Every year on the first Sunday after Easter, we hear the story of Doubting Thomas. And every year, I wonder what to make of Thomas’ doubt.
In Church, we mostly consider doubt a bad thing. We are supposed to be people of faith, not doubt.
So, it is worth saying that, in many contexts, doubt is a good thing. In many contexts, we need to be doubters.
The most obvious context where doubt is a good thing is social media.
My children are now reasonably responsible young adults. But we are not far removed from that terrifying age when we couldn’t really control them, and we didn’t entirely trust them to control themselves. In those dark days, I used to joke with them that any girls contacting them out of the blue for a date were probably in fact middle-aged men. It wasn’t a very funny joke. Predators really do use social media to prey on potential victims. Young people need to be doubters on social media.
We all need to be on the alert for scams. People here at Saint David’s have received messages claiming to come from me and asking for money. For the record, I will NEVER text or email you to ask for money. I have received messages like that too, messages that claim to come other priests and from our Bishop. We all need to be doubters in a world full of scam artists.
And we need to be doubters anytime we go on the internet. I read an article about “Troll Factories.” People in foreign countries create false online identities and use them to spew lies into the internet and social media. If you read an outrageous story about a politician you don’t like, there is a reasonable chance the story is false, comes from Russia or China, and has the explicit goal of making us hate each other. That’s another place we need to be doubters.
Even in religion, we sometimes need to be doubters. People can say crazy things in the name of religion. And, unfortunately, plenty of apparently reputable religious leaders have, in recent years, given us very good reason to doubt them.
Those are all cases of what I call head doubt, doubt about the truthfulness of things we hear or read. Mostly I consider head doubt to be a good thing. Not always, of course. But often.
I have always pictured Thomas as a head doubt kind of person, somebody who needed to see evidence before he would believe anything, especially anything as difficult to believe as resurrection.
If that’s right, when Thomas says he won’t believe unless he can touch Jesus’ wounds, what he means is, he refuses to believe in resurrection unless somebody can prove it to him beyond a shadow of a doubt.
But there is another kind of doubt, what I call heart doubt. I mean doubt about the things of the heart, about feelings. Does she really love me, or is it all just a show? Can I trust him to watch my back, or will he turn on me when I need him? Will she be faithful to me, or will she betray my trust?
Heart doubt can hurt.
And I wonder, in our story, was Thomas wrestling with that kind of doubt, heart doubt?
Not heart doubt with the disciples. Thomas knew they weren’t trying to take advantage of him. Thomas knew they believed what they were saying. It was just that Thomas himself couldn’t believe it.
But maybe Thomas wasn’t expressing skepticism. Maybe Thomas was expressing longing and grief.
That makes sense in the context of our passage.
As the passage began, all the disciples except Thomas were huddled indoors, terrified that what had happened to Jesus might happen to them.
Suddenly Jesus appears to them. Jesus shows them his wounds, but also the fact that he has overcome the worst the Roman Empire could throw at him, that he has overcome death itself. The disciples, who just moments before had been terrified, rejoiced.
Then Jesus blesses the disciples with peace. Jesus breathes on the disciples, and says ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ Jesus gives the disciples the authority to pronounce the forgiveness of sins.
Think what that must have been like for them. Think of the transformation the disciples experienced when Jesus came to them.
Thomas missed all that. When Thomas left the group, they were terrified, powerless, grief-stricken. When Thomas returned, they were totally different: confident, peaceful, joyful, with a new authority and power.
The disciples tell Thomas all about what happened: that Jesus has risen from the dead; that Jesus has appeared to them; that Jesus has worked this transformation of all their fear and grief and woundedness into something glorious.
And Thomas can see that it’s real, that something has happened, that his friends have received new life and hope. But not him.
Thomas’ cry that he needs to see and even touch Jesus’ wounds may not have been defiant, as I have always thought. Thomas may have feared that he had missed out, that Jesus wasn’t coming back for him, that Thomas remained stuck in a world of fear and death, and now stuck there by himself since his friends had been set free. Thomas was saying, “You saw our Lord risen from the dead. I want to see him, too!” Or maybe, “Why didn’t Jesus come for me?”
Thomas is the most modern of all the disciples, the one most like us. Thomas struggled with doubt, and a lot of us do too. Thomas could see that God had blessed the people around him, but Thomas himself didn’t feel all that blessed, and a lot of us are similar. Thomas longed for Christ, and for a better world that he worried might not come or might not include him, and some of us worry about that, too.
But good news is coming for Thomas.
Jesus does show up for Thomas. Jesus gives Thomas the help he needs to see that Christ’s victory was real, that the world really is God’s, and that he, Thomas, was a beloved part of God’s world and God’s people.
Jesus’ blessing for Thomas is a blessing and a promise for us, too. Christ’s victory is real. The world is God’s. And we, too, are beloved parts of God’s world and God’s people.
But how about those times when we don’t feel it, when Thomas-like doubt gets us down?
Here is what Bishop Scruton suggests.
Sit quietly in a comfortable position, and picture Jesus coming to you, and breathing on you, and giving you the Holy Spirit, just like Jesus did for the disciples.
As you breathe in, imagine breathing in Jesus. As you breathe out, imagine letting go of your anxieties. Breathe in Jesus, and breathe out your doubts. Breathe in Jesus, and breathe out your troubles.
After doing that for a few minutes, keep breathing in Jesus, and start breathing out Christ, in Jesus and out Christ, in Jesus and out of Christ.
Over time, that kind of breath prayer can change us. Probably not as quickly and dramatically as the disciples and eventually Thomas, too, were changed in our reading. But it can change us from people of anxiety and fear to people of hope in Christ.
And as that change happens to us and in us, we become channels of the Holy Spirit to other people. We, who share in Christ’s resurrection, help other people to share in Christ’s resurrection, too.
That is my prayer for us: that we may know the power of Jesus’ resurrection and become witnesses to it. In Christ’s name. Amen.
5/19/2023 08:13:09 pm
Thank you for relaying Bishop Scruton’s advice. As I hope to begin meditating again, I shall try this method. Thank you also for reassuring us that it is perfectly human to be like Thomas and for this new perspective on how he may have felt.
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Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan