A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on April 23, 2006.
Based on John 20:19-31 (2 Easter, Year B).
“Stop asking so many questions.” A friend of mine was once told this by someone in the church and it pretty much turned him off to organized religion. It wasn’t the Episcopal Church, although it doesn’t really matter. It was at a time in his life when he was seeking deeper truths about life and faith. And the response effectively shut down his spiritual curiosity. He had tentatively entered the church, vulnerable and open to the moving of the Spirit. And he left disappointed and disillusioned.
“Stop asking so many questions.” Now this advice isn’t all bad. At times we do need to stop asking questions, leave our doubts aside, and just marvel in the wonder of God’s presence. But asking someone to blindly accept the faith is never helpful. And to me, the response sounds more like someone who was simply annoyed and had better things to do than answer a bunch of questions from a stranger. But of course, as the story of Thomas demonstrates, it’s not how Jesus would have handled the situation. Jesus would have met my friend in the midst of his questions and doubts. He would have literally let him poke and prod all he wanted. He would have let him touch his wounds. Jesus would never say, “Stop asking so many questions.” For it is often through the doubts and questions that we all have, that we meet the risen Christ. And Jesus knows this.
Thomas, of course needed more than just secondhand news from the other disciples to move beyond his unbelief. The disciples had all gathered together and locked themselves inside a house out of fear of persecution, when Jesus appeared to them for the first time. But where was Thomas? It is a bit odd that he was the only one not present. And it makes you wonder what he could have possibly been doing that he wasn’t with the other disciples in the aftermath of the crucifixion. We don’t know what kept Thomas away. Perhaps he had given up all hope. Perhaps he was so disillusioned by seeing his Lord crucified that he just wanted to be alone. But whatever the reason, Thomas wasn’t with the others when Jesus made his first post-resurrection appearance.
And when they told him what had happened he must have felt terribly left out. Isolated in his grief; alone. No one likes to feel left out. And it wasn’t just that Thomas wasn’t there, it was that his friends were witnesses to the ultimate good news – the news of Jesus’ resurrection. And Thomas missed it. The faith of his friends was brimming with renewed vigor but something within Thomas just couldn’t make that leap of faith without physically being there. He needed something more than the testimony of his friends. And so he must have felt a great distance between his himself and his fellow disciples that day.
It’s unfortunate that Thomas has become synonymous with doubt. As if he was the only one who ever doubted or asked questions. As if doubting or questioning is a sign of a weak faith. Indeed all the disciples had doubted Mary Magdalene’s earlier, original claim of resurrection. Only when they see the risen Lord themselves and examine his hands and side do they believe. So Thomas is no different. Yet because of his isolation he gets the infamous moniker of Doubting Thomas.
I would argue that true faith always includes some doubt. Doubt leads to questioning and questioning often leads to a stronger, vibrant, living faith. To question, to doubt is at least to be engaged in the conversation with God. And conversely, to never have doubts holds the potential of a superficial faith. I’ve always thought the popular focus of this story misses the point. It’s not about Thomas’ doubt but his belief. Jesus meets him in his questioning and takes away the stumbling blocks of his faith, which leads to Thomas’ extraordinary testament of faith: “My Lord and my God!” Thomas fully comprehends who Jesus is: the risen son of God. Jesus equips Thomas for full belief by meeting his demands that he see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put his finger in his side. Jesus doesn’t reprimand Thomas for his unbelief. He meets him in it. Just as for us, there is no formula determining just how much faith we must in order to be met by Jesus. We are simply asked to try to believe and, if we have trouble even with that, Jesus meets us wherever we are. But we can never “stop asking questions.”
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” says Jesus. We know the risen Lord in many ways, but not because we have literally touched the mark of the nails. Unlike the first generation of disciples, we walk exclusively by faith and not by sight or touch. But we are inheritors of their witness. And we are just as much disciples of Christ as Thomas and the rest. Both in our faith and in our doubt.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2006