2 Easter, Year A
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez
“Doubting” Thomas gets a bad rap. It’s true. Throughout John’s Gospel, he's one of the most committed of the disciples. When the Jewish authorities are seeking to kill Jesus, before Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, Thomas silences all of the other disciples’ objections and says: “Let’s go back to Judea and die with him.” And in the Gospel reading we heard this morning, Thomas gives us the most complete confession of Jesus’ identity we find in the Fourth Gospel: “My Lord and my God.”
Did you remember these things about Thomas? Be honest. Most of us don’t. Most of us, myself included, immediately identify Thomas as “Doubting.” He is, in our minds, the only disciple who didn’t believe in the resurrection. But that’s not true.
Our Gospel opens with the statement: When it was evening on the day of Resurrection, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews. . . That’s hardly the confidence we associate with the disciples after the resurrection. It sounds a lot like doubt. The disciples have heard the news of the resurrection by this point. Mary Magdalene has come and told them that she saw Jesus in the Garden. Peter and John have run to the tomb and found it empty. But they are huddled inside a locked house, afraid.
They have good reason to be afraid. Their Lord and Master, Jesus, was just betrayed and handed over to the Romans, who executed him as an insurrectionist. And they had hoped that he might be the one to redeem Israel. They’re afraid that they might also be arrested, beaten, and crucified as coconspirators. They’re afraid that the Jewish high priests, whose authority came from Rome, might see them as a threat to that authority, just like they saw Jesus as a threat. They have heard the good news of the resurrection, they have seen the empty tomb, but they are still afraid. Maybe, what they’re most afraid of is that the resurrection actually happened. Because that would change everything.
But Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples. On the evening of the resurrection, he is the only disciple who is not cowering behind a locked door. And so he misses out on the revelation that the other disciples have of Jesus. Only after Jesus appears to them, only after Jesus shows them the holes in his hands and in his side, only after these things do the other disciples really believe that he is risen. And Thomas misses that. We talk about Thomas’ doubt like it’s a bad thing, we act like it’s unreasonable for him to demand proof of the resurrection, but all he is asking for is the same sign that the other disciples received.
We have this tendency to see doubt as the opposite of faith, as if people of faith, “Good Christians,” never doubt. Let me tell you, that's a lie. I have doubts. I go through those periods when my spiritual life seems so dry, so arid, that it seems as if God has abandoned me. Have you experienced that? Has there been a time in your life when it seemed like your doubts outnumbered your faith?
C. S. Lewis wrote a little book called The Screwtape Letters, which is the imagined correspondence between two demons who are trying to damn a man’s soul to hell. The elder demon, Screwtape, writing to his nephew, passes on the following advice: “The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it. [. . .] It may surprise you to learn that in [God’s] efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He relies on the troughs even more often than the peaks; some of his special favorites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else.”
Screwtape is right, when you sit down and read the lives of the saints, you find out that Augustine, Julian of Norwich, Thomas a Kempis, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Mother Teresa, and so many others, went through what John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul,” the time when God seemed to disappear and when doubts increased. What the saints invariably said, when they went through these times of doubt, was that doubt became the seed of faith.
That’s the case with Thomas, isn’t it? That doubt, that desire for confirmation, leads to his great confession of Jesus: “My Lord and my God!” Doubt blossoms into faith. Doubt deepens our faith; it does not destroy it. Apathy destroys faith. A smug confidence that we have figured out the mysteries of the spiritual life destroys faith. But doubt, good, clean, honest doubt, doubt can deepen our faith. Doubt can bring us from despair to hope, with Jesus’ help.
Before Jesus appeared to Thomas after the resurrection, Mark tells us that he encountered a man whose son was ill. This father asked Jesus to heal his son, if he was able. Jesus replies, “All things are able for one who believes.” The father then cries out, “I believe! Help my unbelief!”
This is the truth that Thomas also reminds us of. Faith and doubt are always mingled in us. C.S. Lewis’ demon, Wormwood, warns his nephew: “It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that [the human soul] is growing into the sort of creature [God] wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please him best.”
In the midst of our doubts, may we always pray: “I believe! Help my unbelief!” And may Jesus come to us in the mystery of bread and wine and coach us to say: “My Lord and my God.” Amen.