I will presume that most of you have been seeking after God for some time. Or maybe you have not, or only have been for a short period of time. How has that time of seeking God been for you? Have you ever experienced doubt? Doubt about God being real? Or doubt about the God you heard proclaimed in the Scriptures? Or doubt about the sort of God proclaimed by Christians of one type or another? Maybe even your own priest?
In our gospel lesson from John this morning, we hear about St Thomas, or doubting Thomas as he’s often known. As we just heard, Thomas had not been with the disciples when Jesus came to meet with them and so when he arrives on the scene, the disciples rush to tell him, “Thomas we saw the Lord.” Thomas replies, "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."
Now doubt of course is not a new thing. We’ve encountered story after story of doubt through our Scriptures. Sarah actually laughs in doubt at God, when he tells her that she’ll have a child in her old age. Abram says to God, ‘how on earth could you give me a child God, I’m an old man well past child bearing years.’ Then of course as we heard over Lent, there were the Israelites in the desert who doubt God so much that they make a golden calf to offer to other gods in the hopes that they will be provided for when they doubt God’s provision of food, water and life for them.
There are the Israelites we hear about in the book of Judges who complain so mightily that they need a king to help lead and guide them because they cannot follow God loving him with their hearts and minds, they doubt in the midst of their struggles and do not hold fast to the faith. Of course God finally grants them their wish with the kings of Israel and ultimately with the King of kings, Jesus Christ. We also know of course about the disciples’ doubts: who will betray you Jesus, surely it is not I, I will not deny you Peter says to Jesus, until he hears that cock crow. On and on I could go in the Scriptures, and on into history books: doubt, fear, worry, struggle, for a whole host of reasons.
Each of us has likely faced a moment of doubt, or perhaps a long drought of doubt, even a loss of faith. Maybe you’re not even so sure now. Are you really there God? If I cannot see the mark of nails in his hands, and put my hand in there, and put my hand in his staff wound, I will not believe. In day to day lives where we measure most of the things of our lives by the ability to count, see, demonstrate, prove, show, confirm, how can we believe in the story of God come into the world, crucified for our sakes, resurrected three days later? How can we believe when we cannot see, touch, hold onto? How can we believe that God sent his Son into the world for us, to transform it completely, when the world still looks violent, when Christian faith seems to be in decline in the West? How can we believe God truly loves us when most of our lives are about navigating relationships where people leave us, get sick, fall apart, become angry with us or we with them so much so that there’s withdrawal, sometimes for good? How can we trust that God really has got us and isn’t going to let us go, when we experience nothing but that here on earth?
I know for me, I have come to doubt God’s existence at several points in my decade and a couple years of being a Christian. I’ve talked before about my doubt that came after I realized I had followed people and their ideology, rather than God. I wondered if there was a God underneath all their personal professions and characterizations, especially as these contradicted those of other Christians. Who had it right? Did anyone. Or was God simply an invention of people looking to control their own lives or the lives of others; to give themselves order and purpose in a world that can seem very much without either.
Then there was the doubt that has come with actually studying historical theology. Ironic hey? As folks in the Church have tried to work out what we call doctrine (or, central tenets of belief, doctrine of the trinity, how Christ can be both God and man, etc, how one is saved), not only has the Church split over and over again into different groups, but along with that came executions, murders, war, imprisonment, manipulation and violence. How many conceptualizations of atonement are there? Is it essential to hold to one? If so, am I not a Christian if I don’t hold to one? What if I’m wrong? Or is the Christian faith merely about vague sincerity: I believe in some concept of God and I try to be a good person in accordance with the Scriptures and at the end of the day, I rely on Jesus to get me there. Maybe that’s actually true. Personally, I’m too skeptical, I think too often about the worst possible case when plotting out my life, and try to avoid that. So I tend toward thinking I must actually ‘do the right thing’ for God to save me, which of course creates massive doubt because I can’t tell – amongst the myriad of ways the faith has been articulated – what the right way necessarily is!
For a variety of reasons, intellectual and quite pragmatic, I had to work out these doubts while going to church every week, not to sit in a pew, but to climb into a pulpit to preach faith, hope and love. In order to do this, I was forced to reckon with what John, in today’s gospel lesson, calls ‘signs.’ John says, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” You see to preach, you cannot simply read the Scriptures and regurgitate them; you must determine where you, where your congregation; where your friends and family, where the people of this world past and present, are met by Jesus in the Scriptures. Where does he encounter all of us, each of us? The fact of the matter, is that he encounters us right where we are. And in his Spirit, he draws us into the world he has already created, and which he brings to an end, that is, into the world we find in the Scriptures.
The signs he does then, aren’t simply being done to or with characters that we find in Scripture. No. That’s not how it works. The signs we find in the Scriptures are being done to us and with us, and with our neighbors and our enemies. Those are the signs into which everything I saw in this world were being drawn every time I had to preach. And do you know what I discovered? Especially in the midst of doubt, doubt perhaps much deeper than Thomas’s?
I discovered that my doubt was actually fear. Fear that God did not come for me. Like you, I too grew up in a world that measures all things by Thomas standards: let me put my hands into you, right into your body, let me see, hold, count, be utterly certain of your presence with me. Only if I can hold, see and measure, can I know for certain that I am okay. Only if I know for certain that that I’ve got the right doctrine, that my grandparents who have died are with you, that you are going to make this world better than it is now, only if I know you will save me despite the decisions and choices I have to make in light of my body’s and my brain’s failures to be ordered rightly, only if I know I am wanted, safe, of value, only if I know that in my failures, you will still have me, only then will I believe, only then can I sustain.
Jesus says to Thomas and so to me and to you: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Jesus isn’t actually asking us for a blind faith here. In fact, what he is saying is that in order to see me, first, you must follow me. I have often heard it said by older people that it is only in retrospect, looking back on their marriage, or looking back on their lives with their children, that they can truly say ‘what it is that they actually had.’ Any relationship – whether with friends, or co-workers, or with a spouse, or with kids and grandkids, or with neighbors or bosses, requires faith. Faith to sustain through periods of struggle, doubt, fear, frustration, boredom, loneliness, anger, bitterness, jealousy, envy, confusion, illness, disease, change, and decay. But faith over time reveals the signs that become interwoven pieces of the story of our respective lives together.
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. Jesus does not tell us this because he demands blind faith to him. Rather he tells us this because he knows precisely who we are: finite creatures who still live in and see the world through a glass darkly, as Paul puts it; people for whom faith is not about obtaining mathematical certainty. Faith is not perfect knowledge. It is following God, hearing his Word, the Scriptures. That Word, the whole of the Scriptures, made incarnate in Jesus Christ; the one who fulfils and makes them real to us as we are drawn into their times and characters and so into him by the Holy Spirit. Faith then is about allowing ourselves to let go of our present so that we can be caught up by these signs given to us in the Scriptures. For it’s just here that we encounter him and he encounters us. It is therefore simply following Jesus, attending to his Word with the kind of work we’d do in relationship with our friends or spouses, or that we’d do to work through new challenges in health, in living situation, in family situations, that sustains us through doubt. Why? Because when we look back at the path we’ve walked in this life through our Scriptures, there we might see the signs of God present with us. AMEN.