Isaiah 44:1-8, John 20:19-31
April 22, 2012
Today we look at the third Easter story. Well, it’s the fourth really, if you consider the story of Mary at the tomb. But that’s really an expansion on the stories of the women at the tomb in the other Gospels.
This story comes right after that, and this is about Jesus appearing to the disciples on the evening of Easter day, and it’s probably an expansion on the end of the story of the Road to Emmaus which we read last week. In that story, the two travelers came back to Jerusalem to tell what had happened, “and while they were telling their story, Jesus himself stood among them.” (Luke 24:36) It would be interesting some time to blend together all the Easter accounts and make one big story, wouldn’t it?
For now, this is the story of Jesus appearing to his disciples. And by now you know my take on this story. I’ve told you how I think Thomas has gotten a bad rap over the years. People have called him a “doubter.” Some have built a whole “personality profile” around him – because of this story. They’ve even tried to sugar coat his disbelief, saying that “Thomas was the practical one,” and that “he had a healthy level of skepticism.”
Again, my take on this story is that the problem here for Thomas was location, not skepticism. I don’t think he was any more a doubter than any of the others. He was simply the one who was not there when Jesus appeared! Again, if it had been one of the others, we might now be calling skeptical people “Doubting Matthews” or “Doubting Philips.”
The more I think about it, the more I think this is a story about doubt itself, and it’s about how much disbelief there was on the day of Easter! I think Luke may have portrayed that doubt the best. Remember what he said about the Apostle’s reaction when the women came from the tomb and said that Jesus was alive. He says, “But these words seem to them an ‘idle tale,’ and they did not believe them.” (Luke 24:12) Then later, when the two men came back from Emmaus, and Jesus stood among them, here’s what Luke says. “They stood there startled and frightened, thinking he was a ghost.” And when he told them he was not, Luke says, “they still disbelieved for joy and wonder.”
I wasn’t sure what that meant, so I read that verse in every version I could find. And the one that helped the most was in the Jerusalem Bible. And who was one of the translators of the Jerusalem Bible? John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Well, that version says, “And their joy was so great that they still could not believe it, and they stood there dumbfounded.” None of these guys could believe it! And I think this story is simply about how that disbelief played out in one particular person. John often does that in his Gospel!
So, this story is about disbelief! And I think it’s so important for us to hear it again and think about that. Because this is one of those places where our perspective on the story, not only makes us miss some of the feelings that were happening, but it also makes us miss an important lesson – a lesson on doubt itself.
I say that, because as you know, we always have the best perspective on these stories. We know, as Andy Rooney used to say, “the rest of the story.” We know what was going to happen. These guys didn’t! We come to this story from the standpoint of belief. And then we look back and make the leap in our minds, and we say, “I certainly would have believed it at the time!” But I don’t think so! I’m sure I wouldn’t have believed it that first Easter day. And I bet you wouldn’t have, either!
We need to see and understand their doubt. Because doubts are not confined to that moment in history. We all have doubts from time to time. I suppose part of the beauty of these minds that God created us with, is that they have the power to question things. That’s how great discoveries are made. But we also have the power to question our faith. And when we do, we sometimes doubt. The question is, how do we deal with those doubts?
Look what Thomas did. He spoke it. He laid it all out, I think in a healthy way. He needed to see, and he gave the conditions under which he would believe. And notice that it didn’t play out that way! Thomas didn’t actually do the things he said. He didn’t actually put his fingers in the nail holes or place his hand in Jesus’ side. But he did get pretty specific here in stating his doubt! Jesus had died horribly. He had horrendous wounds! And for Thomas, or any of them, not to believe the resurrection is not only healthy skepticism, but also a testimony to the fact that Jesus had indeed died. (Some still explain his resurrection by saying that he didn’t die!)
