TITLE: Honest & Dishonest Doubt
SERMON IN A SENTENCE: Doubt honestly, looking for ways to believe, rather than dishonestly, looking for ways not to believe.
SCRIPTURE: John 20:19-31
After the crucifixion, the disciples were scared to death. They could hardly believe that Jesus had been killed, but they had seen it happen. Not only were they grieving, but they couldn't help but wonder if they might be next. And so they went into hiding -- locked in a secret room so their enemies couldn't find them.
By this time, two disciples had seen the empty tomb, and Mary Magdalene had seen the risen Lord. You would think that the disciples would begin to get the idea -- to realize that Jesus is no longer dead -- but that seems not to have occurred to them.
I don't blame them, really. If you had seen a loved one buried, how could you imagine that he or she was alive again? You wouldn't even want to entertain such an idea. For one thing, it is unimaginable -- and, for another thing, to get your hope up is to expose yourself to even more crushing grief.
But Jesus settled the issue for the disciples by appearing in their midst -- in their hiding place -- in their locked room. He showed them the wounds in his hands and side, and said, "Peace be with you."
But Thomas wasn't there. Thomas was off by himself somewhere -- not in the company of the other disciples. He didn't see Jesus. He didn't hear Jesus' voice.
The other disciples found Thomas, and told him that they had seen Jesus come back from the dead -- alive again. Thomas gave the First Century equivalent of "Right! Sure you did!" When the other disciples insisted that Jesus was alive, Thomas said,
"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."
There you have it! That is why we call him Doubting Thomas. He doubted the word of the other disciples. He doubted that Jesus was alive. He doubted Jesus!
In our church, we follow a cycle of scripture readings called a lectionary. It is a three-year cycle of readings. Most Bible stories appear only once every three years, but this story appears every year. That seems surprising, doesn't it? If you were going to choose a story for triple emphasis, wouldn't you choose a story of Great Faith instead of a story of Great Doubt! Why should we honor Thomas by telling his story every year?
Actually, it isn't that great an honor, because Thomas doesn't come away smelling like a rose. What we remember about Thomas isn't his faith, but his doubt. Doubting Thomas, we call him. Not a great way to be remembered!
Perhaps this story gets triple emphasis because there are no great heroes in the Gospels. Perhaps there wasn't anyone better than Thomas to emphasize. That comes pretty close! The disciples were a flawed bunch -- believing sometimes -- doubting sometimes-- standing tall for a moment, and then wavering.
But there is at least one hero in the Gospel of John -- the man born blind. Jesus healed him -- gave him sight. That got everyone's attention. The Pharisees did everything possible to discredit Jesus for healing this man on the Sabbath. They questioned the formerly blind man, trying to get him to admit that Jesus had done something wrong. They really put pressure on him. If anyone had an excuse for caving in, it was this man. He had spent his whole life in darkness -- his whole life! Then, able to see for the first time -- he found himself caught in the bright lights of Pharisaic interrogation.
But that man, caught in the glaring eye of instant fame, stood tall! He told the Pharisees that he didn't know the answers to their questions, but he did know one thing. He knew that he had been blind, but now he could see. Then he told the Pharisees that, if they couldn't see that, THEY must be blind! What a gutsy guy! A real "In Your Face" kind of guy! A real hero! Why don't we tell HIS story every year? Why not give triple emphasis this HERO instead of Doubting Thomas?
I have never heard the official answer to that question, but I think I know. I think that we tell the Doubting Thomas story every year, because doubt is an important part of faith. Doubt is so real! We all doubt! Sometimes we believe, and sometimes we doubt!
Faith is a struggle -- one that waxes and wanes. Sometimes we feel secure in our faith, but other times we find ourselves confronted with difficult questions for which we have no answers. "Why?" we cry! "Why me?" Or "Why my neighbor?"
Of course, we occasionally find someone who seems never to doubt -- someone who has all the answers. Ask, "Why me?" and they will tell you. Ask, "Why my neighbor?" and they can answer that one too.
I don't know about you, but I am uncomfortable around people like that -- the person who has all the answers -- who never doubts -- always upbeat -- always confident. Sometimes I wonder what planet people like that come from. But most of the time, I simply wonder if they are being honest. I wonder if they aren't trying too hard. I wonder if they aren't afraid to let down their guard lest God be found wanting.
Think about that for a moment! Could it be that they are afraid to let down their guard? Could they be afraid that, if they find a question to which they have no answer, God will turn out to be a mirage -- a figment of their imagination? Could it be that they are afraid to doubt -- to question – afraid that their faith will turn to dust?
That isn't very strong faith is it! Alfred Lord Tennyson once wrote:
"There lives more faith in honest doubt, Believe me, than in half the creeds."
You have to be careful of quotations like that. Tennyson wrote poetry -- not scripture. We shouldn't take him more seriously than he deserves. And yet, I believe that there is truth in his words:
"There lives more faith in honest doubt, Believe me, than in half the creeds."
We need to place the emphasis on the words "HONEST doubt." There is such a thing as DISHONEST doubt. There are proud doubters -- closed-minded doubters -- lazy doubters -- doubters who find pleasure in undercutting faith -- doubters who care not whom they hurt.
