The Faith of Doubt
Preacher: Tim Strayer
Of the sixteen years that I’ve been a member here at St. John’s, I’ve served on the Stewardship committee probably a bit more than half. Every year that I prepared the Stewardship material and placed it in the mail, I would wonder if anyone would take the time to read it. I would worry if people would return their pledge cards. I would fret that we wouldn’t meet our budgetary requirements.
When I would get worried like that, I would hear a little voice inside me say, “Have faith, it will all work out.”
But that little voice doesn’t say, “Sit on your hands,” so just after hearing it, I would generally write a note to the Eagle mailing list making sure that everyone knew when Ingathering Sunday was, and to please prayerfully consider their pledge.
Yeah, this isn’t a Stewardship Sunday, it’s a Doubting Thomas Sunday, but how could I preach a sermon on doubt when among the times I have the most doubt around St. John’s is when I worry about parish participation, in the form of pledges and in the filling of the pews. I have faith it will all work out, but not until I’ve had a health dose of doubt as an appetizer.
I am going to talk a bit about doubt today, and almost not at all about Stewardship, so you can relax. Although I will point out that pledge cards are always at the Usher’s Table.
Since today is Doubting Thomas Sunday, let’s start with a bit about who Thomas was beyond just being known as a doubter. Here are a couple of facts: The development of the apostle Thomas as a principal character happens only in John and in no other Gospel. Thomas’ real name is not Thomas but Judas. Since there were at least two other Judases—Judas Iscariot, and another Judas that is traditionally called Jude—Judas Thomas is generally shortened to just Thomas. Thomas literally means twin, coming from the Aramaic tau’ma, but it is uncertain who Thomas is the twin of. More on that in a bit.
Back to Doubting Thomas Sunday. Since John, the non-Synoptic Gospel, is read primarily at Easter, we get the story of Thomas each year regardless of the cycle. So every year, precisely one week after Easter, the preacher must find something to say about a character and a story that is both extremely powerful and by now a tired cliché. Or, as is the case here, the regular preacher can kick it down to someone from the Sermon Group, and see how he fares.
There are generally three major ways to preach about Thomas. The first is to consider Thomas as an Everyman, the original Missourian who says “show me.” Thomas represents all of us who just can’t quite get our heads around the fantastical idea that Jesus has indeed risen bodily—not metaphorically or spiritually, but corporeally—from the grave. When she heard that I was preaching on Doubting Thomas, my daughter Abby said to me, “Dad, it’s simple. Thomas asks Jesus to prove he’s risen so we don’t have to. It’s central to our religion.” Whoa. Okay, she’s 13, but that’s pretty much what many preachers in other churches are saying this morning. This way is the Thomas-centric sermon, but today this way is not my sermon.
The second typical path is Jesus-centric. Thomas is the straight man to Jesus finally and definitively acknowledging his divinity. Jesus is there in the room—twice—to commission his apostles to go forth with the Holy Spirit, but Jesus is diverted. In his words, “Do not doubt, but believe,” Jesus erases the last obstacle standing in the way of evangelism. A powerful message, for sure, but today this is not my message.
The third standard in every preacher’s pocket is taken, of course, from the line, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those that have not seen me and yet have come to believe.” This is the faith-centric sermon, the one that argues that we have been given—through the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life—all the evidence that Jesus is going to give, and the rest is up to us. You’re on the bus, says Jesus, or you’re not; I’ve given my testimony. My sermon today does not make this argument.
Rather, my sermon today is about doubt, and how true faith has its origins only when we meet and deal with doubt.
When I started thinking about today’s text, it struck me as curious that it’s John and only John whose gospel mentions Thomas. You may know that there is an apocryphal gospel written by Thomas, called, surprisingly, the Gospel of Thomas. The Gospel of Thomas is not a narrative like the other gospels, but rather is 114 sayings of Jesus, about half of which are in the Synoptic Gospels.
In addition to the Gospel of Thomas, there are several other books that were supposedly written by Thomas or that have Thomas as the main character. There are the Acts of Thomas, the Book of Thomas the Contender, the Apocalypse of Thomas, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. None of these made it into the Canon, although at some point in the early formation of the church, these texts were either wildly popular or at least quite influential.
The Acts of Thomas chronicles Thomas’ missions to India, where he converts many and establishes several Christian communities. (Here, India refers to any land east and south of the Euphrates.) The Infancy Gospel tells stories out of school of a very smart, very impish Jesus between the ages of 5 and 12. The Apocalypse describes the last seven days of the world. Thomas the Contender is a conversation between Jesus and Thomas, recorded by someone named Matthaias. Some of these texts so upset the early canonists that they were buried in Nag Hammadi, a town in Egypt, where they stayed lost for 16 centuries, only discovered relatively recently in 1945.
I tell you all this because, well, I think it’s kind of fascinating and shows that God didn’t just drop a fully conceived Bible in every hotel room. Rather there were a variety of legends and accounts, not just of Thomas, but of almost all of the apostles. It was very trendy to have an Acts written about you. But really I’m telling you this because, from its very beginnings, Thomasine tradition is built on dualities, some on purpose, and some accidental.
