SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER, April 11th 2021 JOHN 20:19-31
It goes by the catchy name of reputation rehabilitation, and it is one of the fastest growing services in our digital age. You hire a reputation rehabilitation manager when your good name has been besmirched on the Internet. If reputation rehabilitation had been a thing in other times, William the Conqueror would now be known as William the Skilled Negotiator, Vlad the Impaler would be Vlad the Heart Surgeon, and Ivan the Terrible might be Ivan the Greatly Misunderstood.
Let’s say you had great-great-uncle Billy who had been executed for murder in the electric chair at Sing-Sing Prison. You would hire a reputation rehabilitation manager, who would make Billy look like a choirboy. “Uncle Billy”, you could then say, “occupied the chair of applied electronics at one of our nation’s leading institutions. He was attached to his position by the strongest of ties, and his death came as a great shock.”
And this morning we read about a man who could certainly use his reputation being rehabilitated. Thomas. AKA ‘Doubting Thomas’. So, let me suggest some other nicknames for the man who begins today’s Gospel lesson by being somewhere else when the Risen Jesus appears. Ten of the Eleven are together inside a locked room. They are cowering in fear. Now, let’s just make sure we have grasped that. Ten of the apostles are hiding, like men who have lost hope and lost courage, and Thomas isn’t one of them. We don’t know where he is, but it isn’t trembling in a locked room, terrified of being arrested for consorting with Jesus. For all we know, Thomas is courageously striding around Jerusalem, visiting the market, going to the Temple, flouting the conventional wisdom that advises him to keep his head down. This isn’t Doubting Thomas, it’s Flouting Thomas. Ignoring the smart advice, the safe option, the easy road of hiding.
Then, some time later, Jesus appears again, and Thomas is present this time. And the risen Christ shows him his pierced hands and the wound in his side and invites him to do the very thing that Thomas had earlier demanded before he would believe – to touch those injuries. And Thomas responds by not accepting this invitation; he doesn’t actually need to touch the wounds before he will believe in the Resurrection. Instead, he exclaims, “My Lord and my God”, and he becomes the first person in Christian history to call Jesus God. This isn’t Doubting Thomas, it’s Spouting Thomas. He is quick to realize his own foolishness and then gushes the Good News.
This is not the only time the Gospel writers tell us about Thomas. John writes about a time when Jesus goes to the grave of Lazarus and Thomas says, “Let us go with him, so we may die with him.” This isn’t Doubting Thomas, it’s Scouting Thomas, looking for places to go where he can follow Jesus, even if it is costly. He’s sprouting Thomas, taking risks, and growing beautiful graces as a result; he’s Day-in-day-outing Thomas, walking the way of the cross each day.
Yes, he does doubt. But whom is he actually doubting? It isn’t so much Jesus, as his friends. And with good reason. It’s their words he does not accept. They tell him that Jesus has risen, and yet there they are locked in a room out of fear. We can certainly understand why Thomas is reluctant to believe the testimony of the Ten when their experience of the risen Jesus makes no difference to their lives. You have to ask; do they truly believe he had risen? And if they do, then why are they still locked in a room trembling with fear? Yes, Thomas is one of the many people who hear the testimony of Jesus’ followers but do not accept it because the talkers are not living like it is true.
Thomas is our teacher because he tells us we must not settle for a secondhand experience of Christ. He reminds us that we cannot live on someone else’s faith, he calls us to encounter God for ourselves. So, are you ready to rehabilitate Thomas’s reputation yet? If not, let me ask you one final question that will surely persuade you. Who says doubt is a bad thing, anyway?
If doubt is the same as disbelief then, sure, it is something that we people of faith would want to avoid, and the mere thought of it would cause us distress. Doubt would then be a threatening force, stalking us, like some predator. If doubt were an enemy, watching us, biding its time for the moment when it leaps at us and devours our faith, then we would be wise to fear it. We’d be right to organize our lives to avoid doubt. We would not mention our faith to people because they may reply with something that causes us to doubt, and we must avoid that at any cost. We would read only the parts of the Bible that seem logical, reasonable, and easy to believe, because if we found questions rising inside us about a gruesome story in the Old Testament or a miracle in the New, then before we know where we were our faith could be devoured by the predator – doubt. We would stay away from theologians, historians, scientists, in fact any person or book or Tedtalk that might expose us to other points of view, because then we might fall into the jaws of doubt and be consumed. Yes, if doubt were the same as disbelief, we would be sensible to be cautious.
