By the Rev’d W Glenn Empey, John 20: 19-31
You know, every time I hear “Poor Thomas”, it makes me think back to — of all things — my Latin classes in High School at St Andrew’s College. You might wonder why that is.
Well, it’s in remembering a drill the teacher use to give in conjugating the verb “porto” (I carry). And, for scholars of Latin, you’ll probably remember how that goes. I carry, you carry, we carry … Porto, portas, portat … p-o-r-tamus … and so on. That’s where I get “por-tamus”. He said it as if it were “poor Thomas”. And it worked! I’m sure I’m not the only lad who remembers that from those classes.
Of course, at the advanced level of Latin, there’s also the conjugation of the verb “pigo” for which the Infinitive, present participle, perfect participle are something like: pigo, pigere, squili, gruntum. … No, that’s not a real verb. It’s kind of like “semper ubi sub ubi”.
Anyway, enough of that.
I really think Thomas – poor Thomas – gets some very bad press among the disciples. He gets a bad rap being labeled with the nickname Doubting Thomas. As if the others didn’t have doubts too.
Peter – the rock on which Jesus founded his Church – even denied Jesus three times. There sure must have been some doubt going on there.
It’s fairly easy to figure that each of the disciples was confused as Holy Week began, as they each entered into Jerusalem. I can’t see how they’d have been certain in any way about what was going to happen. Surely the atmosphere was one of a mixture of feelings ranging from a sense of celebration even to one of trepidation.
For example, I don’t think the disciples could possibly have fully grasped what Jesus was doing at the moment in the Upper Room when he instituted the Holy Eucharist with the Last Supper.
The week was supposed to have been one of a glorious entry in Jerusalem. The coming of the Messiah. But with all the scheming going on by the Chief Priests and the Roman officials, that must have cast some pall of doubt on things.
And later, after the crushing impact of the crucifixion, when Jesus did appear first to the disciples, Thomas was not there. So, he was taking the word of his fellow disciples without having seen Jesus himself. I’d say that makes it a bit more understandable. Thomas was not there as an eye-witness as were the others. I think I’d wonder about what they were reporting too if I hadn’t been there.
And, when you think about it, the other disciples had not believed themselves that Jesus had risen until he had actually appeared to them too.
So, I think Thomas gets a bad rap, a really bad rap. And I think that’s for a number of reasons.
Somehow, some people think that having doubt is a failing of faith. It means not being faithful.
But, it seems to me that doubt is an integral part of growing in faith. I’ve said a few times before that belief is not the same as pure knowledge. Belief is not a scientific kind of thing. In the creeds we don’t proclaim that we know, we say that we believe.
Doubt and belief are not opposites. They’re two sides of the same coin. One informs the other. By exploring what we’re not sure about, we can dig deeper to discover, to understand, to see how the teachings apply and integrate with our experiences in life as seen through the eyes of faith.
The expression “leap of faith” was coined by the philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. It is important to understand that Kierkegaard felt a leap of faith was necessary in accepting Christianity due to the paradoxes that exist in Christianity. Paradoxes make you wonder. They make you search for understanding. Paradoxes and doubt spur you on to engage in the experience of faith. That’s how and why I think that doubt is an integral component of faith. That’s why I think Thomas gets a bad rap.
It might even be that we also chastise ourselves when we have doubts, especially doubts about faith. Again, I’d like to remind you about the fact that we proclaim that we believe; we don’t proclaim pure knowing.
It is part of the human condition to have doubts. Rather than seeing that as a bad thing, it may be more helpful to see them as a gateway to understanding, to making meaning out of experiences and an understanding of faith. It is a way into the mystery of faith.
Now, if you go about comparing yourself to giants of faith such as Mother Theresa, you might feel unfit as not measuring up. But, if you read the writings of Mother Theresa, you’ll readily see how she struggled with doubt throughout her entire earthly life.
The well-known writer and Roman Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen, was similar. Through his many books, each of which is really solid, he encouraged thousands of people on their journey of faith. Yet he himself acknowledged: “So I am praying while not knowing how to pray. I am resting while feeling restless, at peace while tempted, safe while still anxious, surrounded by a cloud of light while still in darkness, in love while still doubting.”
Henri Nouwen, empowered through engagement with his own doubts, was able to offer encouragement and support for thousands of others in his writings, lectures and sermons.
Here is a quote from Nouwen’s book, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit that has provided reassurance for those overcome with doubting: “Have the courage to trust that you will not fall into an abyss of nothingness, but into the embrace of a God whose love can heal all your wounds.”
In the Letter to the Hebrews it says: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Doubt is a necessary catalyst to faith, it seems to me. By embracing doubt, you and I can grow in understanding our journey of faith and hone meaning along the steps of the journey. After all, faith is a daily re-commitment in believing. With each step forward, it takes on more meaning as we grow in understanding.
Sometimes there’s a step backward too … but then… there are two steps forward.
Isn’t that exactly what Jesus’ Passion – his life, his death, and his resurrection — shows us.
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
* * *