I do not doubt that Doubting Thomas has gotten a bad rap over the years. So often this lesson has been used to cast him as the bad guy, the guy of little faith, the guy we should NOT be like.
Au contraire! I say bravo to Thomas. For one thing, he is only asking to have what the other disciples have been given – a chance to see the risen Jesus. Yes, it’s true that Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
But notice also that he does not in any way curse those who have to see for themselves. He does not scold Thomas, but instead shows him his wounds and encourages him to satisfy his own doubt.
Before going further, let’s define some terms. In our current culture, belief is assent to one or more statements; I believe in God, or I believe Jesus was the son of God or Jesus is Lord, etc. Belief implies the absence of doubt; disbelief is the opposite of belief. In other words, disbelief is assent to the statement, “I do not believe in God.” Doubt is not being sure one way or the other.
In its Latin roots, ‘I believe’ means I give my heart to. This can be true in spite of doubts because it expresses a willingness to take a leap of faith. It expresses a relationship between the believer and the thing believed in.
Because of the current understanding of ‘I believe,’ it makes more sense for us to talk about faith instead of belief. Faith is more like the old understanding of belief.
Faith is about loyalty and trust. A person of faith is loyal to God, to the teachings of Jesus. Faith, unlike belief, does NOT assume the absence of doubt. Faith suggests loyalty in spite of any doubts that may arise.
In fact, I’ve become convinced that faith without doubt, or without some prior struggle with doubt, is probably not very sturdy. That’s because I found for myself that the struggle with my doubts is what led the way to faith. I think my faith is stronger because of my doubts.
As Fredrick Beuchner says in Wishful Thinking:
“Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
It also seems to me that faith and doubt are like yin and yang, like light and dark, like joy and sorrow. They are opposite sides of the same coin, so that the meaning of each one is partly defined by the other. Without sorrow, how can we know joy? Can anyone who lives in a sunny climate love the warmth and sun of summer as much as we do, who know winter so well?
Do you remember just recently there was an ossuary box found that seemed to have the name Jesus on it? There was quite an uproar about it because if you “believe” in the bodily resurrection, then the tomb was indeed empty and there would be no bones belonging to Jesus to be found. People were claiming that if this box were proven authentic, it would undermine the whole Christian church.
I was astonished! How could one discovery of a new fact topple the whole church? Then I realized that this was the reason I had trouble discussing biblical matters with fundamentalist friends. If I claimed a fact that was not part of their Belief system, they got angry, because it was a threat to their belief in every thing else. I’ve also heard televangelists say that some one piece of information would cause their whole system to crumble.
Not so, if you are a person of faith. What if we found out that Jesus was married? Would that change what he did or what he taught? Not to my mind. If we found out that he did not bodily rise from the grave, would we no longer believe he is with God? Would we no longer believe in resurrection? Would that mean we no longer believe he appeared to the disciples? Of course not.
In any group of 15 adults, I’d bet there are at least two, and maybe more who have experienced the presence of someone dear to them after that person has died. This is not an unusual experience! And it has nothing to do with what has or has not happened to that person’s body.
As Episcopalians, we consider the scriptures to be authoritative, but we also use tradition and reason as our authorities, not scripture alone. We are free to study, question, and try to understand the scripture, using all the techniques available to us from the work of centuries of scholars. We have faith that when we do this the Holy Spirit is in our midst.
According to Urban Holmes inWhat is Anglicanism, reason refers to the power of the human mind to discern truth. He says: “This commitment to reason is perhaps most evident in our attitude toward the ‘free market place of ideas.’ Tests of orthodoxy, heresy trial, censorship of thought and such, are generally alien to the Anglican ethos. Our belief is that a sincere pursuit of truth, done collaboratively, ultimately opens us to the mind of God.”
In the Episcopal Church this pursuit of truth, done collaboratively, goes on in many places: in our local congregations, on our diocesan conventions, in our selection process for clergy and in General Convention. Ask anyone who has attended General Convention if they felt the presence of the Holy Spirit in their deliberations. They may tell you about it for much longer than you want to listen!
Jesus meets Thomas’s doubt with a kind willingness to engage his doubt, to give him a chance to see for himself, to work it out for himself. If Jesus welcomes doubters, who are we to turn them away?
This is why I trust so strongly in open communion. For me real faith came through the practice of a worshipping life. To exclude people who are doubting but still searching seems a cruelty to me. Why not instead welcome them in to a life lived in a worshipping community. Invite them to be one of us, bringing their doubts and their sins with them just as we do – every Sunday. AMEN