(Watch the Sterling College version here.)
Read John 20:19-31
One of the most awkward silences in the world are the moments right after someone says,
“Do you have any questions?”
I got asked this question just the other day at the end of a call to confirm a doctor’s appointment. The caller had just given me a lot of information, and then asked if I had any questions.
Yes, I thought. I do have one: Can you repeat all that?
We’re encouraged to be prepared to ask questions when going into a job interview. Having questions shows our level of interest in getting that job. Sometimes, though, by the time the interviewer says, “Do you have any questions?” they’ve already answered all the questions I had prepared, and then, if I’m honest, the only real questions left are, “Do I get the job?” and “When will I get paid?”
To have questions is to be engaged in the moment, to be engaged in life. But when it comes to our faith, we sometimes get the idea that it’s not ok to be asking questions. One of the reasons for this might be the disciple Thomas.
But I think Thomas gets a bad rap.
Imagine the conversation Thomas might have with Jesus, saying, “Look here. Peter denied knowing you three times, but we don’t call him ‘denying Peter.’ And Mark was so scared when the soldiers came to arrest you that he ran off without his clothes, but we don’t call him ‘naked Mark.’ So why do I have to be stuck with the name ’Doubting Thomas’?”
We bag on Thomas because he refused to believe Jesus was alive just because the other disciples said he was. But once Thomas does see Jesus, he says, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). This is one of the most profound statements of faith in the gospels. Professing that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior is the profession we make today and keep making when we are baptized, confirmed, and ordained.
The reality is that Thomas is not the only disciple who didn’t believe Jesus was alive without seeing for himself. Mary Magdalene told the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18) But they don’t jump to celebrating. They’re hiding behind locked doors in fear because they didn’t believe until they saw Jesus for themselves.
One of the things we learn from this scene with Thomas is that we can have doubts and questions, and that seeking to resolve them grows and strengthens our faith, and helps us to know the inexpressible joy that Peter tells us about in the verses we read at the beginning of worship (1 Peter 1:3,8).
Too often we’re afraid of our doubts, though. And afraid to hear other people’s doubts. We want our faith to be perfectly solid all the time. We need to trust in God who gives us faith.
Faith that never wavers or questions is faith that does not grow.
This happens in different ways and we call it different names – trials, testing, discernment, doubt, discouragement, disillusionment. The Bible is full of stories of people going through challenges. We sometimes get the idea that once we accept Jesus, that’s it and everything will be beautiful, but that’s just not how life works. Jesus told us “in this life you will have trouble” (John 16:33) and Paul tells us in Romans that we will have problems, and that these will help us develop endurance and character and hope. (Rom. 5:1-5)
In the midst of these struggles our temptation might be to give up on faith. Confession: I have wanted to give up. I can remember a time when I had a lot going on and I was complaining one day at church about it. I had recently had a promotion at work, which was good, but it also meant I was traveling more often, and that takes more time. I had just been put in charge of a new program at church. And I was trying to be a good mom and wife all at the same time. I said to our pastor, “This is too hard.” And he said something that I didn’t want to hear: “God never said it would be easy.”
But I wanted it to be easier. And a few years later I decided I was done with church. I was only seeing the hypocrisy and judgment, and not the grace and faithfulness. I read what the Bible says about the early church in the book of Acts and decided that’s what we should do. In Acts, people gathered in homes and ate together and talked about the scriptures and Jesus. They also gathered in synagogues, but I ignored that part. Both are ok, but I decided institutional church was not for me, and my husband and I started a home church. That went pretty well for a few years.
We needed the healing that came from that time, but we were in a holy huddle, and we eventually missed the larger community found our way back to church, as you might have guessed, since I am today the pastor of a church.
In seminary, I learned about Fowler’s theories of spiritual development, in which he describes a stage that’s similar to adolescence or young adulthood because it’s a time of questioning and discerning. If we grew up in church, that stage might happen in young adulthood, as we begin to question our parents’ faith and find our own faith, but it can happen at any age. If my own life is any indication, this stage happens more than once, as throughout life we change and we grow and encounter new challenges and new situations.
Peter tests this when he and the disciples are in the boat crossing the Sea of Galilee and they see Jesus walking toward them on the water. Peter says, “Lord, if that’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” Jesus says, “Come,” and Peter steps out of the boat. But then Peter looks down at the water, and maybe in that moment realizes that what he’s doing is impossible, and he begins to sink. But then he calls out to Jesus, “Lord, save me!” and Jesus lifts him up out of the water, saying, “Why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:22-31)
We can easily guess why Peter doubted. He knew that humans can’t walk on water. But with Jesus, he could. The Greek word that’s translated as “doubt” here is distazo. It means to waver between two opinions. Peter was wavering between what he knew about his own abilities, and what he was learning about who Jesus is. Peter took a risk, and in the process Peter learned more about himself and about Jesus.
