My sister and I asked a lot of questions when we were kids. My parents handled it pretty well. My twin sister even had a whole series of picture books that answered questions – such as “Why is the sky blue?” Other adults in our lives were not as accommodating. We had a friend of the family who when we asked too many questions would start answering “because, because, because, the wonderful wizard of Oz.” He was British so it actually rhymed when he said it. Neither my sister nor I found this to be a satisfying answer, and the more frustrated we got the more he would answer that. Even worse was my Uncle Mark. He and my aunt did not have kids and he used lots of big words so invariably we would ask him, “What does that word mean?” We asked him this a lot. But instead of using smaller words or just teaching them to us he instead decided to buy my sister and I each a pocket dictionary. Let me repeat that this man had no children. We were 6, so now when we’d ask him what a word meant and he’d tell us to look it up in our new dictionaries we’d ask – what’s the first letter? How do you spell it? What letter comes next? He was less than amused.
Have you ever gotten that feeling with asking questions about your faith? Maybe from your childhood Sunday school teacher or a parent or preacher? Or maybe other folks in your Bible study group? Like you were asking too many questions, like you couldn’t just leave it all alone. Or, perhaps worst of all – that you were meddling or doubting –that all these questions meant you didn’t really believe, you weren’t faithful. Because the message we mostly get in church is that questions and doubting are bad or immature. Good church people don’t ask too many questions. Good Christian people don’t doubt. We’re taught sayings like “I’ll understand when I get to heaven.” “Everything happens for a reason, we just don’t know what it is” or “I know I shouldn’t question God…” We sing hymns that say, “trust and obey, there is no other way…” The message is clear: don’t doubt, don’t ask too many questions, and just believe. And that’s the message we often hear from today’s reading. Don’t be like doubting Thomas. (Or you’ll be saddled with a name like ‘Doubting Thomas’ for the rest of your life). Or is it? Perhaps doubt is not the opposite of faith. Perhaps doubt is just a part of faith.
Our reading this morning directly follows last week’s. We learn that Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus appeared in the upper room to the other disciples. Thomas didn’t hear Jesus say “peace be with you.” Thomas was out and about. He missed it. And he comes back and hears that he missed this incredible, life changing experience. He wasn’t there. He didn’t see it. He didn’t see the risen Lord for himself, and he says he wants to. He Thomas wants to have the same experience that the others did. And this desire gave him a name he could never shake – Doubting Thomas.
But here’s the thing. We know that experiences are not transferable. I’ve seen the Grand Canyon. It’s incredible, and the pictures don’t do it justice. But if you’ve never seen it, no matter how much I tell you about the Grand Canyon, you cannot ‘experience’ the Grand Canyon through me because experiences aren’t transferable. Experiences of faith aren’t transferable either. Each of us have to have our own encounters with Jesus or through the Holy Spirit and while we may be encouraged, strengthened, or enlightened by one another’s experiences, we each have our own. Thomas wants to experience Jesus for himself. He has questions and concerns.
But it’s important to note that Thomas didn’t go anywhere. Can you imagine how hard it must have been to hang out with the disciples celebrating, comparing reactions, reminiscing about this incredible experience for 8 whole days before you get to experience it for yourself? Thomas hung around. He might have had doubts, but he waited for Jesus to respond to them, to answer them. He didn’t leave or stomp off because he missed out. He waited.
And Jesus shows back up, in the same place, 8 days later. And again he greets them in peace and then turns to Thomas. He doesn’t shun Thomas or refuse to let Thomas have his questions answered. He invites Thomas closer and says, “Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don’t be unbelieving. Believe.”
Now lots of versions of the Bible translate that verse, don’t doubt—believe. But the Greek word is just don’t be a-believing, so unbelieving in English. And unbelieving is very different from doubting. When you look up the word doubt in the dictionary is means to be uncertain and the archaic definition is to be fearful. Whereas unbelief means a lack of faith or lack of religious belief. To not believe is the opposite of having faith. But to doubt, to question, to sometimes be afraid is not the opposite of having faith. Perhaps we need to stop thinking about doubt as the opposite of faith, perhaps it’s time to start thinking of doubt as an integral part of having faith.
There’s this funny cartoon where Doubting Thomas is talking to the other disciples and says, “All I’m saying is we don’t call Peter ‘denying Peter’ or Mark “ran away naked Mark” Why should I be saddled with this title?” And it’s funny (or at least I think it is) but it makes a good point. No other Biblical character gets a nickname based off their sin or mistake – so what does it say to our children and youth when we refer to him as Doubting Thomas all the time? Because Thomas didn’t stay in a place of doubt – he was not unbelieving. It was just a part of his journey of faith. Thomas actually responded “My Master! My God!” That’s a confession of faith and one of only a handful of confessions like that in John’s Gospel. Tradition tells us that Thomas ended up going to India as a missionary and sharing the Gospel far and wide. His doubt was just part of his faith journey.
So what if we start calling him just Thomas? He’s just Thomas because doubting is not a permanent part of his story. He’s just Thomas because doubting is an integral part of his journey of faith and not a sign of unbelief. We ask questions and cast doubts on the things we care about most – the things we want to know deeply for ourselves. Thomas wanted to know the risen Jesus deeply and personally, and his community did not stop him.
Did you notice in our reading that the other disciples don’t kick Thomas out for doubting? They don’t mock him or whisper behind his back. He stays in community while he waits for his question to be answered. Are we, our church, our families, our Bible studies, a safe place like that? Do our children and youth know that there is no question that is too big for God—that Jesus will not push us away for asking questions? Do we know that? Did y’all know that John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement struggled with doubts? He often wondered why he did not feel assured of his salvation and yet his work for the Kingdom was incredible. Because doubt is not the opposite of faith – it is a part of our faith journey.
Brothers and sisters, I want you to know that there is no question too “doubtful” for God. No doubt too big, no question too scary. I know for myself that in some of my biggest questions for God – questions around suffering and evil – questions that continued to rise to the surface working at a children’s hospital. I brought those questions to Jesus, and my faith is deeper for it. And no, I don’t think all my questions will be answered in my lifetime because God is beyond my comprehension, but I also think I would miss out on opportunities to grow in my faith if I fell back on platitudes instead of delving into my questions. Or as one of my favorite books puts it, “I do not believe as a child does; my hosanna has passed through the crucible of doubt.”
Friends, and what a hosanna that must be. Because remember what Jesus told Thomas. Jesus said, “So, you believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.” That’s us – we’re the ones who believe without seeing. But note he didn’t say “those who believe without doubting or those who believe without asking questions.” Jesus can handle those and maybe those questions or doubts can help lead to the blessings.
So know this – you and I, we are beloved children of God, and there is no question we can ask or doubt we can have that God has not heard before. So ask, ask me, ask God, ask your Bible study group. Dive in, agree with one another, disagree with one another, disagree with me, but be like Thomas. Ask to see Jesus, pray to experience him, pray that he would answer our questions and help us to know him more deeply. Because doubt is not unbelief (though God can work with that too). Doubt is not the opposite of faith – it’s part of the process. So let us support one another as we grow in faith. Let us encourage one another as we ask questions, encourage our children and our youth to ask questions, to doubt, to journey in faith and pray that we and they see Jesus more clearly and know him more personally for it. Amen.