Here's this morning's sermon...preached at St James' Church.
John 20: 19-30: Doubting Thomas
Typical isn’t it? I get to preach on my namesake - Thomas...the doubter! But you know...I thank God for Thomas! I am grateful that the Bible doesn’t just contain stories of heroic faith, it also contains real men and women. If you want to look for proof that the Bible really does contain truth...then you need to look no further than the fact that it records the actions of real people, who make real mistakes, and have real doubts - just like us. The Bible is not a collection of great doings by perfect beings in a sort of Olympian legend. It is a real, down to earth account of real life...and real struggles...by real people.
Think of King David - who sent a man to his death so that he could possess his wife. Think of Peter, who denied Jesus three times - but still went on to head-up the Church on earth. Think of Abraham, who failed to trust God and had a son by his wife’s servant. Think of all the churches across the Mediterranean whom the Apostles needed to write to, because they were getting it all wrong! And think of Thomas...who wouldn’t believe that Jesus had risen from the dead until he could see it for himself.
Thomas, and all the doubters of the Bible, call out to us across the centuries. They say, “we know what you are going through. We know that sometimes the way of God is tough...and you can’t see where the road is leading. Keep going...keep pressing on”
By now, thanks to recent movie news, you will all know that John Newton wrote the hymn Amazing Grace, having once been a slave trader. Later in his life, in a letter to a friend, he wrote this:
"The doubts and fears you speak of are, in a greater or lesser degree, the common experience of all the Lord’s people, at least for a time. Whilst any unbelief remains in the heart, and Satan is permitted to tempt, we shall feel these things. They tend to make us know more of the plague of our own hearts, and feel more sensibly the need of a Saviour, and make his rest (when we attain it) doubly sweet and sure. Fear not; only believe, wait and pray. Expect not all at once. A Christian is not of hasty growth, like a mushroom, but rather like the oak, the progress of which is hardly perceptible, but, in time, becomes a great deep-rooted tree."
Newton comforts me, and I hope you too, with the thought that doubt is not only a common experience…but that it is an essential one too.
Our English word ‘doubt’ comes from the Latin dubitare, from which we also get the word ‘double’. To believe something, is to be ‘in one mind’ about accepting something as true; to disbelieve is to be ‘in one mind’ about rejecting it. To doubt is to waver between the two, to believe and disbelieve at once and so to be ‘in two minds’. Being in two minds... between belief and disbelief can be a creative place. It allows us to ask the tough questions...to examine our faith, rather then simply accepting it uncritically. And from there, like Newton’s slow-growing oak, it allows us to deepen our roots...not with blind faith, but with real knowledge and experience of God at work in us.
For example - and pertinently for this Easter time, what do we think about the Resurrection? Thomas, clearly, was not persuaded to believe just because his friends told him about it. He needed the space to think things out for himself - to accumulate more evidence.
This is not to suggest that doubt is a preferable way of developing our faith. As Jesus himself said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believed”. That of course includes all of us. None of us has met Jesus in the flesh...though I’m aware of some of us who have seen him in a vision. Jesus encourages us by calling us blessed if we are able to believe without seeing him. He reminds us...as we shall explore a little during this afternoon’s family service...that faith is a gift of God...not something we create for ourselves. We who have received that gift, are indeed blessed.
However, some people are more resistant than others to receiving God’s gift of faith. Some people - and you may be one of them - need to examine the evidence before they can fully believe. It’s the way they are made…they need to work through doubt, and find belief. There’s nothing wrong with that. Let me tell you...if you are in a position of doubt...rejoice! God is at work in you...fulfilling his purpose in you, calling you heavenwards!
Some years ago, an atheist lawyer by the name of Josh McDowell, set out to prove that the Resurrection was a hoax...a baseless story, which should be rejected in these scientific times. He set out to ask lawyer-type questions, examining documents and tradition with his sharp legal mind. The trouble was, that the answers that he got were exactly the opposite of what he was expecting.
At the end of his legal enquiry, McDowell published a book called “Evidence which Demands a Verdict” - and he was forced to conclude that Jesus really existed, really died, and really rose again. For him, that was a life changing experience...brought about through honest doubt…Let’s look for a moment at the evidence he considered.
