(A sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter)
Poor Thomas. “Doubting Thomas.” That’s all anyone remembers about him. Hardly ever do we hear anyone mention that Thomas went on to evangelize the Parthians, and Persians, and carried the Christian faith to the coast of India, which to this day boasts a native population who call themselves the “Christians of St. Thomas.” Hardly ever do we hear how Thomas became a martyr, being speared to death for his bold and uncompromising witness to Christ. This later history of Thomas lets us know something not only about the man, but about the anatomy of doubt.
Doubt is not necessarily a bad thing. Doubt is often the path to greater certainty. There is a healthy kind of doubt: a skepticism that wants to check things out. When the internet first began to gain popularity, initially through email, there was an explosion of rumors and urban legends. Nefarious no-goodniks, we were told, were putting infected hypodermic needles in the ball pit at McDonald’s, or under gas pump handles. Congress was considering a bill to ban religious broadcasting from the airwaves. (This one was a revival of a petition circulated in the 70s, blaming atheist leader Madalyn Murray O’Hair. No such bill has ever existed.) For every email we forwarded, we’d receive a nickel from Bill Gates, or the Taco Bell Dog would come dance across our computer screen. This exploitation of our collective gullibility led to the creation of many fact-checking sites and to a healthy suspicion, on the part of many of us, to any “facts” we receive via forwarded emails or posts on social media. Thomas was this kind of doubter. He did not dismiss the resurrection out of hand. He said, “I need more information. I need to check the facts. I need to see for myself.” And instead of dismissing Thomas’s doubts, Jesus graciously accommodates them, giving Thomas exactly what he needs. And this leads to an even stronger faith for Thomas. When Thomas does see the wounds in Jesus’ hands and in Jesus’ side, he delivers one of the most explicit declarations of Christ’s divinity in all of scripture, crying out, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus accepts these titles, accepts this worship, as true and right. Jesus is Lord, and Jesus is God.
Some grow up in a closed environment in terms of faith. Everything is just so, and questioning is not encouraged. I saw many such people in college. I went to a Christian college, but one that prized inquiry, prized the kind of skepticism that says, “I need more information.” Some of my friends, who had grown up in more rigid situations, were not prepared to hear, at a Christian college, theories that questioned whether Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament, or that noted the differences in the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2, or the similarities between the story of Noah and the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic. For some of them, it was the end of their faith. They had been brought up to follow unquestioningly. They had never been given the freedom to question or the tools with which to deal with questions. For others, however, the process of questioning led them to a deeper, more grounded faith. They now not only knew what they believed, but they understood why they believed it and could defend it. That is the story of Thomas. Honest skepticism, honest doubt, leads to deeper faith, which then leads to worship.
There is, however, another kind of doubt. It is a disbelief that clothes itself in religious garb and surrounds itself with pious words. The scribes and the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were doubters: they did not believe in Christ, much less recognize their need for Christ. But unlike Thomas, whose doubt was open to answers, their doubt was settled, confirmed, ossified, entrenched. They busied themselves with the minutiae of their religious institutions, and they prided themselves on their knowledge of those minutiae. Even when confronted with evidence of Christ’s divinity, their doubt only grew. After Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, for example, those who opposed Jesus sought all the more to put him to death. “Don’t confuse me with the facts,” they seemed to say. Jesus, referring to these religiously-garbed doubters, says, “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! Woe to you, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean. You are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.”
The Thomas kind of doubter and the Pharisee kind of doubter are exact opposites. The heart of the Thomas doubter seeks God yet needs some outside help, some further information. And for this kind of doubter, Christ provides whatever is needed. If the prayer of your heart is, “Lord, I believe: help my unbelief!” God is always pleased to answer that prayer. God is a rewarder of those who seek him. The Pharisee kind of doubter, on the other hand, believes that having everything in order on the outside is all that is necessary, while God says that what is on the inside is death. To these, Jesus says, “First clean the inside of the cup.” In other words, stop focusing on externals and focus on your own heart!
We come to the Lord’s Table. As we say each time, our Savior invites those who trust in him to share the feast he has prepared. That doesn’t mean only those with a perfect, doubt-free faith may come. It means those whose hearts are open to Christ may come, even with their questions and doubts. If you are thinking, “I don’t deserve to come to the Table” or “I’m not worthy to come to the table,” then you’re exactly who needs to come to the Table. The heart that’s open to God, the thankful heart, the heart that longs to worship, is ready to participate in the Great Thanksgiving, the Eucharist. If you are not here to worship God, if your heart is not thankful but instead thankless and critical, closed to God’s grace, how can you come to the Table? How can you proclaim the merits of a Christ whom you deny?
If you come in pride, don’t. But if you come in faith, come. Don’t wait until your faith is 100% perfect. In the words of the old hymn, “If you tarry ‘til you’re better, you will never come at all.” Bring your imperfect faith, with its questions and doubts, to the only one who can answer those questions and dispel those doubts, the one who says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” My Lord and my God! I believe. Help my unbelief.