But what if doubt is different from disbelief? What if doubt is a normal, healthy part of living the life of faith? What if doubt can change us more and more into the people God created us to be? What if doubt is our friend and not our foe?
Doubt can cause Christians to question whether their faith is genuine. Because we are not certain that an event in the Old Testament actually happened, or that something in the New Testament occurred exactly the way it is described then our faith must be weak or inadequate, we think. It’s as if our goal is certainty. So, we say, if I’m experiencing doubt then my faith is weak, and if I’m not then my faith is strong. So, a solid, robust faith is not compatible with doubt, the two can’t exist at the same time in the same person.
Now, when we believe that then we experience the urge to suppress doubt and talk up our certainty. In fact, certainly takes over from faith as our goal in life. So much so that we can think that faith and certainty are the same thing. But they’re not. It is simply impossible for us to be certain about our Christian beliefs. Truth is, we can’t be certain about any of the most important things in life. Doubting aspects of the Christian Faith does not make you a bad Christian, it makes you human. It is perfectly possible, and indeed, it should be the goal of our life in God, to live with uncertainty, but to act as if our beliefs are true.
James, in his letter, says that the way we know our faith is genuine is that we will act on it. So, if you have enough faith to pray, even if you aren’t certain God is listening, then you have enough faith. If you have enough faith to love God and your neighbor, even if you aren’t certain that God loves you, then you have enough faith. If you have enough faith to serve God and the people he loves, even if you are not certain that Jesus has died and been raised, then you have enough faith. And if you have enough faith to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Christ, even if you are not certain he is real, then you have enough faith. As John Ortberg says, “Disciples are not people who never doubt. They doubt and worship, they doubt and serve, they doubt and help each other in their doubts. And they wait for their doubt one day to be turned into knowing.”
Doubt does not stop us living content and productive lives for God. Of course, doubt is often unpleasant and always unwelcome. Doubt feels like a form of suffering because it causes us disorientation and distress. But like all suffering it can teach us, shape us, make us better followers of Christ, and better servants of our world. So, let’s ditch the metaphor of the large carnivore that stalks us and devours our faith. And let’s welcome a new metaphor. Step into the garden – your garden of faith. It’s a beautiful spring day, pregnant with life and glory. Stroll down the path, hear the birds singing God’s promise of warmth and beauty in the months to come. And then step gently onto the grass – that thick, lush grass. Who would have thought it would still be alive, bearing the promise of growth, when it was buried beneath a foot and a half of snow of snow just eight weeks ago? Breathe in the aromas of the garden that is your faith. Then flop down and rest. Run your fingers through the grass and allow God’s peace and serenity to wash over you. Then from your sitting position, stretch your legs and lower your back, sink into the soft bed of God’s creation. And then… wait, brush off that ant that has just disturbed the hairs on your arm. There that’s better. Now where were we, of yes, enjoying the garden of faith. Oh, not again. This time an ant is scurrying across your foot, and now there’s one in your hair. Wait, how did that one get inside my shirt? This is not the tranquil garden it was a few minutes ago. There’s an ant’s nest in my garden of faith. The ants irritate. They stop me enjoying the garden as much as I’d hoped. They make me itch. They’re not dangerous, they can’t bite and cause me sickness, but they sure do disturb my peace.
The ants of doubt in the garden of faith. They can’t kill you, they won’t destroy your garden, often you don’t even notice them. They are minor irritants that have a good purpose. They keep you on your toes, they stop you becoming lazy in your faith, they increase your hunger for the perfect garden where we will one day take our eternal and antless rest. So, don’t resent them, don’t fear them, and don’t allow them to stop you enjoying your garden of faith. Rehabilitate their reputation and learn to live with them.