Last Sunday most of you were here for Easter. We had an uplifting service celebrating faith in Christ and in the resurrection. We read together the story of how Christ rose again, and appeared to those he love, and how the message that God’s love still lived began to spread.
It’s hard to leave church on Easter morning and not feel some sense of joy, and some sense of faith. I leave Easter services, like Christmas services, on a sort of “faith high”. I feel surrounded by witnesses to God’s love, and this time of year I feel particularly close to God. Lent is over, and joy has filled the church.
So, we come back to church this week, and we expect the hard stuff to be over. We expect an easier story, or a celebration, right?
Except that’s not exactly what we get. The story we read today starts on that first Easter Sunday. After Jesus has appeared to Mary in the garden, he goes to the room where the rest of his disciples are holed up. And they’re afraid. The writer doesn’t tell us whether Mary had gotten to them yet to tell them the news that he was risen, but I’m guessing she did. And even still, they are scared.
And suddenly Jesus appears, despite the locked doors, and they can see the wounds in his hands and his side. And he says “peace be with you”. And they believe.
But one disciple was missing. And this would probably be me. Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus came back. Maybe he was at the store. Maybe he was running late after work. Maybe he was stuck in traffic. For whatever reason, Thomas arrives and all the other disciples tell him Jesus was just here. I’ll bet they even said to him something like, “Thomas, you won’t believe this!”
And he doesn’t. Thomas tells them, “Unless I see it for myself, and can touch his wounds, I won’t believe.”
Have you ever wondered how Thomas must have felt right then? Were the disciples pranksters, maybe, and he thought they were playing a joke on him? Or were they telling the truth, and if so, why hadn’t Jesus stayed around for him to see him too? All he knew was that the other ten remaining disciples were in on something, and he wasn’t.
But the next week, he is there again. He’s with them, and he still hasn’t seen Jesus. And all of a sudden the same thing happens. Jesus appears and tells Thomas to put his hands on his, and feel the wounds from the nails. And he does. And he believes.
Jesus asks him, “Do you believe because you have seen me?” And he tells him, “Blessed are those who do not see yet believe.”
I’ve always felt bad for Thomas. He was asked to do what the other disciples didn’t have to do. He had to believe sight unseen. Probably any of the others would have had the same struggle. And yet, we all know Thomas as “doubting Thomas”. I wonder how long after this happened did it take for the other disciples to call him that. “Oh, that’s doubting Thomas. Jesus had to come and let him touch his hands before he believed.”
I’d hate to be remembered only my greatest moment of doubt. Because I’ve had them. And I could be, “doubting Emily” pretty easily. And I guess a lot of us could be something similar. But as much as Thomas sort of gets this label as the disciple who didn’t believe, he’s always been my favorite. Because of all of them he’s the one I think most of us can relate to. Because most of us understand what it is to live between faith and doubt.
We think of faith and doubt as opposites. But that’s not really true. Faith and apathy are more opposite than faith and doubt. But doubt is often a key part of the journey of faith. It’s a stop along the way that most of us make more than once. And when we find ourselves there, it’s not an indication of us being bad Christians or disbelievers. It’s a sign that we are taking our relationship with God seriously enough that we are letting ourselves be honest, and we are letting ourselves start a journey without knowing exactly sure where we are going.
Thomas was like that. As much as he is “doubting Thomas”, he’s also known to millions as Saint Thomas. Christian tradition holds that he set sail for India and was the first to spread the Christian there. In the end his doubt, his desire to know Jesus for himself, was what brought him faith. And that faith gave him the strength to bring that message to so many others. And if you go to India today, St. Thomas is the one who didn’t just doubt, but who believed, and who helped others to do so as well.
But he was lucky, right? I mean, he got to see Jesus, to touch Jesus, to know Jesus, in a way you and I don’t. Doubting Thomas may have become a saint, but what hope is there for me, or for you?
I was reading a story recently about a woman in her 30’s who one day had this overwhelming spiritual experience. She knew God was present, and she felt God calling her to do something new, and scary, and hard. But she felt God so clearly that day, that she couldn’t deny it. It’s the sort of spiritual experience most of us want. The moment of clarity. The clear marching orders. It’s like Thomas getting to touch Jesus’ hand.
The young woman did go out, and for the next 50 years she did amazing things. But inside she doubted. She wrestled with faith. She had what Christian writers for centuries have called a “dark night of the soul”. Sometimes she even questioned the existence of God. Her lack of faith bothered her.
The other disciples may have called her, “Doubting Theresa”. But you and I know her as Mother Theresa, the woman whose life many call saint-like. I used to see pictures of her and think, she must be so holy. So full of faith. She must be so certain of what she is doing. But in the last few years, we’ve learned that wasn’t the case. She was like us. And she was like Thomas.
We Protestants don’t canonize saints anymore, but our Catholic brothers and sisters do. And Mother Theresa is very close to becoming a saint. She’s already been beatified. Even with her doubts, she was found worthy of this title.
Or, maybe, because of her doubts.
We all doubt. At least all of us who see faith as a journey, and not a one time stop. Our faith gets shaken, we question it, we wonder why Jesus doesn’t appear to us when everyone around us seems to have seen him. We may even feel a bit ashamed of our doubt.
I wonder if Thomas did that first week. Why couldn’t he just accept what the others said? Why did he have to see for himself? I wonder if the next Sunday he thought about not going back. He wasn’t “one of them” anymore. He was the doubter. The one who hadn’t seen.
And yet, he went back. And maybe he went back because he had loved Jesus so much that he needed to hear them talk about him, even if he wasn’t so convinced it was true yet. Maybe he went back because it was easier than being alone. Maybe he went back because he thought maybe, just maybe, Jesus would come again. For whatever reason, we went back to that community in his hour of greatest doubt, just like many of you come here every week, and that day Jesus showed up and he believed.
Doubt can be the thing that propels us to faith. It can be what shakes us up. It can be what pushes us out of the doors of our once comfortable places and into a new, and better, world. Doubt can be the ticket that starts our journey to new life. It can be a sign not of the absence of God, but of God working in us to do something new.
I’ll close with this. During the time in my life of greatest doubt I went to a lecture by Gene Robinson, the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire. I know I’ve shared this story with some of you before, but it’s worth sharing again as we talk about journeying in faith while filled with doubt.
He was talking about the parting of the Red Sea and how we have this movie version in our heads where Moses lifted his arms and you could see across to the other side. The reality, he says, was more like this: the people put one foot into the water, tentatively, and the waters rolled back a little. And then they put another foot down, and the waters rolled back more. And so on, and so on, until they found they had safely reached the other shore.
It’s the same with doubt. You won’t see to the other shore. And you don’t have to. God is already there. And God is with you in the waters. Doubt as much as you need to, but leave just enough room for the faith that God will show you the next right step. And just keep putting one foot in front of the other. That’s the life of doubt, and that’s the life of faith. Amen.