April 19, 2009
The Benefit of a Doubt
One of my favorite movies is Field of Dreams. Kevin Kostner plays the lead role, an Iowa farmer named Ray who hears a mysterious voice borne on the wind blowing through his corn field, "If you build it, he will come!" The voice becomes more insistent, until he gives in and builds a baseball diamond, complete with lights for night games and bleachers for spectators.
A host of long-dead ball players come out of the night fog of the corn to play on the ball field, one asking, "Is this heaven?" To which, Ray responds, "It's Iowa." But the real "He" who was to come is Ray's long estranged and now dead father. In a simple game of "catch" on the field, Ray and his father have a chance to talk, see life from the other's point of view, and experience forgiveness and a restored relationship.
Throughout the movie Ray sees things that others do not. Only when they have awakened to the faith of the field do they see; especially the last scene where the skeptical brother-in-law sees the players on the field for the first time.
In our Gospel lesson this morning we find another skeptic. Thomas insists upon seeing for himself the risen Christ and touching the mortal wounds. While some fault Thomas, his story offers us some precious insights into the value of doubt and its relationship to faith.
This story of Thomas introduces questioning and doubt not as enemies to faith, but avenues to faith. Doubts are not dead ends but sometimes difficult ways to truth. In our judicial system we place great value on doubt. The benefit of doubt can sway an entire jury's decision in such weighty matters as life and death. Faith that is grounded and growing also honors the value of doubt. It is not wrong to doubt. It takes an honest relationship to ask the questions of doubt.
Thomas comes to his expression of faith only after expressing his misgivings. Faith rarely comes without questioning and doubt. In fact, it usually comes through questioning and doubt.
When my son was young he tended to ask me a lot of questions. One time I had to go to the church office and meet with a parishioner. When I got home Rob asked me why I had to go to the church. I told him I had to meet with a church member. He asked me who was it? I told him who it was. He asked my why I had to meet with him. It wasn't anything personal or pastoral so I told him why I met. Rob asked me, "What did you say?", so I told him. Rob then said, "Oh". That was his way of saying you have answered all my questions, and I understand. There was no doubt in his mind why I had to go to the church, who I met, why we met, and what I said.
Thomas is not shown to be any more of a doubter than most of the rest of the disciples, and the story is not primarily about doubt anyway, it is about the risen Christ and how he responds to our needs of faith.
Thomas is absent when Jesus turns up and shows the other disciples his hands, side, and feet. Now his absence may be to his credit already, because the Gospel writer John tells us that the reason the rest of them were behind locked doors is because they were afraid to go out. They feared for their lives. So maybe Thomas's absence already suggests that he was somewhat more courageous than the rest. When Thomas comes back and they say they've seen Jesus, Thomas is disbelieving. And why not? He had seen Jesus dead, very dead. Thomas is no fool. He knows death when he sees it. His friends might be somewhat gullible, but Thomas is not going to be conned. "I'll need to see the nail marks and the hole where the spear went in before I'd be able to believe that story," he says. And fair enough too.
After all, isn't that exactly the same reaction the rest of the apostles had had when the women reported their experience at the empty tomb? In Luke's Gospel when the women told the apostles that the angels had told them that Christ had risen it says, "The apostles thought what the women said was nonsense, and they did not believe them." Even if we stick just with John's account, the disciples who are huddled fearfully behind closed doors have already heard from Mary Magdalene that she has met the risen Christ in the garden, but they're not coming out of hiding yet. They came out after Jesus said, "Peace be with you. As the father has sent me, I am sending you." Jesus breathed on them and they received the power of the Holy Spirit to go and forgive anyone of their sins. And according to the story in Acts the disciples were about the work of sharing the Gospel message of Jesus' resurrection and sharing all they had with those in need.
So to single Thomas out as the doubting one looks to be seriously unfair. He was one of the doubting eleven, no worse than the rest of them, and possibly a bit braver. Perhaps the real reason why he's singled out is simply that he was the only one who hadn't been there the first time Jesus visited, and so in his story we see the individual version of what all the others went through collectively. If we were to hear the individual accounts of any of the other ten, we would get a somewhat similar story of the reality of the risen Christ breaking through fear and doubt and evoking joy and faith. In a sense then, perhaps you could say that Thomas' story is every disciple's story, and that Thomas' story is your story and my story.
Now if that is the case, what is the story telling us about this risen Christ who meets us like he met Thomas? Well perhaps the thing that will most immediately surprise those who are used to thinking of Thomas as "the doubter" and thinking of doubt as sin is that Jesus does not reprimand him for his lack of faith. On the contrary, Jesus takes seriously what Thomas has said he needs to enable him to believe. Jesus offers him just what he needed. If we think more widely about it, this should not be a surprise. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us that Christ is not out of touch with the reality of what we experience. Jesus has been through weaknesses and testing just like us, so we can confidently walk right up to him and ask for what we need. Well that's exactly what Thomas does. He says, "Unless I see this I can't believe," and Jesus, understanding where he was at, says, "OK, look, here it is."
This is not a story of judgment and punishment, but of hope and promise. Jesus is far more interested in whether we trust him than why. And that's why no two people's stories of faith are quite the same. Not all of us saw blinding flashes of light on the road to Damascus like Paul. None of us touched the physical wounded hands of Jesus like Thomas. But for each of us, Jesus reaches out to us in whatever way we need to be reached for us to believe and trust him.
Jesus will meet us where we need to be met in order to inspire our faith. Amen.
Resources: The Text This Week