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  • The Rev. Matt Welsch

Holy Doubt

As Christians, one of the things we do is tell stories. We tell stories about how our ancestors have known and encountered God. And we tell one another our own stories.

This morning, we hear the story of Saint Thomas the Doubter. I feel bad for Thomas. Thomas gets kind of a bad rap. He makes one, simple, reasonable request. And generations of Christians call him the doubter.

But the story of Thomas’s holy doubt isn’t meant to be a chance for us to self-righteously judge Thomas. Rather, it’s meant to teach us how we, as the Body of Christ, are called to care for one another as we each grapple with the deep questions of faith. It’s meant to demonstrate that Thomas’s vulnerability opens him - and us - up to a profound revelation of grace.

The Gospel of John tells us that, on the evening of that first Easter, the disciples were in hiding. They were afraid. Because, of course they were. Jesus, their friend and teacher. The man for whom they’d given up everything. They man they believed to be the Messiah, the Son of God, Whom they had expected to overthrow the Roman occupation and redress the abuses of the Templehad just been killed by the authorities. And the Disciples had every reason to believe that those same authorities were coming for them next.

Even more troubling: when Mary Magdalene had gone to his tomb that morning, Jesus’s body wasn’t there. Throughout the day, the disciples heard snippets of stories:of angels and funeral shrouds and earthquakes and light and gardeners. They have no idea what’s going on. And so, in their mingled fear and grief and hope: They hid.

They hid in that upper room where Jesus had shared his last meal with them. Where he had washed their feet. And charged them to love one another They went back into that upper room and locked the door. All of them - except Thomas.

Thomas is mentioned two times in the Gospel of John. The first is right after Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus has died. Jesus announces his intentions to return to Lazarus’s home in Bethany - to bear witness to God through Lazarus and to be with Mary and Martha. But he makes it clear to his Disciples that, this return to Bethany will be the start of his walk to the Cross. No, they say, we can’t go back there. Don’t you realize they’re trying to kill you? If we go back there, we’re all going to die. The disciples are afraid. All of them - except Thomas.

When Jesus doubles down on the plan to return to Bethany, Thomas rallies his friends, exclaiming his commitment to the cause: “Let us also go, that we might die with him.” Thomas gets it. Thomas is brave.

And so, on that first Easter, when the other disciples are in hiding because they are afraid, is it any surprise that Thomas isn’t hiding with them? Now, we don’t know where Thomas was. But it’s striking that Thomas isn’t there. Thomas is out doing something.

Maybe he was doing something practical. Maybe he was grocery shopping.. Maybe he’d had enough of sitting in mourning in a crowded room and just needed a minute to himself. Or maybe he, like Peter and the Beloved Disciple, wanted to see what Mary saw at the tomb and had gone looking for Jesus. In any case: brave Thomas isn’t there.

And so when he comes back to his friends, he’s greeted with the news that Jesus has indeed come back from the dead. That he stood in that very room and showed him the wounds in his hands and on his side. That all of his friends have seen their risen Lord. Everyone but him.

My heart breaks for Thomas every time I hear him say: "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."

Can we really blame Thomas for asking for the same level of proof that all of his friends had received? Does Thomas really deserve centuries of condemnation, of being labeled “the doubter” and “the faithless one” for yearning to have a revelation of the resurrection so intimate, so undeniably real, that he could reach out and touch the wounds of Christ’s broken and gloriously resurrected body?

Who among us doesn’t yearn for that kind of intimate proof of Christ’s divinity? Who among us doesn’t yearn to know for certain that death doesn’t win? Who among us doesn’t have questions? And doubts and fears?

Thomas’s holy doubt isn’t met with condemnation. Thomas’s holy doubt is met with compassion by both the Disciples and by Jesus himself.

A week later, the disciples are back in the upper room. And this time, Thomas is with them. Again, Jesus appears to them. This time, he comes seemingly in order to show Thomas the wounds in his hands and in his side. This is one of the most touching, intimate moments in scripture. In his compassion, Jesus meets Thomas in depths of his doubt and vulnerability. Jesus holds out his wounded arms and shows Thomas the wound in his side. And this moment of intimate revelation is so powerful that Thomas becomes the first person in the New Testament to turn to Jesus and say: “My Lord and my God.”

Thomas is a figure who is unafraid to grapple with the hard questions of faith. Thomas is an example for us, not of a weak faith, but of a vibrant one. Many of us carry around this false assumption that doubt is a sign of weakness. And that weakness is inherently bad.

But if we’re unwilling to grapple with the hard, deep questions of our faith, It’s impossible for our faith to mature. Thomas actively engages his doubt, he asks his friends and his Lord to help him. And when he does this, Jesus meets Thomas right where he is.

I’m struck by the fact that, after declaring his unbelief, Thomas doesn’t leave. And the disciples don’t kick him out. Instead, the disciples hold space for him and his doubt. It’s a whole week later and Thomas is still with them. No doubt supported by their friendship, their prayers, and their faith, their stories.

This afternoon, six members of this community will confirm their faith in the presence of the bishop and faithful Episcopalians from across the Diocese of Maryland. They have been learning and praying and grappling with the big questions of faith. And as the Bishop prepares to bless their affirmation of faith, he will ask those gathered:

“Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?”

To which we’ll all heartily respond: “we will.”

This question is asked at both Confirmation and Baptism. In Baptism, each of us vows to support the spiritual development of every member of the Body of Christ. Not just our own. Having encountered the risen Christ, We promise to walk with one another as we grow in discipleship.

This doesn’t mean that we need to have all the answers. Rather, it means being brave enough to be vulnerable with one another. It means holding space for our own and one another’s doubts. It means telling our stories about the ways God reaches out to us. Supporting one another in times of joy and grief and fear. Being bold in declaring God’s grace with and for and to one another.

The Gospel of John shows us several examples of ways that Jesus appears to his friends. These stories are there, John tells us, in order that we might come to see Jesus as the Messiah and, through him, inherit eternal life.

And so, wherever you’ve encountered the risen christ. Whether weeping in the garden with Mary, running to the tomb with Peter, hiding with the disciples, or wrestling with holy doubt alongside Thomas. Tell your story. And hold space for others to do the same.

Because your story matters. Because it’s through that vulnerability that Jesus reveals himself to the world. It’s through practicing vulnerability that we can turn to Jesus and say, with Thomas: “My Lord and my God.”

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