First, there is the question of whether Jesus existed at all. McDowell discovered that there is substantially more evidence of Jesus’ existence than any other figure of history. No one, for example, doubts that Julius Caesar was Emperor of Rome - but there are many fewer documents of the time about Caesar than there are about Jesus. Everyone believes that Socrates existed, but like Jesus, he never put pen to paper himself. Of course, we have the Gospels - but there are also many other documents - apocryphal gospels, letters to Rome and other histories which give enough evidence for any court of law to be able to say, without doubt, that Jesus existed.
Next came the question of whether or not he actually died. Perhaps, as some doubters have wondered, he simply fainted on the cross - and was assumed to have died. McDowell concluded that this was plainly nonsense. If there was one thing that the Romans knew how to do, it was how to kill people.
Next, we turn our attention to the Resurrection itself. Like Thomas, we have not seen the risen Lord Jesus ourselves. So are we to believe the statements of the disciples which have been handed on to us over the years? The undeniable fact is that there was an empty tomb to be dealt with.
Could it be that the Romans stole the body...to stop people from turning the tomb into a shrine? If so...why on earth did they not simply say that...or even produce the body, when Christianity started to gain ground?
Maybe the disciples stole the body and buried it elsewhere in order to make it look as if Jesus had risen? There are three objections to that:
First - the gospel accounts make it quite clear that the Romans placed soldiers to guard the tomb to make quite sure that didn’t happen.
Secondly, even if this band of fishermen and farmers had over-powered the guards, why on earth didn’t the Romans simply say that, and arrest the disciples for grave-robbing
Finally - and for me the most telling piece of evidence of all - why on earth would the disciples steal Jesus’ body, to start a rumour for which they ultimately end up dying? What was to be gained by that? If you are going to perpetrate such an immense hoax, that will lead you to leave your family and job to wander the planet telling a story, and ultimately to die for what you have said...why on earth would you do it? You might do it if you wanted to become rich, or achieve political power. But from all we know of them, the Apostles sought neither of those things. They gave away money...they didn’t accumulate it. They preached peace, and loving your enemies...they never raised an army of fellow believers to spring them from prison and declare them to be rulers.
No - the disciples were either a bunch of totally inept revolutionaries, who failed entirely to grab power and wealth...or they really were who they are reported to be...men and women who had a powerful encounter with the risen Lord Jesus. That was Josh McDowell’s conclusion. But each of us must draw our own. And each of us must come to terms with our own doubts.
But in closing, let me offer you a little gentle challenge: There is no shame in being in doubt. Doubt is not a sin. But there is shame in being content to remain in doubt, and to not seek to resolve the issue one way or another. To be in two minds about anything, is an uncomfortable place - betwixt and between. If one remains there long enough...one becomes paralysed by indecision in all aspects of life. Shall I pray? Shall I give? Shall I love? Shall I worship? Life becomes an endless series of unanswered questions.
So let me, finally, make this offer. If you are in doubt, if you want to explore the boundaries of your doubt...why not get in touch? Simon and I would be delighted to explore with you the boundaries of your doubt, and your faith. We can do this on a one to one basis - just book some time with us. (Readers of this Blog can of course contact me via email for an anonymous or open chat!) Alternatively, why not join one of the various home groups that are established in our parish’s life - where people explore faith, and doubt together? Christianity Explored will be running again in the autumn, and in the meantime we are offering Confirmation Classes for those who want to explore their faith some more.
Another thing you can do is summed up in some words of Bishop Wallace Benn, speaking a couple of weeks ago at Spring Harvest. He said, “I am frequently approach by people who say to me ‘Bishop, help me...I’m losing my faith’. To which I reply, ‘Are you reading your Bible’...at which point they normally shuffle off in embarrassment.”
My challenge to those of you who lived with unresolved doubt is this: Open yourself to the very real possibility, attested by billions of Christian witnesses over the millennia, that Jesus is alive. Don’t you owe it to yourself to find out whether they are right?