Doubt That Leads to Faith

Second Sunday of Easter (Year B)

TEXT: John 20:19-31

“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25b)

Most Christians think the great believers of the faith never doubted. They know about the faith of the famous Christian leaders, but not about their inner struggles. Yet …

The Scottish reformer, John Knox, wrote of a time when his soul knew “anger, wrath and indignation, which is conceived against God, calling all his promises in doubt.”

Or consider another great reformer—Martin Luther. When we think of his courage in the face of persecution, we may assume Luther never questioned his faith; but he once wrote this: “For more than a week, Christ was entirely lost. I was shaken by desperation and blasphemy against God.

In today’s Scripture passage we find that same kind of faith-struggle even in one of the twelve disciples: Thomas. Now, to me, Thomas seems like a disciple for times such as we live in. Why? Because we live in an age that questions everything! Perhaps we can learn something from Thomas about how to handle our own questions and doubts.

And we do have them. It’s not always easy for us to simply believe. Most of us are more like Thomas than we care to admit. However, I think that’s not really such a bad thing, being like Thomas. For being able to admit our doubts and questions is the first step toward honest faith.

You know, if we had only the first three gospels, all we would know about Thomas would be his name—for that’s all they tell us. To find out more about Thomas, we have to look at the fourth gospel—John’s Gospel.

In chapter eleven of John, we read the story of how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. This is the first time John mentions Thomas, and he gives us some real insight into the kind of person he was.

As you may recall, Mary and Martha had sent word to Jesus that their brother Lazarus was desperately ill. They lived in the small village of Bethany, very close to Jerusalem. After considering the request for a couple of days, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”

But the disciples were reluctant. They said, “Teacher, just a short time ago the people there wanted to stone you; and now you are planning to go back?

They thought he was crazy to even consider returning there. But then Thomas spoke out—and he said, “Let us go along with the Teacher, so that we may die with him!”

He was willing to go with Jesus to Jerusalem knowing full well that it just might cost him his own life. This guy was no coward! Thomas loved Jesus and was fiercely loyal to him. We also see that Thomas leaned toward pessimism—“Let’s go along with Jesus, so that we can die too!”

Well, you know what a pessimist is, don’t you? A pessimist is someone who can look at the land of milk and honey and see only calories and cholesterol. For a person like that, Christian discipleship must be an almost impossibly difficult thing. Yet—in spite of his pessimism—Thomas was willing to follow Jesus wherever he led.

In the 14th chapter of John, Jesus tells his disciples that he’s going away to prepare them a room in his Father’s house. He says to them: “You know the way to the place where I am going.” But Thomas replies, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; so how can we know the way?”

Thomas was not afraid to ask questions when he didn’t understand something—and that seems to have been okay    with Jesus. Of course, the honest doubters and questioners never did bother Jesus. The ones who got under his skin were the know-it-alls—the ones who refused to open their hearts and minds to the truth he was teaching.

There is, after all, more than one kind of doubt. There is the kind of doubt that does not want to believe, that reaches for arguments in order to deny the affirmations of faith. But there is also the “seeking” kind of doubt—the kind that Thomas had. The person who doubts in this way earnestly wants to believe—but honestly admits that understanding is difficult. This kind of doubt actually energizes and expands faith—and that is a healthy kind of doubting.

Thomas was that way. He asked questions because he wanted to understand. Doubt need not be the enemy of faith.

If you have never had any doubts or questions, it may be because you have never seriously thought about your faith. Often we do not truly understand what we believe until some doubt arises that makes us search for answers—just like Thomas did.

Now, let’s return to our gospel lesson. It’s evening on the first Easter Sunday. The disciples are hiding behind locked doors. Then—suddenly—Jesus is with them in the room! He shows them his hands and side—and they are filled with unspeakable joy. But Thomas is absent.

We don’t know why Thomas was not with them. Perhaps it was because his heart was broken. Things had turned out just as his pessimism had suggested. Perhaps Thomas had withdrawn to grieve in solitude. That would be understandable. However, because he isolated himself, Thomas missed out on the one thing that could have turned his sorrow into joy—the presence of the risen Christ.

You know, it’s like Jesus told us: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). When we withdraw from the fellowship of the Christian family, we miss out on that special sense of the presence of Christ—and we miss out on the tremendous peace and joy that goes along with it.

Perhaps the disciples realized that. In any case, they rushed out to look for Thomas. And when they found him, they proclaimed their happy news: “We have seen the Lord!”

Then, of course, Thomas made that reply for which he has become famous: “Unless I see the scars of the nails in his hands and put my finger on those scars and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Fast-forward to one week later. The disciples have gathered again—and this time Thomas is with them. Like before, Jesus appears to them. “Peace be with you,” he says. Then Jesus turns to Thomas and offers to allow him to touch his hands and his side.

We’re not told whether Thomas actually did this. Probably, he did not need to. But he fell on his knees and said, “My Lord and my God!” And with those words, Thomas made one of the greatest confessions of faith in the entire Bible. Thomas’s doubt—even his great doubt—did not destroy his capacity for great faith.

So don’t let anyone tell you to stop asking questions, or to suppress all your doubts. Admit them. Ask your questions. Talk things over with people you trust. But please—do not allow your doubts and questions drive you away from Christian fellowship. For it is as you gather with God’s people that the risen Lord will make his presence known to you. Make no mistake about it: Jesus still comes and stands among us, giving us peace and power through the gift of his Spirit.

Here is the truth: Christ understands our doubt and accepts our imperfect discipleship—and he still entrusts his message and his mission to us, saying, As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

I guess that means Jesus has no doubts about us!

Maybe—if we just hang in there—some of his confidence in us will rub off. What a thing to consider! Thanks be to God. Amen.

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