“The Benefit of the Doubt”
Oh, Thomas! Poor Thomas! He has been permanently labeled a “doubter” by two millennia of history books, sermons, cartoons, and theological writings in the Christian tradition. A cartoon by Joshua Harris has Thomas crying out, “All I’m saying is we don’t call Peter ‘denying Peter.’”
Poor Thomas seems only to be remembered for this morning’s Gospel story in which he misses Jesus’ appearance to the other disciples in the locked room on Easter Sunday evening, declares his doubt, and then receives the benefit of a repeat performance by Jesus eight days later so that Thomas can see for himself and believe.
But this isn’t the first time that Thomas shows up in the Gospel of John. He speaks way back in the eleventh chapter just after Jesus and the disciples get the news that Lazarus has died. Most of the disciples don’t want to go back to Judea where some people had attempted to stone Jesus, but Thomas is willing to go no matter what challenges they may encounter there. Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
A few chapters later, Thomas speaks up again. This time Jesus is explaining that he is going to be killed, but then he will be raised, and he will go ahead of the disciples to the heavenly home that God is preparing for them all.
When Jesus assures them that they all know the way to the place he is going, Thomas is willing to voice the confusion that the others are likely feeling as well: “Jesus, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” And Jesus responds, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” It is through relationship with Jesus that the disciples, then and now, will find our way through life in this world and into the next.
Poor Thomas wasn’t always the doubter. Sometimes he was courageous enough to declare that he was willing to go with Jesus and die with Jesus. Sometimes he was bold enough to ask for clarification when he didn’t understand.
Although the last mention of Thomas in the Gospel includes a moment of doubt, it also includes a moment of faith as Thomas professes Jesus to be his Lord and God. And Thomas’ faith didn’t just culminate in belief, but as his life as a disciple and apostle continued his faith was expressed in the way he went out in the power of the Holy Spirit to tell others about the good news of Jesus Christ.
Christian tradition holds that the Apostle Thomas travelled outside the Roman Empire to preach the gospel, travelling as far as Tamilakam in present-day India. He got to that land by about the year 52, baptized numerous people, and founded the church known today as the “Saint Thomas Christians.” A moment of doubt set aside, he is now often regarded as the patron saint of India.
But let’s step back into that difficult and confusing time just after Jesus’ death and resurrection. After appearing only to Mary Magdalene in the garden earlier that day, Jesus came and stood among the group of disciples, assuring them with that prayerful greeting, “Peace be with you.”
He showed them his hands and his side, and they were filled with joy when they realized that he was truly dead and now he was truly alive. He breathed on them, giving them the gift of the Holy Spirit, telling them that they were to go out with the good news, continuing his mission, forgiving one another, and reconciling people to God.
But poor Thomas missed the dramatic resurrection appearance that his friends were able to experience. When the others said, “We have seen the Lord,” Thomas said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
It’s not that Thomas was always doubting, but in that moment there just didn’t seem to be enough evidence to support the conclusion that Jesus had risen from the dead. And we can relate to that doubt, because we’ve had our moments of questioning and wondering and worrying too.
When we start to study the scriptures in depth, comparing the Gospels, examining the texts using historical critical methods, and considering the long and complicated human processes through which we received the Bible as we know it today, we may experience some doubt.
When we look at the world scientifically, learning to trust in hypotheses that can be tested and facts that can be verified, we may begin to wonder about truths that cannot be proven and assurances that can only be believed through faith.
When we consider the world around us today with all its struggles, paying attention to the ever-increasing frequency of conflict, violence, hatred, and senseless destruction, we may experience some moments when we doubt whether God’s kingdom is really ever going to come in this broken and warring world.
Like Thomas, we are invited to trust, and believe, and live as disciples of the Risen Christ, even though we have not seen Jesus ourselves and we do not have any proof that his assurances will be fulfilled. The author of John’s Gospel has Jesus declare about us, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Somehow, even though we have no proof, and even though we have moments of doubt ourselves, we have come to believe that Jesus is Lord. We have come to believe that we can live in relationship with Jesus, and that in getting to know him, we are getting to know God.
We have come to believe that God is both all-powerful and all-loving, and that despite the troubles and trials all around us in the world, that one day everything will be made right. We have come to believe that God has a mission in the world of reconciling all things, that the mission was begun in creation, continued in the life of Christ, and that we have a part to play in the mission as well.
But there are days when most of us don’t believe these things as confidently and faithfully as we think we should. There are days when we can easily relate to the father of a sick child in Mark’s Gospel who wanted so much to believe that Jesus could heal his son. When Jesus told him that anything was possible for someone who believes, the father cried out, “I believe; Help my unbelief!”
Some of the commentators point out, when reflecting on Thomas’ doubt, that his problem was that he wouldn’t believe his friends. The other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” and he wouldn’t take their word for it. He said he’d have to see it for himself. Thomas wouldn’t give the other disciples the benefit of the doubt, assuming that they knew what they were talking about, rather than assuming that they were crazy or deluded.
But as much as Thomas declared his doubt and his need for proof, what I notice about the story is that he still hangs around. It seems that his friends have all lost their minds, that they’re having hallucinations, and declaring that a dead man has come back to life, but Thomas stays with them.
Eight days later, he’s still there, probably listening to their accounts of what the risen Jesus said and did, probably wondering if he’ll ever get to see Jesus himself or have their ludicrous story debunked. But he’s still there.
Thomas stays in the community of faith, listening, watching, and waiting for the experience of seeing for himself. And when Jesus does appear among them again, he is able to make his own profession of faith in Christ, his Lord and his God! Thomas does give the other disciples the benefit of the doubt, at least enough so that he is willing to stay with them until he is ready to sincerely declare that he also believes.
I think that the Christian community functions in a similar way today. The church is not a gathering of unflinching believers who are filled with perfect faith all the time. It is a community in which some of us, past and present, have had an experience of the Risen Christ, received the gift of faith, and declared, “We have seen the Lord!” We believe that Jesus is Lord, that the Kingdom of God is coming, and that we have a part to play in the healing and reconciling of the world.
And sometimes we doubt. Sometimes we get discouraged when we do not see Christ, or we do not see things getting better. But we stay together, and we listen to each other’s stories, and we share our faith, and we give each other (and those people of faith who came before us) the benefit of the doubt. And we wait, and we watch, and we work for God’s purposes, and we keep our eyes open for glimpses of Christ among us and out in the world.
Thanks be to God for the example of Thomas, who doubted, and who stayed. Thanks be to God for the example of Thomas who came to believe and who went out as an apostle to share his faith.