There is plenty of doubt in the closing scenes of the gospels. Though this story seems to get the most attention. Or, at least it gets the final word about the character of Thomas. Because of this little incident he is derided as “doubting Thomas.” And that’s just the problem – it is used as an insult, or at least to describe a severe character flaw. But I am not so sure of that any more. I wonder if Thomas was any more doubtful than any of the others. Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite Christian authors, says this about doubt: “If there’s no room for doubt, there’s no room for me.” [The Alphabet of Grace (New York, Seabury Press, 1970), 47.]
We have come to think of doubt as a negative trait, but it is found throughout the lives of people of faith, even of Jesus. When the disciples saw Jesus for the last time before he was taken up into heaven, Matthew tells us that they worshiped him, but some doubted. Even Jesus on the cross cried out to God: “Why have you forsaken me” (Mark 15:34). My favorite story about doubt is from the father who so desperately wanted his son to be free of an illness which the disciples had not been able to heal: “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24), he begged Jesus. This father is just so honest! That is what draws me to his story. And maybe that honesty was enough for Jesus to recognize faith.
Listen to Frederick Buechner again: “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” [Buechner, Wishful Thinking: a theological ABC (New York, Harper & Row), p. 20.]
With the enlightenment and its exaltation of reason and science, Christianity was deeply impacted. Some of that was good. No longer were the practices of the church so secret or perceived as magical. As common people learned to read, a greater understanding of Christianity flourished. But with this focus on rationality, the mystic and mysterious went underground and to the backwoods of the faith, no longer front and center. In America during the 19th and 20th centuries this movement continued to develop to the point that in some circles, being Christian was associated with assent to certain dogmas, using certain words. Belief came to be defined as intellectual assent to truths.
Today we are in another huge cultural shift and we are returning to the ancient documents with new eyes. We are asking again, What is faith? What does it mean to believe? More ancient texts are available than ever before! The number of texts, both sacred and secular, give us a much better sense of what the words meant in their original contexts. Add to that, the opening relationships with rabbinic scholars and we have the wealth of the whole history of Jewish interpretation of Scripture. Remember that Jesus was a Jew and his words were spoken in Aramaic and Hebrew. His context was thoroughly Jewish. Jesus was not Greek, and probably did not speak any Greek, so it is a big leap to understand Jesus using a second, Greek, or third language, like English.
In order to understand the importance of doubt, we must first look at what we mean by faith or belief. The Greek word for faith, or belief, is pisteuo. This was the New Testament translation for the Hebrew root, emunah (faith). The prayer response used in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, “Amen,” is a form of this word. The idea expressed is of support. Amen says I support what has just been said. I am invested in it. It is a commitment word, a relational word.
The verb pisteuo works two ways like the English verb “commit.” If you commit yourself to someone, then you are entrusting yourself to them, putting yourself in their care. At the same time you are supporting them. It is a mutual, even covenantal relationship. If I believe in God, or Jesus, I am putting myself in a relationship of mutual support. I am entrusting myself to Jesus and Jesus is entrusting himself to me. Belief is not about intellectual assent, but about personal investment and commitment to a thing.
Today, doubt is that question which challenges the purely rational faith. We need it desperately! Jesus didn’t come to change our minds. Jesus came to change the world, from the heart. Doubt gets us out of our certainty into the questions of everyday life. Will I choose the way of Jesus in the space with no answers? Will I come to the well of Scripture and prayer again, even when doubt is my companion? Thomas did. He still showed up with the other disciples, to be with the memory of Jesus. And so Jesus came, in exactly the way Thomas needed him.
So how did this work for Thomas? The other disciples had encountered Jesus. He has shown them his hands, feet, side. They had renewed their relationship with Jesus in his new life after death. Did they understand it? Did it make sense? Were they certain of his physical presence? We don’t know. But the text indicates that they renewed their mutual trust with Jesus the living One.
Thomas wanted this same opportunity, and he said so – boldly. His statement here is very strong, almost demanding. I must see what you other disciples have seen, or I will not put my trust in him again. I was burned, we were all burned in our trust in him. The Romans killed him and he left us, without any of his promises fulfilled. I cannot re-enter that trust without reconnecting with Jesus.
He didn’t say that he didn’t believe what the disciples, his friends, were telling him. He was just being honest. He could not re-enter that kind of committed relationship without some evidence of its mutuality. He needed to know that Jesus was present for him, too. For him, he demanded a physical experience of the presence.
I have always found it interesting, though, that there is no indication that Thomas even touched Jesus. Jesus offered his hands, feet, side to be touched. But the offer seems to be brushed aside.
One of the most important principles of Biblical interpretation is this: we can’t hear what the stories of the Bible are saying until we hear them as stories about ourselves. We have to imagine our way into them.
I invite us to enter this scene now with all the powers of our imaginations. Close your eyes if it helps you. There is an old saying: “You can’t really understand another person’s experience until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” Put on Thomas’ shoes….
I see the time as evening. Everyone has turned in for the day, the doors are locked, the candles lit. The light flickers. Quiet conversations among the friends give the room a gentle hum. The scent of toasted flatbread lingers from dinner. Here I sit in my isolation. No one talks to me. I can feel myself swirling down the dark hole of grief from which there is no return. I am sinking. I am Thomas, consumed by grief. I was willing to die with him when we went to visit Lazarus. I was all in. Now my grief won’t let go. I can’t hear what the others are saying. They have seen Jesus. Sure. That happens in my dreams, too. But he is gone. All the hope for justice and love, for God’s kingdom to be like what we experienced with Jesus…., that everyone would taste it. All the people who scratch together a poor living. Freedom. Abundance. Just to be noticed as a human being. Dare I remember – being loved? Loved!
I am Thomas. Suddenly, the room is different. Jesus’ presence has come into the room. What?… How?… I look up. We meet our eyes. Jesus speaks. I am not even sure I understand what he is saying. His words wash over me unheard, because our eyes have met. We have seen into each other’s hearts. We know. We know now that Jesus is here for me and I am here for Jesus. I will support his way with everything I have. “My Lord, and my God!,” the words escape my lips. There is nothing more to say!…
Doubt. Yes. We all have that experience. It’s like a spiritual drought, a starless night of the soul, a low tide when faith seems to have retreated forever. Nearly all of us experience these dry, dark, difficult times when God doesn’t seem real and it’s hard to keep going. I am so glad Thomas’ story is recorded in the Bible. I need to know that I am not alone in my questions. That Jesus will come to me anyway. Sometime, some way, in Jesus’ own way with me.
When Buechner says, “If there’s no room for doubt, there’s no room for me,” he is talking about the common human experience. It is in doubt, in our places of uncertainty, darkness, no answers, when the holy one comes to us – as Father, Creator, as Jesus in all his humanity, or in the fresh breath of the Spirit. God comes. Because God believes in us, God supports us, even when we have nothing left. God is the one who carries us, when we have nothing left, and carries us over to the other side, to what is next when we are finished here.
Thomas had seen Jesus with the eyes of his heart, and there was nothing more he could say, nothing more he needed to say. Can we imagine ourselves into that part of the story?
We have the opportunity to open ourselves to Jesus in the same way Thomas did that day, as we break the bread and pour the juice. It is our moment to find ourselves in that upper room, to meet Jesus’ eyes and say, with Thomas, “I’m all in.” “My Lord, and my God.”