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Sermon based on John 20:19-31
Perhaps you are familiar with the book entitled, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! The creator of this book was LeRoy Ripley. Ripley was born on Christmas Day in 1893 in Santa Rosa, California. While he began his work career as a tombstone polisher his later careers included the following, writer, illustrator, and cartoonist. He began his work writing for newspapers in San Francisco (1909–13), and moved to New York City to work for the Globe (1913). He changed his name to Robert and began his Believe It or Not! Cartoon in 1918. His syndicated feature made him wealthy, and he lived on an island in Long Island Sound he called BION, an acronym of Believe It or Not. As a reporter of the odd and unusual, Ripley traveled to the corners of the globe, visiting over 200 countries, meeting with royalty, cannibal chiefs and other peculiar people along the way. His extensive travels earned him the title, “The Modern Day Marco Polo.” His books have been popular around the world for decades and decades and his cartoons were syndicated in as many as 300 newspapers. Today there are museums around the world celebrating the work of Ripley. Many children today like I did as a child still enjoy reading a book like Ripley’s Believe It Or Not or going to one of those museums. Children are given a chance to have their world expanded and challenged. Children are called upon to believe what they are reading or seeing. A split second decision regarding belief or unbelief is made. Many children I suspect are no “Doubting Thomas.” Children are less likely to play the role of the skeptic, something we assume in our gospel lesson Thomas played quite well.
When the disciples came to Thomas with the fantastic news of a risen Savior, they asked him, whether he believed their encounter with Jesus. Thomas’ response is an emphatic, “No.” He refused to believe such a tale from his friends, and from this event on, Thomas has become a scapegoat among Christians who doubt anything about matters of faith. The time has come this morning to transform Thomas. Thomas has had to walk the corridors of history known as “Doubting Thomas.” It does not seem to matter that Thomas was like many other followers who did not believe in the resurrected Jesus either. It does not matter that tradition has him carrying the gospel to India where he suffered martyrdom for his faith. To most people he will always be “Doubting Thomas.” Thomas is the patron saint of all those who are the last to know.
In my opinion, Thomas has gotten an underserved reputation. His reputation as a skeptic is not only undeserved, but is also the result of thinking only of our gospel lesson this morning when discussing Thomas. Today’s gospel lesson from John is not the only place in Scripture where Thomas is at the center of attention. We can recall an account from the 11th chapter of John that gives us a much different image of Thomas the disciple. In this passage Jesus tells his disciples that the time has come for them to go to Bethany, that they might comfort the grieving family of Lazarus. The disciples can hardly believe what they are hearing. Given the hostility of some in Jerusalem toward Jesus and the proximity of Bethany to Jerusalem, to go to Bethany at a time like this was incredibly dangerous. Thomas, the disciple speaks up, addressing himself and his fellow disciples he says in verse 16:
Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
To make such a statement, to take such a stand, requires a significant amount of courage and devotion. Here was someone who was willing to lay down his life to support Jesus. Why then is the courage of Thomas and his willingness to die diminished because of his later caution surrounding what he thought were hysterical reports of Jesus’ resurrection? Why is he not known today as “Courageous Thomas” rather than “Doubting Thomas?” In the 14th Chapter of John, we can recall another time that Thomas played an important role. Jesus is speaking somewhat vaguely about his departure to heaven. Thomas admits that he, for one, has no clue what Jesus was talking about. Thomas said:
“Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
This leads Jesus to speak in terms that could be understood, providing us one of the most memorable passages of all Scripture when Jesus said,
“I am the way and the truth and the life.” No one comes to the Father but through me.”
It took remarkable honesty for Thomas to say that for him, Jesus was not making any sense. Why don’t we call him “Honest Thomas” instead of “Doubting Thomas?” His willingness to admit his confusion has made us all the wiser. Because of Thomas’ honest confession, we have received some of the most inspiring words from Scripture. These examples from Thomas’ life lead us to question why a single event can define the life of someone more than many others combined? When we think of Thomas we should be reminded that there is more to a person than just one event that may stick out in our memory. The scene from our gospel lesson today, shows Thomas saying to the other disciples that he would only believe in Jesus’ reappearance if he could see and touch his wounds. We see Jesus when he appears 8 days later with Thomas present, that he allows Thomas to touch his wounds. Jesus, as we remember, took the initiative and showed the disciples during his first appearance where the undeniable markings of the Crucifixion were on his body. The significance of these events is that the group assembled also demanded proof no less than the disbelief of Thomas. They doubted and Jesus sensed this, which is why he showed them his wounds.
All of these events lead to a more interesting question, “Why has the Christian community developed such a negative attitude in relationship to faith and doubt?” We have been brought up to believe that faith and doubt cannot exist together, and this story about Thomas often is used to reinforce that lesson. I believe that the real enemy of faith is unbelief not doubt. I think that doubt has a constructive and positive role to play in our faith journey. We as a church often dismiss doubt and attribute someone’s doubt to having a less developed or mature faith. Perhaps we could respond more positively to doubt by using them as teachable moments. For example, when the church encounters doubt, it is easier to be offended than reflective. Too often the church will apply the label of a person being a “Doubting Thomas” rather than engaging in a thoughtful discussion on matters of faith. People often will say that those who doubt are hardheaded and slow to believe. Perhaps a better path to pursue is to ask ourselves whether we are personally witnessing for Jesus Christ and helping those who have questions better understand subjects of faith that sometimes puzzle the believer and non believer. Thomas’ actions have something to teach us about discipleship and our witness for Jesus Christ.
Thomas refused to believe Jesus had risen from the dead, until he had seen the wounds. The story of Thomas is powerful because it speaks to our questions and fears and to our real desire to be filled with faith and to know the risen Christ. Faith and doubt are not opposites but companions in our journey with God. Asking questions about our faith is a part of our journey with God, for in faith and in doubt, we are witness to the gift God has given each and everyone of us, God’s son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Although faith is an unquestioning belief in God that does not require proof or evidence there seems to be a basic kind of pride that makes us want to deserve God’s love, rather than accept the gift. When we feel this way, we should accept our faith as both a gift and an exercise.
We cannot earn faith, but we can exercise it. We must exercise faith or like muscles that are never stretched or pulled, our faith grows flabby and weak. This church season after Easter is an awesome opportunity to tone up and firm up our faith. We can learn from Thomas that even though we don’t know where our faith journey may lead, it is enough that our Lord makes the journey with us. It is wonderful to know that our Lord does not meet our doubts with punishment, but with grace. Let us go out and embrace the truth learned from Thomas. This truth is that doubt may not always lead to answers, but will lead us to grow in our faith journey.
The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.
April 8, 2018