Doubt as a Part of Faith
2nd Sunday of Easter
John 20: 19-31
by The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
28 April 2019
“Blessed be those who believe but do not see.” In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
This morning we have the story of Jesus’ first resurrection appearance to the disciples. The disciples are locked inside their houses. Ashamed of their association with Jesus who was just crucified and afraid that the religious authorities might come after them, too. They aren’t quite sure if the storm of emotion and hatred which sent Jesus to his death will continue its momentum. But, to their great shock, while huddled up in fear behind a locked door still trying to process the events of the past few days, Jesus appears inside the house.
Jesus proves his identity to them before they can even ask a question. It is hard for us to even imagine the shock that they must have felt when they saw him. Imagine having just watched a man die on Friday afternoon, bury him and then have him appear in the flesh in your living room on Sunday morning without warning or announcement. Before they apostles could say anything Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” And then immediately shows them the scars on his hands and his side. The wounds prove his identity to them. This is me, he is telling them. I am here. I am alive. Without the scars, the disciples might have been skeptical that it was really the crucified Jesus who was raised from the dead. If he was just a vague spirit or disembodied voice, they would have thought they were merely hallucinating. Jesus in bodily form with marks of the crucifixion are the decisive proof of his identity. And now, the apostles have to grapple with the vast religious, political, and cosmological implications of the resurrected Jesus.
Thomas, we are told, is absent from this first resurrection appearance. Most likely, Thomas was so broken up from the events of Friday that he just wanted to get on with life. Being around the other disciples was probably very difficult and Thomas just needed a clean break from it all. Not to mention he wanted to distance himself from the religious authorities as well.
We are also probably not surprised, then, that when the disciples rush to tell Thomas about the good news of their encounter with the risen Jesus, Thomas was duly skeptical. He had just spent three years of his life as one of the 12 at a tremendous psychological, social, economic, religious, personal, and political cost to himself. He had just seen everything he believed in and committed to crucified in the most humiliating and horrific public display.
The level of disillusionment, resentment and anger that Thomas must have been feeling is very understandable. So when the disciples come to him to tell him Jesus is risen, Thomas’ reaction is hardly surprising. And, if we are honest, it is probably what we might say in his place. He is not just going to take his friends word for it. Thomas says to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of his nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later, Thomas is with them, and Jesus again appears in the room the same way he did the first time. He says the same thing to Thomas “Peace be with you” and tells Thomas to put his finger in his side and see his hands. He tells him not to doubt but to believe. Jesus shows Thomas the same marks of the crucifixion that he showed the other disciples a week earlier.
Sometimes I think we are too quick to criticize Thomas and think his faith is weaker than the other disciples. (After all, Thomas is also known as “Doubting Thomas.”) We come to this conclusion, I think, because right after Jesus shows Thomas the wounds of the crucifixion he says, “Blessed are those who can believe without seeing.” I am not sure Jesus is criticizing Thomas, so much as he is commenting on what will be necessary for the future generations of disciples, like us, who will not have the benefit of Jesus’ resurrection appearance.
The burden is going to be on the disciples to tell people they saw Jesus risen from the dead and recognized him by the signature marks of the crucifixion still on his body. Future generations will have to proceed based on the eye witness of the disciples and their testimony alone. So, I think, in order to make sure his disciples are absolutely clear that it is him beyond a shadow of a doubt, Jesus shows him his scars. Only with such irrefutable proof, can the disciples be equipped to spread the good news of Jesus’ resurrection with confidence.
Those of us who do not have the benefit of a personal resurrection appearance, like Thomas will, of course be doubtful. It is actually pretty normal to be doubtful and skeptical that someone might be raised from the dead. It is not something that happens every day, and only the power of God can accomplish that. So, if one is initially doubtful about the resurrection, this is not ureasonable, but it is not a position one should dwell in forever.
During a period in my life when I struggled with my own doubts and unbelief, I wrote a letter to a friend and former professor of mine about this. He wrote back:
“Difficulties in believing are part and parcel of faith itself; that one or another proposition of faith, which struck us as illuminating our existence yesterday, should today seem doubtful, is just the natural condition of a self-aware life. Shifting experience of belief goes with evolving relations with the world, and can, if we allow ourselves to attend with seriousness to the questions it raises, deepen and strengthen our lived faith. What is most important is to build on what has been given. Only by gathering together our experience of self and our faith, and by focussing it upon the questions raised, can we maintain a unity with ourselves.”
The words from my professor were very helpful to me. Before that, I used to think doubting was a weakness of faith, or even sinful. But as he pointed out, doubt is not only a natural part of faith and a self-aware life, but if we attend to our doubts seriously it can even strengthen our faith. This is different than letting our doubts erode our faith to the point where we become doubtful and skeptical about everything–where we think that we are lying when we profess our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed. After all, the Nicene Creed is a profession of faith, not of knowledge.
So, if one doubts the resurrection of Jesus, how might one examine the questions that might arise from that doubt? If one doesn’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus, then one might ask himself, Why not? Is it that God can’t do that, or God wouldn’t do that? If God can’t do that, then why not? If God wouldn’t do that, then why not?
If one doubts the resurrection of Jesus one might also ask himself what the implications are for Christianity if the crucifixion of Jesus was indeed the last known event of Jesus life. What does that say about God? What does that say about Jesus? What does that say about us? What does that say about the Christian faith? Why would the Gospel writers say this happened? Why would the preach about it and write about it if it didn’t happen? Why would they lie?
If you find yourself having once believed in the resurrection but now you are doubtful or disbelieve it entirely, what has changed? What new things have you learned to lead you to doubt? What new experiences have you had to lead you to doubt? Could you be wrong? Are you correct in your interpretation of that new knowledge and experience? Can those new thoughts and experiences be overcome by new knowledge or new experiences? If so, what would those be?
These are important questions for people of faith to ask, and if by asking these or other questions, you find yourself entering into a deeper level of the mystery of faith, then the role of doubt has done its job in helping you to believe in things that you don’t see.
It is not always easy, sometimes doubt can be overwhelming or feel like a constant companion. But as long as it is confronted with humility, and not as a source of pride, to parade around how intellectually savvy and smart we are, then doubt can actually be an important aspect of spiritual growth. When confronted with humility, we can turn our doubts over to God and ask him to transform our doubts into faith. We can always ask him to show us the marks on Jesus’ hands and his sides, and when we are ready, God will present the risen Jesus to us in some experience through which we will be able to perceive it.
So, if you doubt, that’s OK. Keep asking questions, keep coming to church. God is a God of truth. He does not deceive us. Trust that God has raised Jesus from the dead and that those who believe without seeing will be blessed. Alleluia.