The word that we translate as “doubt” in the story about Thomas is not the same word. It’s apisteo. Not a wavering, but instead, disbelief. Thomas is incredulous. That a dead person could be alive is beyond belief. But once Thomas saw that Jesus was alive, he believed.
Jesus then says, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.” (John 20:29) Jesus is acknowledging that faith is not always easy. Not all of our doubts and questions get answered or resolved quickly. Some questions don’t have such easy answers, and some questions are unanswerable, and it can be hard to know which ones are which. But it’s important that we keep asking.
Ask. Especially, Ask God.
It’s the easiest and sometimes the hardest thing to do, but it’s the most important. Talking with people is good, too. Small group Bible studies are a great opportunity to ask questions.
Read the Bible.
John says at the end of our reading today:
30 The disciples saw Jesus do many other miraculous signs in addition to the ones recorded in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing in him you will have life by the power of his name. (John 20:30-31)
Many people who profess to be Christians have never read the Bible. Sometimes we think we know what it says, but we really don’t. The first time I read the whole Bible, and not just a bit here or there, was not until I was in my forties. It took me about three years reading every day because I would read until something jumped out at me, and then I would ask God about it.
I have a theory – if Adam and Eve had had the Bible, they might not have eaten the fruit from the forbidden tree. The snake tempts them by asking, “Did God really say you must not eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden?” Eve does a pretty good job of repeating back what Adam heard God say, but the snake is able to cast reasonable doubt on her understanding. But if they’d had it in writing, maybe they could have been more certain about what God said. Thankfully, we have the scriptures, and so we need to keep reading and rereading them, and discussing them.
Keep on asking.
Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount to “Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7)
Life keeps changing. We keep changing. We need to keep going back to God, back to the Bible, back to our discussion groups to help us see and understand what God is doing in these new situations.
Over time we get better at asking questions.
I was an English major in college. I was pretty sure that was the right path for me at first. But when I took my first literature class, I was so lost that I began to wonder if I had chosen the wrong major, and that led to questioning whether I even belonged in college, and I dropped out. Now, looking back I can see that I had gotten ahead of myself and taken an upper level class before I’d had the lower level classes that would have prepared me for that upper level class.
Faith can be like this too. Some things will take time to understand, sometimes even years to understand. God is infinitely patient with us, and we need to be patient with God and with ourselves and keep on asking.
Don’t lose track of the point of it all.
The Westminster Confession, one of the main reformed confessions, says our purpose in life is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Jesus said that all the commandments in the Bible can be summed up in two: to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
We can and do spend a lot of time discussing how to put those into practice, and as we read the Bible we find that the practical applications are many. For me, it all boils down to being able to see. To see my way forward, and most importantly to see Jesus.
The book of Job is a great example of this. Job experiences great tragedy and suffering, and his friends come to help him grieve. They sit with him in silence for seven days, a practice called sitting shiva. (Shiva means seven.) The friends don’t talk until Job talks. But then, when they do start talking, they all have lots of questions about why this is happening to Job. They do a lot of speculating. Then God shows up, and God asks them some questions, but God doesn’t answer any of their questions. But once God has revealed himself, it doesn’t seem to matter anymore.
Sometimes that’s what’s really at the core of our questioning. We need to see God and know that even when life is hard and the world’s evil is monstrous, God is still working and Jesus is still interceding for us and the Holy Spirit is still active in our lives.
That seems to be true for Thomas, too. Thomas is not willing to settle for someone else’s revelation. Thomas has seen the grim reality of death, and he will not believe something so tremendous as Jesus being raised from the dead unless he can see for himself that this is not a ghost, not a hallucination, not an imposter, but Jesus himself, bearing the wounds that were inflicted on the cross.
When Jesus shows up still bearing those wounds, we see that his resurrection is not a statement that evil doesn’t exist, but that evil is not the greater power.
When Jesus appears, he tells Thomas to do exactly what Thomas asked to do: Put your finger in the wounds, put your hand in my side. Jesus’ hands and feet were still displaying the wounds from having been nailed to the cross. Jesus’ side was still open where the soldier pierced him with the sword to see if he was dead.
Jesus was dead. But now he is alive, because God raised him from the dead, freeing us all from the power of sin and death once and for all.
Our scripture reading doesn’t say whether Thomas actually did touch the wounds. Maybe Thomas said, “Ew! Never mind. I’m good.”
We do know that Thomas believed and professed his faith, saying, “My Lord and my God!”
We’re going to have questions, and we’re going to have doubts. As we ask and keep asking, and listening, and seeking, let’s keep our eyes open for all the ways that God is showing us he’s still here.
 Mark 14:52
 Barclay and Berghe and others
 James W. Fowler, “Faith Development at 30: Naming the Challenges of Faith in a New Millennium.” Religious Education, Volume 99, 2004 – Issue 4, Pages 405-421. Taylor & Francis Online, Published online: 17 Aug 2010. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00344080490513036 Accessed April 11, 2021.