Scripture: John 20:24-31
My entrance into vocational ministry was youth ministry. To this day I still have a passion for teaching young people about the love of Jesus. One of the major approaches I took in doing youth ministry is that we learn best when we are having fun, so it was very common for me to use games as a teaching illustration. One of the aspects of leading games is dividing the group into teams, and I feel like I never quite got the best way to do that figured out. Numbering people off was problematic, because it would inevitably split youth who should probably stay together. It also had the potential to create wildly skewed teams. My preferred way was to just split people off myself in an attempt to get the teams as fair as possible. However, if I got it wrong and one team was better at the game than the other, then some of the youth on the losing team felt cheated. The preferred way for the teenagers was to have captains and pick their own teams. That was the way I least liked to do it. When the teens picked their own teams they understandably tried to pick the team they thought most likely to win. This meant the last person picked, knew exactly why they were the last person picked. I really did not like putting people in that situation.
I really did not like it, because I knew the pain that comes from being last picked. Like a lot of people, middle school was a rough time for me but gym class was the worst. In my middle school, the gym teacher always used captains to pick teams and I ended up getting picked last a lot. It all started with basketball. In middle school I was not very good at basketball. I was not very tall and I was not fast enough or a good enough ball handler to make up for the lack of height. So because of this, I would get picked towards the end or even last. What really frustrated me though is that this spread to other gym activities. I was not great at basketball, but I felt like I was decent at a lot of the other gym activities.. However, because I ended up in the lower tier in basketball I always ended up getting picked near to last no matter what the sport. I used to get so mad when I felt like I was getting passed up. Every time I would play my absolute hardest, giving all that I could and holding nothing back in hopes that I could show I was worth picking earlier. I even spent a lot of time playing basketball just so I could get better, but it did not seem to matter. I had gotten pegged as last pick draft potential, and no amount of effort was going to break that. It was not until I moved to a different community that I got to regularly experience what it felt like not to be picked last.
Being picked last is not a pleasant experience, but what really bothered me about it was being stuck with a label, a label that was not fair and that I could not get rid of. I think because of this, I really feel for Thomas. Due to this morning’s scripture he got stuck with a label for all time. Even today, the term “doubting Thomas” is used in a somewhat derogatory nature when someone is a skeptic. There is a good chance that people who do not really have a church background are familiar with and use that phrase. It is really unfair to label Thomas as doubting for all time, because that is not a full assessment of what we know about him. From both the scripture and history we know that Thomas was not necessarily a man who lacked faith. Earlier in the gospel of John, Thomas displays amazing faith. For instance in the eleventh chapter of John, Jesus decides to go back to Judea to raise Lazarus from the dead. The disciples though are concerned about this because the last time Jesus was in Judea people tried to stone Jesus. Many of the disciples are afraid, but it is Thomas who speaks up in 11:16: “Then Thomas said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Church tradition remembers Thomas as an apostle of great faith, and the historical record backs this up. Church tradition states that Thomas took seriously the idea of making disciples of all nations and taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. Thomas traveled further than any of the other twelve disciples and took the good news of Jesus to India, where he established a church. The community of faith that Thomas established there took root and it still exists today. The members of the Indian church that traces back to the first century are referred to in English as St. Thomas Christians. Thomas did not lack faith.
Yet, Thomas has been shackled with the label of “doubting” because of a single instance recorded in scripture. Again, this is not fair because we are likely not that different from Thomas. If we were in the place of Thomas would we believe the others or would we also demand proof? If we put ourselves in his shoes we can see that Thomas had a reason to be skeptical. Before the crucifixion he had put his hope in Jesus. He had given up everything to follow him. Based on his statement in John 11, Thomas clearly believed that he was willing to follow Jesus to death. However, when put to the test, Thomas found his faith weaker than he thought. Like all of the disciples he fled and hid when Jesus was arrested. Thomas would have been grieving at the beginning of this scripture. He was grieving the loss of his teacher and friend, but he was also grieving his hopes and dreams which he also believed died on the cross. Given all that Thomas had gone through and given all of the pain that he probably experienced, it was not that unrealistic for him to demand a little proof that he can have hope again.