But there are also honest doubters -- people who would love to believe but who struggle with hard questions. I think that Thomas was an honest doubter. He had been hurt. He had believed in Jesus -- had expected so much -- had staked his life on Jesus -- and had seen Jesus killed -- executed as a criminal. When the other disciples told him that they had seen Jesus alive, Thomas was not about to be drawn in by that kind of talk. He had taken a risk on Jesus -- a huge risk -- had given Jesus his heart -- and Jesus had broken his heart.
Can you blame Thomas for not saying, "Sure, I believe!" A person who has been burned is slow to put his hand back in the fire. So Thomas said:
"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."
It was an impossible condition, and Thomas knew it. What he was really saying was, "NO WAY! Fool me once, shame on you! Fool me twice, shame on me!"
But then, the following week, Jesus appears to the disciples again. This time Thomas is with them. Jesus does not rebuke Thomas. Neither does he push him off to the side. It would have been so easy for Jesus to talk to the other disciples without acknowledging Thomas' presence -- to let Thomas stew in the background -- to make him eat crow.
But Jesus does none of that. He speaks first to all the disciples, saying, "Peace be with you." Then he speaks to Thomas. He says,
"Put your finger here and see my hands.
Reach out your hand and put it in my side.
Do not doubt, but believe."
What he is really doing, of course, is meeting Thomas' condition. Thomas said that he needed to see Jesus in the flesh -- to touch his wounds. Jesus says, "If that is what you need, Thomas, here I am. Touch me! Then believe!"
Thomas responds with a great confession of faith -- "My Lord and my God!" That is one way that we know that Thomas is an honest doubter. Dishonest doubters won't believe anything -- nothing persuades them. The Pharisees were like that -- dishonest doubters. They saw Jesus work miracles, but refused to accept what their eyes were telling them. Thomas, on the other hand, is an honest doubter -- willing to believe -- wanting to believe.
Jesus says to Thomas, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." Jesus is talking about us! He is blessing us! We can't see Jesus in the flesh, but see him only with eyes of faith. For that, he gives us a special blessing. I am glad to know that. I love special blessings!
And then the author of this Gospel says:
"Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are written in this book. But these are written so that YOU may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah,
the Son of God, and that through believing YOU may have life in his name."
In this Gospel, miracles are called signs. Jesus' miracles are like signposts pointing us to faith. This Gospel shows us these signs so that WE might believe -- that WE might have life in Jesus' name.
During his life on earth, Jesus worked many signs. We didn't get to see those signs -- those miracles -- but we know about them through this Gospel. But, also, God has sprinkled signs all around us -- signposts that point us to faith:
-- For one thing, there is the complexity and beauty of nature. Science discovers new wonders every day -- from the tiny particles that make up the smallest atom to the stunning pictures of the far reaches of the universe being photographed by the Hubble telescope. These wonders of creation don't prove God's existence, but they are signposts, pointing us to faith. If we have our eyes and hearts open, we can find faith there.
When Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin returned from his space flight in 1961, he made the remarkable statement that he had not seen God in the heavens.
A Russian Orthodox priest in Moscow answered: "If you have not seen God on earth, you will never see him in heaven."
-- The witness of other Christians is another signpost pointing us to faith. Not every Christian helps me to believe in Christ, but some do. In my lifetime, I have met Christians who have inspired me by their faith -- Christians who kept on believing through thick and thin. I have visited them in the hospital, hoping to bring them a ray of hope -- and have come away blessed by their faith. I have known Christians who didn't have much, but who always had enough to share. I have heard of Christians who left comfortable homes to serve as missionaries in some of the world's most miserable places. Those people are signposts pointing me to faith -- helping me to believe. You know or heard of Christians like that too -- people whose faith is infectious -- whose faith helps you to have faith. Those people are gifts from God, helping us to believe.
-- And, sometimes, God comes into our lives and plants a signpost specifically for us. I have often felt God's hand leading me -- nudging me here or there -- taking me someplace important, even if not where I wanted to go. As I look back on my life, I can see places where God saved me from myself -- saved me from prayers that could have been disastrous. I often feel God's presence with me now. I am confident that God is doing the same things in your life -- planting signposts to lead you to faith.
The question isn't whether we will doubt. Everyone doubts. The question is whether we will be honest or dishonest doubters -- having open or closed hearts -- open to belief or determined not to believe.
To Thomas, Jesus said, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
To us, Jesus says, "Blessed are you. You weren't there to see my miracles, but here you are anyway-- in church-- worshiping -- working your way through doubt to faith. For that, I give you a special blessing. Open your eyes to see it! Open your heart to believe it! Open your life to receive it!"
Crown Him With Many Crowns (BH #161; CH #234; CO #525; GC #485; JS #393; LBW #170; LW #278; PH #151; TH #494; TNCH #301; UMH #327; VU #211)
He is Lord (BH #178; CH #117; JS #631; UMH #177)
Love Divine, All Loves Excelling (BH #208; CH #517; CO #454; GC #622; JS #391; LBW #315; LW #286; PH #376; TH #657; TNCH #43; UMH #384; VU #333)
Open My Eyes (BH #502; CH #586; JS #448; PH #324; TH #371; UMH #454; VU #371)
JS #448 is a different hymn, but is appropriate for the same reasons as the other hymn.