(1 John 1:1- 2:3; John 20:19-31)
Let me get one thing straight before we begin. It’s never been very pleasant to be known throughout history as Doubting Thomas – as if that were the only thing important about me. I was one of Jesus’ closest friends. There’s a Christian church in India founded in my name by those who were inspired by my witness to the gospel. And I even had a gospel written in my name, though it never made it into the Bible – it was a bit different from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But the only thing you care about is that I wasn’t there the day Jesus appeared to his disciples, and that I had trouble believing he had been there. But there’s a reason for that!
I’ve always felt sorry that I wasn’t there when Jesus appeared that first time. But I just couldn’t stay in that room, surrounded by fear and confusion. I had to be alone with my grief. We all know that Jesus went off by himself when he wanted to work a problem out. I needed to do the same. I was just following his example! How was I to know he would come back, walk though the walls of that room, and let them see him? Even now, I can hardly believe that such a thing happened. I mean, I was a doubter all my life, but not in the way you think. I doubted myself – was afraid to trust myself, afraid of looking like a fool. I questioned everything, wanted to pin things down and have control over them. But I’ve learned over the years, that some things can’t be pinned down – sometimes you have to just live with things that don’t make sense; sometimes you just have to trust. And I never doubted my relationship with Jesus – ever. He was the one who was teaching me to believe in something, to believe I could be a part of something good and grand, a part of God’s plan for the world. And believe me, that was a lot harder to believe than many of the other things people doubt!
Jesus’ death came as a shock to us, of course it did! Some of us had an idea he was preparing for something, but death was not what most of the disciples expected. I actually had an inkling, but there wasn’t much I could do to stop it. I knew something was up when Jesus didn’t rush right back to Bethany when Lazarus died. Outside the circle of his disciples, Martha, Mary and Lazarus were the closest friends Jesus had. But Bethany is so close to Jerusalem, and the authorities there hated and feared Jesus. They were looking for any excuse to discredit him. I actually thought it was pretty smart of him to stay away.
But then, what does he do?! A couple of days later he says, “Let’s go to Judea!” That’s when I knew he was going to die. I could see it coming, like a sandstorm blowing up across the desert. And I was as powerless to stop it as I would be before the storm. If you don’t believe me, you can look it up in your Bible. John 11, verse 16. “Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Anyway, there wasn’t much we could do once he’d made up his mind, so we all went along with him to Bethany in Judea, and then on to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. I knew there’d be trouble. There’s no way to hush up something like a man rising from the dead: and that’s what Lazarus did! He was dead – and then he was alive! The priests weren’t going to like that much – it showed that Jesus had too much power – and a man with too much power is a threat to order, even if that order isn’t a very good one. But Jesus kept on going, up to Jerusalem, up to the temple, walking right into the jaws of death. And when it happened, it was so fast all we could do was reel with shock!
We couldn’t believe how the authorities manipulated his arrest and trial. And we were all even more shocked to discover that Judas had betrayed him, and Peter, his right hand man, had denied even knowing him! Somehow, my doubts don’t seem so terrible in the face of what they did.
But like I said, I at least, knew that something was going to happen. And death was at the end of the road he walked. He even told us that, over and over – we just didn’t want to believe it. When it finally happened, we were more scared than anything. All of a sudden we didn’t have a leader, and all we could think about was the violent mood of the crowds. Would they come after us? Would they attack us with the same kind of false, trumped-up accusations! The more we talked about it, the more afraid we came, and we were reduced to huddling behind doors, feeding into each others’ fear. But I couldn’t stay there. I had to get out.
So, I wasn’t there, when Mary ran in with her wild tale of a missing body, and then of seeing the Lord alive! I wasn’t there when Jesus walked through the closed door and bid us all “Be at peace.”
I wasn’t there. I was out trying to make sense of everything that had happened, clearing my head and trying to find some ease for the pain in my heart. I needed time to remember all the things Jesus said to us, to sort out his words, and try to understand them in the light of what had happened…..You know, he told us over and over again that he was going to die, and that he would then come back to us. I don’t know why I found it so hard to accept when I heard what the others had to say, but maybe it was in part because I didn’t want to prove myself a fool – I didn’t want to believe and then discover I was wrong!
And then, I was a reluctant follower to begin with. I don’t think I ever fully understood why Jesus called me to be one of his disciples. I was learning to trust Jesus’ sense of who I was, but I always kind of doubted that there was really a place where I could serve. Without him to bolster my sense of calling, I was adrift. I had too many doubts, too many questions. And I couldn’t let them go long enough to believe the good news I was bombarded with. It all sounded so doubtful! I mean really, they kept on and on about his hands and his side, about how he had spoken to them, and how he had promised them peace. What did they expect, that I would swallow the whole thing, lock, stock and barrel? I don’t think you would, if someone came to you with such a tale!
But when I finally saw him, it was amazing! When I saw Jesus with my own eyes, and got to touch his poor wounded hands and side. They tell me I blurted out the words, “My Lord and my God!” I don’t remember, but you know, when I look back on it, I was probably the very first person to recognize in Jesus the face of God. And they call me a doubter! Yes, I had doubts about myself – doubts only Jesus could cure. But the questions I brought, the challenge to show me something is true – maybe that’s the very gift that was needed at that time. Because I asked the right questions, because I took time to think about what had happened and to wonder, I was able to see what others could not. So maybe, being a doubter was not such a bad thing! Maybe it was my doubting that helped me see more clearly!
And you – with your questions and doubts. Don’t be afraid of them! They may be signposts on the path that will take you to a deeper understanding and a stronger relationship with your God. Do not doubt that Jesus lived, and loved. Do not doubt that the love God showed us through Jesus is strong and alive and meant for you. Do not doubt that you have a role to play in God’s intentions for the world. But do not be afraid to ask questions; do not be ashamed of wanting to know the truth; do not be troubled by your need to think and reason and make sense of the way God acts in the world. Those are the signs of one who takes their faith seriously; who longs to live as close to God’s truth as possible. Such doubts are not a handicap; they are keys to greater insight. You will never be able to reach out and touch the hands and side of Jesus – to know him as we knew him – but he will be with you. You have within you the faith to doubt, and yet believe; to let your questions and your wonderings be food for growth in faith.
Take my word, the word of doubting Thomas – you may doubt, and yet believe. And “blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
(based on a sermon by Ilene Dowd in Gatherings – substantially modified)