Doubt is Not a Barrier to Faith

Sermon on John 20:19-31.

Once upon a time, there was an expecting mother. In her womb, there were twins. These twins, as people often do when they spend a lot of time together, liked to talk about various things. One day, a particularly philosophical question came up. One turned to the other and asked, “Do you believe there’s any such thing as life after birth?”

“Never really thought about it,” the other twin said, “but I highly doubt it. We’ve never seen anything outside of this place. No one who leaves ever comes back. I think that, when the time comes for us to be born, we just go through that passage and cease to exist.”

“I disagree,” the first said, “I mean, you’re right that we’ve never seen anything outside of this place, but just look at these eyes, ears, hands, and feet that we’re growing! Why are we growing them, if we’re never going to use them? I bet, after we go through that passage, we’ll find out there’s a whole world outside that we’ve never seen before. I have no idea what it will be like, but I have a hunch our time in this womb is getting us ready for whatever comes next.

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” said the other. “I bet the next thing that you’re going to tell me is that you’re one of those crazy religious people who believes in the existence of Mom!”

“Well, I don’t think I’m crazy,” the first said, “but, as a matter of fact, I do happen to believe in Mom.”

“Oh, really?” The other said, “Then why don’t you enlighten me, if you’re so wise? I’ve been in this womb for almost nine months, but I’ve never seen a ‘Mom’ or any evidence that convinces me to believe there’s any such thing as life after birth. So then, just where is this hypothetical ‘Mom’ that you supposedly believe in?”

“It’s hard to explain,” the first said, “but I think that Mom is everywhere, all around us. Everything we see in this womb is a part of Mom. So, I guess, it’s kind of like… maybe we’re growing inside of her? You said you’ve never seen Mom, but I think we’ve never seen anything other than Mom. I don’t pretend to have the answer, but I suppose it’s just another one of those things we won’t know for sure until after we’re born.”

There are two things I’d like to point out about this little parable, which I have adapted from Catholic priest and author Henri Nouwen. First of all, neither twin in the story is in a position to know, with any certainty, what the full truth of the matter is. The answers to questions about “life after birth” and “the existence of Mom” are pretty obvious to you and me, who have lived outside the womb for most of our existence, but we can imagine how scary it must have been when we were going through the process for the first time. Even now, uncertainty about “life after death” and “the existence of God” makes us nervous. Maybe someday in eternity, we’ll look back on our earthly lives and laugh at how little we knew back then, but today we can only know what we know, which might give us a little sympathy for those unborn twins and their philosophical questions.

The second detail from that story I’d like us to notice is that the presence of doubt has absolutely no bearing on the twins’ status as beloved children of their mother. She will love them just the same, no matter what philosophical conclusions they draw during their time in utero. In the same way, even the oldest among us are still babies in the eyes of God. Our eternal Mother knows full well that human beings are incapable of answering the biggest questions about reality, so she is able to have sympathy for those who struggle honestly with doubt. Just like those babies in utero, each and every one of us will be loved forever, no matter what we come to believe during our brief time on this Earth.

This means that doubt is not a barrier to faith.

This second fact about Nouwen’s parable of the twins is what I want us to keep in mind, as we turn to look at today’s gospel.

The story of St. Thomas’ encounter with the risen Christ is the most thorough treatment of doubt in the New Testament. Our brother Thomas gets an unfair shake when we use his name to make fun of someone for being “a Doubting Thomas.” After all, Thomas was only doing what any of us would have done, if someone came to us with news that seemed unbelievable. For this reason, I like to think of Thomas as “the patron saint of critical thinkers.” The scientist Carl Sagan famously quipped that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I imagine Dr. Sagan applauding when St. Thomas proclaims, “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.”

The most intriguing aspect of this story is not Thomas’ doubt, but Jesus’ response to it. If John’s gospel had been written by modern Fundamentalist Christians, they probably would have said that Jesus couldn’t appear in the upper room until the other disciples had excommunicated Thomas for his skepticism. If Jesus appeared at all, it would probably be on the far side of the locked door, shouting about how Thomas is a “sinner” and is “going to hell,” if he doesn’t change his mind. But that’s not what actually happens in John’s gospel.

In the real version of the story, the text says, “Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” Thomas’ doubt, for Jesus, was not a reason to stay away, but a reason to come closer. Thomas’ doubt, for Jesus, was not a reason to offer words of judgment, but a reason to offer words of peace. Jesus doesn’t command Thomas to have blind faith, but gives him the extraordinary evidence he’s looking for.

