Sermons from Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
April 3, 2016
“The Courage of Doubt and Faith”
John 20: 19-31 (Common English Bible)
It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
Jesus appears to Thomas and the disciples
24 Thomas, the Twin, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”
But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”
26 After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”
28 Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
30 Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll.31 But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.
Thomas often gets a bad rap. “Unless I can see it for myself, I won’t believe.” It’s likely that we know Thomas more for his doubt than anything else. And, in fact, there’s not a lot more to know. There are only two things said about Thomas in the whole Bible. Other than being included in lists of the original 12 disciples, there is nothing else about him in Matthew. Nothing in Mark. Nothing in Luke. Only in John. Two things.
We first hear about him when a messenger came to tell Jesus that his dear friend Lazarus was dead – the brother of Mary and Martha. Upon hearing the news, the disciples all urged Jesus not to go to their house. They were afraid because Jesus was already a marked man by the religious authorities. Maybe this would be a trap and, if so, Jesus would surely be arrested and then the rest of them… well, whatever might happen, it probably wouldn’t be good. But Thomas alone insisted to the disciples that they should go with Jesus, “that we may die with him.”
The only other mention is his doubt. “Unless I see it myself, I won’t believe.” And that Jesus didn’t rebuke his doubt. Oh, and that he was a twin – which was actually quite remarkable for the time. With terrible infant mortality rates, the likelihood of both twins surviving was incredibly rare. That Thomas had an actual alive twin was something of a miracle.
So, about Thomas the Twin, we know he was one of the original 12. We know he expressed no fear that the disciples should follow Jesus even if it resulted their deaths too. And we know that he wasn’t present when post-resurrection Jesus first appeared. And that he refused to believe them unless he could touch the nail scars in his hands. Hence, “doubting” Thomas. But why not the equally “fearlessly courageous” Thomas – an ancient superhero with a big “T” under his robe.
As I thought of his two attributes – doubt and courage – I wondered about the paradox. He didn’t doubt his courage. And he had the courage to express doubt. To name it out loud. It made me wonder how many times we may have been afraid to express our doubts in a room full of true believers. For example, the lone Hillary supporter surrounded by people feeling the Bern. The lone hold-out on a jury. The lone progressive Christian at Easter dinner around a table full of evangelicals. Or the lone Republican in a church full of Democrats. It’s not always easy to speak up. We might be misunderstood. Or judged. But Thomas did it. He named his doubt with courage.
Yet, so many Christians seem to think that even asking questions about faith or God is a betrayal of “truth.” But, probably no surprise to most people here, the expression of doubt isn’t the opposite or the enemy of faith. It is part of the process of faith. A welcome part that’s never done. Doubts are a valuable part of faith whether we are 13, 30 or 103. As William Irwin said, “Religious belief without doubt should not be a badge of honor.” He went on to say, “Rather than seeking the security of an answer, perhaps we should celebrate the uncertainty of the question. For God is a question, not an answer.”
How does that statement strike you? “God is a question, not an answer.” For some it may ring true. It may even be a relief. And for others, it may be uncomfortable. What do you mean that God isn’t an answer? Of course, it does depend on what the question is.
How do you feel about such things as religious doubt? Or how do you feel about such things religious certainty? In a room full of people who may be more comfortable with doubt, how does it feel to have faith? And to express it out loud.
Dwight Lee Wolter, a UCC minister on Long Island, said something provocative and critical about progressive Christians, even though he is one. He said, “Many people get stuck placing their faith in doubt.” But when we stay too long, we “may become complacent and comfortable in suspicion,” leading to cynicism, ultimately “being dismissive of people, places, and things that can offer a sense of solace and strength.” His article is entitled “Is it Easier to Believe in Crucifixions?” Do we not trust in the bad more easily than we believe in the good? I take his critique to heart.
What is the role of doubt and faith? As progressive Christians, we don’t have to be told to embrace doubt. But do we have the same courage to express faith?
At our leadership retreat a few weeks ago and several more times since, people have expressed a desire for more sermons like my annual “Ask a Question” sermon. Can we have more of that? So today we’re going to engage in a little dialogue about the kinds of questions raised by Thomas. Is there anything I said that you would like to talk more about?
(We then engaged in a congregational conversation on the topic)
 New York Times, March 27, 2016
 “Is It Easier to Believe in Crucifixions” patheos.com