Monday, 18 April 2016

Doubting Thomas

Following last Sunday's sermon it was suggested that I put the text of my sermon onto my blog. So here it is:

Easter Encounters—Thomas (John 20:24-31)

Last week started short series of sermons looking at various meetings or encounters between the Risen Christ and his disciples. Last week looked at Mary Magdalene. This week it is Apostle Thomas.

In today’s account of Jesus meeting Thomas our eyes invariably settle on Thomas’ response to the
news of the others disciples’ claim to have seen a walking, talking, eating and breathing Jesus. Verse 25:

“The other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” [after suffering/sadness of Good Friday, silence of Holy Saturday that is a remarkable statement in itself. Good news!] But Thomas said  to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

It’s from this response that Thomas earned his reputation as a doubter. So that nowadays anyone who is sceptical about something they hear/something we tell them, we call them a “doubting Thomas”. But is that fair?  And are Jesus’ words to him later a rebuke “Stop doubting and believe”?

In his book on Doubt (available in the Church Library) Alistair McGrath makes several interesting points about doubt which will help us think about Thomas’ encounter with Jesus:

First he says, surprisingly large number of Christians don’t like to talk about it/even think about it. They’re embarrassed. They don’t like to admit that they ever have doubts in case others think less of them. They love to hear sermons that speak about faith but they struggle with it themselves.

We all like to hear a preacher speaking with conviction don’t we? Well known story of the famous Scottish philosopher/historian David Hume in 18th Century. He was no believer in historic Christianity and no friend of the Church. But he once travelled 20 miles to hear great preacher and evangelist Whitefield preach. About 5 o'clock one morning, going down the street in London. As turned a corner walked straight into a man who recognised him. “Aren't you David Hume?" "Yes.''
"Where are you going at this early hour ?" "I'm going to hear George Whitefield preach," replied Hume. “But you don't believe a word Whitefield preaches," said the man. "No," Hume answered, "but Whitfield does!"

Like Hume people love to hear someone speak with conviction about their faith and that is a good thing. They are the churches that tend to be full on a Sunday. But at the same time there is a danger that you believe in the fact that they believe rather than believe for yourself. So your faith becomes second hand. You believe because they believe. And so instead of working it out so it becomes
their own, they rely on the fact that the preacher believes. But what they forget is that the preachers themselves speak from conviction because they’ve have faced their doubts and worked through them.

So when they are not listening to the preacher, or things go wrong, doubt causes them to feel inadequate or ashamed and instead of asking questions they try and ignore them, go with the flow and their doubts, instead of leading to deeper faith, can eventually lead them away from God.

What is striking about Thomas is his honesty about his doubts. We see it earlier in the Upper Room where Jesus is reassuring his disciples that when he dies he is only going ahead to prepare the way for the disciples to go to the Father’s House. Then he will come back and in time, take each one of them to be with him there. He ends up by saying “You know the way to the place where I am going.” And although the text doesn’t indicate It, I think there is a long silence before a hand goes up and a voice from the back says: “Lord, um, we don’t know where you’re going so how CAN we know the way?”
It’s Thomas. The one who always asks questions.

He is that person in your class at school who asks the question of the teacher that you are all dying to ask but because you don’t want to appear stupid or uncool you don’t say anything. But its because that person asks that you get the answer and everyone else benefits from his or her honesty.

Because of his question we get the wonderful answer from Jesus:  He says: ”I am the way, the truth and the life. If you want to go to the Father, you can come through me.” Thanks to so called “doubting Thomas” millions of people have discovered that the way to know God is through Jesus Christ.

That is how you grow in your faith. You look at it and examine it and you ask it all the awkward questions you like. If it is true it will stand up to the questions. And you will grow deeper in your faith and trust in God.  Large numbers of Christians doubt, but how many, like Thomas, ask questions?

But second, McGrath writes that one of the reasons some Christians have difficulty coping with doubt is because they confuse it with two quite separate ideas which at first appear similar,
but are actually different:

In the first place doubt is not scepticism. Scepticism is the decision to doubt everything deliberately,
as a matter of principle. A true sceptic will not believe, period,  and no amount of evidence will convince them.

Scepticism was a school of philosophy started in Greece in the 4th Cent BC by a man called Pyrrho who travelled with Philip of Macedon all over the known world. He started a school of philosophy which maintained that no knowledge could be ever known for certain, whether it was scientific, moral, religious or anything. You could never, he believed, ever come know the truth. As a result he was never sure of anything and in the end even doubted whether the world was not an illusion. It is said that his friends had to go everywhere with him in case he would walk off a cliff because he was sceptical that it was really there.

