As part of my internship duties at Broad Street United Methodist Church, I am occasionally asked to preach. Our church follows the lectionary, a rotating set of themes and passages from scripture that follows the Christian calendar. This takes a little freedom away from the preacher, but it is a spiritual practice that allows Christian disciples to follow the Christian story chronologically in their lives. So, through no choice of my own, I was thrilled this Sunday to preach on one of my favorite texts, from John 20:19 – 31, which deals with the story of Thomas and his experience of the resurrected Christ.
You probably know Thomas more familiarly as “doubting Thomas”, the man who refused to believe in the resurrected Christ until he was offered physical proof of the crucifixion. The traditional version of the story offered by the church suggests that since Jesus ascended into heaven, none of us will get to see physical proof of Christ’s resurrection, and therefore Thomas’ doubt is the opposite of Christian faith. Tragically, this view diminishes the continuing power of the resurrection through the church and scapegoats one of the most faithful disciples of Jesus. Today, I hope to provide a new perspective on Thomas, as I feel his doubt is an essential part of Christian faith.
While doubt may not be the opposite of faith, unquestioning faith is the opposite of doubt. The world is filled with many different accounts of reality, and we would be walking contradictions if we were to believe them all. Current events are presented differently by different media outlets. Political parties offer different explanations of the world’s crises. Some of these accounts are accurate, some are partially accurate, while others have been manipulated to meet the demands of wealth and power. Without doubt, we would be unable to distinguish good reporting from bad reporting and responsible politics from pandering politics. Doubt allows us to recognize the flaws of the world around us so we may come to a deeper, more accurate perception of the world.
Doubt is also part of learning and growing in faith. Without doubt, our faith becomes static, unmoving, and fixed. We confine the infinite power and mystery of God inside the bounds of human understanding. Without doubt we claim total knowledge of God, and we risk making an idol of our faith! Doubt leads us away from limited understanding to deeper, more accurate faith.
I believe the church commits a big sin when it portrays Thomas’ doubt as the opposite of faith. It denies Thomas’ incredible faith as one of the twelve disciples. Thomas’ doubt stems not from an absence of faith; rather, his doubt stems directly from the total faith he invested in Jesus for three years. Thomas gave up everything – family, friends, possessions, privacy – to follow Jesus, and he experienced life more fully than he ever could have imagined. If you were in Thomas’ shoes, what would it have felt like to see Jesus die on the cross? You can imagine feelings of anger, hurt, hopelessness, abandonment, and confusion.
Thomas and the others endured great suffering with the death of Jesus. It seemed to them the death not just of their friend and teacher but also the way of life they had committed themselves to. Jesus was powerless in the face of Roman law and order, and the crucifixion made his teachings seem shallow and naïve. In the face of violence, Jesus’ teachings must have seemed a nice dream that did not pass the “real world” test. The disciples likely felt shamed and embarrassed at the simplistic, idealistic faith they had given themselves to. When Thomas asks to see Jesus’ wounds, he is asking to see proof that Jesus is not an illusion from the past but a real force that has survived execution at the hands of the world’s most powerful empire.
Thomas is not around the first time Jesus appears to the disciples. The text does not say where he was. I imagine he was dealing with his grief in private. But a week later, he rejoins his old friends, who perhaps provided him with one last sense of the life he had lost. And in the company of the re-assembled disciples, Jesus appears again.
Jesus does not rebuke Thomas for having doubted. Instead, he reveals himself, wounds and all. In revealing his wounds, Jesus also reveals Thomas’ wounds. Jesus affirms the reality of the pain and suffering Thomas experienced in the wake of the crucifixion. Jesus does not ask Thomas to return to an untested faith, a faith that seemed juvenile in the face of real-world violence. Jesus’ presence reveals a new faith that is very real, as real as pain and suffering is real. His wounds reveal a new faith that bears the marks of the world and lives on.
Until we know pain and suffering, it is easy to follow Jesus. It is in our nature to love. Several times Jesus told his followers that unless they became like little children, they could not know the kingdom of God. What did Jesus mean? Jesus was not asking his followers to turn back the wheels of time. He was not asking them to reverse the biological process of aging. He was not asking folks to give up the responsibilities that come with age. Instead, Jesus was referring to the ease with which children love God and love neighbor. It is our nature to love God and to love neighbor as self. That is easy for us to believe, and it is easy for others to believe.
But there are a lot of forces in the world working against Jesus, and this is where we have questions of faith. Many of these forces seem far more powerful than our Christ. The same kind of power that killed Jesus exists in the world today – empire, religious authority, greed, fear, etc. The people who worship these powers know that they have a physical advantage on their side, and they often get their way. In the face of this kind of power, the power that appeared to defeat Jesus, it is natural to doubt the resurrection of Jesus. What could faith look like that rises beyond this kind of power? Has anyone seen this kind of faith?
I have. I see it in the faces of the homeless at our church, who bear visible signs of the toughness and roughness of the streets but greet each other with smiles on their faces. I see it in the faces of domestic abuse victims who move beyond destructive relationships with dignity and pride. I see it in the faith of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Christians, who in spite of rejection in the church believe in its transformation. I see it in the faces of our teachers who, in the midst of rapidly diminishing support for public education, retain love for their students and for their profession. I see it in the faces of the people of the Middle East, who are standing up to longtime dictators at the risk of losing their lives. These people bear the scars of forces that are much more powerful than they, but it is through the faith of these people that Christ is alive, resurrected, and creating a better world.
On September 11, 2001, the people of the United States of America were wounded. Nearly 3000 people lost their lives. The nation’s values of freedom and democracy seemed threatened by a small, elusive operation that proved impossible to find after ten years and two wars. Now that the US has found bin Laden, it is tempting to say that our actions have been successful in protecting our values. For much of the rest of the world, however, our actions have created more questions about our value system, not fewer. Has justice truly been served to the 9/11 families, who will never get their loved ones back? Has justice been served to the soldiers who have lost their lives and to their grieving families? Has justice been served to the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, who have suffered untold (thousands? hundreds of thousands? a million?) numbers of civilian casualties? Has justice been served to the poor in our own nation, whose vital social services are being cut due to the debt we have accumulated to finance our wars?
Until we face the threat of violence, it is easy to believe in the ways of Jesus. Let us not look down upon those who doubt. Their questions, and our questions, stem from the deepest, most wounded parts of ourselves. Let us understand each other’s wounds as our own, and may our questions call out the false Gods in each other and reveal the true power of the resurrected Christ. Through our faithful works, God does work, and on God’s time, God’s power exceeds all the worldly powers.