Positive Doubt,          John 20:19-31, April 11, 2010
 
Faith, is a belief held in the presence of doubt, rather, than a belief that removes all doubt
I don’t think there’s anyone who hasn’t heard of Ripley's “Believe it or Not”! Robert L. Ripley was born on Christmas Day, 1893 in Santa Rosa, California. He began his newspaper career as a sports cartoonist at the age of 16.

As a reporter of the odd and unusual, Ripley traveled to the farthest corners of the globe, visiting over 200 countries, meeting with kings and queens, cannibal chieftains, tribesmen and natives along the way. His extensive travels earned him the title "The Modern Day Marco Polo."

One would think Ripley's “Believe it or Not” is passé' by now, but his ““Believe it or Not”” series has been popular around the world for over 70 years -- syndicated in as many as 300 newspapers. Currently, there are museums around the world -- in the USA; Australia; Denmark, and Thailand.

Ripley’s “Believe it or Not” is a chance for someone’s world to be expanded and challenged. In every picture one is forced to make a faith decision: do I believe this or not? Can I believe in the Fiji mermaid? Is it a tall tale or fish tale? -- I wonder. Would you believe... a "Chinese Shrunken Head," the size of a lemon? Or, the human high-rise,"Wadlow the Giant" at 8'11"? -- Some things just seem too fantastic to believe!
 
Today is the second Sunday of Easter. In those first post-resurrection days, over 2000 years ago, there was much speculation and frantic running around. Mary Magdalene hysterically ran to the disciples when she discovered that the stone had been rolled away from Jesus' tomb.
 
Peter and another disciple ran to see for themselves. When they returned home their minds were, no doubt, crowded with possibilities about what could have happened to their "Lord."

Mary had been weeping in the garden, but left after she realized that Jesus was alive and still calling her by name. Later, that evening, the men were meeting behind locked door. What would become of them? What did Mary mean by "I have seen the Lord"?
 
Suddenly, they hear “Peace be with you.” When we hear those words they impart comfort as we repeat them in our safe Easter worship services! But when Jesus spoke those words on the very first Easter, they must have made the disciples squirm, if not quake in their sandals. They were hiding behind closed doors, but Jesus finds them! “Peace be with you.”
 
Jesus appears among them fully aware of how incomprehensible his appearance to the minds and experiences of these gathered ones would be. He takes the initiative and shows them the undeniable markings of the Crucifixion in his hands and side.

Unless we miss the significance of this, let's put it another way. The skepticism of this group demanded proof, no less than the disbelief of Thomas, and what is more, it demanded the same kind of proof. The other disciples doubted just as Thomas doubted, and, just as we would doubt if we were in their place! All were baffled.

Jesus' words "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe" (v.29) have long been perceived as a specific admonition to Thomas. Yet, these comments were directed not only to Thomas but also to all of the disciples who had behaved in precisely the same manner as their doubting friend. Not one of them had believed without some evidence. None of them understood the scripture, “that he must rise from the dead" (v.9).
 
When the disciples came to Thomas with the fantastic news of a risen Savior, they asked him, "Would you believe ... that Jesus is risen? ... that Jesus who was crucified between two thieves is alive? ... that he has appeared to Mary and to all of us?"

Thomas' response is an emphatic, "No, I would not believe unless I see for myself.” -- “What if they’re just imagining it? What if someone deceived them? What if everything Jesus did and said IS true—how can I face him? I must know for sure!”
 
We all make decisions based on what we know, but consider the “what ifs” that make up our usual thought patterns. What if I married the wrong person? What if I never went back to that horrible job? What if I never became a parent to these children? What if I hit the lottery?

In fact, one of the only places that “what if” is not a normal part of processing and engagement is in the church: “What if God didn’t exist?” Hey, don’t ask that question here!

The established church has not always handled outside inquisitors, faith-teetering skeptics and wearied doubters with gracious acceptance and honest engagement.

So what if Jesus stayed in the ground after Easter?

That wasn’t just a “what if” for the disciples. That was their soul-shattered reality. Jesus was indeed God in the flesh raised from the dead, but for the first three days after Jesus was laid in the tomb they had no way of knowing.
 
At this point, we have to stop and put ourselves in their shoes. These were sincere, confused, disillusioned faith-misfits who appeared to be totally wrong about their King of the new kingdom. Their rabbi was dead, and now they feared what could happen to them (v. 19). Imagine all the haunting “what-if” questions they thought of, based on what they had seen and heard for the last three years.

To summarize the decuples’ predicament in one word, it would be “doubt.” So how does God engage his skeptics? He shows up.

But only 10 of them had that experience. We know where Judas went but we’re not told why Thomas wasn’t there. He was still locked in a tomb of doubts.

