Now, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work!
Doubting Thomas! Do the kids these days use the phrase “doubting Thomas”? I’ll have to check my non-existent Twitter account for #doubtingthomas. Many of us have probably encountered the story of Doubting Thomas before. I know I’ve heard many sermons on the poor guy. I wondered what more I could add to the mix.
In the interest of full disclosure, Thomas isn’t the only person in the Bible who doubted Jesus had risen from the dead upon hearing the news.
Matthew, Chapter 28: Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and tells her to instruct the disciples to meet him in Galilee. They go. But verse 17 says: “When they saw him, they worshipped him but some doubted.”
Mark Chapter 16: Jesus again appears to Mary Magdalene. She tells the disciples what she saw. Verse 11 says: “But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.”
Luke, Chapter 24: Mary Magdalene and the other women return from the empty tomb and tell the disciples what they have learned. Verse 11 says: “But these words seemed to them an idle tale and they did not believe them.”
So why is all the DOUBT dumped on poor Thomas? Each of the four Gospels tell us that many, if not all the disciples, could not believe their Lord had risen until they encountered him face to face….and in the story from Matthew, even THEN some of them were doubtful.
My best guess is that Thomas is singled out because he can represent each of us. Instead of a group being doubtful, this is one person standing against a group of believers. He doesn’t succumb to peer pressure. Like many of us (all of us?) he wants to investigate for himself. And when Thomas’ doubt is turned to belief, Jesus has something to say to him. We’ll get to that later.
There is a fantastic stage play called Doubt. It was written by John Patrick Shanley and premiered on Broadway in 2004. In 2005 it won the Tony Award for Best Play of the year and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. I did not see the original production in New York City, but I saw an amazing production of Doubt right here in Albuquerque in 2006.
Spoiler Alert: I’m going to tell you all about the play and how it ends. If that concerns you, please feel free to tune me out now….if you haven’t done so already.
Doubt is a four-person play set in 1964 in a Roman Catholic Church and School in the Bronx. Father Flynn is the progressive, popular, charismatic, attractive priest in charge. Sister Aloysius is the mature, stern, stereotypical nun who rules the school as principal with an iron fist and steadfast convictions.
Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius are like oil and water. She distrusts his ideas to try and make the church more accessible to the people. She likes the old way of doing things. She has her rules. She follows them exactly.
The conflict of the play arises when Sister Aloysius learns from a novice nun and teacher, Sister James, that Father Flynn had a private meeting with one of the young male students of the school. Mysterious circumstances around that meeting lead Sister Aloysius to accuse Father Flynn of sexual misconduct with the boy. Father Flynn explains he was cousneling…helping the child, not hurting him. Sister James is relieved and believes the priest’s story. Sister Aloysius is not swayed and makes it her mission to have Father Flynn removed from the parish. She is like a dog with a bone. She will not let the matter go. She hounds the priest about his actions and even asks the boy’s mother to join her crusade.
In the climactic scene, Father Flynn threatens to have Sister Aloysius removed from her position if she doesn’t back down. The nun counters by saying she had spoken with the nuns at Father Flynn’s previous parish and learned of other improprieties in his past. If he doesn’t resign, she will share this information with the bishop. Father Flynn immediately applies for a transfer and is reassigned – actually he receives a promotion.
Later, alone with Sister James, Sister Aloysius admits she had not contacted the priest’s pervious parish. She didn’t have one shred of proof that he was guilty of anything. Alone with the novice, Sister Aloysius cries the final line of the play:
“I have doubt. I have such doubt.”
Doubt? Doubt? How could a woman…A NUN…with such strong convictions and determination have any doubt? During the play, she showed not one ounce of doubt. But once she achieved her goal – the thing she had been fighting for all along – the thing she believed to be right….she had doubt!
And Thomas traveled with Jesus for three years. Thomas saw the miracles he had performed. He had listened to Jesus preach and knew what the future held. And still Thomas didn’t believe the news of the resurrection without some proof. He had doubt!
So where the heck does that leave us? Here you are sitting in church with our smart phones, a bible full of encouraging words and a guy up here talking to you who sometimes has enough doubts of his own to fill a U-Haul trailer. What are we supposed to think?
Let’s look at Sister Aloysius. I think once her mission was accomplished, her conviction to the problem was removed – she had nothing left. Father Flynn – the real or imagined problem - was gone. The thing Sister Aloysius had clung to most fervently was no longer pertinent. Now there was a big, gaping void….filled with doubt.
Perhaps I could liken it to some Christian churches that spend so much time and energy on social issues – telling people what is right and what is wrong. What to do and what not to do. If you can concentrate on simple do’s and don’t’s – sexual morals, homosexuality, marriage equality, abortion, wholesome entertainment – then you don’t have time to dig into the deep mysteries of our faith. Take away those banner issues and then you have to start thinking. And once you start thinking…..well, look out. Doubt arrives.
And at the end of Thomas’ story today, Jesus doesn’t rebuke the doubting disciple. Instead, he encouraged Thomas to touch him, to place his hand in his wounds so that he might be able to believe. Then Jesus says these amazing words:
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
He doesn’t condemn those who have doubts. He doesn’t discourage the non-believers. Jesus knows it’s a big leap of faith and listen to what he said “Blessed are those who have not seen and YET HAVE COME to believe.” Jesus knows it going to be instantaneous. He knows we have to come to believe. We are human. We have minds. We need to see things. I am from Missouri….the Show-Me State! Seeing is believing as they say.
Back in the early 80’s there was a series of black and white posters aimed to attract young adults to the Episcopal Church. Two in particular I remember were these:
“He died to take away your sins. Not your mind.”
“There’s only one problem with churches that have all the answers. They don’t allow questions.”
In fact, think about faith. Without doubt, there would be no need for faith. If we didn’t have questions or doubts then faith would be called….um, fact.
And listen to these words from the first letter of Peter from today’s epistle. “The genuineness of your faith – being more precious than gold, though perishable, is tested by fire.” Peter didn’t say the strength of your faith is more precious than gold. He didn’t talk about the having not one single doubt is more precious than gold. No! He compliments the genuineness of your faith – the honesty with which you want to believe. That’s all anyone can ask of us.
So how do we wrap all this up? How about exactly where we started – with what a wonderful, loving, nurturing, faith community we have here. That’s the very reason we come here - however often it is you might come here. Together we can share our doubts and our problems and our sometimes wavering faith. Together we can work on coming to believe.
Own your doubt.
It’s a process. And that’s OK. God is patient. Jesus is patient. The Holy Spirit is patient. Let’s be patient with ourselves as well.
Will it happen overnight?
I doubt it.
But can we work together and help each other come to believe?
Certainly. Without a shadow of a doubt!