Dramatic Disbelief – May 3, 2009
Psalm 42, John 20:19-29
May 3, 2009
If I look at a word long enough, it starts to look funny. Does that ever happen to you? You look at a word that’s a simple or familiar word over and over and it starts to seem incorrect or “odd” somehow. Well that happened to me this week with the word “Unbelief.” It’s a correct word, but it started to “bother me.” So I opted for the word “disbelief.” That’s also good because it has a nice alliterative ring to it. (Alliteration is a series of words that start with the same letter.)
So this message today is about Dramatic Disbelief. And I use as my example – with fear and trepidation – the story of Thomas. And I say fear and trepidation because of what a lot of people have thought about this man, for a long, long time. And if you don’t already know it about me, I think a lot of that has been wrong for all of those years. I don’t think Thomas was any more of a doubter than any of the other disciples.
Now, maybe you’re thinking, “Oooh, our minister is contradicting the Bible!” Well, I’m not. If anything, I’m contradicting what people have interpreted in the Bible – and in this case for centuries! And I don’t do so lightly. And I have to say it isn’t easy to refute a long standing belief about something. People have been associating Thomas with “doubting” for a long time. But I stand on my belief.
You see, I believe that the important thing John tells us in this story is found in verse 24. Listen again, “Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the twin, was not with them when Jesus came.” That’s what’s being emphasized here! And it’s emphasized even more in what Jesus says at the end of this story. He says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” (John 20:29)
Notice, he says nothing here about Thomas’ “skeptical nature.” He says, “Here, feel my hands and side, do not doubt, but believe.” He doesn’t say, “Thomas, you doubter, you must believe. He simply says “do not doubt.” Other translations say “Do not be ‘faithless’ or ‘unbelieving.’” That’s different, isn’t it? At the end, Jesus doesn’t say, “Do you now believe? Have I gotten through your skepticism?” This is not about a personality trait. It’s about the disbelief, of that unbelievable event, at that moment.
The problem Thomas had was not personality oriented. His problem was totally locational. He was not there when Jesus appeared that first time! And if it had been any one of the others, they would have doubted just as much as Thomas – maybe even more! So, this story is not so much about the “personality profile” of a doubter as it is about the nature of disbelief. And so the message of the story is not reliant on whether or not we are to “identify with” Thomas. It is a timeless story about how we doubt and what we do about it.
The first thing I want us to see here is that doubt is not really the right word, anyway. (If anything he should have been called “disbelieving Thomas!”) I almost used that word in the title of this message. I almost called it “Dramatic Doubt.” But that really wouldn’t be right here, because doubt implies the questioning of something you have already believed and now aren’t so sure about anymore. I know that can have the same effect on us, but it’s different. This isn’t Thomas believing the resurrection at first, and then later on thinking about it and saying, “Now wait a minute. How could that be?” This is a bold, blatant, flat-out denial of even the possibility that Jesus had come back. “Unless I see the wounds of the nails…”
That’s what I like about this story. Doubt is not just an inaccurate word. It’s also inadequate word! This is “dramatic disbelief!” When the disciples told Thomas that Jesus was alive, he didn’t just say, “Oh Yeah, Right!” Thomas put everything on the table! And we don’t do that very well, do we? When we have doubts or disbelief, we often keep it much more subdued or subtle. We say, “Oh you know, sometimes I’m not so sure.” “Sometimes it’s a little hard for me to imagine the resurrection happening.” “But I believe, God!” We’re afraid to admit our doubt sometimes, aren’t we? Thomas is refreshing in that he let it all hang out. “Unless I see the holes in his hands…”!!!
When we have doubt, we tend to “low key it.” We say, “Gee, sometimes I’m not sure if I’m sure.” We’re afraid of the consequences of disbelief. We’re afraid of what might happen to us if our doubts were “found out.” Or worse, we get the idea that if we were to doubt the existence of God, he might somehow stop existing, as though his existence hinged on our belief in him. What I like about Thomas is not about whether he was more of a doubter or not. It’s about how he met his doubt head on, and as such was able to “let it out.” And it was then that Jesus could readily deal with it! And I think it’s the same with us, too!
Thomas was a bold man. He “lived big.” And I think that’s what God liked about him. The Bible doesn’t tell us much about Thomas. In fact, in the first three Gospels we only find him named him when the list of the disciples is given. That’s it. Thankfully, John includes him in several key stories in his Gospel. And here again, Thomas is bold. He speaks out. He asks the big questions! I’ll give you an example.
You may remember during Lent how we talked about Jesus going to Jerusalem, and what a dangerous thing that was for him to do. At that time, I quoted what one of the disciples said in reaction to Jesus’ decision to go. Do you remember that? He said, “Then let us also go, that we may die with him.” Well, at the time, I think I said that was Peter. But on closer reading this week. (and with the help of my wonderful computer concordance!) I realized it was Thomas! And it doesn’t surprise me. It was another bold statement from a bold man!
Then later, in the upper room, Jesus was preparing the disciples for the time when he would be leaving them. He was telling them that he was going to prepare a place for them, so that they could be with him. And it was Thomas who asked the question they were all thinking. “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” What a bold question! “Wait a minute, Jesus, you’ve got to give us more than that!” That’s the kind of man Thomas was!
So it’s no surprise that Thomas was just as dramatic in his disbelief. And as I said, there’s something refreshing in that. We’re afraid of doubting God. But deep inside of us we’re secretly glad Thomas did. And that became an opportunity for God to make dramatic confirmation!! And I think we too need to confront our disbelief when it arises, so that God can make those great confirmations in us!
Sometimes I think when it comes to our faith that we live too much in the theoretical. I know I can get that way sometimes. And don’t get me wrong. Striving to understand of the nature of the faith, thinking about God in theological terms, those things are good. But the real practical living of our faith, actually living the new life I’ve been talking about for several weeks now, it is those practical things that sometimes escape us.
There’s an old saying that goes like this. “Some people are so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.” Maybe you know that one. And doesn’t that describe us, sometimes? Is it not hard sometimes to make the translation from the theoretical thinking to the practical living of our faith? We miss that sometimes, don’t we? We know the things we should do to be like Christ, but sometimes we stop with simply talking about them. We don’t do them. We know that there is great joy in the new life and in being new creations, but we fail to live as any kind of joyful people!
Thomas makes these bold statements! He lives the life of faith boldly. That’s another reason I don’t like his reputation of being a skeptic. Because it paints a picture of him being negative. And that’s unfortunate! Because it couldn’t be the farther from the truth. Look at the ending of this story. When Jesus confronts him in his dramatic disbelief, Thomas falls to his knees and pours out his heart, saying, “My Lord and my God!” There’s nothing more positive about that! That is a deep, heartfelt confession from a deep and sincere heart, a heart touched in a huge way by the living God!
Don’t we long for such a deep level of faith as that? Don’t we long to live in a big way, like Thomas, and to be touched by God in a big way? Of all things about him, Thomas lives from the heart. He is motivated by that deep down inner part of him, that part where God wants to touch all of us. God wants us to live on that level, too. He wants us to live big and love big. He wants us to shake off our complacency, and see the unbridled joy of his kingdom.
May we spend time thinking about just that. May we seek to share with God our whole heart – whether that means our biggest joys or our deepest doubts. May we set aside the erroneous notion that we can hide any of that from God. He knows us better than we know ourselves. So let us seek to know ourselves as God knows us!
Eternal and ever living God, help us to know you. Help us to seek our inner heart, and open ourselves up to you. Help us to know the joy of your kingdom and live as your bold disciples, the light of the world. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.