Doubting or Courageous Thomas?

Scripture: John 20: 19 – 31
Rev. Dr. Jill A. Kirchner- Rose
April 3, 2016

“What do you believe, Auntie Jill?”  It was an honest, benign question asked by my 26 yr old nephew, Chris.  He simply asked, “What do you believe, Auntie Jill?”  I looked at Chris for a moment and then I repeated his question, “What do I believe?”  “Yes,” said Chris, “You are a minister, right?  You preach sermons, lead Bible studies, and talk to people about God.  So what do you believe?”  I wasn’t surprised by Chris’ question – after all, he has been on a faith journey himself – attending different kinds of churches and hearing different kinds of messages and he was asking for some guidance from his auntie Jill, an ordained minister.  Except I wasn’t quite sure how to answer the question, “what do I believe?” and so I did what ministers and teachers often do with uncertain situations, I turned the question around and asked “Well, more importantly, what do you believe, Chris?” Chris rolled his eyes and let out a sigh.  “I don’t know – that’s why I am asking you, a minister.”

I am not sure exactly what I believe, but I do know that I am grateful to be a part of a church that honors the journey and not just the destination, a faith community that lives the questions and loves the questions, a congregation that looks up to “Doubting Thomas” as a hero, rather than looking down at him as a failure.  We don’t have a patron saint at RUCC, but if we did – I believe St. Thomas would be our first choice.  I believe there have been a lot of doubting Thomas’ that have walked through the front doors of our sanctuary.

Thomas is one who doubted.  When Jesus indicated that he was going into enemy territory to minister to the gravely ill Lazarus, his friend, Thomas doubted that any of them would get out alive.  Thomas said, “We will go with you that we may die with you, Lord.”  Later, in the Upper Room, when Jesus spoke of going to his Father’s house, Thomas doubted that he understood.  Then, following the death of Jesus, Thomas doubted there was anything left to believe in. The other disciples gathered together to comfort one another, but not Thomas he was off by himself heart broken and grief stricken.  He doubted that there was any reason left to live. When the disciples told him of their experience with the risen Lord, he doubted what they were saying.

“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”  Thomas wanted to touch Jesus, hear Jesus, see Jesus, embrace Jesus.  Thomas was daring enough to ask tough questions.  He was refusing to settle for secondhand faith.  Thomas was driven to know truth – to mingle with it, wrestle with it, become intimate with it.  And notice, Jesus does not criticize Thomas; Jesus does not condemn Thomas; Jesus does not lose patience with Thomas –instead he honors Thomas’ curiosity.  Jesus legitimizes Thomas’ holy, daring, bold questions. Jesus grants Thomas a special appearance.  Jesus says to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” It seems that Jesus values honest doubt. This is a story of hope and promise, not of judgment and reprimand. I think we should rename this apostle and call him Courageous Thomas because he was not afraid to ask the hard questions.

An African-American United Church of Christ pastor by the name of Rev. Yvette Flunder shared her journey toward doubt.  She said this,

I grew up in a fundamentalist church so I know about an either/or God.  I know about binary constructs – right/wrong, black/white, heaven/hell, you’re in or you’re out.  As a fundamentalist, we sought an answer to every question.  And if we didn’t know it we would get on the radio with the Bible Answer Man and the Bible answer man would tell us what the Bible said.  I would walk around with my huge Bible that was held together by a rubber band and I was prepared to give an answer – one answer to every question asked of me because there was only one answer to every question.  And if we didn’t agree with that one answer we were told that we would go straight to hell.  Any deviation from my creed, my church, my worship style was substandard.

But then I began to evolve in my thinking.  The more I learned the less I seemed to be certain about.  And I entered into a struggle over what I really believed.  People in my congregation ask me, “What about this or what about that?”  I say, “Honey, I don’t know.”  They say, “You don’t know – but aren’t you a pastor?”  “Yeah, but I still don’t know.  I don’t know.  And the kids in the church ask some of the hardest questions:  Who got to the tomb first?  Was it Mary or Peter, we can’t figure it out?  I don’t know.  And if God created the lion to lie down with the lamb, where are the dinosaurs in the Bible?  Honey, I don’t know.  I don’t know.  It seems the farther along I get the less I know and I have been in church all of my life.  I turned 51 on my last birthday, you would think by now I would know things more than I do, but truthfully I am knowing less and less.

But let me also say that I have more peace than I have ever had in my life.  I am more secure even though I am filled with more questions.  I am more at ease in my relationship with God.  And I will tell you something else, I am not ashamed and I am not afraid.  What a blessing that is.  

Not even Jesus claimed that he had God all figured out.  Instead Jesus opted for stories that demanded thought, raised questions, and often went counter to conventional wisdom.

Absolute certainty keeps us separated from God and our neighbor by claiming that what we know is the whole truth and that there’s no room for others’ experience.  When we are not open to different ways of looking at things, we risk becoming stagnant.  We are no longer open to the mystery of the divine.  Excessive certitude draws lines between those who are in and those who are out.  On the other hand, those who see the spiritual life as a journey continue to draw the circle wider and wider allowing for all kinds of people to participate with their questions and with their doubts. It reminds me of the labyrinth.  We find ourselves at different places on the labyrinth, but we are all seeking an encounter with the Divine.

My nephew Chris asked me “What do you believe, Auntie Jill?”  Now that I have had some time to think about it, I think I would say something like this,

“Chris, I believe that God is big enough to handle any question and any doubt.

I believe that God is pure, radiant love gifting us with sunrises and sunsets, fragrant flowers, and ocean waves.

I believe that the Risen Christ brought peace to Thomas 2000 years ago and continues to bring peace to us today.  Not a pie in the sky, bye and bye, when you die kind of peace but something sound to the ground while we are still around kind of peace.

I believe that the resurrection is not a fact to be proved, but a presence to be experienced.

I believe that the Holy Spirit unites together the most unlikely of people into a kindred community:  the sick and the healthy, the newborn and the wrinkled, and the hurting and the hopeful.

I believe in the church when diversity is affirmed, inclusivity is the rule, and each person is valued as a precious child of God.  I believe the church is a place where we can disagree and hold hands at the same time and love has the final word.

That is what I believe and if I am in wrong in my beliefs, I believe that God’s grace will still cover me.”

So, what about you?  What do you believe?  What are your doubts?  What are your questions?  Wherever you are on the labyrinth of faith, know there is a place for you here.