Sermon by Bob Smith
My wife tells me that one of the most meaningful sermons she heard during her university days, when she was questioning the validity of faith, was a sermon titled the importance of doubting your doubts. It taught her that honest doubt is not the same as downright unbelief. It is often the mark of a person who is deeply concerned about truth. And as such it is a more noble thing than the mere repetition of a creed that one has never really thought about but just accepts because that’s what they are supposed to do. Tennyson once wrote:
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.”
William Barclay said: ‘There is more ultimate faith in those who insist on being sure than in those who glibly repeat things which they’ve never thought out, and which they may not really believe. It is doubt like that which in the end arrives at certainty.’ The disciple named Thomas – ‘Doubting Thomas as we often know him – was a man like that.
On the first Easter Sunday – the day Jesus rose from the dead – all of Jesus’ disciples bar one were present in a locked room, shattered by what had happened to their Lord, yet also puzzled by the reports of some of them that they had seen him risen from the dead. Then it was that Jesus actually appeared to them, too.
The only one who wasn’t there at the time was Thomas. And when he returned and they told him the wonderful news, he refused to believe them. He probably thought they’d been hallucinating or something like it, and he told them that the only thing that would make him believe is if he could see the actual nail prints in Jesus’ hands and the spear wound in his side.
Well, eight days later, the same thing happened: the disciples were together in a room, and Jesus suddenly materialised and appeared to them. This time Thomas was there, and Jesus invited him to touch the holes in his hands and side and believe. Thomas didn’t need to. With what I suspect was a mixture of joy and wonder, mixed with a fair dose of guilty shame, he simply said: ‘My Lord and my God!’And ever since, Thomas has been the patron saint of all honest doubters. And if there was ever an age in which honest doubters abound, it is ours!
I think we’ve tended to be a bit unfair to Thomas. He wasn’t alone in needing to see for himself before he was prepared to believe: all of the other disciples had been exactly the same. It was just that Thomas hadn’t been with them when Jesus had appeared that first time.
If you go back through the Gospels you get an insight into Thomas’ personality that shows him as a bit of a pessimist, but also as a man of courage who’d be faithful even to the pessimistic end. So, for example, when Jesus heard that his friend Lazarus was close to death, Thomas, knowing how dangerous it would be for Jesus to be seen around Jerusalem, and expecting the worst, simply shrugged his shoulders and said: ‘Let us also go that we may die with him.”
Admittedly, when the worst did actually happen and Jesus got arrested, Thomas, like the others left him and fled for his life. But none the less, he had travelled to Jerusalem with Jesus knowing that it would probably mean that he, too, would end up a dead man.
So let’s not be too hard on Doubting Thomas because we are probably a lot like him. He is the patron saint of all who are neither deliberate unbelievers nor unthinking accepters, but rather the sort of people Jesus had in mind when he said, ‘Seek and you will find.’
We live in a society that finds it difficult to believe in things that can’t be proved scientifically. The past three centuries have increasingly seen a world view based on faith change to the point where, even though the number of committed atheists may still be small, agnosticism – being unsure whether God does or does not exist – is probably the prevailing mindset amongst young people.
And even amongst believers the number of people who doubt the miraculous element in Christianity is growing. This is particularly so in relation to the one miraculous happening that is central to Christianity – the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Is he really there for us as the Bible says he is when it reports him saying: ‘and surely I am with you always, to the end of the age.’? That’s why I say that many of us are a lot like Thomas – not totally disbelieving, but not willing to accept uncritically what we haven’t seen for ourselves. And yet hoping for something that will convince us.
Like my former father-in law. He was not a religious man. He was actually a bit of cynic. The only time I ever saw him go to church was when I married his daughter. But for the last twenty years of his life he was adamant that he had literally seen Jesus. It happened about thirty years ago. He was in a coma and not expected to live through the night. But next day when we visited him, he was sitting up looking like he’d never been sick. He told us he’d seen Jesus standing at the bottom of his bed. We wondered if he’d been dreaming or hallucinating, but for the next twenty years until he did finally pass away, he swore that it had been Jesus – the risen Christ – who had stood at the bottom of his bed and given him back his physical life.
It was the same sort of thing that happened to Malcolm Muggeridge, also a notable sceptic. He did a program for the BBC on the life of Christ, and one day, in order to get the feel of things, he and a member of the film crew walked the Road to Emmaus in the steps of the 2 disciples to whom the risen Christ appeared. Something happened to Muggeridge that day. He told of it in a sermon he gave years later at the High Kirk of St Giles in Edinburgh. He said: ‘As my friend and I walked along…Nor was it a fancy that we too were joined by a third presence. And I tell you that wherever we walk…there is always this third presence ready to emerge from the shadows and fall in step along the dusty, stony way.’
The essential difference between beliefs based on scientific proof and those based on religious faith is revelation. So, for example, we believe that physical things like the earth travelling around the sun are true because mathematical and astronomical evidence shows that it is so. But belief in a Supreme Being or divine intelligence behind the universe is clearly beyond the range of physics and comes into the realm of metaphysics.
For people of faith the evidence comes by way of revelation. Traditionally, Christians would say that this revelation is the Scriptures, or in the case of Catholics and Orthodox it is the Scriptures as interpreted by the Church fathers. But either way, there is still a further dimension to it.
Jesus said: ‘No one knows who the Father is (meaning who God is) except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’ What he was saying is that the deep inner conviction within a person that God is real, doesn’t come primarily through the intellect but through something far deeper within us; something we call the spirit. Now that doesn’t mean that it is intellectually untenable – that’s when belief becomes superstition rather than faith. It just means that we experience it at a deeper level, and then begin to understand it intellectually. I think we are ‘hard-wired’ to believe.
Jesus also said: ‘Seek and you shall find.’ In the original Greek text the verb ‘seek’ is in the present tense which implied seeking and continuing to keep on seeking until you do find. And the Book of Hebrews says that God rewards everyone who diligently searches for him. And over the years I’ve seen this happen time and time again in the experience of many Doubting Thomases who have taken seriously the challenge to doubt their doubts and to honestly seek the truth about the risen Christ – whether it really is what believers say it is.
We all remember the amazing story of the thirty three Chilean miners who were finally rescued after spending three months trapped in the bowels of the earth. The whole world watched and wondered how they managed to keep their sanity in such an environment for that length of time. But the Rev Alfredo Cooper, chaplain to President Sebastian Pinera, speaking live to BBC Radio gave the answer on behalf of them all. He said that there was a thirty fourth man in the mine with them. “Many of the miners went down as atheists, unbelievers or semi-believers,” he said, “ and they have come up to a man testifying that there was a thirty fourth man down there -and that man was Jesus and that they had a constant sense of his presence and guidance.”
It may not make sense to those who dismiss the idea of a spiritual reality behind our material world, but it sure makes sense to those miners. And surely that is the most compelling argument.
As for Thomas, Christian tradition tells us that he travelled to ancient Persia and won many people to faith in Christ. Then, in AD 52 he set sail for India. Sixteen centuries later, when the first Catholic missionaries arrived in India to bring the message of Christ, they found that there were already well established churches in the south that no one in Europe knew existed. They belonged to the Mar Thoma Church, established by Thomas more than one and a half millennia before.
Faith didn’t come easily to Thomas. He was the man who had to be sure. But once he was sure nothing would hold him back. And a faith like that is far better than mere glib profession that has never really sought the truth. That’s why I say Thomas is the patron saint of this generation, who reminds us of the importance of doubting our doubts, and seeking til we also find that God is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him.