Texts: Acts 5:27-33; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31
First things first: let’s all agree to stop calling the poor guy “Doubting Thomas.” When Thomas got back from whatever errand he was on and heard the insane story his friends told him, it’s easy to understand why he didn’t believe them. People don’t just come back from the dead.
And yet we’ve come to give him that awful nickname, we’ve come to read this story as a story about how terrible or dumb or untenable it is to doubt, and in the midst of our exultation over the risen Christ, sometimes we might even feel the tiniest bit of glee at how “Doubting Thomas” is put in his place.
I can’t help but wonder if that’s because Thomas’ “doubt” threatens us. Thomas is one of Jesus’ disciples—someone who walked and talked with Jesus, who saw firsthand what he was capable of doing—and yet he is not immune from disbelief. If Thomas doubts, then how can we ever hope not to?
We have made Doubt into a bogeyman. We so often hear the gospel chiding us, saying, “O ye of little faith!” If only we believed better, we could move mountains, we could make the lame to walk and the blind to see, we could overcome this illness or that injury or finally let go of our fear. We’ve come to see doubt as the opposite of faith. We’ve come to believe that it’s okay to doubt, but only so long as you eventually come around, like Thomas; but if you remain unconvinced, if you are a skeptic, does that mean one can’t be a disciple?
Doubt has been a foundation of Western culture since the Enlightenment. What’s more, this is not a bad thing. Doubt is what has made possible all the advances in medicine, exploration and technology we have made in the last few centuries. Without doubt—or, more specifically, without the principle of needing to prove hypotheses through experimentation rather than relying on faith—we would have none of the wonders that make our lives so much easier and longer now.
This fear can make us a little crazy. It makes us do things like try to prove the existence of God or baptize grandchildren in secret or send people we love to camps where they “pray the gay away.” It seems insane to me that Christ was born, died, and rose again to give us victory over death and instead left us fearing it all the more. I don’t mean to blame these people who are afraid, but that I am sad that we have been taught to fear doubt.
Let’s go back to our bible stories. We have two vignettes today that show us two different reactions to doubt. The first is in Acts. The apostles are brought before the Jewish religious council to be tried for heresy, which is really just another way of saying doubt. They believe and teach something different than the religious leaders teach, and this threatens them, and they react with anger and violence: they want to kill the apostles.
This is ironic, because that’s what they did to the last person whose teaching threatened them; they killed Jesus, but clearly that didn’t solve their problem because here are his disciples standing before them now. We are meant to see in this story how futile the fear of the council is. Christ is risen; death no longer has any power over us. Even if the council had decided to kill the apostles, like Jesus, their message would have lived on, and God’s will would still be done.
Even though this was done by the Church, it was not done by God. God does not use the fear of death against us, God takes away our fear of death. Our gospel reading shows us another way of dealing with doubt, which brings us back to Thomas. Notice what the story tells us and doesn’t tell us. We are told that the disciples were locked in this room for fear of the people outside it: the religious authorities. We are told that a week passed between Jesus’ appearances. That means that for an entire week, Thomas was locked in that room with the others; yet in all that time, we are not told that they kicked him out for not believing their story. Even though Jesus gave them the power to retain sins, we are not told that they retained Thomas’ sins.
We are left knowing only one thing that happened over the course of that week. “The other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails…I will not believe.’” For all we know, this was not a single exchange, but an ongoing conversation: the disciples simply, patiently, lovingly sharing this good news with their friend, and Thomas simply, patiently, lovingly telling them that he couldn’t believe it. And, at the end of the week, there Thomas still sits: locked in the room among his friends.
Our instincts may sometimes be more like the council, but in the end it was not force or even his friends that convinced Thomas. It was only when Jesus himself showed up and gave Thomas the proof that he needed that he believed. In the moment he came to believe, he alone confesses his faith, saying, “My Lord and my God!” Rather than remembering him as “Doubting Thomas,” perhaps instead we should remember him as “Confessing Thomas.”
Thomas’ doubt was not a liability; if anything, it was his strength. According to tradition, St. Thomas headed east from Jerusalem later in his life, traveling all the way to India, where he spread the gospel and founded what became the Syriac Orthodox Church, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. I like to think it was because of his doubt—not in spite of it—that his faith strong enough to take him so far. The Church is filled with people who wrestle with faith daily, yet it is these so-called “doubters” who make the Church what it is: who give the Church its strength and resilience, who ask the best questions and push the Church to live out its faith in real life. The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.
His life is given for us and his resurrection is shared with us whether or not we can wrap our heads around it. Through baptism, we are reassured of this promise, but Christ has died and now lives for those who have not been baptized as well. If a locked room can’t keep him out, then certainly a dry head is no obstacle for the risen Lord, either.
So do we fear so much? Christ is alive! Death has lost it’s sting! This either true, or it isn’t; it can’t be true for some but not for others. We all have our doubts—some may never be answered, but like the first disciples, we simply, lovingly, patiently keep sharing the good news with one another and the world, and trust that Jesus will show up when and where we need him—at the font, in the meal, in this assembly, or somewhere else entirely. It’s not our job to convince anyone; we simply bear witness to where we have seen the risen Christ and trust him to take care of the rest.