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"Doubting" Thomas

Text: John 20:19-31

The main character in John’s story is known by his nickname, “Doubting” Thomas. Read the story again. Read it carefully. Read it not for what you want the story to say, but for what John is trying to say. When you do, you will see that Thomas is many things in this story, but doubting is not one of them. Unfortunately, the story often is translated with Jesus telling Thomas, “Do not doubt but believe.” A much better translation from the Greek is: “Do not be unbelieving but believing.”

In John’s tells story, the Risen Jesus pays an unexpected visit to the disciples, but Thomas is not with them. He has gone out. When he returns, his friends are anxious to tell him all that he has missed. Thomas does not doubt what they are telling him. He does not believe it. They say that they have seen the Risen Jesus, so he says that he wants no less before he believes. That puts Thomas is a vast multitude of good company over centuries.

The late preacher and professor of preaching at Emory, Fred Craddock tells a story about his father who was not a religious believer and never went to church. Craddock writes: “My mother took us to church and Sunday school; my father didn’t go. He complained about Sunday dinner being late when mom came home from church. Sometimes the preacher would call, and my father would say, ‘I know what the church wants. Church doesn’t care about me. Church wants another name, another pledge, another name, another pledge. Right? Isn’t that the name of it? Another name, another pledge’. That’s what he always said.

“Sometimes we’d have a revival. Pastor would bring the evangelist home for a meal and say to the evangelist, ‘There’s one now, sic him, get him’” and my dad would say the same thing. Every time, my mother in the kitchen, always nervous, in fear of flaring tempers, of somebody being hurt. And always my father said, ‘The church doesn’t care about me. The church wants another name and another pledge’. I guess I heard it a thousand times.

“One time he didn’t say it. He was in the veteran’s hospital, and he was down to seventy-three pounds. They’d taken out his throat, and said, ‘It’s too late’. They put in a metal tube, and X-rays burned him to pieces. I flew in to see him. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t eat. I looked around the room, potted plants and cut flowers on all the windowsills, a stack of cards twenty inches deep beside his bed. And even that tray where they put food, if you can eat, on that was a flower. And all the flowers beside the bed, every card, every blossom, were from persons or groups from the church.

“He saw me read a card. He could not speak, so he took a Kleenex box and wrote on the side of it a line from Shakespeare. He wrote: ‘In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story’.

“I said, ‘What is your story, Daddy?’

“And he wrote, ‘I was wrong’.

“That’s the proof of a loving touch. As Christ’s body, how beautiful are the hands that serve dinners for those who just experienced a death in their family or distribute food for Meals on Wheels. How beautiful are the hands who write prayer cards to those sick and infirmed or hammer nails and paint for a Habitat for Humanity house. How beautiful are the feet that travel to visit our homebound . . . How beautiful are the feet of those who travel to Piedmont Regional Jail to lead worship services for inmates. How beautiful when humble hearts give the fruit of pure love to our children and youth. How beautiful are those with tender eyes that choose to forgive and never despise. How beautiful when the body of Christ witnesses to the resurrection through the proof of a loving touch” (Craddock Stories, Chalice Press, p.14).

Before his hospital revelation, Craddock’s dad did not doubt the Gospel message. He did not believe it until something was revealed to him on his deathbed in which the love of Christ and Christ’s church was revealed. Thomas did not doubt the Gospel story told by his friends. He did not believe them until the Risen Jesus returned and invited Thomas to see for himself, to stick his hand in his side to get his proof.

As for me, I say “Thank God for doubt!” I wish Thomas had had some. I wish Dr. Craddock’s dad had had some through most of his life. Paul Tillich, a wise theologian of the 20th century, argued that doubt is not opposite of faith, but is an essential ingredient to any healthy faith. The true opposite of doubt is not faith but certainty (Systematic Theology, vol. 2, pp. 116-17). There is no one more rigid or dangerous than a religious person who is absolutely certain about everything s/he believes. Such an undoubting believer is like the Presbyterians about which a 17th century critic wrote, “I had rather see coming toward me a whole regiment with drawn swords, than one lone Presbyterian convinced he is doing the will of God.” Or, as Oliver Cromwell once spoke to two arrogant Scots: “I beseech you, by the mercies of Christ, at least consider the possibility that you may be wrong.”

Thomas says, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Thomas was not the first or last person to make belief contingent on certain conditions. “If God helps me get this job, then I’ll believe; I’ll truly believe.” “If God will make this lump benign, then I’ll believe; I’ll truly believe.” “If God will spare me and my family of this deadly virus, then I’ll believe; I’ll truly believe.”

In his superb novel, The Second Coming, Walker Percy tells the story of Will Barrett who has never believed in the existence of God, much less in the resurrection of Jesus. He decides to test the certainty of his unbelief and goes to a cave in the side of a mountain to commit suicide. If God exists, Barrett concludes, then God will somehow prevent it. If not, a life not worth living will finally be over.

Like Thomas, Barrett demands proof before he will believe. So, he takes an overdose of pills, and then something totally unexpected happens. He gets the killer of all toothaches. Having no intention of dying in excruciating pain, he stumbles around in the cave looking for an exit.

The next thing we know Will is being cared for by Allison, who has escaped from a mental hospital. Through her compassion and love, he does not take his own life, but discovers meaning and purpose in life. Percy leaves the reader to wonder: Did God answer Barrett’s plea for meaning by waking him up from a barbiturate haze with a throbbing tooth? Was the appearance of Allison purely accidental? Whatever the answers, Percy leaves the reader room to doubt. Such is the nature of faith. It always includes room for doubt.

Doubt is faith’s built-in stimulus plan. It causes us some humility about what we believe and it keeps us open to the beliefs of others. Thomas, Craddock’s dad, and Will Barrett did not have honest doubts about their faith in God, about their trust in the Risen Jesus. Their problem was not doubt, but unbelief.

A week after the resurrected Jesus first appears to the disciples, he reappears. This time Thomas is in the room. Jesus wastes no time in confronting Thomas. He says, “Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” It is not doubt that keeps people from following Jesus, it is unbelief or overly certain belief.

Easter came and went for Thomas without anything fundamentally changing in his life. How many Easters have come and gone for some of us in the same way? It was not until eight days after Easter that Thomas came to speak the most powerful words of faith that can be spoken: “My Lord and my God.” That Easter faith came to the other disciples eight days earlier and to several women even earlier than them. It would come to Paul several years later. It comes even now to those who do not believe, but who yearn to believe.

John tells this story not to discourage doubt, but to encourage belief beyond what can be proven. He tells the story for us, for those who, like our Twin, Thomas, were not in the room when the Risen Jesus first visited the disciples. And, with a gentle urging, John tells this story so that you and I might hear Jesus saying to us: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

May you and I be so blessed.


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