The lectionary, the three-year cycle of readings that we follow for worship, means that we visit each passage every three years EXCEPT on the Sunday after Easter. This week’s Gospel reading, John 20:19-31, comes to us every year. What is so special about it? I think it is because it features Thomas the Twin, to whom the disparaging term, “doubting” is often applied. Thomas represents all those who could not accept, at first hearing, the news of Jesus’ resurrection, i.e. he represents us, except for the most gullible and naive.
Though the moniker, “Doubting”, tends to be used in a negative fashion, Thomas’s story is a celebration of doubting. And, really, Thomas was no different than anyone else. Look again at the various stories: Mary Magdalene did not believe until she met Jesus in the garden. The disciples were told of Jesus’ return, but they dismissed the news as tales of idle women. If Thomas was different, it was in the character of his disbelief, for he was prepared to believe under certain circumstances; he wanted to see for himself, and who could blame him? ‘Show me the print of the nails.” Like any good scientist, he demanded proof.
First, it prevents him from being hoodwinked by blind faith. Unfortunately, we often feel that our faith is inadequate if we can’t quite believe all that Christian doctrine puts before us. Usually the ones who foster this inadequacy – the ones who have tried to convince us that doubt is bad – are the ones who will gain power over us by having us believe, without question, what they tell us. It is not just the extremists and the fundamentalists; you’ll find them all over: the school teacher who is too insecure to allow students to think for themselves, the minister who wants to be the boss, the politician who would be voted out of office if people knew the facts, big business and their advertising firms who would just like us to believe the glossy claims made for their products. And the Church, over the centuries has been as guilty as any of trying to keep people in the dark in order to strengthen its position. Thomas, and those like him who demand some facts, at least have a chance of avoiding servitude to those who would keep us in the dark and pull our strings with their ideas.
In a world plagued by terrorism we are all too aware of the dangers of fundamentalism, but today’s Muslim fundamentalists had effective teachers: the Christian leaders who began the bloody Crusades; the Christian church itself, which demonstrated how to deal with ‘infidels’ by burning the Christian variety at the stake during the period of the Inquisitions; the modern day Christian fundamentalists who claim they are on God’s mission when they abuse, beat or even kill homosexuals. O, if only all followers of religion had more doubt! If only they stopped long enough to question the wisdom and morality of their beliefs instead of believing what they were told!
As André Gide, French Nobel Laureate, said, “Believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it.”
Second, our doubting makes possible new learning. Facts which we observe and experience form the basis of human learning. This is the primary process by which one can know anything. Our belief becomes vital when it is first-hand experience: what we have seen, heard and touched for ourselves. Until we have asked a question, we are not really open to an answer, an experience. Until we are ready to doubt our old beliefs, there is no room for any new ones.
Val Webb, in her book, In Defence of Doubt, says: “Doubt become a moment of grace, an unpredictable and enlivening gift…” (p.10)
In my experience, there are many in the church today who are halfway believing, halfway saying with Thomas, “This I cannot believe.” The ones who dare to go the rest of the way and express their doubt are, far from being inadequate in their faith, the ones who are on the road to real faith. To seek, to question, to doubt is the first step, and an essential step, toward faith.
The point of John’s story is that God does not deny Thomas here. Jesus appears again and offers Thomas exactly what he has asked for: “You need proof? Okay, go ahead and touch me. Put your fingers in my wounds. Far from despising Thomas’ expression of doubt, Jesus responds to it. Such is God’s way of handling doubt: God gives us what we need. “Seek and you shall find,” says the scripture.
But note that the story doesn’t stop here. Thomas is given a bigger faith than just that which is gained from seeing. Thomas’ response, “My Lord and my God!” is one of the strongest declarations of faith recorded in all the New Testament. The first part, “My Lord,” comes from what he saw: the proof for which he had asked, but the second part, “my God,” is not seen in the evidence. Thomas uses the proof provided to him to see Jesus, but then makes a leap of faith to see in Jesus, the face of God. Thomas may have started slow with his doubts, but through the surge of the Spirit, he leapt ahead of all the rest and reached the Truth.
Jesus then says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” It is the gift of belief by which we are blessed; that belief which allows us to go beyond the visible, tangible reality of our senses and touch the reality beyond.
Reality is, I hope, more than any of us will ever understand. Each flower holds within it the reality of the entire universe and the reality of God. Our faiths calls us to question and doubt so that it can we be open to the facts which will give new understanding , but then it enables us to see beyond the experience of the obvious to see the presence of God in all things. Thomas saw this, going beyond the visible proof to be blessed by the invisible.
Where does that leave us? We have heard the stories that invite to say, “Yes,” to God. We have heard someone call our name. There have been sermons, scripture passages, prayers. We have heard and maybe half-believed. If something else is needed that’s okay, says John, because God will provide it. Come to the Lord’s Table, open your hands, open your mind, open your heart, and you will receive what you need.
I don’t know what you need. Maybe I don’t even know what I need. Maybe what you need is for Jesus to slip through that closed door behind which you hide and say, “Peace.” Maybe what you need is for him to say, “You need physical, tangible, visible, tactile, material, empirical proof? Here, taste this bread, drink this cup, my body, my blood.”