John 20:19-31 (Bible verse at end)
My wife tells me that one of the most meaningful sermons she heard during her university days, when she was questioning the validity of faith, was a sermon titled the importance of doubting your doubts.
It taught her that honest doubt is not the same as downright unbelief. It is often the mark of a person who is deeply concerned about truth.
And that is a more noble thing than the mere repetition of a creed that one has never really thought about but just accepts because that’s what they are supposed to do. Thomas was a man like that.
On that first Easter Sunday all of Jesus’ disciples except Thomas were present in a locked room, shattered by what had happened to their Lord, yet also puzzled by the reports of some of them that they had seen risen from the dead. Then it was that Jesus appeared to them.
When Thomas returned they told him the wonderful news, but he refused to believe them and told them that the only thing that would make him believe is if he could see the actual nail prints in Jesus’ hands and the spear wound in his side.
Well, one week later – the day we celebrate this Sunday - the same thing happened: the disciples were together in a room, and Jesus suddenly materialised and appeared to them. This time Thomas was there, and Jesus invited him to touch his hands and side and believe. But Thomas didn’t need to. With a mixture of joy and wonder – and a fair dose of guilty shame, he simply said: ‘My Lord and my God!’ And ever since, Thomas has been the patron saint of all honest doubters.
I think we’ve been a bit unfair to Thomas. None of the other disciples would have believed Jesus had risen if they hadn’t seen for themselves. It was just that Thomas hadn’t been with them when Jesus had appeared that first time.
If you go back through the Gospels you get an insight into Thomas’ personality that shows him as a bit of a pessimist but also a man of courage who’d be faithful even to the bitter end. So, for example, when Jesus heard that his friend Lazarus was close to death, Thomas, knowing how dangerous it would be for Jesus to be seen around Jerusalem, and expecting the worst, simply shrugged his shoulders and said: ‘Let us also go that we may die with him.’
So, let’s not be too hard on Doubting Thomas because we are probably a lot like him. He is the patron saint of all who are neither deliberate unbelievers nor unthinking accepters, but rather the sort of people Jesus had in mind when he said, ‘Seek and you will find.’
We live in a society that finds it difficult to believe in things that can’t be proved scientifically. The past three centuries have seen a dramatic change take place in the way we look at life. Faith is no longer the dominant worldview in the Western world. And even though the number of committed atheists may still be small, agnosticism – being unsure whether God does or does not exist – is probably the prevailing mindset amongst young people.
And even amongst believers the number of people who doubt the miraculous element in Christianity is growing. This is particularly so in relation to the one miraculous happening that is central to Christianity – the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Is he really there for us as the Bible reports him saying: ‘and surely I am with you always’?
That’s why I say that many of us are a lot like Thomas – not totally disbelieving, but unsure about what we haven’t seen for ourselves. And yet hoping for something that will convince us. Like my former father-in law. He was not a religious man. The only time I ever saw him go to church was when I married his daughter. But for the last 20 years of his life he was convinced he’d seen Jesus.
It happened about 40 years ago. He was in a coma and not expected to live through the night. But next day when we arrived, he was sitting up and told us he’d seen Jesus standing at the bottom of his bed. We wondered if he’d been dreaming or hallucinating, but for the next 20 years until he did finally pass away, he swore that it had been Jesus who’d stood at the bottom of his bed and given him back his life.
It was the same sort of thing that happened to Malcolm Muggeridge, also a notable sceptic. He did a program for the BBC on the life of Christ, and one day, in order to get the feel of things, he and a member of the film crew walked the Road to Emmaus in the steps of the 2 disciples to whom the risen Christ appeared.
Something happened to Muggeridge that day. He told of it in a sermon he gave years later at the High Kirk of St Giles in Edinburgh. He said: ‘As my friend and I walked along...Nor was it a fancy that we too were joined by a third presence. And I tell you that wherever we walk...there is always this third presence ready to emerge from the shadows and fall in step along the dusty, stony way.’
The essential difference between beliefs based on scientific proof and those based on religious faith is revelation. So, for example, we believe that things like the earth travelling around the sun are true because mathematical and astronomical evidence shows that it is so. But belief in a Supreme Intelligence behind the universe is clearly beyond the range of physics and comes into the realm of metaphysics.
For people of faith the evidence comes by way of revelation. Christians usually say that this revelation is the Scriptures, or in the case of Catholics and Orthodox it is the Scriptures as interpreted by the Church. But either way, there is still a further dimension to it. Jesus said: ‘No one knows who the Father is (meaning who God is) except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’
What he was saying is that the deep inner conviction within a person that God is real, doesn’t come primarily through the intellect but through something far deeper within us; something we call the spirit. Now that doesn’t mean that it is intellectually untenable – that’s when belief becomes superstition rather than faith. It just means that we experience it at a deeper level, and then begin to understand it. Jesus said: ‘Seek and you shall find.’ The Book of Hebrews says that ‘God is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.’
Over the years I’ve seen this happen time and again in the experience of many Doubting Thomases, who’ve taken seriously the challenge to doubt their doubts and honestly seek the truth about the risen Christ.
We all remember the amazing story of the 33 Chilean miners who, back in 2010 were finally rescued after spending three months trapped in the bowels of the earth. The whole world watched and wondered how they managed to keep their sanity in such an environment for that length of time.
But the Rev Alfredo Cooper, speaking live to BBC Radio gave the answer. He said that there was a 34th man in the mine with them. "Many of the miners went down as atheists, unbelievers or semi-believers,” he said, “and they have come up to a man testifying that there was a 34th man down there - and that man was Jesus and that they had a constant sense of his presence and guidance."
It may not make sense to those who dismiss the idea of a spiritual reality behind our material world, but it certainly makes sense to those miners. And surely that is the most compelling argument.
As for Thomas, history tells us that he travelled to ancient Persia and won many people to faith in Christ. Then, in AD 52 he set sail for India. 16 centuries later, when the first Catholic missionaries arrived in India, they found that there were already well-established churches in the south that no one in Europe knew existed. They belonged to the Mar Thoma Church, established by Thomas 15 centuries before.
Faith didn’t come easily to Thomas. But once he was sure nothing would hold him back. And a faith like that is far better than mere glib profession that has never really sought the truth. He truly is the patron saint of this doubting generation, who reminds us of the importance of doubting our doubts and seeking till we also find that God is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him.
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 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.”
26 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!” 27 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.”
28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”