Questionning Our Faith

Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, April 27, 2014

John 20:19-31     

On this Sunday, preachers all around the world who follow the lectionary will probably be talking about Thomas and his reputation for doubting. When we think of Jesus’ disciple, Thomas, it usually this story that comes to mind. We don’t remember all of the other stories in the gospels about Thomas—in fact, we may not realize that there even are other stories. This is the only one that we remember about Thomas. One never knows which stories we will be remembered by. We hope it will be one of the good ones, but in all likelihood, it will be ones of stupidity or clutziness, for they make, by far, the better stories. Thomas’s story reminds me that we have no control over our destiny or our legacy—at least not entirely.

In 1888, the premature publication of a man’s obituary—while he was still very much alive—so horrified him with how he would be remembered, that he actually changed his legacy. Alfred Nobel worked as a chemist to develop explosives. After one explosion killed many people in his workshop, including his younger brother, he devoted himself to finding a safer explosive and invented dynamite. But he couldn’t believe how he was described in the premature obituary. It was titled “The Merchant of Death is Dead” and went on to say “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” When Nobel read this, he decided to change his legacy and within a year set aside the bulk of his estate to establish the Nobel prizes, including the most famous Nobel Peace Prize. Only one year later he did die, but this time with a very different legacy and and a very different obituary.

Not all of us have the privilege of seeing our own obituaries, nor of being able to change our own legacies. But sometimes, we can help to set the record straight for someone else’s legacy—and that’s what I would like to do today for the apostle whom we have named Doubting Thomas. Let me try and paint a fuller picture of who Thomas was, according to all of the gospel stories, and the legacy he deserves.

It was only a few chapters back in the gospel of John where we read of the courage of Thomas. Jesus had just heard that Lazarus had died, and Jesus said to his disciples that he was going to return immediately to Judea to be with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. But—he had just fled from there, narrowly escaping death. His disciples responded incredulously, “Rabbi, they just tried to stone you to death there, and you want to go back?” Thomas then turned to the rest of the disciples and said to them, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” I would like to rename Thomas “Courageous Thomas,” willing to die for his faith and his Rabbi.

In that locked, upper room, where the disciples huddled in fear, Thomas was not present. Why? Perhaps he was the only one courageous enough to leave the room and maybe bring back food for everyone. We don’t know why he wasn’t there—but he certainly had courage to go out.

Thomas’s courage extended to his questions—questions that we have interpreted as full of doubt and weak of faith. But were they really? The gospel of John records Jesus speaking at length to his disciples just before he was arrested and crucified. He said to them, “if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” My guess is that all of the disciples wondered to themselves, “What way is that?” But only Thomas, the boldly-spoken, practical disciple, had the courage to challenge Jesus, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

Thomas was not afraid to ask challenging questions, even of his lord. And so, it is completely within character that Thomas should challenge the other disciples who remained in the locked room and saw the risen Christ. Thomas questioned them about their wishful thinking and did have doubts. But when Thomas saw the risen Christ a week later, his response was, “My Lord and my God,” one of the strongest expressions of faith that any of the disciples ever made.

It is not questions of doubt that threaten our faith. It is when the questions stop that our faith may be in danger.

In our Faith Exploration group, we established group norms that made it a safe place to ask whatever questions people had about the Christian faith. People were all over the map with what they believed or didn’t believe. It was people’s very doubts that led them to study, research, pray, question and reshape their faith.

I was teaching a confirmation class with youth in another church. The father of one of the youth came to me, concerned about his son’s lack of learning. When I asked what he thought his son should be learning, the father referred to his own preparation, which required the memorized recitation of responses to the questions contained in the Catechism. He was referring to the 1944 publication of the United Church’s Catechism, in which there are 86 questions of faith accompanied by the correct answers.

Memorized recitation of faith statements is one way to develop our faith. But how much deeper can we grow in our faith when we take those statements and question them, challenge them and let them challenge us. It is in the dynamic struggle with doubts and questions and even with our God that our faith comes alive.

Our Jewish ancestors in the faith can teach us how to have a dynamic relationship with God. It includes arguing with God, yelling at God, questioning God. You may remember Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof: “I know, I know. We are your chosen people. But can’t you choose someone else once in awhile?”

Christians have tried to tame this intimate relationship with God into one of subservience and obedience and in so doing have set God off at a distance, to be feared as a punishing Lord. We have tried to change God, but our Christian God is the same as the Jewish God—a God who loves us fiercely and tenderly, who invites us to weep and rage alongside God at the injustices and pain of this earth. It could mean having the courage to rage at God.

The Latin root of courage is “cor” which means heart. Courage originally meant “to speak one’s mind by telling one’s heart.” Brené Brown encourages us to reclaim this original meaning and to risk vulnerability.[1] When you ask questions, you are vulnerable to ridicule. When you express doubt, you risk rejection. When Courageous Thomas questioned and doubted, he risked the ridicule and rejection of the other disciples; he risked the ridicule and rejection of God. But the resurrected Christ came not with ridicule, not with rejection but with peace.

Have courage to come with all of your questions and doubts and the resurrected Christ will meet you with peace.

[1] Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection (Hazelden: Centre City, Minnesota, 2010), p. 12-3.