John 20:19-31

Honest Doubt, Honest Faith

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John 20:19-31

Honest Doubt, Honest Faith

By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
Today is sometimes called Low Sunday. This term has a perfectly respectable origin. We can think of Easter Day as the start of an octave, a period of eight days that runs through today and thus contains two Sundays. The first of these Sundays is Easter Day, the greatest of all Christian feasts. Today, the other Sunday in the Easter Octave, is by comparison Low Sunday.

But the term has gained another connotation referring to church attendance. Attendance on this Sunday is not as high as on Easter Day. It is by comparison low, hence Low Sunday.

The name I prefer for this Second Sunday of Easter is Thomas Sunday. The Gospel read on this occasion is always the story of how Thomas came to believe in the risen Christ. And while this Sunday is sometimes slighted for its low attendance, so its featured apostle Thomas is frequently dismissed as a doubter, “Doubting Thomas.”

The label is an unfair one. The Gospel we heard this morning recounts a remarkable trajectory, like that of a meteor flashing across the night sky. Thomas moves, in the space of the Easter Octave, from discouragement, disbelief, a wounded heart, and an outcry against the other disciples to a confession of faith in the living Jesus—”My Lord and my God!’—that remains unexcelled throughout the entire New Testament.

Easter Day, which was but a week ago, amounts to a debunking. It revealed as mistaken the view held by many that Jesus was dead and would stay that way. Jesus did not stay dead.

Today, this Second Sunday of Easter, also amounts to a debunking. It reveals as mistaken the view held by many, perhaps once held by Thomas himself, that Thomas was simply unable to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. Thomas does not remain dead in his unbelief. He does not remain faithless—if he ever was. He experiences a resurrection of his own.

Often we compartmentalize people, including ourselves.

We designate some as living, others as dead.
Some as good, others as bad.
Some as believers, others as skeptics.

But reality is more complex, more promising. Lives are never static; lives are in motion. What matters is not anything so simple as do you believe or do you doubt. The quality of doubt or belief must be considered.

Belief can be marred. How? By such things as fear, close-mindedness, lack of trust, pride, laziness, and ingratitude. Belief like this is stuck. It can turn toxic. We don’t have to look far to find toxic belief in today’s world, some of it with a Christian label.

Doubt can be marred as well. It can turn out as something less than honest doubt. It also can be marred by such things as fear, close-mindedness, lack of trust, pride, laziness, and ingratitude. Doubt like this is stuck. It can become toxic. In today’s world, among people who call themselves secular, or say they are spiritual and not religious, you don’t have to look far to find dishonest doubt, some of it claiming the authority of reason.

But there can be honest doubt as well. People with honest doubt may, perhaps, want to believe, but struggle at great length with hard questions, hard circumstances. They will not accept a belief unworthy of the troubles of the world. Sometimes the doubter has been hurt, perhaps severely, and honors the reality of the resultant pain. The honest doubter refuses answers that are too easy, that do not recognize the dignity of the questions. In many of us there may be at least some of this honest doubt, this hesitancy to believe, this unwillingness to commit too easily.

Yet the honest doubter is not a closed person. By such a person as this, even doubt can be doubted. So the doubter remains open to belief. This person is available to move from honest doubt to honest faith—perhaps once, perhaps more than once. This person remains open to receiving the gift of faith, and perhaps even open enough not to allow faith to become a fetish.

All of us are on the road. None of us is home yet. Both the close-minded doubter and the close-minded believer are mistaken. All of us still have a distance to travel.

The signs directing us forward are there for us to recognize. They do not appear when we find them convenient, but when it is time for them to direct us.

Thomas moves ahead when it is time for him to do so—eight days after the other disciples see the risen Lord. Jesus appears among them a second time, radiantly alive, and this Thomas is present. Jesus graciously invites Thomas to satisfy his need for proof, to examine the glorious scars and believe.

There’s no evidence that Thomas touches the scars—he may or may not have done so. What’s clear is that he moves ahead in faith. From honest doubt he moves like a meteor to honest faith, a faith open enough to recognize that the man standing in front of him, this man he knows, this once-crucified, once-dead friend, is also his Lord and his God.

Others move ahead in faith for other reasons. Mary Magdalene believes when the risen Lord speaks her name. The disciples assembled on Easter night believe because they see Jesus alive; they do not ask to see the wounds.

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What’s required for us to move ahead, we who do not see Jesus as any of them did, yet believe, or at least want to believe? We may be motivated by the wondrous complexity and beauty of creation, the witness of other Christians, or an event in life that indicates God is at work. Any of these can lead us from honest doubt to honest faith.

Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and have believed.” These blessed ones have come to belief. Jesus does not require perfect faith from the start. What he asks for is an open heart, one not closed to belief, but not closed by belief either. He asks for this open heart so he can lead us, and keep leading us, from honest doubt to honest faith.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright for this sermon 2007, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).