Many of us may have found ourselves in the same boat as Thomas. Many of us have likely been in a place where the circumstances of lives rocked a faith that was perhaps less sure than we thought. There have been times that we, like Thomas, wanted a solid and tangible assurance that God is with us; that we can still have hope. If we were honest with ourselves we have probably all had moments in our faith journey where we may have felt like our faith is lacking. We have all had moments when we felt like we could be considered doubters. The question we should be wrestling with is, where do we go from there? In answering that for ourselves I think there are two points we should consider.
First, having doubts about our faith does not necessarily diminish our faith. Thomas did have serious reservations about what he was told about the resurrection. Jesus did acknowledge this, and he did say, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Jesus does essentially say that Thomas had room to grow in faith. However, it is also worth noting what Jesus did not say. Jesus did not tell Thomas that his doubt is because he just does not pray enough. Jesus did not critique Thomas’s doubt as obvious proof that Thomas was backsliding to immorality. Jesus did not say away from me for lacking faith. Jesus did not know do any of those things. Instead, Jesus met Thomas where he was at. Jesus took the time to address Thomas’s concerns. Could Thomas have been a better disciple of Jesus and had greater faith? Yes probably. Did doubting, disqualify him from following Jesus? Absolutely not, and Jesus himself sought to help Thomas overcome his doubts.
It is my experience that a shallow faith is one that claims to have no doubts. Doubts are nothing more than questions to our beliefs that do not have answers. If we are taking our faith seriously, then we are going to ask questions. If we ask enough good questions we are going to find ones without clean answers, and wrestling with those questions can and will lead to doubt. However, I would rather have questions without answers than answers that cannot be questioned. When we put absolute faith in our answers, then our faith is not in God. Our faith is in the answers we have come up with to define God into a box. One of the beliefs I am most sure of is that God is bigger than any of my questions. Doubt is not the opposite of faith, doubt is the space created by questions, and it is in that space that our faith can grow. Without space to expand our faith will stay small. However, when we question, that gives space for God to show up. That gives space for Jesus to say “Put your fingers here. See my hands. Reach out your hand and put in my side. Stop doubting and believe.” By being open to doubt, we give God the space to meet us where we are and grow our faith.
Second, it is important that we do not let doubt define our faith. Unanswered questions can grow our faith, but if we let them they can hold us up. They can become a stumbling block we do not give ourselves permission to get over. Not being defined by the stumbles and questions in the past of our faith development is a lesson we can really learn from Thomas. Because of a hopeless moment, Thomas earned the label doubter. That is not the only label he has in the bible though he also has the label of apostle. He was one of the ones chosen by Jesus to carry forth the gospel. He was one of the ones responsible for the Truth taking root in the world. Between the two, that is the label that Thomas claimed for himself and lived into. What if instead of embracing the label of apostle, he had embraced the label of doubter? How much damage would that have done to the early church? I know we cannot answer that question, but I feel like this answer is considerable.
Despite having moments of doubt like the one recorded in this morning’s scripture, Thomas did not let doubt define him. There are many people today who, instead of trusting God to meet them where they are at, let their doubt define them. There are people who God can use to preach and proclaim the gospel. These are people that God can use to share a message of hope with the hopeless, a message of love for the unloved, and a message of salvation for the unsaved. However, these same people doubt they have what it takes to speak in front of others. They doubt that they are talented enough, or well-spoken enough. They doubt that the Holy Spirit could speak through them. Then there are probably also people who could be great leaders in the church. People who could inspire others, take bold new paths in this new era, and who could transform the world. However, these same people doubt that God will equip them with what it takes to be a leader.
Doubts can grow our faith but if we let them they can grow to become a stumbling block that we let define us and hold us back. The difference between these two sides comes down to what voices we listen to. Do we listen to the voices that give faith room to grow or do we listen to voices that give doubts fertile soil to spread? Thomas had real doubts, and Jesus met him where he was at. Thomas listened to that voice. I still believe that Jesus meets us where we are at, and his voice is the one we should be listening to. If we are serious about following Jesus and living a life of faith, then it is inevitable that we will have doubts. May we not let those times diminish our faith. May we honestly wrestle with them, and may seek the voice of Christ throughout them. If we do, then I have confidence that just like Thomas we will emerge with a stronger faith and we will be able to follow Jesus wherever he is leading, all the way to the ends of the earth.