The presence of this passage in our sacred Scriptures should shape the way we deal with doubts, both our own and those of others. It should help us learn how to accept the process of critical thinking as a necessary part of faith. It should lead us, not to retreat from hard questions, but to advance alongside them.

As Episcopalians, we are blessed with abundant spiritual resources to help us on this journey. The Episcopal Church is part of the Anglican theological tradition. One of the things that makes Anglicanism distinct from some other expressions of Christianity is the way in which we think about our faith. Some other churches see their faith as a monolithic statement by a single and infallible authority. For Roman Catholics, it’s the Pope; for Fundamentalist Protestants, it’s the Bible. But the Anglican theological tradition, as far back as Fr. Richard Hooker in the 17th century, has always viewed Christian theology as a three-way dialogue between Scripture, tradition, and reason.

This way of thinking about our beliefs, sometimes called “the three-legged stool,” means that Episcopalians see our religion as a never-ending conversation. Everyone gets to have a seat at the table, but no one gets to stand on the table and yell at everyone else. Unlike some other religious traditions, Episcopalians do not view their leaders as infallible. We honor our ancestors, but we also believe the Church can be wrong. An interpretation that made sense at one time might stop making sense for future generations. A way of life that seemed just and holy in one century might seem abhorrent in another, and vice versa. This doesn’t mean that “anything goes” in Christian faith and practice, but it does mean that Episcopalians are always open to having a conversation about it.

This understanding of the Christian faith means that Episcopalians can be notoriously hard to pin down when someone asks what our church believes. We frequently disagree with each other, sometimes passionately. The late comedian and devout Episcopalian Robin Williams once said, “No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be an Episcopalian somewhere who agrees with you.”

Finally, thinking of the Christian faith as a three-way dialogue between Scripture, tradition, and reason means that The Episcopal Church is a place where you can bring your whole self to church: Protestant and Catholic, conservative and liberal, believer and skeptic. To all these parts of ourselves and each other, the sign outside our churches around the country proclaims the message loud and clear: “The Episcopal Church welcomes you!”

Whoever you are, whatever you believe, however you identify, and wherever you are on your spiritual journey, you are welcome in this sacred space. That is the message that Jesus proclaimed to St. Thomas in today’s gospel. That is the message that The Episcopal Church seeks to embody every day, as it has for hundreds of years. And that is the message that I hope you hear in this sermon today: That you, with all your doubts and fears, are still a beloved child of God, and you are welcome in this place.


Doubting Thomas

Retrieved from
Retrieved from

Religion, for me, has always been an exercise in pain management.

And faith has always been a struggle.

My friends and family all must have the spiritual gift of patience, seeing how they’ve walked with me through each new crisis of faith and theological discovery: Evangelical, Charismatic, Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Universalist, Liberal, Benedictine… it seems like I’m always dipping my toes into another tributary of the great Christian river. I’ve never quite felt at home.

As such, I feel like today is a holiday for Christians like me: the Feast of St. Thomas. Thomas, colloquially referred to as ‘Doubting Thomas’, is famous for his struggle with faith after the resurrection: “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.”

But just as surely as he lagged behind his fellow apostles in believing the truth of the resurrection, he also charged ahead of them when it came to confessing the divinity of Christ: he was the first to address Jesus as “My Lord and my God!”

In my experience, a faith that is open to struggle often ends up being deeper and wider than a faith that simply accepts what it is given without question. I wonder whether Thomas would have had his insight into Christ’s divinity had it not been for his struggle with Christ’s resurrection?

For people like Thomas and me, faith is always an open-hearted struggle, not because we are stiff-necked unbelievers, but because we so desperately want to see Jesus.

Not Thomas’ Problem

This week’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville.

The text is John 20:19-31.

There is a phrase attributed to the French philosopher Voltaire that goes something like this: “God created man in his own image, and then man returned the favor.”

What Voltaire meant by this is that people tend to conceive of God in ways that match their view of themselves and the world.  To liberals, God is a liberal.  To Tea Partiers, God is a Tea Partier.  To chauvinists, God is masculine.  To feminists, God is feminine.  To self-haters, God is judgmental.  To narcissists, God is all about them.

As finite human beings, we inevitably have to use limited human language to describe our infinite God.  We rely on images like “Shepherd” and “Parent” to understand the relationship between God and creation.  These metaphors can be helpful, because they take what is ultimately unknowable and present it in terms that are familiar to us.

The problem comes when we hold onto these images and ideas too tightly.  We try to squeeze the infinite mystery of God into finite boxes of our own making.  We try to force God to relate to us on our own terms.

Psychologists call this kind of behavior “delusional”.  The biblical authors called it “idolatry”.  People would rather bow down to visible and tangible gods of their own making than stand in awe of an invisible and eternal mystery that moves outside the realm of their understanding.

