Sunday, April 7, 2013

The benefit of the doubt

Today sermon is based on John 20:19-31:

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Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

So where the heck was Thomas? Where was he when all these amazing things were taking place?

Let’s put ourselves in his shoes for a moment. The disciples are in hiding, in a locked room, afraid for their lives.

Maybe Thomas was out getting them food.

Thomas goes back to the secret hideout, and he finds his friends all happy-clappy because they’ve encountered Jesus risen from the dead.

The Holy Spirit has filled them up with peace and joy. The flame of Pentecost has come upon them like a volcano.

But Thomas missed the show, and he is pretty darn peeved.

“Show me,” he says. “Unless I touch the wounds of Jesus I’m not going to believe any of this. Show me.”

Thomas wasn’t even his real name. The word “Thomas” was a nickname for “Twin.” One chronicler of the time said his real name was “Judas” and he adopted the nickname Thomas, or Twin, to distinguish himself from that other Judas, which was a common Jewish name.

And before we go any further, let’s pause a moment and talk about the opening sentence of this gospel lesson that declares the disciples are in hiding “for fear of the Jews.”

Unfortunately, that line has been used for centuries to justify anti-Semitism by labeling Jews as “Christ killers.” But just keep in mind that everyone in this story, including the people in hiding in the locked room, is Jewish.

Emotions were running high in Jerusalem immediately after the crucifixion.

As the gospel accounts tell us, the crowds were very much on the side of Jesus, not Pontius Pilate or the collaborator Temple authorities who had concocted a mock trial and mob justice to get Jesus.

Maybe Thomas was in hiding himself, afraid because he might have been mistaken for the other Judas.

As it turned out, he went down in history as “Doubting Thomas,” and many a preacher will be using him today as a foil to implore congregations to set aside all doubts and ratchet up their faith.

Yet I’d like you to notice a few things today in the story of Thomas the Twin. No one condemns him for doubting. The disciples bring him into their hiding place. They don’t cast him out for his doubts.

No one judges Thomas for saying what surely was on the lips and minds of others outside the room. The disciples give Thomas the benefit of the doubt. They love him and embrace him, doubts and all. Today I want to talk about dimension to this life of faith that we don’t acknowledge enough in our churches:


The story of “Doubting Thomas” is a story about the power of doubt.

There is plenty of reason to doubt the reality of this story. Jesus enters a locked room. He comes in physical form, yet he is beyond physical, as if he is from some other dimension of time and space.

Yet the Risen Christ is very real to those who experienced it; he is no mere metaphor; he is so real they can touch him.

Jesus comes to Thomas and shows him his physical wounds. Thomas responds with astonishment, as any of us would:

“My Lord and my God!”

And Jesus tells Thomas that others are blessed to believe without seeing the way he has seen. In effect, Jesus tells Thomas to doubt his doubts, and Thomas does, and by so doing he comes to a new understanding of himself and his own walk of faith.

For Thomas, his transformation begins by proclaiming openly his doubts.

Doubt is not an enemy of faith. Doubt can be a tool of faith bringing us to a deeper sense of the divine within us, and a deeper sense of our true self.

To grow in faith requires asking the hard questions, and being comfortable waiting for answers. Thomas the Twin only has to wait a week to find answers, but many of us will spend a lifetime grappling with doubt.

To live fully into faith is to live on the edge of faith by pushing beyond the pat answers and clichés of culture and religion.

Blind faith is a very thin faith.

And communities of faith that leave no room for the expression of doubt become hollow and stale – or worse, self-destructive cults.

The tools of reason, inquiry and analysis are gifts from God, and can yield truths beneath surface readings of religious texts and doctrines.

When we put those tools of the mind with the tools of the heart through prayer, we will grow in faith beyond anything we think possible, both individually and as a community of faith.

Giving the benefit of the doubt to ourselves, and to each other, can break down walls of isolation and create islands of compassion as we grow in our faith together.

Doubt is not Thomas’ sin. Thomas has a different sin – he scoffs at his friends when they tell him about their experience with the Risen Christ.

Rather than saying, “tell me more,” he pushes them away. He turns their experience into a selfish claim for himself: “If I don’t get something out of this, then it didn’t happen.”

To live with doubt is not to avoid it, but it also requires listening with open hearts and minds to the experiences of others. None of us are smart enough, or holy enough, to do this alone, or at least not very well.

The redemption in the story of Thomas is that he has an experience of the Risen Christ in spite of himself.

His redemption comes by remaining in the community that continues to embrace him even when he seems intent on pushing them away.

Did you notice something else crucial in the story?

Thomas didn’t say: “I want to see the face of Jesus.” No, he says: “I want to touch his wounds.” So when Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds, he is inviting him to touch all his wounds – and not just the wounds on his body. He invites Thomas to touch the wounds of the world where Jesus dwells.

Jesus invites Thomas to venture into the dwelling places of the poor, the sick, and the wounded in body, mind and spirit – to go to the empty places where doubt prevails and hope is hard to find. Like Thomas, we need to touch the wounds of Christ, and that means touching wounds of the world around us.

This is what it means to pick up your cross and follow.

This path of the Risen Christ is not about our personal comfort. This path will not always lead to personal enjoyment. We may not like what we discover. We are called to take risks.

But know this: We aren’t the first to take this path and we don’t walk alone.

Many have gone before us, and they’ve told us about how in their times of doubt and emptiness, they came to a deeper sense of the Holy. Mother Teresa quite famously told of her long years of emptiness.

It may be the difference between Mother Teresa and most of the rest of us, is people like her are patient, and we are not.

People like Mother Teresa are comfortable living with their doubts, even for a long time, even when they can’t see beyond their horizon.

They know the path can be rough, but this journey of faith ultimately is the only one worth making. The story of Thomas and his doubt does not end in the closed room. The door to the locked room opens; Thomas emerges back into the world different, changed, and somehow new from his encounter with the Risen Christ.

Nor does the story end for us today. The doors here will open, and we will go forth from this room today different, changed, and somehow new from our encounter with the Risen Christ.

And it begins by bringing all of our trust, all of our prayers, all of our wounds – and even our doubts – on this walk of faith with each other.

And when we do, watch anew for the Risen Christ coming among us, and be open to how we will be transformed, changed – made new together each and every day.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

By James Richardson, Fiat Lux

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