Apostle Thomas: Is There A Place For Doubt In Faith?
May 23, 2014
Is there a place for doubt in the understanding of faith?
A tight rope walker set out to walk above the Niagara Falls. He called out to the crowd that gathered. “Do you believe I can walk on this tightrope and cross the border of USA and Canada?” (As you know, one bank of the Niagara is in New York and the other in Ontario.) The crowd said, “Yes, we believe!” So he walked successfully to the cheers of the crowd. He asked the second time “Do you believe I can carry a chair while walking on tightrope from one end of the Falls to the other?” the crowd again said, “Yes, we believe!” So he did so successfully, to the cheers of the crowd. So he asked the third time, “Do you believe I can carry a person on my shoulders while walking on tightrope from one end to the other?” The crowd again said, “Yes, we believe!” At this point, the tight rope walker said, “Now who wants to volunteer?” There was complete silence.
The Gospel this morning seeks to address this question: Is there a place for doubt in the understanding of faith? Or is faith a blind faith? Is it alright for a Christian to express doubt or skepticism?
The context of this gospel of John 20 is the evening of that day of Jesus’ resurrection. The apostles were meeting in a room and the doors were locked for fear of the Jews. Suddenly Jesus stood among them and said, “Shalom, peace be with you.” He showed them his hands with nail marks and his side spear marks, breathed on them the Holy Spirit and empowered them to forgive.
Now it so happened on that evening that Thomas, one of the twelve disciples, were not with them. Please note that at this time, there were only 11 disciples left, because Judas already hanged himself. So when Thomas rejoined them a week later, his comrades were excited to tell him, “We saw the Lord.” The reaction of Thomas? “Unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
Now, let me remind you at the outset, that in the company of the apostles, it is not only Thomas who had expressed doubt about Jesus. There was Philip who said, “Lord, showed us the Father and we shall be satisfied,” and to which Jesus said, “How long have I been with you, Philip that you don’t know me? How can you say “show us the Father?” If you have known me, you have seen the Father.” There was Peter who doubted Jesus when he was walking on water; and there were the rest of the apostles who doubted whether Jesus can feed five thousand people, with only five loaves and two fish.
Some years ago, I heard the testimony of the late Rev. Alan Watson of the Church of England. He suffered from terminal cancer and went through the “stages of dying” such as described by psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler Ross. When he was on the “anger stage” he wrestled with the question, “is it alright to be angry with God?” His answer was written in a book he wrote before he died, “Fear No Evil.” In short, his answer basically said that “it is alright to be angry with God—because God can take it.” His wife could not take his anger, his children could not take his anger, but his God can!
In like manner, Jesus understands our questioning and so he indulged Thomas. He appeared out of the closed door and said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands; reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” And what was the reaction of Thomas? He made a remarkable confession, a “leap of faith!” Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”
From the starting point of doubt, Thomas would lay the foundation of the Christian faith. “My Lord and my God” is an ontological, Christological and soteriological confession. Jesus is not only the messiah of God; Jesus is not only the Son of God. Jesus is God!
The confession of Thomas would become the foundation stone of this eternal mystery, this extraordinary theology that is God is One in three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I have therefore three things to say about the place of doubt in the faith of Thomas:
First, It is alright to doubt if it leads to a deeper knowledge of God. St. Anselm of Canterbury said, “faith seeks understanding.” Our faith is not blind faith. Our faith is anchored on the pillars of "scripture, tradition and in reason," the three-legged stool of Anglicanism. To paraphrase St. Paul: If Christ had not risen from the dead, we are of all people to be pitied. But the truth of the matter is that Christ rose from the dead. His tomb was empty; his skeleton was not there; his ashes were nowhere to be found.” If one day, Jesus’ DNA will be found through the advances of science and technology, we will remember Jesus only as a great prophet–but not God who is co-equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Second, it is alright to doubt if leads you to good works. Between St. Paul and St. James, there is an interesting discussion about faith and works. St. Paul expressed in his letter to the Romans that we are saved by faith alone (Romans 3:28, 5:1) and in Ephesians 2:8, he wrote “for by grace you have beensaved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God." St. James on the other hand, wrote that “faith without works is dead.” So if your doubt leads you into “working your salvation with fear and trembling,” then it is alright to express doubt.
It is alright to doubt if it ultimately leads to mission. Thomas’ doubt turned to genuine faith and ultimately led him to mission. Driven by this sense of mission, Thomas moved “from Jerusalem, to Judea to Samaria and to the ends of the world.” He traveled as far as India to proclaim the risen Christ and planted churches, until he was martyred in Madras in 53 A.D. Today, the age-old churches in India, such as the Mar Thoma Church, stand as a legacy of the doubting Thomas who was so convinced of the faith that Jesus is "both Lord and God.”
May your own questioning lead you towards a deeper knowledge of God, towards doing good works in Christ and towards fulfilling your mission of reconciliation. Amen.