Dealing with Doubt

Dealing with Doubt

Grace & Fairview United Methodist Churches

April 27, 2014

 

John 20: 19-31 (CEB)

It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” 22Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”

24Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. 25The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”

But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”

26After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”

28Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”

29Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

30Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. 31But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.

 

One of the things many of us preachers enjoy and appreciate is the opportunity to participate in Study Groups that help us prepare our weekly sermons. It is a place to bounce ideas off one another, to share insights and illustrations, to recommend good books and resources for sermon preparation. A couple of years ago, just before Easter, some colleague friends of mine in another state were gathered for their weekly Study Group. Needless to say, the topic that week was the resurrection story. Well, not all of the preachers in attendance were using the same resurrection account, and so up for discussion were all four of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ victory over death.

Now, it’s important to note that not all of the gospels tell the same story about Jesus’ resurrection. As a matter of fact, none of the gospels records the actual resurrection itself, they only record the DISCOVERY of the resurrection by the followers of Jesus, and even those stories differ from gospel to gospel. In any case, my friends were talking about these four different resurrection accounts from the four different gospels, and they were really getting hung up on the differences between the stories. It was causing a lot of problems for them as they were trying sort out what really happened and how best to convey the story of Jesus’ resurrection.

That afternoon, one of my friends called me. She was really upset about the Study Group. She told me what had happened in their gathering that morning, and then she reflected, “It was brutal…I don’t know what to think. Stuff like that makes you wonder if the resurrection even really happened. How am I going to tell this story on Sunday?” She was full of doubt.

Jesus’ resurrection from the dead defies all reason. No matter how hard we try, there is no logical explanation for what happened on that first Easter morning. And I know is that if we preachers struggle with the veracity of this story, many of you do as well. Of all the fantastic, miraculous stories about Jesus: healing paralytics, walking on water, knowing people he has never met, and so on, the resurrection story is the hardest for us to comprehend. It cannot happen. Period. So most of us here, I imagine, have learned to cling to this story in faith. But even “faith is a mystery of the heart that the mind wants to solve.”[1] We want evidence, and without evidence, this inkling of doubt begins to emerge.

I imagine this is something we’ve all experienced. It’s nearly impossible to invest any part of ourselves in following God without feeling at least some doubt from time to time. The good news, though, is that we are not alone. Doubt has been a part of the Christian experience all the way back to the time of Jesus and those first disciples themselves! Thomas, in particular, carries the timeless reputation as the “Doubting Disciple,” as we see in our gospel reading this morning. But the truth of the matter is, all of the disciples showed signs of doubt both before and after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Mary Magdalene saw the empty tomb, twice, but she did not believe until the risen Christ appeared and spoke to her directly, personally. Then, when she went to the disciples and told them of her encounter, saying, “I have seen the Lord,” they dismissed her words because they had not seen the risen Christ themselves. So, in fear, they locked themselves in a room to hide.

It was several hours later, on Easter evening, that Jesus appeared in the room where the disciples were; all except Thomas, that is. And Christ knew their doubt, so as he appeared in their midst, John tells us, Christ made a point to show them his nail-marked hands and pierced side. Only then did the disciples rejoice. But Thomas showed up late to the party; not unlike all of us, really. As we gather on this week after Easter, we come with questions, and fear, and uncertainty, still trying to process what this all means. Lord knows, we’ve missed the resurrection not by a few hours, but by a few thousand years! So, much like us, Thomas found it a little hard to simply accept the fact that their crucified leader had somehow come back from the dead. He didn’t want to be taken by his friends, and so he told them emphatically that unless he put his hand in Jesus’ wounds, he would not believe. And because of that, we call him “Doubting Thomas.”