One duality is between Thomas and John. The Gospel of Thomas was probably written before John’s Gospel, and there is evidence that John and Thomas were actually bickering in their texts. Thomas’ gospel, since it is really just a collection of sayings, is predicated on us experiencing Jesus for ourselves through Jesus’ own words, without running commentary. But since these are only sayings, there is no account of the passion and resurrection. John makes Thomas doubt the resurrection, some scholars speculate, in order to emphasize that the resurrection is the sine qua non of Christianity—that is, the truth of the resurrection may not be experienced by us in the way John has Thomas experience it—with a touch—but it is the truth nonetheless. From start to finish, John’s aim is about proving the divinity of Jesus as the Christ; it is in Thomas that John finds his foil, and, with the doubt, Jesus can, clearly and unequivocally, state that he is, in fact, divine.
Another duality is found in the name “Thomas.” I mentioned before that Thomas means “the twin” but there is no mention in the canon about who that twin is. Some traditions say that Thomas was, in fact, Jesus’ twin. Not a real, born-at-the-same-time twin, but a twin in that Thomas shared most closely Jesus’ message. We don’t see this in the four gospels, but the Book of Thomas the Contender is an account of the resurrected Jesus and Thomas (whom Jesus calls his twin) in a long dialogue. I can’t begin to say that Thomas the Contender and the other Thomas-based books should be given the same weight and reverence as the canonical Bible, but the fact that they exist does speak to the strong tradition of Thomas in the early eastern Christian communities. And it is worth thinking for a moment about what it means to be a twin of Jesus.
One aspect of their twinship is manifest in the act of doubting. We know from John that Thomas had his moment of doubt, but we also know that Jesus did, too—in the Garden of Gethsemane. A week after Thomas states that he will not believe until he has seen the evidence, Jesus greets him with peace, and gently, even intimately, allows his metaphorical twin to touch is wounds. It is not surprising that Jesus, who himself had experienced doubt, meets Thomas’ doubt not with rebuke but with a welcome.
It is actually a fairly risky thing to doubt. Far easier it would have been for Thomas to have just gone along with the others, keeping his skepticism to himself. How often do we fail to raise a critical question for fear that asking the question is, in fact, admitting doubt, and by admitting doubt, we are either showing weakness or showing dissention. Either of these is terrifically uncomfortable. Yet articulating the doubt is the first and most important step toward discovery and comprehension. Doubting does not guarantee us the answers, but when we doubt, we are at least trying to find the answers. If we didn’t doubt, we wouldn’t care.
Every night I check in on my sleeping daughters, and every night I’m visited with a certain amount of doubt about my parenting skills. Am I saying “no” enough? Am I saying “yes” enough? Am I helping them to become fully formed descent people? I have no way of knowing this, certainly not today, and maybe not for many years. But if I didn’t doubt, I wouldn’t care, and that is far worse than having suboptimal parenting skills. The best thing I can do for them is to wonder if I’m doing the best I can, to doubt it, and in that doubt, have faith that I won’t mess up too badly.
Doubt and faith are inextricably linked—one exists only because the other exists. This is a strange duality. Surely faith is the absence of doubt, since doubt erodes and corrupts faith. But quite the opposite is true, and here’s why. Doubt is a serious wakeup call. It’s the immediate knee-jerk reaction to anything that radically challenges our worldview. It’s visceral and uncontrollable, and comes from deep within us. It’s our built-in refusal to change. But here’s the thing: If you are doubting, you are at least still in the conversation, and it is then that faith begins to allow you to face the change. Once your doubt calcifies into a belief or a disbelief, you have given up the quest. But while you doubt, you are actually seeking, and the act of seeking is in fact an exercise of faith.
We are in here, in this church on this Sunday, actively seeking God in spite of or maybe because of the doubts we carry about the changes and chances in our lives. By doing so we are practicing faith. But what about the many more people who are outside of these doors? Some of them doubted once, and then found it easier to stop doubting, stop the quest, and instead just go to Starbucks and read the Sunday Globe. Some of them are still doubting, but haven’t the strength to seek the answers. Some are seeking, but haven’t got a way to form their questions, and so are drifting.
Jesus did not rebuke Thomas’ doubt. Jesus said, “Reach out your hand.” Thomas, the twin, did. I stand with Thomas, yearning to know that my master, my guide, my rabbi is yet alive, but I cannot deny I have doubts. I am probably not alone. We are all doubters, and therefore are ourselves twins of Thomas.
• • •
Three years ago this community was facing its own doubts about its future. We were without a rector and our prospect for one had just fallen through. We wondered what God’s plan for us was. Then a little voice inside all of us said, “Have faith, it will all work out.” Then a deep, soothing baritone voice said, “But not without us working together, all as ministers.” And out of our doubt we began to quest for God through mutual ministry, where we are all called to be Jesus’ twin, to receive openly and lovingly all those who question, and yet continue seeking.
In the words of Saying 2 from the Gospel of Thomas, “Jesus said, ‘Let him who seeks continue seeking, until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished.’” Amen.