Doubt and faith

Easter 2

John 20:19-35

Marian Free

In the name of God who is revealed in the risen Christ.  Amen.

I can remember a long time ago meeting someoen who was quite critical of the fact that I was researching for my Phd. In his mind a critical examination of scripture was unnecessary for someone entering ministry and that it would at worst lead me on the slippery slope to a loss of faith. I can remember too, on one occasion being asked if I would preach a rather academic student sermon in a parish setting. My answer was “yes”, that I believed that church-goers were entitled to be exposed to up-to-date interpretations of the bible – though I might find a different way of saying it in the context of a congregation.

History has demonstrated that I have not lost my faith. Neither, so far as I know, have I caused others to lose theirs. I am passionate about the bible and want to know as much about it as I possibly can. I may not always find the right words to share my insights or the insights of others, but that is not for lack of trying.

The thing is that no one person or generation has the key to interpreting the bible and none of us are able to go back in time, or enter into the world view of the writers such that we can claim to know exactly what a particular story or passage means. Sometimes in fact we can get it wrong for generations and it is only when someone asks a different question or discovers something about first century existence that we see the text in the way it was originally intended.

A good example of this is the injunction for women not to speak in church. For nearly two thousand years women were excluded from the sanctuary on the basis of a mis-interpretation of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Certainly, in chapter 14, Paul does suggest that women should not to speak in church, but in chapter 11 Paul gives instructions for women when they pray or prophecy in church!

All this goes to show that we should not assume that the interpretation of scripture is fixed and unchanging and that there are no new insights to be had.

This brings me to Thomas. I imagine that many of us tend to think that we know all there is to know about Thomas, and for many of us our knowledge of this disciple is based solely on this morning’s gospel and Thomas’s refusal to believe his fellow disciples outrageous claim. However there is more to Thomas than this one story.

For example, in the gospel of Luke there is an account of the resurrection that is very much like the one we have heard this morning.  Jesus appears to the disciples who are terrified and dis-believing. In response to their doubt Jesus shows them his hands and feet and gives them permission to touch the scars. When we compare this with the account in John two things become obvious– firstly, Thomas is not singled out, and all the disciples are doubters; secondly, all the disciples have them an opportunity to touch his wounds.

On the basis of John’s account, we tend to think of Thomas in a negative light and doubt as something to be completely avoided.

BUT – there is more to Thomas than this account and more to the story than Thomas’ doubt. In John’s gospel, Thomas is a significant perhaps more so than James and John. For example, you will remember that when Jesus is told about Lazarus being ill, it is Thomas who has the courage to say: “Let us also go, that we might die with him.” When the other disciples are urging caution about going to Jerusalem where they Jews are threatening to kill Jesus, it is Thomas who commits himself to following him to the end. At the last supper it is Thomas who has the courage to say: “We do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” In today’s gospel, Thomas begins with doubt, but then does what no one else does – he falls at Jesus’ feet and declares: “My Lord and my God.” Lastly, when Jesus appears to the disciples on the beach Thomas again is present as if nothing has happened. All this suggests that rather than being an embarrassment, Thomas was an important figure for the community that produced John’s gospel.

Furthermore, legend has it that it was Thomas who took the gospel to India and that there he was speared to death. Thomas might be better known as Thomas the brave or as Thomas the spokesperson.

Thomas did find it hard to believe that Jesus had appeared to the disciples and he was honest about how he felt. While Jesus commends those who believe without seeing, he does not condemn Thomas – just the reverse. Jesus respects Thomas’ uncertainty and not only appears again especially for Thomas, but he gives Thomas what Thomas has asked for – the opportunity to touch and see for himself. Jesus recognised what Thomas needed for faith and responded accordingly.

Thomas’ very human reaction to the fantastic new of Jesus’ appearance helps us to understand that questioning and exploring our faith is necessary, but neither is it a bad thing. Rather than being a sign of inadequate faith, asking questions and expressing doubt can be, for some, the way to come to the depth of faith that Thomas expresses in Jesus. Similarly, an openness to scripture and a willingness to explore can provide new insights which in turn strengthen rather than weaken what we believe.

It is important that our relationship with God is open and honest, that we have the courage and confidence to ask our questions and that we know that God has shoulders big enough to cope with any doubts, complaints or queries that we might have. We do not need to be afraid that God will reject us if we have moments when we struggle to believe, we need to feel unfaithful if we need to tease out a text until we are satisfied that we fully understand. Faith is a journey and we must continue the quest until at last, we like Thomas are inspired to fall to our knees and acknowledge Jesus as our Lord and our God.

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