Thomas – Doubts Are Welcome Here
October 26, 2014
This past weekend, I had the privilege of visiting with an old friend of mine whose name is Steve Skaggs. Steve and I served on staff together in Western Kentucky. He is now retired from Music Ministry but in retirement serves as the pastor of a small, rural church in the beautiful central Kentucky farm country. It was a real treat to see Steve and his wife Shirley and to have the chance to share with his leadership last Saturday and then to preach for his people last Sunday morning and evening as part of their Fall Renewal Weekend.
While Steve’s church is out in the country, he and Shirley live in the small town of Hodgenville, Kentucky. I had never been to Hodgenville and knew nothing about the town which has a population of about 3,000 citizens. As a result, you can understand why I was quite surprised to reach the town square last Friday afternoon and find a large statue of Abraham Lincoln staring at me. Hodgenville, unbeknownst to me, is where Lincoln was born. And, his birthplace, about three miles from my friend Steve’s house, is a National Historic site.
Last Saturday afternoon, Steve took me to see the 16th President’s birthplace. It is quite a site to say the least. There in the midst of pristine Kentucky pastureland is a granite building that looks like it belongs on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Encased inside, is the famous log cabin where Lincoln was born – or at least that is what everyone thought.
In the late 1800s/Early 1900s, a group known as the Lincoln Farm Association purchased what they thought were the original logs from Lincoln’s birthplace and reworked them into a cabin like the one Lincoln was born in. The cabin actually traveled the country by train and was ultimately returned to the Lincoln family farm called Sinking Spring outside Hodgenville and then encased in the monument.
There was only one little problem – these really were not the original Lincoln home logs. They may have been from the area where he was born and similar to those that made up the Lincoln home but unfortunately they were not the real thing – a fact realized only after the monument was underway.
The story of the famous, fake Lincoln cabin is a classic reminder that things are not always what they appear to be. Often we think we know clearly and without question what we are looking at only to discover that we are sadly mistaken.
I think one could say the same about the disciple Thomas. When we hear this disciple’s name, we instantly think of him as “the doubter”. After all, he is the one, as we read a moment ago, who on hearing that Jesus had overcome death refused to believe it without having some hard, factual evidence on which to base his belief. No question about it, we think, Thomas is the patron saint of those who refuse to believe because of doubt and the father of those who demand proof or factual evidence.
Yet, I must suggest to us this morning that this is a very narrow view of the Thomas that we discover in John’s gospel in the New Testament. Rather than someone to ignore or to reject, Thomas actually emerges in John as someone who offers us a very valuable example of a person whose questions and doubts literally led him to a deeper faith.
Let me elaborate on what I mean. First, Thomas’ story reminds us that questions can be a very good thing and that if we are not courageous enough to ask our questions, it will be difficult for us to find the answers that we all so desperately need. Both texts from this morning show Thomas as a person with questions. In the first passage, he was the one among the twelve willing to admit to Jesus that he didn’t really understand what Jesus was saying when the Lord talked about “going away to prepare a place for them”. In all likelihood, Thomas wasn’t alone but rather was simply the one among the group courageous enough to ask what everyone else also wondered about. In the second passage, the famous scene of Thomas’s doubt, he also exhibits an attitude of a questioner. He is not certain about what the other disciples have experienced – again he has his doubts, he has his questions.
In both scenes however what is equally important to see is that Thomas’ willingness to question led to opportunities for answers to be provided. In the first scene, Jesus responds and provides helpful clarification regarding what he meant about “going to prepare a place” and in the second scene Jesus purposefully engages Thomas so that he might know without a doubt the validity of the resurrection. In neither scene is Thomas chided for having questions. Rather, in both passages, his willingness to ask leads to answers.
During my middle years of college, my dad gave me a hand-me-down computer from the offices of our family business. This was back in the day when operating a computer was far more complex than simply pointing and clicking. What I remember vividly is that I took that monster of a machine back to campus and sat it on the desk in my dorm room. For the better part of the next several months, that computer did two things – it gathered dust and it took up space. The reason was that I had no clue how to operate it.
Now, here is what was sad about that experience – literally a few doors down from our dorm room was a fellow student who was quite gifted at that time with computers and I felt certain he could help. The problem was that my pride stood in the way. I simply didn’t want to admit that I needed help and that there were questions about that computer that I had no clue how to answer.
All of us are this way in some area of our lives. Some of us have questions about Jesus and faith but we don’t want to admit it. Some of us have major questions about how to be a better parent or spouse but we would rather be silent that make our inquiries to those who could help. Some of us wonder why we feel sad regularly or why we always feel high stress, anxiety or no sense of purpose. Others of us want to know how to get beyond an addiction, deal with a difficult boss or the best way to share faith with a friend. We all have a question about something, but, most of us are too proud to ask. This is exactly where Thomas is so instructive. For only in his courage to ask was there the possibility of an answer. And this is such a good a needed reminder for all of us.
The Thomas’ story doesn’t stop there however. For the truth is that he also reminds us that once our questions have been answered, a life of faith and discipleship must be built on top of what we learn. Let me unpack that statement for a few moments. Notice how the story of Thomas and his encounter with the risen Christ resolves itself. Once Thomas had his questions and doubts answered, he responded with profound belief. In fact, many suggest that Thomas’ response is the most beautiful statement of faith from a disciple. Having seen for himself, Thomas said “my Lord and my God”. In other words, having had his questions about the resurrection answered, Thomas responded by saying to Jesus, “you are my Lord and my God”. Everything we know about Thomas from this point forward suggests that he spent the rest of his days living out his faith by trying to bring the world to embrace Jesus and God’s son.
Here is the point. Once Thomas’ questions were resolved, he built his life on the answers he received. Many of us, however, fail miserably in this regard. You see, far too often our questions are simply ways for us to continue to avoid acting. At times, one question being answered only leads to our asking other questions. At other times, even when our questions are answered and we know what we need to do, we continue to persist and act as though we are uncertain rather than admitting that we no longer have an excuse for not doing and being who God wants us to be.
Sometimes we know the answers to our questions about family, faith, church commitment, sacrificial giving, priorities, an ethical dilemma and countless other issues. Our questions have been resolved but we simply continue to sit and refuse to build our lives on the answers.
Back to my computer for a moment that was gathering dust. Believe it or not, one day I decided to walk down the hall and knock on the computer guru’s door. Much to my surprise, he didn’t laugh at me or call me dumb. Rather, he walked down to my room and in about two minutes told me everything I needed to know. For the rest of my time in college and the beginning of seminary, I used that computer almost every day. Having had my questions answered, it became a tool that I built my academic career on. Once I knew the answers, I was able to go to work and I could not have been more grateful.
This is what God longs for each of us to do. The truth is we need more, not fewer, people who are like Thomas. We need more folks vulnerable and honest enough to admit that there are questions in our lives that need to be answered. But, once answers have been given, we also need just as many folks willing to begin to build a life on the answered that have been received. Amen.