Harrowing Of Hell
April 16, 2023

You are not your Doubts

Susan Pitchford, Lay Preacher

Some years ago, my husband and I took his mother and daughter on the “Europe 101” tour. We visited a bunch of important western European cities, and it was a wonderful trip. My mother-in-law was a deeply devout Baptist lady, the kind of Christian whose faith inspired even the atheists around her. But she was the first in her family to finish high school, and while a lifelong Christian and definitely a saint, she was no Bible scholar.

So one day we were in Amsterdam at this church called Our Lord in the Attic. It was a secret church built in the 17th c. during the persecution of Catholics, and it has twin statues of Saints Peter and Paul, across the aisle from one another. My mother-in-law and I were standing by the statue of Peter, and she looked thoughtful. “Peter,” she said, “he was the one who denied Christ, right?” And I thought, “Boy, a whole career as an apostle, the Rock on which the church is built, a martyr for the faith. And you have one bad night, and that’s what they remember you for. Poor Peter!”

Well, poor Thomas, right? One moment of doubt and you’re “Doubting Thomas” for the rest of church history. Some nicknames just stick; he’s like the kid who goes through all his school years as “Stinky” or “Peanut.”

So Thomas will be remembered by many as “Doubting Thomas,” but I think this is unfair, for two reasons. First, when Thomas says he won’t believe Jesus is risen without seeing him, he’s not asking for anything the others haven’t had. In fact, he’s asking for what all the rest of them had already had, all but him, because for whatever reason, he wasn’t with them that day. It wasn’t like the rest of them just believed, because they were so smart or because they were paying attention when Jesus said he would rise. Because the Not-Doubting Apostles just had that much faith.

No. The only one who believed without seeing, we’re told, was the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” who beat Peter to the tomb after Mary Magdalene told them the stone had been rolled away. This disciple goes into the tomb, sees the grave clothes lying there…and just believes. We have no record of any of the others believing Jesus is risen without having seen him.

In fact, as we heard last week in Matthew’s account, even after seeing him risen “When [the disciples] saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:17) Doubt is a natural part of faith, and as Doyt reminded us last Sunday, God gives us the freedom to doubt because there is no love that’s not freely chosen. And those disciples who doubted also went on to become “world changing followers of the resurrected Jesus.”

Maybe Thomas’s demand to “see” is a little more aggressive: “Unless I see and touch him, including in his wounds, I will not believe.” But think about it: all the others had seen Jesus, and whatever state of mind and faith they were in, I’m sure they were talking of nothing but his resurrection. Thomas alone had been left out, and was probably nursing some heart-wounds as a result. Why had Jesus denied him what had been given to the others?

I don’t think I’d be at my best either. Frankly, I want to see, too. I long to see Jesus in the flesh, to take hold of the shoulders that hold up the Cosmos. I mean, imagine if someone turned up with a genuine eyelash or whisker of Jesus’. Absolutely, beyond all doubt, authentic. The whole Christian world, not to mention Muslims and even just the idly curious, would be lined up to see it, right? We’d build shrines around it! We’d put up plaques. We’d make pilgrimages to it. I mean, at my age there’s hardly anything I’ll stand in line for, but I would stand in line for that.

Because like Thomas, like the other apostles, and like the rest of us, I’d give anything to see him. Thomas wants to see him, and in that I think Thomas is all of us. Not especially faithless, just brokenhearted and longing for the comforting presence of the one he’d loved above all. Who can’t relate to that?

Now, let’s go back in the story to when the other disciples see Jesus, when Thomas was absent. Jesus’ first words to them are—what? “Peace be with you.” Shalom. You know, “shalom” isn’t just their version of “Have a nice day.” No. When you wish someone “Shalom” or “Peace be with you,” as we do at every service, you’re wishing them peace, yes, but this peace isn’t just the absence of conflict. It’s total physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being, complete fulfillment. You’re wishing them everything God wants for them, everything they were created for. This is a solemn moment in the liturgy; it’s not just the prequel to coffee hour. Something to think about.

So Jesus wishes them “Peace,” and of course that was a conventional greeting. But in John’s gospel, everything is there for a reason, and there’s an important reason why that’s the first thing out of Jesus’ mouth. When the disciples saw him, they might well have felt anything but peace was coming their way. The last time any of them had seen him, they had behaved very badly. So if he was back, from the dead, maybe it was to give them the punishment they must have known they deserved. Maybe they were in for a good old fashioned, biblical smiting.

But instead, he wishes them “Peace.” The first word out of his mouth. And his first action is to show them his wounds. He leads with his wounds, in part to simply give them evidence that it’s really him—what Thomas was looking for. But I think Jesus tends to lead with his wounds, tends to offer the wounds he’s acquired in order to connect to the ones we’ve acquired.

Jesus offers us life, and I think this works sort of like a blood transfusion, in which both the donor and the recipient have to be wounded. When we come to Jesus with our wounds, he will always meet us with his own. He gets us. He meets us face-to-face, wounds-to-wounds. And in that meeting, there is life: restoration and renewal.

So to remember Thomas for his doubts is unfair, first because he was only asking for what the others had already been given. But the second reason it’s unfair is that, as soon as he does see Jesus, Thomas makes the most uncompromising statement of faith in all of the gospels: “My Lord, and my God!” Where do we hear another disciple call Jesus “God”? Saint Paul will get there later, and the Church as a whole will get there eventually, though it’ll take a few centuries to work out exactly what it means for Christ to be both human and divine.

But in that moment, just a week after the Resurrection, Thomas gets it. In an epiphany, in a flash of insight, Thomas knows exactly who his Master is, and his confession of faith has a beautiful simplicity and purity to it. It gets right to the point.

And yet…Jesus does chastise him: “Thomas, have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” What do we make of that? Again, except for the Beloved Disciple, all of them believed because they’d seen him, and they didn’t necessarily believe consistently, even afterward.

So I think this part is less for Thomas than for us—who have not seen, but have come to believe. Thomas saw, and believed, and out of him burst that spectacular confession of faith. And because of his testimony, we who have not seen the risen Christ have “come to believe.”

So Thomas doubted…and then believed. Peter denied…and became the Rock. Saul persecuted the church…and then became the great Apostle Paul. They all became world-changers before becoming holy martyrs.

Here’s the moral of the sermon: You are not your doubts. You are not your mistakes. Our worst moments don’t define us; they convert us. They have the potential to take us into a deeper faith.

In God’s kingdom, nobody gets defined by their worst mistakes. And nobody gets stuck forever being the person they were. The only way that happens is if we’re too proud to go to Jesus and ask for the healing we need. Thomas asked for what he needed—rather rudely, but he was honest. Jesus met him right where he was, wounds first, with understanding and compassion. And that’s exactly where he meets us. Let’s hold our wounds up to his, so that in the meeting between them, we too can be healed.