For me, and feel free to doubt this, doubt is sacred. I am convinced of this. Though it is easy, in a cultural landscape dominated by those Christian voices that call for unquestioning adherence to a specific reading of scripture to think of doubt as an enemy of faith, or even as the opposite of faith, I disagree. I believe that doubt is essential to the process of coming to a true, mature faith. In fact, the value of doubt in faith formation is, for me, a sacred conviction. Because of this conviction, I think perhaps we’ve been reading this story, the story of the disciple who has come to be known as “Doubting Thomas,” all wrong. So let’s take another look at it.
In order to fully understand today’s scripture passage, let’s look at its context. In John’s account of the resurrection, Mary Magdalene has visited the tomb where Jesus was buried and has seen that the stone has been rolled away. Mary believes that the body has been taken away, so she goes to Simon Peter and the beloved disciple and tells them of the empty tomb, but they needed to see for themselves, so they ran to the tomb where indeed the rock had been rolled away, and they saw the discarded funeral linens, and upon seeing they believed what Mary had said, but did not yet realize what it meant.
While Simon Peter and the beloved returned to their homes, Mary stayed at the tomb weeping. You can imagine that this seeming desecration of the tomb only compounded her grief at the loss of her beloved friend and teacher. But when she next looks into the tomb it is no longer empty, but occupied by two angels who ask her why she is crying. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
After saying this she looks up and sees someone she assumes to be a gardener, who also asks her why she is crying. “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” At this point the stranger calls her name and it is then that Mary recognizes her dear teacher who sends her to the disciples with the message of his resurrection and ascendance.
So already, we have a story about things seen. Mary, Simon Peter and the beloved have all seen the empty tomb, but Mary has also seen Jesus, risen from the tomb and has shared that story with the other followers, who in spite of this news have secured themselves behind locked doors for fear that as disciples of Jesus, they would be targeted next.
To me, this is not the behavior of a group that has embraced the truth of the resurrection. This is the behavior of those struggling with doubt. It was not until Jesus appeared to them and not only spoke to them, as he had to Mary, but also showed them his wounds and breathed on them that they believed.
Think about that, Jesus breathed on them. How close must he have been to each of them for them to feel his breath? “Receive the holy spirit.” Imagine feeling the warmth and the moisture on your skin. “Receive the holy spirit.” This was an intimate physical experience.
And it was only after this intense bodily experience of the resurrected Jesus that the disciples believed. Why then is Thomas singled out and pointed to as the doubter, so much so that he’s become known as “Doubting Thomas”? Thomas did not see the empty tomb, as Mary, Simon Peter, and the beloved disciple did. Jesus has not appeared to him. Thomas has not felt the breath of Jesus on his skin as the others had. What reason is there for him to believe?
Could it be that the traditional reading of John’s gospel and particularly this scene of the birth of the church was developed by those who wanted to discourage the questioning and doubt that were and are so deeply a part of the disciples Jewish tradition? Could it be that those who would use the gospel for their own self aggrandizement might have reason to squelch dissent? Could it be that as the church transitioned from a group of persecuted outsiders to a tool of empire and colonialism that Thomas became a scapegoat in order to inoculate against the threat that doubt poses to those who would claim absolute power and authority?
We are called Baptists because of our convictions about Baptism, but we could just as well be called Doubtists. In our principles we have recognized the danger that external authorities can pose and extolled the value of doubt and dissent. We recognize soul freedom, the God-given capacity of every human being to discern and respond to the will of God. We recognize religious freedom and advocate for the separation of church and state. And we recognize congregational freedom, the ability of each congregation to determine how it will worship and govern itself. All of these are based on suspicion of authority, or in other words, doubt.
So rather than denigrating Thomas and his desire to experience, as the others had, the power of Jesus’s physical presence, I think we should recognize Thomas, alongside John the Baptist as a model for Christian thought and theology.
As well as acting as a protection against unquestioned authority, doubt can also point us to deeper truths, or the convictions that we hold sacred. The other disciples all had this physical experience of the resurrected Jesus before they believed, but Thomas’s demand for a similar experience, his doubt is singled out.
And for that, I am grateful. In his doubt, Thomas reminds us of the importance of Jesus’s physical presence, of his fleshy humanness. Without his humanness, the resurrection is meaningless. It is no feat for one who was never fully human to conquer death, but for one who was fully human, who lived and breathed as we do, who suffered hunger and thirst, who felt joy and sorrow, who wept and laughed, who suffered humiliation and death, for such a being to be so suffused with God’s love as to overcome that suffering and death, that is Good News!
Christians not only value God’s embodiment, but worship Jesus as God in the flesh. It is in the physicalness, this fleshy-ness, of Jesus that Christians have recognized God’s connection with us.
One final reason that Thomas’s doubt is so important, even sacred, is the response to it. The disciples do not reject Thomas, nor does Jesus reject Thomas for his doubt. Just as he didn’t reject any of the others for theirs, instead Jesus embraces him, allows Thomas to feel the wounds, a profound physical experience that brings Thomas though his doubt, convincing him that this apparition is in fact the risen Christ.
In this way the story of Thomas provides us assurance of God’s love for us, even in our doubt. Jesus accepts Thomas just as he is and responds to Thomas’s need, even though that need comes from doubt.
And the disciples model for us how the church, our “communities of faith” can hold us even when we have more doubt than faith. If we model ourselves, as the church, on the example set by the disciples, we will hold space for each other, even in doubt. It is one of the reasons I still believe in the church, rather than identifying as “spiritual, but not religious.” Being in a healthy community of faith that recognizes the sacred nature of doubt and its importance to faith formation allows us reassurance, and an embodiment of God’s love, even in our doubt.
And I for one need that. It is scary for me to stand up here in this pulpit at this point in my education and career and claim the importance of doubt. Not scary because of any of you, but because of perceived expectations of what it means to be a minister. Who might see my profession of doubt and misunderstand it as doubt of my call to ministry? But I need to claim the sacredness of doubt. It is the only way I know to have faith.
I have shared with some of you that there was a period of my life when I seriously contemplated converting to Judaism. In the Jewish tradition of Midrash I found so much space for doubt and disagreement that I had never recognized in the Christian tradition. In the stories of Jacob wrestling the angel, and the Psalms of lament, and the stories of Moses, Job, Isaiah and Jonah, I saw heroes who struggled, who argued, who doubted, and those were the heroes I needed.
But it was in that struggle that I realized that I had allowed the loudest voices, rather than the wisest voices of Christianity to prevail. I came to know, to believe, to understand, to be convinced that as an observant member of a Jewish community Jesus would have embraced and experienced doubt. If we look at the story of his time in Gethsemane we can see that. Even at the very end of his life, we see a Jesus that doubts the presence of God. “Why have you forsaken me?”
So I found a Jesus that, through his example, made room for doubt, and struggle and lament and I found a church that claimed that same Jesus. It was here, at University Baptist Church that I finally found the space to be a Christian who embraced doubt and yet claimed the authority of Jesus to guide us.
My challenge to you is to be that even more. During this time when we engage the idea of sacred conviction I want to hear about the times of doubt and trial that led to those convictions. I want us to take back Christianity from those who demand fidelity to a specific interpretation of the scripture, a singular understanding of Christ, and a narrow vision of the church. I want us to evangelize, to spread the good news that God loves us in our doubts, that Jesus embraces us in our questions. I want us to shout “I’m not sure, but God loves me anyway,” from the highest mountain tops. I want us to proclaim that doubt is Christian, doubt is holy, doubt is sacred.