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Skeptical Saints

Sunday, April 28, 2019. Rev. Annamarie Groenenboom, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Psalm 118:14-29; John 20:19-31

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When I was younger, believe it or not, I didn’t always want to go to church in the morning. When I got up the courage to ask my mom if I could stay home, she would say, “of course you have to go to church. We need to worship God and you never know what you will miss if you don’t go.” When reading the scripture passage for today, I think one of the characters in particular could have benefited from my mother’s advice.

Our passage picks up as the disciples gather together in a house the night of the resurrection. Mary has told them that she has “Seen the Lord!”  They didn’t believe her and so they sit together and wait for whatever will happen next. Suddenly, Jesus, resurrected body and soul, appears amongst them.  I can’t imagine the shock they must have felt in that moment.  The true, living, resurrected Jesus Christ in their presence. They could see the marks where the nails were in his hands and feet. They could see the scar in his side where his flesh was pierced with the spear. They could see and touch him. More than that, he greets them with peace in a time of fear and trepidation and he enlivens them with the Holy Spirit. What an amazing firsthand experience! For everyone except the Disciple Thomas.

Thomas was greeted by the disciples and was told that the disciples had “seen the Lord!”  Thomas’s reaction is shocking — he doesn’t believe their story. He is skeptical and doubts their tale. How unbelievable that they would see Jesus appearing right in their midst.  He said, “unless I see the hands and feet then I will not believe.”

When we hear about the disciple Thomas, he does not have the best connotations. We always associate Thomas with his doubt in this moment. We have a strong aversion to his character and at least I know that I have thought, wow, I hope I’m not like Doubting Thomas.

But our critique of Thomas may be undeserved. After all, he was only asking for what the other disciples had already received: proof of Jesus resurrection and presence. It’s not unusual for people to desire some type of evidence, especially in times of stress and fear. I guess you could say that Thomas has a healthy amount of skepticism about the disciples story.

A key to the reason why we have a tendency to shame Thomas may actually lie in his nickname. The Gospel of John tells us that Thomas was named Didames or Twin. What an odd nickname even for back then. The story doesn’t mention Thomas having any siblings. Maybe, just maybe, John wants us to place ourselves in the story. We are Thomas’s twins. We are like Thomas — we have doubts.

Growing up in our modern, advanced society, we are taught to look at situations, people, ideas with skepticism and some amount of doubt. Many of you need evidence in order to back up your hypotheses, research, or even court cases. We are taught to doubt without evidence.

We even look at the Bible with some skepticism and doubt with the lenses of our current culture and beliefs. We may doubt the Bible because we have modern science and technology that they did not have when it was written. We may doubt the Bible because it was written in a very patriarchal society with little female input. We may doubt the Bible because some of the stories sound just so unbelievable and unfathomable to us like Jesus walking on water or even God parting the Red Sea for the Israelites when they were escaping the Egyptians.

But the biggest reason for doubt is our own observations of the world. We see terrible things happening, like Notre Dame burning down or mass bombings of churches in Sri Lanka, and don’t know what to think about them. We have moments in our own personal lives that make us doubt. I was talking with a high schooler yesterday while washing windows at LRR. She told me that she doubted the very existence of God when her dog died several years ago.  Doubt seems to be something that we can’t avoid.

While we doubt some of these things about the Bible and in extension, faith, many of us may feel uncomfortable. We shouldn’t be doubting the stories of Jesus and the disciples. We shouldn’t be doubting Scripture, even though we have a different understanding of it and reading of it. We shouldn’t do that. And this story, at surface level, seems to back up this thought, especially when Jesus appears to Thomas and says “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

After Thomas voicing his disbelief. Jesus comes and offers the proof that Thomas needs. When faced with this proof, Thomas recognizes Jesus and professes his faith in him. But this story makes us wonder, why is this story of doubt and skepticism in the middle of the appearances of Jesus?

The first thing the story points to is that it is actually normal to have doubts about the Bible and our faith.  The Gospel of John devotes an entire story and verses to Thomas and his doubt. It gives it a prominent place. And we get so hung up on Thomas’s unbelief that we don’t realize that Thomas actually has the greatest confession in all four of the Gospels. When encountering Jesus, Thomas responds thoughtfully and personally when he proclaims, “My Lord and My God.” The Gospel of John describes someone who doubts the very resurrection of Christ with having the most expressive and powerful description of Jesus.

This story shows that Jesus cares about our doubts. Jesus hears our doubts and knows them. He appeared to Thomas and lists the exact qualifications that Thomas listed to the disciples. Jesus offers himself to Thomas in order to help him with his unbelief.

In those moments we see that Jesus knows our doubts and can address our doubts about him. Even though Jesus knows the doubts of Thomas, he still offers himself to Thomas. Thomas’s reaction to Jesus isn’t a reaction to the physicality of his body.  In fact, if we look, it doesn’t actually say if Thomas touched Jesus. Thomas instead is reacting to Jesus offering himself to what Thomas needs in the moment.

Finally, this story shows what type of community we should be. We need to be a safe community who is willing to talk about the doubts we have about God, faith, and life. Thomas doesn’t hesitate and is truthful when he describes his doubts and his need for proof.  Instead of shutting Thomas down, the other disciples listen to him.  Instead of saying, Thomas you just need to believe us, they let him express his thoughts and concerns and without their judgement. They are a community that is open to people seeking and asking tough questions.

All this is nice to think about and it’s great to know we can have the space to doubt.  But it still doesn’t answer the question about what to do when we doubt. I would like to say that we have improved on not doubting Jesus, especially when Jesus says, “blessed are those who have not seen and believe.” We are that type of people. We have not physically seen Jesus in our midst. We have not placed our hands in his side or seen the wounds on his hands and feet. We rely on the witness that we receive from the God’s Word and others around us.

So, how do we deal with this doubt? We help each other and provide an open space for doubt in our relationships and community. We create a community where we have freedom to doubt. We’re trying this out in two weeks at Youth Fellowship with our first ever “Doubt Night.” The youth group members will have the opportunity to ask questions about their faith and lives to youth advisors who will answer the questions and open up discussion.

We also look for ways that we encounter God in the world today. While we don’t physically see Christ body, we do encounter Christ’s body and blood through celebrating the Lord’s Supper. Jesus says, “this is my body broken for you” and “this is my blood shed for you.” When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we receive a glimpse of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

We can also look to the world and the community around us. We can look for God’s work in the world amidst all of the terrible things that are happening. In seminary, all of my professors would ask at the end of classes, where is God today? Some days it is so hard to see God in the wounds of the world. Other days it’s easy to see God at work. Yesterday was one of the easy days for me.

I had the opportunity to take part in Good Samaritan Day where we went with members of church to work with our mission partners in the community. I started the day at the Lewinsville Retirement Residence washing windows and cleaning and then I moved to the Falstead Residence down the road and helped residents unpack boxes and hang up pictures. The work was awesome, but the best part was interacting with the residents and the other members of our church. I saw God in those spaces where we all worked together.

Doubting is normal and ordinary part of faith. We all have doubts and should be asking questions and engaging with the Bible and community around us. Doubt gives Jesus the opportunity to be there for us and offer himself to us. So let’s all be like Thomas and be skeptical saints. Let’s express our doubt and then be willing to be surprised by Jesus. Amen.