Poor guy. He wasn’t demanding to see anything the disciples hadn’t already seen. And in all honesty, how many of us would accept such outrageous claims as fact without a little proof! Thomas might also be called “Determined Thomas.” He was determined not to be taken in by any trickery. He was standing on his rights not to believe anything until he had good solid evidence. And, truth be told, we don’t want to be fooled by our friends, either. In fact, if we had been standing in Thomas’ place among the disciples 2,000 years ago, we might have listened to the disciples’ story only to respond with a, “Yeah right!” or “When pigs fly!” We humans just don’t accept miraculous claims very easily. We are, to a great degree, a skeptical people. But you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that, either!

Jesus seemed to understand the skepticism of humanity; the pervasiveness of doubt in our thinking. Jesus seemed to know our need for “proof” when it came to believing miraculous things. And without any cynicism or judgment, Jesus provided proof for his followers, many times over. Without being asked, when Jesus first appeared to the disciples, he showed them his hands and side. And only then, John tells us, did the disciples rejoice. One week later, when Jesus appeared to the disciples again, he did not express impatience with Thomas. Instead, Jesus told Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side.” Jesus might as easily have said to Thomas, “You need something more than a secondhand encounter with me? You want to see for yourself? I do not condemn you. Touch. See. Believe.”

Jesus did not despise Thomas for his doubt. Still though, Jesus did go on to say, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” On the surface, it sounds like Jesus is rebuking Thomas, but I don’t really think that’s what’s going on here. If Jesus felt the need to teach Thomas a lesson, it seems he would have done that BEFORE he offered to let Thomas touch his wounds. Instead, I think Jesus is taking this opportunity to address the doubt that he knows so many of his followers will deal with. On that first Easter, only some women and a few of the disciples saw the empty tomb. That was it. In all of history, only a handful of people encountered the resurrected Lord. Since then, billions and billions of others have been compelled to believe this story with secondhand information only, on faith alone. We are among those covered by this blessing from Jesus. We did not go to the empty tomb and see the risen Christ for ourselves. But, as with Thomas, Jesus does not despise our doubt either. Instead, he blesses all those who will believe without ever seeing.

I don’t know about you, but that seems like awfully good news to me. Jesus knows that we will experience doubt, and he actually wants to help us move beyond that doubt and into full faith. Jesus was, and still is, in the business of meeting people where they are. And Jesus is like a good doctor, in that he does not give the same prescription for everyone. We might be hung up on the four different resurrection accounts, or we might be hung up about God’s will, or we might be hung up on why bad things happen to good people. But no matter what, Christ will approach us in the way we need, and ultimately, he will find a way to bless us.

According to John, that is the way Jesus handles doubt. He gives us what we need, a blessing in one form or another. Listen again to the way John ends the story of Jesus’ encounter with Thomas and the other disciples. He says, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not 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 him you may have life in his name.”

Christ gives us what we need. We can wonder if Jesus really walked on water or turned water into wine, but Christ gives us what we need. We can pour over those four resurrection accounts and question the ending of death in new life, but Christ will give us what we need. We may not see or touch, we may not have been there, but Christ will find a way to “show” us. Whether through a story in the gospels or the testimony of a friend, we will hear someone say something, perhaps a small something, that will speak to us, right when we are standing at the precipice between doubt and faith, just when we need it most.

Either Jesus is risen, or he is not. On the face of it, it is a simple choice. We are not told if Thomas took Jesus up on his offer to touch his wounds. He was given a choice that we do not even have. But Jesus’ offering, his blessing, was just enough. And Thomas’ response was one of the strongest declarations of faith recorded in all of the New Testament, when he cried out, “My Lord and my God!”

We all wrestle with doubt. And what we need to know this morning is that that is “okay.” Christ wants to change that for you, and for me, and for everyone. My prayer for each of us today is that we will have faith enough simply to believe in Christ’s blessings for each of us. If we can muster just that, Christ will help us beyond doubt so that we, like Thomas, can cry out, “My Lord and my God!”

May it be so.

Amen.

 

[1] Clayton J. Schmit, “Second Sunday of Easter, John 20: 19-31: Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2, David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds.(Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 395.

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