In the company of Thomas the doubter

a sermon on John 20:19-31, offered on the second Sunday in Eastertide

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y family has deep roots at Elim Chapel, the church co-founded by my great-grandfather Sidney Smith, and located just a very few blocks from here.  The building was almost totally destroyed by a fire in the mid-‘70’s, and when it was rebuilt the main stained glass window – a rather imposing portrayal of the resurrection – was installed in memory of my great-grandfather.  When I was about 18, I arranged to go into the church to photograph that window.

To the left of the large resurrection scene is another window, this one of the apostle Thomas – “doubting Thomas” as he has often been called – and the text across the bottom contains that disciple’s gospel confession:  “My Lord and my God.”   The Thomas window didn’t have any connection to my family, but I decided to photograph it as well, and that picture became something of an icon for me over my years studying at the University of Winnipeg.  I often had it propped up on the window ledge by my desk, where hour after hour I’d toil away at papers or study for my exams.

Thomas, the disciple who just couldn’t bear to believe that the death of Jesus hadn’t ended it all until he’d seen him and touched him, so resonated with me during those years.  I mean, Thomas had been there on that long and boundary-breaking road-trip with Jesus; had heard the parables as they rolled off Jesus’ lips for the first time, had seen things happen that were beyond reason, had broken bread with him on the night of the arrest… and of course, he’d witnessed the arrest, and with the others had fled into the dark of the night.  And he knew what crucifixion did to a human body.  He’d seen it done to countless others, and he knew that you just don’t recover from that.

‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’  And it is hard to blame him, really.  He’d had his heart broken and his dreams dashed on Friday; why would he believe on Sunday?  He’d left everything behind to follow this Jesus for those years, and it had ended in defeat.  Its over; go home.

Funny, though, that he hasn’t gone home to Galilee.  He’s still there in Jerusalem, and he’s still keeping company with the rest of that rag tag company of followers of the carpenter rabbi.

“A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them.”  A week later, and he’s still not gone back home.  A week later, and Thomas is with them.   He’s with them, and suddenly Jesus is with them too.  For all of his words about needing to touch in order to believe, it turns out that Thomas doesn’t need to do that.  In the company of the others, he is met by the resurrected Christ, and from his mouth come those words that are on that stained glass window:  “My Lord, and my God.”  From guarded doubt to one of the highest statements about the person of Jesus in the whole of the Bible, in one great leap.

There I’d be at my desk, working on some paper or another, stretching my mind in ways I’d not even imagined in high school, and always in the background was this question:  can the faith in which I have been raised – the faith that I embraced in a very personal way when I was 15 – can this faith be squared with the intellectual tradition in which I was being schooled?  Frankly, on some days I doubted that it could.  That little photograph of the stained glass doubting Thomas, perched on my window ledge, somehow reassured me that struggling with doubt like that wasn’t an unacceptable or unreasonable thing; after all, if a disciple had struggled like that, why would it be surprising that from a distance of 2000 years I might struggle too?  And Thomas isn’t turned away or rejected; he’s met.  That was important to me.

It was in a course called “Religion and Ethical Decisions” that I was introduced to a little book by the liberal German theologian Paul Tillich, entitled The Dynamics of Faith. Tillich’s great project had been to rethink the Christian theological tradition in light of 20th century existentialist philosophy, and while his work is not without its problems, he offered me this great insight; a kind of epiphany, really.  Doubt, Tillich suggested, is not the opposite of faith.  Doubt is a part of faith – almost the engine of faith – in that to doubt is to struggle, to be engaged, to wrestle with matters of what he called “ultimate concern.”  For Tillich, the opposite of faith is idolatry; a kind of closing of the system to anything but what I have decided is god, to what I have decided is ultimate.

Do you know how many of the great and formative giants of this Christian faith of ours were soulmates to Thomas?  St Augustine, whose theological work is foundational for the whole of the Western Christian world, struggled and wrestled and agonized his way through two different religious systems prior to finding his way home to Christianity.  C.S. Lewis famously called himself the most reluctant convert in all of England, so skeptical had he been of Christianity’s intellectual coherence.  Lewis actually writes of spending the better part of a whole night in conversation with J.R.R. Tolkien, thrashing around his doubts and objections, before finally being able to call himself a Christian.   Similarly, St Augustine had a kind of mentor in the person of Ambrose, the great bishop of Milan, who helped to guide him through his struggles.

Augustine had his Ambrose, and Lewis had his Tolkien, and that’s important.  It is in those kinds of conversations – those kinds of relationships – where you learn that, contrary to what Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens might have you believe, Christianity is not anti-intellectual, faith is not of necessity naïve, and when one comes through the doors of a church she or he does not have to act as if the past 500 years of scientific research and discovery haven’t taken place.

Robert Weber, the great liturgical theologian who taught for many, many years at Wheaton College, once told a group of clergy here in Winnipeg that students – good, faithful, believing evangelical students – would sometimes come to his office, close the door, and with trembling hearts tell him that they weren’t sure what to believe any more.  And he’d tell them not to be afraid of their hard questions and deep struggles; that their doubt was not unacceptable to God.  And then he’d say, “Don’t cut yourself off from us.  Come to church with me on Sunday morning, and when we stand to say the Creed, if you can’t say those words yourself let us say them for you.  But keep company with us.”

“A week later, and Thomas is with them.”  Do you see that?  That’s at the heart of why Thomas could be met in his doubts.  He was keeping company with the others, even if he couldn’t quite manage to be entirely one with them.

So… for any of you, who are struggling with doubt, don’t be afraid of that.  Maybe you’ve had an experience of something so painful that makes it hard to believe in the goodness of God, or in the very existence God; maybe you’ve read the Dawkins book and are finding it convincing or troubling; maybe you’re just wrestling hard in your beliefs; don’t be afraid of those hard questions and deep doubts.  They are, after all, a part of faith, maybe even the engine of faith.  But keep company with us.  Don’t back away, and don’t cut yourself off.  Find that conversation partner who will work through this stuff with you.  Get in touch with me, and we’ll go for coffee.  Keep company with us, and on those days when you’re not even sure if you believe, let us believe for you.

May we all have the grace to engage the struggles and questions and adventure that is this faith.

Amen.

Jamie Howison

2 Responses to In the company of Thomas the doubter

  1. Linda says:

    The thing I like about Thomas and Jesus’s response to him is the realness of it. I added my blog address as it is a place my own doubts are worded. Thank you for this post. Right now I am searching for “the community of my life” that can only be found by letting my own life speak its truths as shown in the Palmer comments I quote there.

    Thomas spoke his truths in doubts. As a result there is signs of his testimony for God at a great distance from the place he begin. Sometimes, I think we stop ourselves from finding light by disallowing expressions of doubt.

    Now to find that community that will give support and the opportunity to support others as I journey onward in questioning. I have been to visit your group a couple of times. I am sure I will be by to visit again.

  2. byron says:

    Very timely encouragement Jamie. The struggle continues for me,not so much with doubt of the Lord, as with my place in him.
    I am being gently beset by an earnest follower of Bahai’, who has delivered literature and a certain wisdom to me.
    I hesitate to read it, but not for the reasons one might think. It is because I do not want to “start over” on my spiritual journey, and I fear this may influence me at a vulnerable time.
    So I will trust in your advice…continue the struggle knowing tht a group of open minded loving people support me no matter what.
    God bless.
    PS Jamie…
    I suspect that the proliferation of apostrophes in the bahai’ faith will dull my enthusiasm in short order.

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