Thomas expressed his feelings. And he may not even have meant any of this. What he said may have been more an expression of impossibility, the impossibility he felt about the Jesus coming back to life. This may have been like our saying “I’ll believe that when pigs fly!” And I think we need to understand that God might not answer our doubts the way we demand it. That’s important, because when we demand the proof, when we put conditions on our belief, who does that put “in charge?” It puts us in charge, doesn’t it? I think Thomas realized that. When he said, “My Lord, and my God,” there was no doubt who was “in charge” at that point, was there? God is in charge. We can’t control him!
So, let me suggest two things here. If you’re going through a time of doubt, share it with someone. That’s one of the reasons we are in congregations. We are here to encourage one another in the faith. That’s another reason that we need to be here. Church is not just for ourselves and “what we get out of it.” We’re in this to help and encourage others, too! In the baptism service, we promise to help the person being baptized to “know all that Christ commands, and by our fellowship, to strengthen his or her family ties to the household of God.” Doesn’t that speak so strongly about why we are in churches? We help strengthen each others ties to the household of God.
So I encourage you to do that for each other. Strengthen those ties! Because it’s too easy to do the opposite, isn’t it? It’s too easy to be discouraging, or to weaken a person’s ties to God. By our words and actions we can hurt someone else’s faith, can’t we? So be careful! Know that you hold someone else’s spiritual well-being in your hands. Hold that as precious!
So that’s the first thing I want to say. When you doubt, share it and seek the encouragement of others. I was talking with someone just the other day and they were saying that very thing. They said, “When I’m not around the church, when I’m not around God’s people, I tend to doubt. But when I’m with them, I feel more sure of things.” That’s what I’m talking about!
Here’s the second thing I want to say, When you doubt, take it to God! And you can be sure of one thing. God can handle it! Sometimes we’re reluctant to do that, though, aren’t we? We think that somehow our doubting God makes him pop out of existence. What I often like to say about the existence of God is that he either exists or he doesn’t. He can’t do both at the same time. And this is the important part. His existence is not contingent on whether we believe he exists. Let me assure you that God does exist, even though we might be going through a time of doubt.
So, take your doubts to God. He can handle it! Pour out your heart. That’s what God wants. And that doesn’t always mean positive stuff. It doesn’t always mean praise. It sometimes means complaints. Read the psalms! There, you’ll find David complaining to God about injustice, and all kinds of things. And I know that’s not easy for us. We’re afraid to complain to God. We’re afraid that God will be mad at us. But I really believe that God would rather have us fight with him than ignore him! He would rather us go to him and say we doubt than not to go to him at all. Sometimes we need to say to God what the man once said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief!”
Let me tell you, we don’t have a God who gets mad at us if we doubt him. We have a God who wants to help us get past the doubts!! Because he wants to be in relationship with us! He’s longing for us to pour our hearts out to him.
The last thing I want you to think about today is this. Sometimes doubts are a matter of acceptance. Sometimes there’s a difference between believing something and accepting something. That was the case with some of the religious leadership at the time. There was a fine line between not believing in Jesus and not wanting to believe in him! Remember what they said about the Apostles in the beginning of the book of Acts. They had arrested them, and they were discussing the situation. And they said, “What shall we do with these men. They have performed a significant miracle, and everybody in Jerusalem knows it! But in order that it spread no further, let us warn them not to do it again.”
Are you kidding me? Do you see the tremendous irony in that? It isn’t that they didn’t believe it happened – that or the resurrection. They just didn’t want to have anything to do with it. That’s it for some people. It’s not that they don’t believe in God or in Jesus or in the resurrection. They just don’t want anything to do with it. They don’t want to accept it. Maybe that’s us sometimes.
So, don’t believe in skepticism. That’s a fun little turn of a phrase. But what it means is, if you have doubts, do something about it. Don’t let your doubts just sit there and get the better of you. Share and encourage each other. Go to God. Pour out your hearts – complaints and all. He loves you! He will answer. It might not be the way you expect, but it will probably be in the way that you need!
Eternal Creator God, sometimes it all does seem to good to be true. Sometimes we struggle. Sometimes our faith fails us. Thank you that you love us, and that you want to heal our hearts and bring us back to you. Help us to open ourselves to your love and grace and joy. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.