Thomas was no sceptic ready to disbelieve everything, rejecting even the good news of the resurrection of Jesus. In fact if you look at the text in John 20 what Thomas is saying is not unreasonable. He had lost his Lord and Master in a brutal and horrendous way. And he, himself, had been one of the disciples who had run away when Jesus was arrested. So when he hears that Jesus is alive it is too good to be true and so he says that unless he sees Jesus, the real Jesus, the one who was nailed to the cross and whose side was pierced by a Roman spear, and unless he can substantiate this by touch, then he is not going to accept that he is alive because it would be too painful to deal with his sense of failure and the possibility that all this was mistaken. He wants the REAL Jesus and he wants to meet him. Hearsay is not enough for Thomas. He wants the Risen Christ.

Contrast this with the sceptic who even if he SAW the risen Jesus would deny the evidence of his or her own eyes.  Instead when Jesus turns up and invites Thomas to place his hands into the wounds caused by the nails Thomas doesn’t even bother to. Instead he cries out: “My Lord and my God!”  In other words he was ready to believe, he was longing to believe, and as soon as he sees Jesus he does believe, and some. For he calls Jesus “My God!” something none of the other disciples had ever said about Jesus.  So he believes and more.  And here is the encouragement. If You want to believe and want to discover the reality of God then you can, if your are sincere, as Thomas was.

And in the second place, (and lastly) says McGrath, doubt is not unbelief. Unbelief is the decision not to have faith in God.  Unbelief is an act of will, rather than a difficulty in understanding. It is to close the door of your mind with a clang and to shut out all possibility of belief in anything that cannot be measured, weighed or proved. It is to declare that you are the arbiter of truth. And it is quite an arrogant stance.

Writer and evangelist David Watson tells of a meeting he had with a militant atheist who  was engaged in some complicated piece of  scientific research. He came out with this bold statement: “I just don’t believe there is no God, I KNOW there is no God!’ So Watson replied, “Tell me then, do you know the total truth in the entire universe?” “Of course not” said the atheist. “Do you know 10% of the total truth in the  entire universe?” “Not even that” said the atheist. Do you know 0.1%?” “Not even that” he replied. “Well said Watson,” let’s suppose for the sake of argument that you DO know 0.1% of the total truth of the entire universe. Isn’t it just possible that God is in the 99.9%  that you don’t know, and also in the 0.1% that you do know, but you do not recognise him? The man was silent says Watson for a long time.

Unbelief says that questions like that have no relevance because the mind is closed to any possibility other than what has already been decided. Now as we look again at Thomas we see that his doubts don’t fit into that category either. He does believe, or at least he wants to believe. All he is asking for is something on which to hang his belief. And that is not unreasonable. Of course not everyone will have the same access to a physical Christ that Thomas and the other disciples had, but that is not the only evidence we have for the resurrection. Which is why Jesus says in verse 29:

“Because you have seen me, you have believed: blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” 

And that is what happened to John when arriving at the tomb he looks in and sees it is empty. Having seen the empty tomb we are told “he saw and believed” (John 20:8) What did he see? Nothing. An empty tomb. And today most Christians, including me, partly base their faith on that evidence. That no one—not the Romans, the Scribes and Pharisees—could produce a body of Jesus to say that all the disciples had made it all up.

In the recent film Risen, the writer has Pilot say to Clavius the Roman officer commissioned to find the body of Jesus: “Without a corpse to pronounce Him dead we have to proclaim Him Messiah.”

Unbelief rules all evidence out and refuses to consider it. Thomas and subsequent generations of Christians may doubt but that is not the same as unbelief.

So to end. If you have doubts as a Christian, then don’t deny those doubts but pursue them and see, with God’s help, where they lead.  But don’t ask questions on your own. Join a Lyfe Group and share those questions with others who may well have found the answers for themselves.

And if you have doubts as someone who would like to have faith but as yet can’t quite get round your own questions about life, death, God or anything. Come along to St. James and listen to the sermons, come and have a chat, air your concerns and I, and we, will do all we can to help you.

My mother always said that honesty is the best policy and what we have learnt this morning is that that is something God thinks too as he sees in Thomas not so much doubt but an honest attempt to find out the truth about Jesus.

"Just as I am, though tossed about
with many a conflict, many a doubt,
fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come,"

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