Sermon Notes for the Second Sunday of Easter
Variations of this sermon preached at 8 AM and 10:30 AM at Church of the Resurrection, Franklin TN
April 28, 2019
Scripture: Acts 5:27-32 · Psalm 118:14-29 · Revelation 1:4-8 · John 20:19-31
One of my favorite church related cartoons pops up regularly at this time of year, around Thomas Sunday. It shows three men standing together, with one gesturing emphatically, a bubble above his head with the words “All I’m saying is we don’t call Peter “Denying Peter” or Mark “Ran Away Naked Mark.” Why should I get saddled with this title?” One of the other men in the drawing responds “I see your point, Thomas, but really, it’s time to move on.
The cartoon is a humorous take on a serious observation: for some reason, even as the other disciples exhibited varied flaws and sins, it is Thomas who is remembered as the doubter. Even though, in the Gospel of Matthew, we’re told that when the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples, they fell down and worshipped him, “but some doubted.” Not one. Some. Plural (cf. Matthew 28:17).
Sometimes Thomas is the subject of condescending chuckles, or portrayed as the embodiment of our own contemporary tilt toward skepticism: Thomas, the first Missourian, saying like the motto of the Show me state, “Show me!” Show me, and then I’ll believe. Not before.
This tendency becomes more and more strange as we examine what has been going on. Notice where the disciples are. They’re back in the upper room where they’d shared the last supper. The doors are locked out of fear. They’ve heard about the resurrection, but have they really believed? I don’t see much evidence yet. Then Jesus appears, and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit, and Thomas–poor Thomas–wasn’t around. I think a more accurate nickname for him might be Bad-timing Thomas.
Nevertheless, he’s remembered as the doubter. And yet, while it may seem rather unfair, I wonder if that’s in part because we have the wrong idea about doubt. And here I want to talk about doubt as something different from skepticism or an absence of belief. I want to suggest that doubt requires faith. You cannot doubt what you don’t have to begin with. Thomas had faith in Jesus. Remember, he was so committed that when Jesus said he was going to go back to Judea and to Jerusalem, it was Thomas who said to the other disciples “let us also go, that we may die with him.” I don’t think Thomas was being ironic. I think he really believed enough in Jesus that he was ready to die for him. He just didn’t understand–as none of them did–that Jesus was to die for them. For us.
The context, therefore of Thomas’ reluctance. The context for his unwillingness to believe the account given him by the other disciples, was not the context of rejection or even simple skepticism. It was a reluctance to believe the impossible. A reluctance they’d all exhibited at one point or another. People don’t simply rise from the dead. Even in a premodern, pre-enlightenment time, people knew this. Thomas was simple the latest, and so the title gets hung about his neck.
But it’s not as bad as it seems. Doubt, it turns out, is not something to be rejected or feared. It’s part of the natural process of strengthening our faith. A faith that never encounters doubt is an unexamined faith, just as a world that never leaves us lamenting or, like the Psalmist, challenging God because of what occurs, is a world we haven’t paid much attention to.
We live in a world in which people have a tendency to delight in empty skepticism. To reject belief or doctrine based on a shallow understanding or clear misunderstanding. This isn’t doubt. That’s surface level thinking. Doubt in contrast, can be seen as being like bubbles in the water as we dive deeper into our faith.
The Scottish Pastor turned English Professor and author, and inspiration to C.S. Lewis, George McDonald, describes doubt this way in a sermon on Job:
What MacDonald understood, and what we must understand, is that doubt is only a portion of Thomas’ story. It is a necessary part of the story, but ultimately of less importance than where it leads. You see, Thomas the Doubter becomes Thomas the confessor–the one who most clearly proclaims Christ’s identity: “My Lord and my God!” And he never would have arrived at this place of greater understanding and deeper faith, if it were not for the reality of his faith and his doubt, his doubt in the midst of faith and faith in the midst of doubt.
What are we to take away from this today? What is Thomas’ example to us? I think it’s at least two fold. First, I think we need to understand that doubt arises from the context of faith, and, in order to be true doubt and healthy doubt it needs faith to push against. In other words, doubts are part of a spiritual dialogue that we all engage in. Outside the context of faith, they make no sense to begin with. Secondly, it is not only his own faith that Thomas wrestles with, it is the faith and testimony of the other disciples. Notice that neither they nor Jesus cast Thomas out for his doubt. The other disciples witness patiently and wait on the Lord to act. Jesus actually responds to Thomas’ request and invites him to experience the proof he desired.
And just like the situation in Matthew’s Gospel that I mentioned earlier, where they worshipped him, “but some doubted,” Jesus understands that doubts are things to be worked with and worked through. The occasion of doubt Matthew shares immediately precedes Jesus’ giving of the Great Commission to the disciples, to go into the world making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In our gospel today, Jesus points Thomas and the other disciples–and by extension us–beyond Thomas’ doubts and toward the future: blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe–even in the midst of their doubts. Jesus doesn’t let the disciples’ doubts–or our doubts–let them or us off the hook. We’re called to go deeper into faith, to support one another in that process, and in doing so, to confess, with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”
“Almighty God, your Son Jesus Christ heard the cry of the one who said, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” Make us a church of Thomases. A people honest and forthright in doubt, rooted in faith. We pray that through our doubts, borne and confronted in the midst of faith, we would grow ever deeper in our knowledge and love of you. Grant that we would move, by your Spirit, from doubt to confession, proclaiming, like Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” For we know that you have faith is us, saving us through your Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.