Sunday, April 11, 2021
Doubt is not a bad thing
The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77493
Poor Thomas. Thomas the faithful disciple who is always referred to as Doubting Thomas because of these few verses. Has it ever occurred to you that Thomas was at least willing to express his doubts? I truly believe we would be in a better place if more people were like Thomas and willing to express and wrestle with doubts. Of course most people miss that in at Luke NONE of the disciples believed the women. “They thought it an idle tail and did not believe them.” Is the exact verse. Yet Thomas gets the label “doubting.
Thomas’ story does not stop here with his meeting of Jesus at the end of today’s gospel. Thomas goes on to be an important disciple. I will circle back to that in a minute, but I want first to examine this issue of doubt and the fact that doubt is not negative.
The problem is that somehow many people think that having doubts or questions about their faith is somehow a betrayal or an admission of lack of belief. There is nothing wrong with having doubts, having questions. Paul Tillich says that doubt is the consequence of a deep faith. What he means is that if we really examine the story, of course we will have questions for Jesus teaches us about the true nature of God and that is something our little brains have trouble grasping. The longer I work in the church and travel my own faith journey the more comfortable I am with acknowledging that there are parts of our faith I still wrestle with. When I find myself in that wrestle, I am comforted by all the mystics and theologians who also wrestle with the mystery and write that it is ok to wrestle with the mystery that is the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; that love that passes all human understanding.
Before the pandemic I showed a series of videos about the sacraments by Rachel Held-Evans. I also had this year’s confirmands watch the video on Confirmation. She says “Confirmation isn’t about being certain about everything that you have been told about Jesus. It is not about being absolutely certain that you have everything figured out. Confirmation is about being willing to affirm that this story of Jesus, this story of Christianity is the story that you are being willing to risk being wrong about. It is a story that you are willing to wrestle with for the rest of your life.”1
We want certainty in our lives and for the most part are uncomfortable with mystery. Part of our growth as Christians is to be willing to admit we do not have all the answers, but that what we do know and believe is enough. I know one of the great hesitations people have with talking about their faith is this feeling of not knowing enough, of not being completely certain about God. The more I read and study the more I find the great theologians all had their questions and were all seeking to know God better, to understand better.
In the gospel from John that we read today we find the disciples huddled in fear on the evening of the resurrection. Mary Magdalene has come to them earlier in the morning and told them that she has seen Jesus, but they remain behind the locked doors. Jesus appears and says Peace be with you and shows them his hands and his side. Then he again says, “Peace be with you” then he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Just has the Father has sent me I now send you” Now first of all please notice that this in effect Pentecost for John which doesn’t take 50 days to happen like it does in Acts. Now tell me, how many of you think the disciples felt, “Oh great I get it all now and I will go out and preach the gospel to the world?” In fact, the following week they were still hiding behind locked doors when Jesus comes a second time. I suspect that they had grave doubts and I’m sure they didn’t feel prepared; yet look what happened with them. They all went out and spread the gospel.
Thomas went on to become a leading evangelist. Thomas is reported to have traveled far and wide to spread the gospel. There are several writings in the Nag Hammadi and Dead Sea Scrolls that are either attributed to Thomas or about Thomas. The Acts of Thomas speak of his travels first to the Jewish Diaspora in Edessa in Mesopotamia, now in southern Turkey. Several hundred years after his death his bones were supposedly brought back there and are believed to be buried in a church dedicated to him. He also traveled in Syria spreading the gospel to the Parthians.
It is believed that he traveled to India in 52 CE to bring the gospel to this part of the world. Eusebius and others mention that he traveled in particular to Malabar, India. That church still exists today and is called the Mar Thoma Church and his memory is greatly revered by them.
Also found in the Nag Hammadi is the Gospel of Thomas. There are several manuscripts and fragments in several different languages found for this gospel. It begins with the words. “These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and that Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.” This gospel consists of nothing, but quotes of things Jesus said during his life. There are no miracles or other narratives included, just the sayings. There is considerable discussion between scholars as to when this was written. It may pre-date the earliest of our biblical gospels, which is Mark. As I consider this it makes sense that he wrote down the sayings and then took them on his travels to use to teach. The other thought is that this is the last of the gospels, which means it would have been written by his disciples since that would date them at 100 CE or later. The thinking on this is that it is a summary of sayings gleaned from the other gospels. No matter when it was written it certainly falls into the category of Gnostic writings because of the “secret” knowledge they are said to contain.
Another interesting legend about Thomas is that while in India he was transported back to Jerusalem to witness the death of the Virgin Mary. This event is described in a text attributed to Joseph of Arimathaea entitled the Passing of Mary. The legend says that he was transported to her tomb and saw her assumed into heaven from which she dropped her girdle that he picked up. In an interesting twist to the doubting Thomas story of the gospel, the others do not believe him until he produces the girdle to prove his point.
The important point in all of this is the results of his faith. We too often put the focus on his doubt, but Jesus loved him and helped to build his faith. With that faith look at what Thomas accomplished. This should give all of us hope and the assurance the Jesus will always be there for us. He will always be willing to give us what we need to have the faith to continue. There is nothing wrong with a little doubt especially if that drives us to clarify what we believe. Jesus desires more than just blind acceptance. Jesus is willing to allow us to question, to be puzzled to have reservations. Pray for the faith and courage to be like Thomas a true disciple of Christ.