For churches that follow the Common Lectionary (a 3-year cycle of readings from the Bible), the Sunday after Easter (today!) presents the same story every year. It tells of the disciple Thomas who refused to believe that Jesus was risen without physical proof. The other disciples told Thomas that Jesus had returned from the dead, but Thomas was a skeptic. It is from this story that we have the term “Doubting Thomas.”
The story of Thomas is found in John 20, and goes like this: After his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus appeared to some of his disciples and friends. The other disciples told Thomas they had seen Jesus. He replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Eight days later, Thomas was in a closed room with the other disciples when Jesus appeared and greeted them with “Peace be with you.” Jesus invited Thomas to touch his wounds, and Thomas immediately declared, “My Lord and my God!” (the first to call Jesus this). The passage ends with Jesus saying to Thomas, “You have seen me and so you believe, but blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed.”
I can relate to Thomas, and I find it reassuring that this story is told every year the week after Easter. Easter is a wonderful holiday, celebrating the central belief of Christian faith that Christ’s resurrection means resurrection for all of us. It’s great to see our churches filled with spring flowers and with people celebrating new life, wearing their best clothes and singing “Hallelujah!” hymns. But Easter doesn’t stand alone. There’s a very dark story that leads up to it, and in the weeks that follow, it’s not very glorious either. Jesus’ closest friends are afraid and skeptical and wonder what all this means. In a short time, Jesus will leave again. Then what will his followers do? How can they go on without him?
Thomas’ incredulity is probably more common than most Christians admit. I was raised in a church that didn’t allow much room for questions or doubt. By high school, my personal doubts made me feel guilty, like I didn’t have enough faith to believe the way I thought I should. In college, I was exposed to a wonderful variety of other traditions through the freshman requirement of two semesters of Philosophy and Religion. I loved it! P&R 101/102 opened my mind to many ways people have tried to answer the Big Questions—Is there a God? Why are we here? What is beyond this life?
By the time I returned to church as a young adult, I sought one which would welcome questions, acknowledge the inconsistencies in the Bible, accept that everyone needs to find their own path, and encourage people to have hard conversations with each other. I was lucky to have found churches like this, including Westminster. My faith has changed over the years and continues to.
One of the things I like about the Thomas story is that Jesus doesn’t rebuke Thomas for his skepticism. In fact, he anticipates it. Jesus holds out his hands to show Thomas the scars and invites Thomas to touch his wounds. He meets Thomas where he is and acknowledges his doubts and incredulity. He understands that Thomas struggles to understand.
And yet Jesus also says, “Blessed are they that have not seen and have believed.” Two millennia later, Christians are asked to believe in the promise of the resurrection without physical evidence. One of my favorite writers, Madeliene L’Engle wrote, “Faith is for that which lies on the other side of reason. Faith is what makes life bearable, with all its tragedies and ambiguities and sudden, startling joys.” So faith means accepting the ambiguities, the inconsistencies, the doubts, and the questions, living in the tension of unknowing in order to try to know.
Because I’m active in my church, people sometimes say to me, “You have such strong faith!” I usually smile and accept what they mean as a compliment, but in my mind I think, “Oh if you only knew!” I can’t say I’m a person of strong faith, but I am a person of great hope. And that is good enough, as it was for Thomas.