Former president Jimmy Carter, in his book Living Faith, tells of growing up in a Christian family and being troubled early on by doubt. He knew that Christians were supposed to believe that Jesus died and on the third day rose from the dead and that all believers would someday enjoy a similar resurrection.
As a child, he began to have doubts about whether that was really true. That was not the kind of thing that they talked about in his family, so he kept it to himself. By the time he was twelve or thirteen years old, he became so concerned about his doubt that before he said “Amen” at the end of every prayer, he prayed, “And, God, please help me believe in the resurrection.”
I can identify. Can you?
As a freshman in college, I found myself in a crisis of belief. I had all kinds of doubts and here I was in the pre-seminary track in college and a religion major. I remember how painful that time was and all the time I spent at the kneeling rail of the little prayer chapel that was open on campus 24 hours a day.
I can still feel that prayer cushion under my knees and the feel of the hard, smooth wood of the communion rail; I can even smell the place. I prayed for God to help me believe and to bring to me a blessed assurance.
This Sunday in our Sanctuary worship service we’ll spend some time with another doubter: Thomas, one of Jesus’ disciples.
What a difficult week it had been for the disciples. Everything happened so fast — too fast.
One moment the crowds were welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem and a few days later he was arrested and the next day was put to death by crucifixion. On the third day the women went to the tomb to anoint the body and came back with news they simply couldn’t believe — they had seen the risen Lord.
That evening the disciples were huddled behind locked doors not knowing what would happen next. In the midst of their confusion Jesus appeared and stood among them. He said to his disciples, “Peace be with you.” At first, they were afraid. But when he showed them his hands and his side they rejoiced. What Mary had told them they now experienced for themselves. Christ had been raised! He lived!
Then Christ gave them a commission — marching orders, if you will: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
The disciples were to be more than students, they were now to be apostles, “those who are sent.” These apostles were to continue the ministry of Jesus; they were to become his voice, his hands, and his feet.
Then Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This is significant. Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into the disciples in the same way God breathed life into creation. The message of the gospel of John is that in Christ we have life.
For some unknown reason, however, Thomas was missing that first Easter evening and had not seen the risen Lord like the others had. The apostles told Thomas, “We have seen the Lord,” but he was unconvinced. He knew how much he wanted Jesus to be alive, he knew how much he wanted to believe, so why not the same with his friends? They were probably just operating out of a kind of wishful thinking.
Thomas wanted proof. He wanted to see Jesus for himself. Thomas said, “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.”
Thomas was a realist. He had been hurt and disappointed. He had expected so much from Jesus. Then, to watch him die on the cross like a common thief was too much for Thomas to bear.
Thomas’ hopes had already been dashed once. Now he wanted to be careful — the last thing he wanted was another letdown. If Thomas was anything else, he was honest — even honest about his doubts. He just couldn’t believe without seeing Jesus for himself.
Can you blame him?
I don’t blame him, at all. In fact, when you read the gospels carefully, you will see that the other disciples needed to experience the risen Christ for themselves, as well, before they truly believed.
So yes, Thomas voiced his serious doubts about Jesus’ resurrection. And yet, he remained in the midst of the company of the apostles. It’s remarkable, really, that Thomas stayed with that faith community. Even though he was the one voice of skepticism among many who had experienced the Risen Christ, he stayed.
I think Thomas’ choice to remain with the apostles despite his doubts says a lot about the support, love and acceptance of those early followers of Jesus. And then, a week later when Jesus appeared to them again, Thomas was there.
Do you have doubts? If you do, you are in good company. This list is long; it includes many of the great people of faith in the Bible — and those whom we consider to be giants in the faith down through the ages.
Thomas teaches us the importance of staying connected with a community of faith through our periods of doubt. Too often people in the church feel like they must leave when they have doubts. Nothing is further from the truth.
It’s okay to have doubts. It’s part of faith. And, it’s also important to stay connected with a faith community during those times. In fact, there is no place better to be when we’re in doubt than in the midst of a community of faith — a Bible Study group, a Sunday school class, a prayer group, a Grace Group, or a worshipping community — some kind of support group we can feel part of.
Group support is a powerful, valuable resource. Group support is what the church is all about. D. T. Niles, a well-known Christian leader and theologian, tells a story of how he met a member of his congregation on the street one day, someone who was once active but had drifted away from their church in recent months.
The woman told Niles that after suffering numerous personal and family problems God had become distant to her. She felt she had lost contact with God.
To this Niles replied, “Not only now but even in the future, there will always be times when God seems distant; when it looks as if God has forgotten and does not care; when prayers go unanswered and life is difficult. And at such times you must learn to hold on to your fellow Christians. Your difficulty is that you tried to hold on to God alone, and [human beings were] never intended to hold on to God alone.”
I hope that you will be with our faith community this Sunday as we, together, strengthen our faith, even in the presence of our uncertainties.
Grace and Peace,
Dr. Tim Bruster, Senior Pastor