesn’t say Messiah. Thomas says GOD, G-O-D, GOD. Jesus is called God without qualification of any kind. Thomas say it with conviction as if he were simply recognizing a fact, like 2 + 2 = 4, or the sky is blue, or the grass is green. Thomas confesses, you are my Lord and my God! But still, we continue to only remember the words of someone who doubts.

Unfortunately, history has only remembered Thomas for the other part of this scene that we read today. The resurrected Christ made an appearance to the disciples in a home in Jerusalem. Thomas wasn’t present, so when he finally heard about the event, it’s not surprising that he refused to believe it. Maybe Thomas was the forerunner of a modern day cynic. Maybe the news simply sounded too good to be true. I’m sure we know that feeling, things are just too good to be true. It simply isn’t surprising that Thomas said, “Unless I feel the nail prints in his hands I will not believe,” And it isn’t surprising that that we always remember Thomas for this “doubt-filled statement.” Maybe it isn’t surprising, because it’s exactly what many of us might say; had we just seen Jesus killed on the cross, and now our friends are telling us that he is alive and that they have seen him again, many of us might have doubt as well.

Heck, I’m from the Show-Me State. It’s in my blood that I don’t believe anything unless you show me. Maybe Thomas was really from Missouri?

That phrase, “the Show-Me State,” it has many myths as to how it came to be. But most of them center around the same principle. The most well known story, is that of a United States Congressman who was speaking to a group of people in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. When he stepped up to speak, he wanted to begin by questioning the accuracy of an earlier speaker’s comments. He made his questioning known by saying, “Good sir, I come from a state that raises corn and cotton, cockleburs and Democrats. Your frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.”

I can only imagine Thomas saying, “Your hopeful and eloquently told story does not convince me. I have SEEN Jesus die on a cross. After all that I saw him go through, after the pain of the experience on the cross, I am unconvinced that he is NOT dead. You are simply going to have to show me.”

Of all the stories surrounding the origin of the “Show-Me State” phrase, regardless of what the stories are, most all of them imply a certain “self-deprecating stubbornness and devotion to simple common sense.”

Now while I will ignore the part that just called me stubborn, I’d like to focus on the “devotion to simple common sense.” Maybe that sounds like some of us. While some of us might never have completely doubted God or our faith, sometimes it is easy for our doubt to creep in.

As we learn about dinosaurs in grade school, it was easy to let a little doubt creep in, while we wondered how dinosaurs fit in with the Bible?

Or when we hear about ALL the different animal species of the world, maybe we wonder if there ever was a boat large enough to hold ALL of those animals?

And even with the resurrection story – is it all that hard to see a little doubt? We all know the story, and know how gruesome the story can be told, it’s not surprising that someone might have a little doubt.
Some of us grew up in an atmosphere that said, to doubt was almost equal to being anti-Christian, or….pagan, even. Some of us still live in that reality every day, being questioned by other friends and family, who say that doubt, or question, proves a lack of faith. When we try to learn about or support the teaching of evolution in schools, some of us are told that we have no real faith, because we may have doubts about scientific nature of the creation stories of Genesis. We don’t doubt that they are in our Bible for a reason, that they still speak the word of God, that they still provide us with truth, but maybe it’s not SCIENTIFIC TRUTH?

Maybe doubt is a good thing? A theologian and scientist of the 19th century said, “A doubter is a person who searches for God with a thousand questions; while an unbeliever is apathetic to God.” In our day and age, a doubter struggles with God and living the godly life, and all the questions that come with how to do that, while an unbeliever may just struggle in life, struggle to pay the bills, make a way or simply live life. A doubter may struggle with questions and the search for God among those questions, but we are not unbelievers simply because we have questions.

Alfred Lloyd Tennyson also says “There lives more faith in honest doubt, than in half the creeds of any religion.”

We encounter some kind of doubt, some sort of questions in our faith all the time. Doubt is what helps us to grow our faith. If we never question our faith, our understanding of God, or something in our religious framework, then we will not grow. If we never question ANYTHING about our religious lives we run the risk of ending up stale, aching and empty. It is the questions that help us to find answers. It is our doubt that leads us to a greater faith. It may be a long, hard journey, but in the end, it is hard for a strong sturdy faith to have never encountered any kind of doubt or question. The encounter with questions is what makes a faith strong and sturdy. Some say this is how faith works. The more you doubt and question, the more you eventually come to understand, and the more you understand, the more you embrace your understanding of what that faith means in your life.

This is not to say that we all need to turn into cynics, questioning everything we encounter about our faith. This is not to say that we need to leave our faith behind and turn to doubts and questions in order to find our faith again. This IS SAYING that the doubt Thomas embodied, the doubt that Thomas represents, is not necessarily a bad thing. Since when did questions become bad? What happened to “there are no silly questions?” Since when is it wrong to admit that we don’ understand everything, or to ask God to clarify something?

Thomas’ story is not about doubt. Poor Thomas, who has been the scapegoat for some 2000 years now, Thomas did not show great doubt. Thomas was the disciple who showed great faith.
Faith is what happens when we are willing to embrace the doubts, ask the questions, and then to face the answers. Faith is believing in something that is beyond our ability to comprehend it, but it is not afraid to try, nor ask more questions and show a little doubt if necessary.

We have all been doubting Thomas’ at some point in our lives. But it is into our doubting and searching hearts where Jesus breaks in and reveals himself to us. God knows our need for a first-hand encounter. That’s why Jesus came to Thomas in a first-hand encounter and that’s why God came to us in the person of Jesus . We have been given a vision of God’s sacrificial love in the person of Jesus. We’ve been given a personal encounter of Jesus to help us with our doubts.

We have all been doubting Thomas’ at some point in our lives. We have all had doubts and questions. But it is in these doubts and questions that we open our lives to the presence of God. It is in these doubts and questions that our faith becomes stronger, that we encounter God. Thomas’ story was not told to remind us of the danger of doubt. The story of Thomas is there to remind us of what great things, what great faith can come from simply relying on our instincts, and asking a few questions
– even if that means having a little doubt.

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