John 20:19-31 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
I Doubt It
When I was a kid, my cousins and I played a card game called “I Doubt It.” The dealer passes out all the cards in the deck. The first player takes however many aces he has in his hand, places them face down in the center of the table, and announces “one ace,” or “two aces” or however many aces he has. If he doesn’t have any aces, he has to bluff and play one or more cards from his hand declaring them to be aces—you might call them “alternate aces.” If another player challenges whether the player is telling the truth about how many aces he has laid down, that person yells, “I doubt it!” If the first player was bluffing, then he has to pick up the cards and put them back in his hand. If the challenger is wrong, then he has to pick up the cards. The play continues around the circle with two’s, three’s and so on until someone wins by being the first to get rid of all of his cards. Sometimes the pile in the middle gets pretty big before anyone challenges a play, and the bigger it gets, the bigger the risk, and the louder the challenge—I doubt it!
The Biblical story we just heard reminds me of this game. When the other ten disciples tell Thomas they’ve seen the risen Jesus, he replies, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe…” just another way to say, “I doubt it!” This scene has earned him the nickname “Doubting Thomas.” What was he doubting? The word of the other apostles? His own sense of sight? His sanity? His faith? And why was he dubbed “the doubter” when the gospel of Luke tells us how the other ten apostles reacted when Jesus appeared to them the first time. They were huddled together in their large upper room, and suddenly, miraculously, Jesus appeared to them. The doors were shut; the drapes were drawn; the windows were closed and the disciples were scared spit-less. Did they fall down on their knees in adoration and praise? Did they hit each other on the shoulder and say, “Hey, just like we said…we knew he’d come back.” No, they were startled. They thought they were seeing a ghost or a hallucination. They were afraid. Jesus asked them, “Why are you having all these doubts? Why are all these questions in your mind?”
It got me to thinking…when have I doubted? When have I wanted positive confirmation about something? How often have I asked God for a sign to help me make some decision…about whether to buy a certain house, quit a certain job, marry a certain person?…I don’t like buying clothes on the internet. I want to see them first—touch the fabric to see what it’s like. And how many of us have bought a used car without seeing it first…without test driving it? We live by a “seeing-is-believing” doctrine.
I remember the day Jeff and I got the phone call that we had become grandparents for the first time. Jeff had been semi-estranged from his daughter for some time, and the healing was new, tender and a bit tenuous. And I was well aware of my status as a step-grandmother. That baby had two real grandmothers. We jumped in the car at 5am and drove the 6 hours to Klamath Falls unsure of the reception we would get and what role we might be allowed to play in this baby’s life. We waited our turn as instructed in the parking lot until the other set of grandparents left. Finally it was our turn. We went inside, and there he was—so tiny, so perfect, and so unhappy in the cold world he found himself in. He had been crying so much since his birth that the nurse had taken him away for a while so the new parents could get a little rest. When my turn to hold him came, I took him off by himself in the far corner of the room where it was a little darker and quieter. I held him tightly and whispered, “Welcome to this world, Little One! We’ve been waiting a long time to greet you. It’s so good to hold you and see your face at long last. I am your grandma. I love you.” And he stopped crying. Everyone stared at us…at the sound of silence. And then I knew…I was his grandma. He didn’t care…he would never care…if I was a step-grandmother. The phone call that morning had told me I was a grandmother, but it took holding that baby in my arms to make me know it…to make it real. Isn’t that a bit like Thomas? It took seeing Jesus for himself and seeing his wounds to make it real…make him able to declare, “My Lord and my God.”
Before Thomas could make that declaration, he had to voice his doubt. I think Thomas was the kind of person who was dubious by nature. Many of us are. Maybe for you faith has always felt like a matter that needs continual sorting through. Your faith is secure and real, but your questions are too. Doubt is not a denial of faith. It’s one way of faith among many. Struggle can be part of a way of believing. One story I read was about a minister who went on a spiritual retreat led by a nun known for her perceptiveness. At one point that weekend, each retreatant had an opportunity to speak with the nun privately. She told this minister, “Keep struggling. It’s your way of being close to God.” The good news in the story of Thomas is that there is nothing wrong with struggle. Jesus invited Thomas to touch his wound and gave him exactly the kind of evidence he needed to join in the rejoicing. Faith can be helped a great deal by the use of concrete things.
But didn’t Jesus say that those who could believe without needing such concrete things as sight and touch were blessed? Yes, they are blessed. The word for blessed means happy. “Happy are those who believe without being able to see.” Perhaps it’s true that those of us who don’t ever struggle…who don’t need concrete evidence of resurrection…are happier in the life of faith than those who do. Perhaps they’re able to accept the peace Jesus gives a little more readily. But Jesus never said such people are more faithful. Simply, that they’re happy. Doubt or the longing for signs is not a failure of faith. In the right circumstances, doubt may even be a sign of strength. Questions and wonder and doubt, even skepticism sometimes, are signs of interest and curiosity and these, quite often, are the soil in which vibrant faith is born.
