Prove it

John 20:19-31

For Hollywood actors who love the craft and art of acting, one of the biggest potential career pitfalls is getting typecast.  This happens when an actor has some success in a particular role and then future projects only want to cast them in the same type of role.  Daniel Greg has gone on record in multiple interviews, about his frustration of how playing James Bond seemed to brand him for years as only an action movie actor.    To avoid being type cast, some actors walk away from big roles.  For instance, after two successful Batman movies Michael Keaton turned down a lot of money to don the mask a third time because he did not want to get typecast.   Other times actors try to breakout of typecasting by pursuing radically different roles.  Sometimes this work and other times it does not.   It worked for Arnold Schwarzenegger who starred as a muscle bound action star, but successfully managed to go against that type casting with several successful comedic roles.  Other times it has not worked out.  Clint Eastwood might be one of the most typecast actors as the perpetual tough guy, but early in his career he tried to avoid being typecast in that role by starring in Paint Your Wagon, his one and only attempt at a musical.     Since musicals did not work out, Eastwood eventually embraced being typecast.

It is hard for actors to avoid being typecast, because people have a tendency to try and reduce other people to the lowest common denominator.  So if an actor stars in a couple of romantic comedies, then it becomes easy to think of her as an actor who only does romantic comedies.   This morning’s scripture shows that typecasting happens in the bible as well.   Because of 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.  Thomas was more than a doubter though.  In this morning’s scripture he asked Jesus for proof.  Thomas may have a moment of doubt, but ultimately doubt is not what defined him, and the way he lived out his faith proves that.  In the same way we can have doubts in our own faith life, but those doubts do not define our faith.  It is the way we live our faith that proves it.

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.  First, the Assyrian Church of the East remembers Thomas as its founder.  By American standards this is an obscure branch of Christianity.  It is centered in modern day Iraq, and despite modern day persecution still has over 400,000 members.  Church tradition then remembers that Thomas took the message of Jesus to India, where he established a church.  The community of faith that Thomas established there took root and it still exist today.  The members of the Indian church that traces back to the first century are referred to in English as St. Thomas Christians.  This is not an insignificant group and today there are about six million St. Thomas Christians.  Arguably more than any other of the original disciples Thomas took the command to make disciples of all the nations seriously, and took the gospel to the ends of the earth.  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 experiencing, it was not that unrealistic for him to demand a little proof that he can have hope again.

In fact this is something that a lot of people in faith have experienced.  Many of us have likely been in a place where the circumstances of lives rocked a faith that was perhaps less solid than we thought.   There have been times when the circumstances have left asking “why?” and the only answer seems to be silence.   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.  We likely have all had times when we been challenged, when we have struggled, when we have wanted to God to prove it.   We have all had our seasons of doubt.   As we consider this morning’s scripture I think there are two valuable lessons we can learn from it for our own faith journey.

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 doubt as obvious proof that Thomas was backsliding to immorality.   Jesus did not say away from me for lacking faith.   Jesus did not do any of those things.   Instead, Jesus met Thomas where he was at.  Jesus took the time to address Thomas’s concerns.  Jesus did address Thomas’s doubts on Thomas’s terms.   Thomas was in a rough spot and a potential spot of crisis in his faith after the crucifixion, but that did not disqualify Thomas from being a disciple.   In fact, Jesus himself sought to help Thomas overcome his doubts.

It is my experience that a shallow faith is one that has 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.

While doubt can play an important role in letting faith grow stronger, the second lesson we can learn from this morning’s scripture is that doubt should not define our faith.  Questions are important, but we should not let unanswerable questions hold us up.  Part of faith is taking things on faith.  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.  It was the label of apostle that led Thomas to travel east and make a lasting difference.   Like all believers, Thomas still had doubts.  He likely had hard days and times where he wondered if leaving everything behind for this missionary work was worth it.   Yet, Thomas did not let doubts or the label of doubter to define him.   He proved his faith in how he lived it out.

In the same way we should not let out doubts define us.  For many people the area where we likely face the most doubt is in living faith out.  We may not have doubts about the big questions like Is God real, but we have a lot doubt about how God can use us.  Taking a step in faith, being obedient to God, will always be risky- and risk often created doubt.    For a number of years, I have been able to serve on district committee on ministries.  This is a team that has the responsibility of credentialing local pastors to serve in United Methodists churches.  I believe it is important work, but it is also work I feel privileged to do.  The best of part of being on the district committee is I get to regularly hear people’s call stories, the way that God called them into ministry.   Over the years there is a common story I have heard from people who responded to the call later in life.   Often they felt called by God at a younger age, but they doubted they had what it took.  They doubted they were talented enough or well-spoken enough.  They doubted people would want to listen to what they had to say, and so they ran from the calling God placed on their life for a number of years.  I am thankful that all of those colleagues in ministry eventually said “Yes” to the call God placed in their lives.

It leaves me to wonder though, just how many people sit in the pews and on the sidelines because they are letting doubt define how they live out their faith.   Perhaps have a dream for how you can make a difference in this world, how you can proclaim the good news, or how you can help others know they are cared for and valued.   Perhaps you have sat on this dream for too long because you have told yourself you cannot do it, it is too hard, the logistics are too impossible.  Having those doubts is understandable, but please do not let those doubts define you.   If God is calling you to something more, then there will be risk and it will be scary.  Take the step of faith anyway.

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 as 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


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