Sunday, April 14, 2013

"My Lord and My God" - John 20:24-29 - April 14, 2013

The word “doubt” seems to have become a scary word in church. We are most comfortable with concretes of faith, the unquestioned certainty of everything we have been taught. We are at our best when the answer to our spiritual questions can fit on a bumper sticker or in the short bounds of a tweet.  If we have a deep question or even a hint of doubt, we will leave it unspoken, left to quietly haunt our heart and mind. I think the reason that doubt makes us some uncomfortable is that we can fear that we will not like the answer, or even more frightening, we wonder if there is really any answer at all. So, sometimes our choice has been to doubt in private, holding them close, hiding them from everyone that might caste a judgmental eye if we dare speak them aloud.  In these moments it is important to hear that the Bible is full of stories of people who asked hard questions and who came to life changing encounters because they were willing to acknowledge their doubt. This morning I bring you my namesake, Thomas. The phrase “Doubting Thomas” is alive and well in our culture – but this morning we will discover that his crisis of doubt became a bridge to faith that carried him for the rest of his life.

 Our passage begins with Thomas in the midst of his moment of crisis.  Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.  So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “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’ doubt was real.  Just as Peter had thought that the witness of the women was too amazing to be true, now Thomas wonders the same thing about the word that Peter and the other disciples were bringing him.  Thomas had been so hurt by the pain of what he believed to be the end of Jesus that he did not gather with the other disciples.  He retreated in sadness and isolated himself in woundedness. And now, as he hears their stories of Jesus he found himself confused and in doubt. He probably wondered if they had seen a ghost or were consumed by emotion.  He knew the vicious death that Jesus had experienced on the cross.  His reference shows he knows about the nails that had been driven into Jesus’ hands and feet, and that a spear had been thrust into Jesus’ side.  He could not conceive that the bonds of death and the grave had been broken.  It was more than he could believe.
Let’s be honest. Thomas is not alone in his doubts.  There are many who wonder if this whole Christ story can be real.  It is a religious myth or did this one named Jesus live and walk and talk and teach and preach and heal and die and rise again?   The miracle stories seem so out of place in our current culture where everything has to have a rational explanation.  Are they just exaggerations or an earlier culture’s attempt to explain away what they could not understand? What about other religions.  Isn’t it bold for Christianity to claim to be the only way to God?  Shouldn’t we be respectful of all other religions because they might be true too? Rather than ask real questions, we are tempted to sit quietly in the pew and say nothing – but continue to wonder and to live silently and painfully in doubt.  In the process we can cheat ourselves out of an authentic relationship with Christ and a deeper faith experience. 

The story does not end with Thomas lingering in a crisis of doubt.  Instead, as we watch the story unfold we can discover that doubt can be a tool for spiritual discovery. Let’s listen in.  A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas has gotten a bad rap for doubting the resurrection of Jesus.  But, his doubts live in the hearts and minds of many even now.  How Jesus deals with the Thomas speaks volumes about how Jesus deals with doubt.  Jesus knew that Thomas had real doubt. Can you imagine what Thomas must have felt when Jesus moved directly to him?  Can you imagine the gasp that must have filled the room when Jesus spoke so clearly to the issue of doubt that Thomas had voiced a week earlier in their midst? I wonder if the disciples we standing their waiting for Jesus to come down on Thomas; to verbally rebuke him for his doubt. I am not any of them were really prepared for how Jesus responded. Jesus does not condemn Thomas’ doubt, he addressed it head on.  Jesus stood before him and allows him the opportunity to confront his doubts. Jesus stood before him. I imagine that he raises his nailed scarred hands to Thomas.  I imagine him pushing his robe aside to show the place where the spear has struck him.  He invites Thomas to put his hands in the wounds.  He invited him to see the proof with his own eyes. Then – with his hard question answered – he calls on him to let go of his doubt and claim his life of faith. 

 Hear clearly the call to confront your doubt head on.  There is no question you should not ask.  There is no issue that is forbidden to talk about. There is no emotional or spiritual wound that you cannot raise.  If the story of God’s redemptive story is so fragile we tip toe around the doubts and questions that haunt us, it is not worthy of our belief. God is big enough to handle our doubt.  The Word of God is strong enough to handle even our most difficult questions. Our faith is powerful enough to survive – even to thrive – when we stand before Jesus honest and lay bare.

 We have to be willing to be honest about our doubts with and trust God enough to know that only when we confront our doubts can we discover a faith that is strong enough to sustain us in our life walk. In the end Thomas did let go of his doubt.  When his doubt gives way to faith we hear one of the greatest faith pronouncements in Scripture. As Thomas stands looking at the wounds of Jesus he boldly proclaims that Jesus is “My Lord and my God!” Thomas’ encounter with Jesus was so powerful that he put himself at great risk merely saying the words. His pronouncement of Jesus as “My Lord and My God” he risked being accused of blasphemy by the Jewish religious leaders – the same charge they had leveled at Jesus.  This was a special phrase reserved in Jewish law and custom. His proclamation was the strongest possible statement possible. It left no room for doubt.  His proclamation was that Jesus was God – the one and only God of Israel.

 Thomas did more than proclaim his faith in that small room.  This proclamation because the basis for the rest of his life. Early church tradition tells us that Thomas became one of the disciples to followed Jesus’ call “to the ends of the earth” and ended up in India.  Several of the oldest churches in India claim to be his missionary spiritual children.  He died in India, a person of passionate faith and a witness to the resurrection. Thomas’ unapologetic doubt led him to a passionate life of faith. Ah for more like Doubting Thomas.

 Be encouraged.  You do not have to hide from your questions and hide your shadows of doubt any longer. Honest doubt can be a tool for spiritual discovery if we choose to move closer to God to discover the answers - if our doubts draw us toward a personal encounter with Christ. The tragedy is that many will choose to struggle in doubt and skepticism, and miss their moment of honesty and resolution with Christ. They have become so jaded that their doubt drives them away from God rather than toward God. The testimony of Thomas is that the best place to deal with our doubts is face-to-face with Jesus.  But, in the end, Jesus calls us to a faith that moves beyond doubt and skepticism. Jesus calls us to believe not because of what not just because we can see or touch it – but to believe because of what we experience in the presence of Christ. I like the way that Eugene Peterson interprets verse 29 in The Message.  Hear what he offers. 29 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."

 The kind of faith, the kind of trust, that Jesus is calling for pushes us to step out in real faith in our relationship with God. His call is to a real faith that is not built just on what we can see or touch, but the kind of faith that can melt away doubt, that can heal a broken heart and that can restore a wounded life. It is the kind of faith that can transform our everyday lives. This kind of faith comes with a promise or a blessing – a promise of an authentic relationship with God through Christ. How can I be so sure?  It is because I know what Christ has done in my life and can imagine what Christ can do in yours.

In the verses that follow John tells us that Jesus went to do several other miracles and spent time teaching the disciples- but he does not give these other post-resurrection moments that attention he gives Jesus’ encounter with Thomas.  He did not do that by accident.  I believe that the Bible shares the story of Thomas to show us that there is a way home God for all of us who struggle with doubt.  I believe the Bible tells this story to testify that we can, and ultimately must, move beyond doubt to a life of real faith.

Are you ready to confront your questions and your doubts?  Are you ready to encounter Jesus in the middle of your spiritual struggle? Are you ready to believe not because you can see it – but because you can sense the presence of God?

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