I admire Thomas. He didn’t go along with the crowd. He didn’t vote with the ten disciples. He stood alone against them and expressed his doubts and incredulities. He didn’t doubt himself. I am a spiritual director, a kind of soul coach or soul friend who helps others become more aware of God in their everyday lives. I meet with people one on one and also have a monthly group. Last month the group’s topic was grace, and one of the group members brought a ritual to share. She had a few herbs in a heavy, short glass vase along with a bit of candle wax. Burning sage is a way of cleansing and purifying a space of old energy and is often used in rituals designed to release something in our lives. She asked each of us to write something we wanted to say goodbye to on a small piece of paper. I didn’t need to think about this long. It’s something I’ve struggled with most of my life, and it repeatedly gets in my way. I wrote, “I release self-doubt.” The first person took her turn…fed her paper into the flame. It caught, flamed and went out. My turn…I put my paper in, it flamed…and it burned…and it burned…and it burned. The group members shifted in their seats and giggled a bit because this was not the way any of us expected this to go. I got embarrassed because it was taking so long. I am the leader of this group, and I was uncomfortable with the focus being on me. I also got concerned that we might set off the smoke alarm in the house which would really affect the mood of this ritual. “Let’s move outside onto the deck,” I suggested. We carefully moved the candle holder onto a small glass table out there. The flame burned all the while. “Why don’t you just go on ahead,” I nodded to the next person in the group. Her paper flamed and went out. Mine kept burning. The same thing happened with the fourth participant. The giggling had stopped. We all stared mesmerized. Then with a loud pop, the glass shattered. We jumped. The vase now lay in 3-4 pieces on the table…and still the flame burned amidst the ashes. I didn’t want to keep people over our regular ending time. I stalled as long as I could. In the end I had to pour water on the flame to extinguish it before we closed our evening session in our usual way.
What did it mean? Did my self-doubt not want to give up? I went to see my spiritual director. She said, “Grace happens in an instant. You’ve been carrying self-doubt your whole life. When the glass broke, your self-doubt was set free. You were healed. Now you’re wondering, ‘Is this real? Will it come back?’ At some level you know you’ve been set free. Your work is to transform your wondering into affirmation…to be able to say, ‘I believe it’s true. I have been set free.’” One thing that spiritual directors do is to ask insightful questions to get you to think about something in new or different ways. Mine asked me, “What would happen if you believed your self-doubt had been released…was gone forever? What’s the freedom that you now have for?” I had no immediate answer for her. I was quiet for a few moments, then admitted that I hadn’t cleaned up the glass on the deck. Instead I walk by the window occasionally and peek out to see if the shattered glass is still there. My director said, “That’s because it was a mystical moment that is still happening. You are still “one with” the experience. Freedom is scary. This is a gentle invitation from Spirit. Don’t hurry it. Cherish it. Relish the experience.” I am overwhelmed by thinking that my self-doubt has been healed. I don’t think Thomas thought the other disciples were lying to him. I think he was overwhelmed by thinking what they told him was true. Thomas had to do what I have to do—transform wondering into affirmation.
That work has begun. Last week we were in San Jose visiting a niece who is in construction management. We went to a science museum and came to a display for two people sitting across from each other at a table. One person has a pile of blocks in front of them, and the other has a notebook of pictures of things that can be built with the blocks. The challenge is for one person to choose a structure in the notebook and then give verbal instructions to the other person on how to put the blocks together to form the structure without that person knowing what they are building or what it will look like when they are finished. “Want to try it?” my niece asked. I heard myself say, I probably wouldn’t be very good at either role.” My niece rolled her eyes at me, and I felt ashamed. Then I heard a little voice in my head say, “Your self-doubt is gone. Remember?” “Wait…sure! Let’s try it,” I said. It was fun and I did OK. Slowly I am transforming my wondering into affirmation.
We make the assumption that the more faith we have, the fewer questions we’ll ask. But the Bible offers a different picture of faith, one in which faith and doubt are woven much closer together. The light of faith does not burn uniformly in me all the time. That’s one of the reasons I’m here in fellowship, worshipping with all of you. I am grateful for those of you whose questions deepen my faith, who speak what I might not name and whose probing brings me insight. I am equally grateful for those of you who are blessed in your surety and whose faith is a beacon when my path is rocky or unclear. There’s a place in our Christian lives for our questions and our wonderings as well as our insights and our trust….And we are among those blessed by Jesus for believing without seeing. I don’t doubt that for a moment.