Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Benjamin Franklin once said, “When in doubt, don’t.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much for the seeds of doubt to be sown. Sometimes the result is debilitating, and occasionally it is slightly frivolous. Lord Halifax, the British Secretary of War and Ambassador to the US in World War II, once shared a railway compartment with two prim looking spinsters. A few moments before reaching his destination, the train passed through a tunnel. In the utter darkness, he noisily kissed the back of his hand several times. When the train drew into the station, he rose, lifted his hat and in a gentlemanly way said, “May I thank whichever one of you ladies I am indebted to for the charming incident while we were in the tunnel.” He then made a hasty retreat, leaving the two ladies glaring at each other. No, it doesn’t take much for the seeds of doubt to be planted.
Holy Scripture is filled with stories of men and women who were struggling with doubt. Noah doubted that he could build the ark. Moses doubted he could take on Pharaoh and free his people. Sarah doubted she and Abraham could have children. Zechariah doubted that his wife Elizabeth could conceive a child. And the list goes on and on.
This is one of the hidden secrets of religious people. We all experience doubt from time to time. It is a part of our spiritual journey- even for pastors. Of course, I know that when I preach or when I write, that I sound confident. After all, I maintain that when pastors climb up into the pulpit to preach, that they should speak about their faith and not their doubts. People have enough troubles of their own without worrying about the pastor adding to them. But let me state again, doubt is a part of everyone spiritual journey.
Unfortunately, many people have been taught that doubt is unforgivable, but let me assure you. It isn’t. God doesn’t condemn you when you question him. Still others have been taught that struggling with God means you lack faith, but that’s not true. Struggling with God is a sure sign that you truly have faith. Frankly, if you never struggle, your faith will never grow stronger. As someone once joked, “If you ever arrive at a place where all your doubts are gone, congratulations, you will know that you are in heaven.”
Over the course of the nearly four decades serving in the church, I have noted that doubts tend to fall into three categories: Intellectual, spiritual and circumstantial doubts. First, there are intellectual doubts. These are often the doubts and concerns raised by those are outside the Christian faith. They ask: Is the Bible really the authoritative Word of God? Is Jesus truly the Son of God? Did he really die on the cross on Good Friday and rise from the dead on Easter morning? Second, there are spiritual doubts. These tend to be the doubts of those who are inside the church. They question: Am I really a Christian? Have I truly believed? Why is it so hard for me to pray or witness to my faith? Third, there are doubts that are circumstantial. This is the largest grouping because it encompasses all the “whys” and challenges of life. Why do bad things happen? Why did my child die? Why did my marriage break up? Why can’t I find a spouse? Why did my friend betray me? These questions meet at the intersection of faith and the pain of a fallen world. And that is where the unfairly treated disciples Thomas has found himself on that first Easter Sunday.
We should never criticize the honest, but doubting Thomas, nor should we judge him as a lesser apostle. He was a courageous, conscientious and committed follower. For three years Thomas had trusted the words which his friend Jesus had spoken. When Jesus decided to go to Bethany traveling through Jerusalem to see his dying friend Lazarus, Jesus’ disciples reminded him that the last time he went near Jerusalem, the leaders tried to stone him to death. It was fool hearty and suicidal to go there, but on the road to Jerusalem Thomas sounded the battle cry to the other disciples, “Let us also go that we may die with him.” Events would soon prove him correct. Thomas was a man of courage.
He was a conscientious man who could not accept easy or trite answers to his spiritual questions. On the night Jesus was betrayed, when the disciples were gathered with him in the Upper Room, Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.” Thomas had been listening quietly, intently, carefully. But Jesus’ talk of coming and going was too much for him. In a moment of great honesty, he asked, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Those are the words of a totally honest and vulnerable man. The rest of the disciples were just as perplexed, but only Thomas dared to speak. We all know people like that—if they don’t understand, they won’t let it pass. They keep asking questions until it makes sense. That was Thomas. He was a conscientious thinker and a thoughtful man, who was not easily deterred.
There was no doubt that Thomas loved Jesus and was committed to him. And yet, when the expected truly did happen, when his friend Jesus was crucified and buried, Thomas was crushed beneath the weight of the cross. He didn’t want to share his loss. He didn’t want others to experience his pain. He wanted to be alone. And so it came to pass that on the first day of the week when Jesus was raised from the dead and returned to his disciples to offer his peace and stood in their midst, Thomas was not there. The other disciples celebrated the resurrection, but as for Thomas, the good news remained too good to be true. He wanted to believe, but he simply couldn’t. “Unless I see in his hands the prints of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
Thomas was not an unbelieving skeptic; he was a wounded believer. He was not unwilling to believe, but he was unable. His struggle came from his devotion to Jesus. There is no doubt greater than that of a broken heart. It is one thing to doubt the doctrine of the Virgin Birth or original sin in a classroom setting. It is something else again to lose someone you love and wonder if there is still a God in heaven who is listening to your prayers middle of the night or cares about your future. Since that first Easter, Doubting Thomas has stood as the one man for all ages who so desperately wanted to believe if only he could be sure.
We tend to look down on those who voice their doubts. But not Jesus. Eight days later, Jesus appeared to the disciples a second time. This time Thomas was with them and Jesus spoke to him as to one whose faith was weak and needed strengthening, not to one who had an evil heart. Jesus said, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Jesus knew the raging sea of doubt within Thomas’ heart, and so he came and spoke directly to him, so that he could be sure. “Go ahead Thomas. See for yourself. Stop doubting and believe.”
As far as I can tell, Thomas never actually touched Jesus. It seems that simply seeing him face to face was proof enough. So it is with many people. Sometimes the strongest doubters become the strongest believers. When Thomas saw Jesus, he rose to the highest level of faith and trust in the gospel as he cried out, “My Lord and my God!” There is no weakness in doubt. The very inclusion of this story of Thomas, the apostle who brought the gospel to India, teaches us that doubt is a part of the sacred word and journey of mission.
My friends, we all have our moments when we discover that we are a lot like Thomas and all of the other disciples who were hiding that first Easter behind locked doors. Sometimes, just like the disciples, we have our doubts. And yet, all are welcome. God is there for you with his abiding presence. He enters your life when you least expect it – even when you are hiding behind closed doors and he invites you to believe. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.