We would like to be counted among those blessed ones who have not seen and yet have come to believe, but most of us are more like Thomas than we care to admit.
We struggle with doubt in our relationship with God. We wonder if there is a God. If there is a God, we wonder if this God notices us. If God notices us, we wonder if God cares about us. And if God cares about us, we wonder if we are good enough for God to love us.
We walk with these doubts as we live in our age of science. There are things we can prove. There are things we can't. We question if the tenants of faith can hold up to scientific inquiry.
We believe in God. We follow Christ. We feel the Spirit. Yet there are parts of our tradition we aren't sure of, actions by some in the name of religion which trouble us, and expressions of commitment we don't understand.
These doubts can make us fear that if we aren't ready to affirm all parts of our traditions; do we have a place in the pews? Do we belong in the church if we have doubts? or are we just left to the sides?
If we feel like doubting Thomas, all is not lost. Thomas was honest. He didn't say he understood what he didn't internalize just to go along. The good news is that God doesn't push us aside. God's love has plenty of room for your questions and mine. A faith that doesn't have room for doubts has little room for wonder, mystery, or imagination. And our faith has room for each.
The Bible is surprisingly supportive of those with doubts. Abraham and Sarah were unsure of the message of God and were still chosen. Job doubted the love of God and yet God ultimately answered Job in the whirlwind. In Mark's Gospel, we hear of a father who came seeking healing for his son and help for his unbelief and Jesus healed and helped. We know from the great commission passage in Matthew that followers of Jesus had doubts about parts of the faith, and this was after Jesus' resurrection. We would expect some doubting after the crucifixion, but after the resurrection, the disciples actually saw Jesus with their own eyes, and they still had doubts. And, of course, Thomas asked to see the holes in Jesus' sides.
Having doubts is not a barrier to God's loving us or healing us or calling us into mission. What God wants is you to bring your doubts into your mission.
God wants us to bring our doubts into worship, too. That is what Matthew tells us the disciples did around the great commission. They worshiped but had some doubts. Worship brings us into the beloved community and that helps us work through our doubts. That was the problem for Thomas. Thomas wasn't present and missed Jesus and that contributed to his doubts. We miss a lot when we don't come to church. When we stay home on Sunday, we find ourselves sitting on the sidelines. We are not meant to walk the journey alone.
God would prefer our doubting and worshiping than our being certain and going it alone. God would prefer our doubting and worshiping than our being certain if it means ignoring God. God would prefer our doubting and worshiping to our thinking we have all the answers and thus have no need for God.
Doubt doesn't ignore a subject, it engages it. Questioning is not turning our back on faith, but thinking about it. The working through of the process helps. Facing our doubts can ultimately lead to faith. That was Thomas' experience. As a result of Thomas and Jesus' conversation, Thomas finally affirmed his belief and relationship with God. It was stronger because he had wrestled with his doubts. Because he took his concerns to God, Thomas emerged with a stronger faith.
There can be more faith from reflecting, focusing, and questioning than in just saying something without thinking about it. As Tennyson famously wrote, "There is more faith in honest doubt than in half the creeds."
We rely on revelation. We can't force God to tell us everything. God has revealed some things, yet God has chosen not to reveal some things. We need to be comfortable in places of unknowing. To proclaim with Paul that we know dimly now, but will see fully someday. There are some mysteries in the world, especially in the world of faith. What has been revealed, though, is enough for us to worship God and engage in mission in the world, even with our doubts.
And in a world of division and fracture and violence, where some describe themselves as "frequently wrong, but never in doubt," perhaps some more humility would help our world.
As I meet with youth in our confirmation classes and listen to their questions, I realize I had a lot of similar questions about faith too at their age. When I was a young adult, I had a desire to find answers. I used to pepper my teachers with questions. I read scripture over and over. Then somewhere in my 20's I decided I knew quite enough, and I was certain I was ready for seminary. But then I became a parish pastor and soon realized I was just scratching the surface of this faith thing. I still am.
I can relate to the wisdom of a mentor who told me that over time "they felt they had gotten worse at answering the questions of those looking for certainty, but perhaps better at worshiping God." That's because we can become more comfortable being in places of unknowing. More comfortable being surprised. Less certainty, more belief. Less dogma, more faith. More focus on the core, even if one has questions about certain parts of the traditions.
I say now to others what I say to myself - seek a faith that is solid in the center, but has edges that are inviting and inclusive.
In a humorous scene in the 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street, Rob Reiner's financial firm character is lambasting hedonistic investment bankers, played by Jonah Hill and Leonardo DiCaprio, for spending $26,000 on one meal. The bankers defend themselves arguing that what was expensive was the "sides." Meaning they spent the money on the side orders like mash potatoes and veggies. This was, of course, a diversion to direct attention away from those things they really spent the money on. Instead they wanted to talk about the sides.
Doubting Thomas wanted to talk about sides, too. He asked Jesus to show him the holes in his sides. He said unless he touched Jesus' sides he would not believe. Jesus showed him his sides, but then said, "blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe."
We can tell Jesus felt his sides were a distraction, too. They provided some additional proof, but Jesus was standing right in front of Thomas. If Thomas didn't believe one of his senses, why would another one convince him? Jesus wanted Thomas to have faith, faith in the mystery of his experience with Christ, rather than to seek certainty.
As long as we focus on certainty as a prerequisite for faith, we will find ourselves on the sides, on the sidelines of faith. As long as we demand complete proof, we will find ourselves on the sides of the church rather than experiencing what we long for - the blessed community. As long as we criticize ourselves for having doubts, we give into the distraction and stay on the sidelines of a relationship with God.
The Christian faith is a beautiful wonder. The incarnation is mysterious. Jesus rising from the grave was a surprise. Exactly how and why we are here has mystery to it, and yet there is beauty in that mystery. Don't let the search for perfection distract you so that you sit on the sidelines of participation or belief. Your spiritual life is too important.
The opportunity Christ offers is too important. You are too important to God.
So, don't worry about the sides. Focus on the heart. What is at the center of our faith is an all-loving God expressed in the gracious sacrifice, salvation and sacred service of Jesus Christ. Don't settle for the sidelines. Head towards the heart.
For whatever reason, and in ways that we can't always fully understand, God has chosen to love us, save us, welcome us to worship and call us into mission. And you know how we know we'll be successful with it? Because God said to doubting disciples like us, it's ok, I will be with you always, in your doubts, until the end of the age.
That is the beautiful mystery, the sacred searching, the holy hope, the heart of the fantastic faith we follow.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, I ask for your Spirit to be present with anyone listening who is struggling with their relationship with you. May they have the confidence that you invite their questions. May they have the optimism that you welcome them to the fold and will be there to welcome them at church on Sunday. And may they have hope that they do not pray in vain. For you are with us now and will be with us always, to the end of the age. In the loving name of Jesus, we pray.