What was he experiencing? Was he so distraught that he just needed to be alone? Was he bitter and hardened because all he had learned of Jesus seemed a lie?
The text doesn’t tell us, but this is what our “Thomases today” tell us.
 
Their prayers seem to bounce off of the ceiling. They don’t know how to relate to an invisible God. Life is hard so God hardly seems loving. They are beset with disbelief as they watch hypocritical church leaders, church scandals; pain is a problem, dinosaurs have evolved, and the supernatural is unnatural.
 
Frederick Buechner, writes in Wishful Thinking, “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don't have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
(Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, 20.)
 
“Jesus appeared to Paul, why doesn’t he appear to me? God spoke audibly to Moses, so why don’t I get a burning bush? God gave Gideon a wet fleece, so why won’t he tell me his will for my life?”

We read that when Jesus did return to visit the disciples it was a week later (v. 26). What was that week like for Thomas?
 
Again, we can only speculate, but perhaps he was feeling the same things many who doubt in our churches feel — alienation from friends, not just alienation from what they believed.
 
Those in doubt need community, but tend to avoid it. It’s like people who get laid off and no longer easily pal around at happy hour with those still gainfully employed by the company. It’s like alcoholics who, rightly, cut distance from the old party crowd. After all, their community holds dearly to things they are questioning and wrestling with.

As Jesus returns to engage his last doubting disciple, he appears as dramatically as he did when he met with the 10. He offers the same ironic words “Peace be with you” to Thomas who is miles away from peace at that point (v. 26). And further understanding what Thomas needs, Jesus provides tactile evidence of himself as living and risen (v. 27).
 
Jesus gave Thomas the help he needed even when he was in a “what-if?” mode. Even though Thomas was wondering “What if Jesus is still in the tomb?” Jesus still was willing to meet him in the vortex where faith and doubt intersect.

When Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life, engages the doubter, Christian reality prevails. “My Lord and my God” cried Thomas.

Can we embrace, dignify, and journey with those inside and outside of the church that have doubts of the risen Christ? If so we will strengthen the blessed that Jesus spoke of: “those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (v. 29).

One wonders, "Why has the Christian community developed such a negative attitude toward doubt?"
 
We have been reared in a religious environment in which doubt is posed as the antithesis of faith. And this story of Thomas is often used to reinforce that lesson. But isn't the "doubt vs. faith" dichotomy a false issue?
 
Faith is a belief held in the presence of doubt rather than a belief that removes all doubt. And what's more, often doubt has a constructive and positive role to play in the exercise of faith.

So what am I to do? I don't want to be a "Doubting Thomas," but I am frequently beset with unresolved questions of faith.

We, as the church, often dismiss doubts and questions as the products of an immature faith. Sometimes we simply repeat the same pat answers we have heard along the way. Why not say "I don't know" and explore the questions together?
 
We rob our Christian faith of its humanness if we don’t allow for differing views and incomplete understanding.

Q
uestions and doubts lead to teaching moments for all involved.
Here the example of Thomas can help us. We can learn from Thomas that even though we don't know where our journey may lead, it is enough that our Lord makes the journey with us.
 
And in those times when our faith needs the reinforcement of tangible reality,it is good to know that our Lord does not meet our doubts with chastisement, but with grace.

Many congregations are filled with persons who hold unresolved issues of faith and belief. Unfortunately, there is often no safety zone within churches where these doubts can be raised and legitimized without the questioner being made to feel like a second-class Christian.
 
Instead, the negative image of Thomas, as the Doubter, is held up to them. We can’t make having faith a good work. Thomas doesn’t “achieve” a coming to faith. Faith is something the risen Christ brings to Thomas.

As we encounter those who doubt, we can remember that God knows their needs more than we do. Perhaps God is testing and strengthening them through their exploration. Perhaps they need to lay down their idol gods, or their ideal gods, in favor of the Real God.
 
In any case, God knows best what they need and God is working their doubt, like all things, for their good (Romans 8:28). Therefore, there is no better way to partner with people in their doubt than to pray that in his kindness God would address their deepest needs and make known the ways he is shaping them through their questioning.

Notice what Jesus doesn’t do in the face of one doubting him. Jesus does not ignore, shame, patronize, or marginalize.
 
But God reaches out to those of little faith.
 
In the memorable words of Alfred Lord Tennyson, “There lives more faith in honest doubt, Believe me, than in half the creeds.” (Alfred Lord Tennyson, "In Memoriam A.H.H.")
 
Are we willing to admit our humanness? Will we take courage and ask the hard questions? What if we freely admit we don't know? Are we open to inquire, look, listen and learn?
 
Doubt is the vehicle that takes us to understanding. Faith is a belief held in the presence of doubt rather than a belief that removes all doubt.
 
Rev. Rosemary Stelz
First Presbyterian Church
Bastrop Louisiana
 
 
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