TITLE: Doubting Thomas and Doubting Teresa SCRIPTURE: John 20:19-31
Thomas! Thomas was an apostle! He was also a pessimist. Once, when Jesus was determined to go to Jerusalem in spite of the danger there, Thomas turned to his fellow disciples and said,
"Let us also go, that we may die with him" (11:16)
Cheerful fellow! "Let us also go, that we may die with him."
Thomas was also a doubter. Jesus appeared to the disciples on Easter evening, but Thomas was absent. When the other disciples told Thomas that they had seen the risen Lord, 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" (20:25).
And so Thomas the Apostle has evermore been known as Thomas the Doubter.
Jesus returned a week later, and this time Thomas was present. It's interesting to note how Jesus dealt with Thomas. Jesus didn't say, "You disappointed me, Thomas!" He didn't say, "You're off the team!" Listen carefully to what Jesus said to Thomas the Doubter. First, he said to Thomas and all the disciples, "Peace be with you" -- a kind and comforting word. Then he turned to Thomas and said:
"Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe" (20:27).
Keep in mind that Thomas had set the conditions under which he would believe. He said that he would have to see the mark of the nails in Jesus' hands -- and put his finger in the marks to test them -- and put his hand in the wound in Jesus' side. Thomas said, "That's what it will take to get me to believe."
So Jesus said, in effect, "OK, Thomas. Here are my hands. Here are the nail marks. Go ahead! Touch them. Here is the wound in my side. Go ahead! Put your hand there!"
And then Jesus said, "Do not doubt, but believe." Thomas responded by saying, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus responded:
"Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe" (20:29).
That's one of my favorite verses in the Bible, because it applies to me -- and it applies to you. "Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe." We have not seen Jesus, but we have believed. Jesus blesses us for doing that.
But if we are honest, we will confess that we have doubted too. If we are thoughtful at all about our faith, we will sometimes find ourselves asking, "Was Jesus real? Was he the Son of God? Is there a heaven? Can I go there? Is my faith really wishful thinking?"
This story of Doubting Thomas in the Bible helps us to deal with questions like that. It doesn't answer the questions directly, but it does help us:
- First, it deals with a very real problem that all of us experience -- doubt.
- Second, it shows us that Jesus is sympathetic to our doubts -- forgiving of our doubts. Jesus didn't condemn Thomas for his doubts, but instead gave Thomas what he needed so that he could believe.
- And third, Jesus knew that there would be other Christians in the future -- people like you and me -- who would never see him in the flesh -- so he pronounced a special blessing on people like us. He said,
"Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
Notice that Jesus didn't say, "Blessed are those who never doubt." Jesus didn't say that. He said:
"Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
I believe that most Christians -- even the great Christians -- have moments of doubts. We all have a bit of Doubting Thomas in our genes -- in our DNA.
After Mother Teresa died a few years ago, there were a number of articles published about her doubts. Many people could hardly believe that Mother Teresa had doubts. She had become an icon of faith -- of humanitarian service -- of faithfulness to God. She founded the Missionaries of Charity -- an organization that fed millions and cared for the sick and dying. She led an exemplary life of faith. But in letters to her spiritual mentors, she once wrote:
"I am told that God lives in me -- and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul."
She also wrote:
"Where I try to raise my thoughs to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul."
How can it be that such a saintly woman could experience such spiritual pain -- could entertain such serious doubt? I like what Archbishop Henry D'Souza said in response to the discovery of those letters of Mother Teresa. He said that the letters showed that Mother Teresa was "both holy and human."
"Both holy and human!" Those are the two sides of it, aren't they -- the two sides of each of us! She was holy and she was human. And so are we! She had faith and she had doubts. So do we!
But I would like to point out three things:
- First, Mother Teresa wrote those letters to spiritual mentors -- people to whom she could turn for spiritual help. She didn't suffer in silence, but cried out for help. She didn't lock herself in darkness, but reached out for light. She didn't turn to pills or booze, but sought help from other Christians -- from people of faith who had also experienced doubt.
- Second, Mother Teresa wrote those letters in the 1950s and 60s -- almost half a century before her death. At that time, she was just starting her mission work in India. She did so on a shoestring. She moved to the slums of Calcutta and started a small school there. She was able to get her hands on an old building, but had no desks, no chairs, no tables. Her chalkboard was a dirt floor. Outside, people were dying on the sidewalks -- literally at her doorstep. She began bringing them inside to care for them until they died. It must have felt like trying to feed an army with a crust of bread. No wonder she felt depressed.
- But third, she persevered. She had her doubts, but she didn't let those stop her. She started her mission work when she was forty years old, and kept at it until her death nearly half a century later. During those years, she was able to do more and more. Soon she was caring for hundreds -- and then thousands -- and finally hundreds of thousands. But those gains came slowly -- not over years, but over decades.
It might be just coincidence, but Thomas and Teresa had something in common. Teresa had her ministry among the very poorest people of India. According to early tradition, Thomas was the first missionary to India.
So what can we learn from Doubting Thomas and Doubting Teresa?
One of the most important things that we can learn is that Jesus comes to us in the midst of our doubts and our travails. He comes not to condemn but to help. Jesus comes to us in many guises:
- To Thomas, he came personally -- in the flesh.
- To Mother Teresa he came in the form of a child who needed teaching -- and a leper who needed shelter -- and an old person who needed help with dying.
- Christ might come to you on one day as a person who helps you-- and on another day as a person who needs your help.
- Christ might come to you as a helpful word from this pulpit -- or as a helpful word from scripture -- or as the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
So one thing that we can learn is that Christ comes to us -- even in our darkest moments -- and he comes to help us.
We can also learn from Doubting Thomas and Doubting Teresa that it's important to surround ourselves with Christian witnesses when besieged by doubt or travail. Thomas found Christ in the midst of the other disciples. Mother Teresa found help from her spiritual mentors.
And then we can learn from Doubting Teresa to keep on keeping on -- to keep putting one foot in front of the other -- to keep doing Godly work in the expectation that God will bring the increase. When in doubt, keep acting in faith until you once again have faith.
And finally, we can learn from the words that Jesus said to Doubting Thomas. Jesus said:
"Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
Let me remind you who Jesus was talking about. He was talking about you. He was talking about me. We have not been privileged to see Jesus in the flesh, but we believe anyway. And so Jesus has given us a special blessing -- what some have called his Last Beatitude -- "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
In the Gospel of Mark, a father came to Jesus seeking help for his son, who had terrible convulsions which sometimes caused him to fall into the fire. Jesus said, "If you are able! -- All things can be done for the one who believes." The father then cried out, "I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:23-24).
Let that be our prayer: "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!"
Crown Him With Many Crowns (BH #161; CH #234; CO #525; CP #378; ELW #855; GC #485; JS #393; LBW #170; LSB #525; LW #278; PH #151; TH #494; TNCH #301; UMH #327; VU #211; WR #317)
Love Divine, All Loves Excelling (BH #208; CH #517; CO #454; CP #485-486; ELW #631; GC #622; JS #391; LBW #315; LSB #700; LW #286; PH #376; TH #657; TNCH #43; UMH #384; VU #333; WR #358)
Morning Has Broken (BH #48; CH #53; CO #425; CP #3; ELW #556; JS #397; PH #469; TH #8; UMH #145; VU #409; WR #35)
At the Name of Jesus (BH #198; CO #538; CP #375; ELW #416; JS #371; LBW #179; LSB #512; LW #178, PH #148; TH #435; UMH #168; VU #335; WR #321)