When people in our society think of “idolatry”, they imagine ancient polytheists offering various sacrifices before stone statues.  But the truth is that idolatry is not limited to one kind of religious practice.  Even Christians fall prey to idolatry.  They do it every time they try to squeeze God into the walls of a church or the pages of the Bible.  Don’t get me wrong: churches and Bibles are wonderful tools that can guide us in our relationship with God.  They can show us how to find God in our daily lives, but they are only a means to an end.  When Christians do the opposite, when they treat the means as an end in itself, and they stop looking for the divine presence in the world around them, then they are guilty of the sin idolatry.  By limiting God’s sphere of operation to a book or a building, they force God to meet them on their own terms (so they think).  This is exactly the sort of thing that we can see going on in today’s gospel reading.

The apostle Thomas, who is often called “Doubting Thomas”, gets an undeserved reputation from this passage.  There are some who chastise him as the one apostle who was unwilling to believe the truth of the resurrection.  Others praise Thomas as the father of all skeptics who demands facts before faith.  Doubt is the sentiment most closely associated with Thomas.  But I don’t think he deserves that distinction.

After all, wouldn’t you or I do the same if we heard that one of our loved ones had suddenly returned from the grave?  We would want to see it for ourselves, wouldn’t we?  Any of us would ask a lot of hard questions before we accepted the reality of a dead man walking.

Also, in his questioning of the other apostles, Thomas was only following one of Jesus’ own commandments!  In Luke 21:8, Jesus said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.”  How can we blame Thomas for doing his job as a faithful disciple of Jesus?  So, from both rational and religious perspectives, one can understand Thomas’ reticence to accept these rumors of resurrection.

Doubt is not Thomas’ problem.  Doubt is the sign of a clear head and an honest heart.  If Thomas has a problem it has to do with one word: “Unless”.  He says, “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.”  With this one word (“Unless”), Thomas is demanding that Christ meets him on Thomas’ own terms.  In the arrogance of his ignorance, Thomas is convinced that he, more than all the other disciples, has what it takes to establish the criteria for true faith.

As it was with Thomas, so it is with us.  You and I live in a society that is becoming increasingly polarized in more ways than one.  People on all sides of the religious and political spectra have stopped listening to one another and started insisting on certain ideological criteria that must be met before we validate the intelligence and good faith of those who disagree with us.  Even though much of this debate takes place in the name of Christ, I fear that too little of it takes place in the spirit of Christ.  People on all sides are quick to squeeze God into boxes with labels like “biblical truth” or “human rights” and demand that Christ meets them on their own terms (whatever those terms may be).

So then, what are we to say?  Is there any hope for us “Thomases” out there?  Does this passage offer any relief from this impasse?  I think so.  John’s gospel continues the story on the next Sunday, when Thomas and the other disciples were once again gathered together.  It says at verse 26: “Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’”

In spite of Thomas’ roadblocks to faith, in spite of the “shut doors” that surrounded this motley crew of disciples, Jesus is present.  No barrier is sufficient to keep the risen Christ at bay.  Jesus encounters Thomas in the midst of his struggle.  He doesn’t wait until Thomas has resolved his issues.  He even offers to meet Thomas’ criteria for belief.  Jesus says, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”

I find it most interesting that John’s gospel doesn’t tell us whether Thomas actually did reach out and touch Christ’s wounds.  That much is left up to the reader to decide.  Whether he did or didn’t, the emphasis of the story is on Christ’s offer and Thomas’ response, “My Lord and my God!”  When faced with the real presence of the crucified and risen Christ, Thomas’ issues seem to just melt away.  In the words of the philosopher John Hick, Thomas moves from “self-centeredness” into “reality-centeredness”.  All of a sudden, his agenda, his criteria, his arrogance, and his terms just don’t seem to matter as much as they used to.  This new openness paves the way for Thomas to rejoin the fellowship of disciples and believe the truth of the resurrection, even if he wasn’t quite clear on the facts.

This gives me hope for all of us as well.  It gives me confidence that the infinite God who dwells in our midst will continue to come bursting out of our finite little boxes.  The presence of the risen Christ speaking peace to struggling unbelievers in a room full of shut doors gives me fuller assurance that the “shut doors” in my own arrogant, ignorant, and unbelieving heart cannot and will not keep the peace of Christ away from me.  This is true for you as well.  It is true for all of us.  This week, as you go back out into the cacophony and conflict in your work, home, church, and society, I invite you to meditate on this Easter truth.

The apostle Paul puts it so well in Romans 8:38-39:

I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.