Sermon: Questioning Thomas, by Pastor Margaret
Updated: May 25, 2020
John 20:19-29 Poor Thomas! He has such a bad rap. Here’s this bit player in the story of Jesus… with only four lines to say… which, as any H.S. theatre kid can tell you is a minor role, BUT it’s a SPEAKING part! And we’ve permanently tagged him according to only one of his lines… If we focused on John 11, we might know him as “self-sacrificial Thomas” because of his willingness to be stoned to death with Jesus. In John 14 he confesses that the disciples actually don’t know the way to follow Jesus to Heaven, so he could be “Lost Thomas” or “Mapless Thomas” or “Refuses to Stop for Directions Thomas.” His follow-up statement once he DOES see the resurrected Christ is this awe-struck, “My Lord and My God” so he COULD be “Affirmation of Faith Thomas.” But no. His epitaph for the last 2,000 years has been “Doubting Thomas” as if it’s been chiseled in a headstone somewhere and not even the sands of time can erase! In a world in which Doubt is the binary opposite of Certainty, where, as in all dualistic thinking, one is bad and the other is good, then being doubtful would definitely be something to be avoided. But what if there’s more to life than dualism? What if there’s more to reality than binary systems? Even in computer land, there’s more than one way to communicate than just in one’s and zero’s. If we were to see doubt as simply the name of the room that offers a clear space for questions, all of a sudden, it might become possible to perceive things differently! What if we understood education as something other than indoctrination? What if we saw education as teaching people to be curious, to wonder, reflect and inviting them to inquire? Then, those who ask questions become partners in the learning process. They are no longer passive recipients but active participants. To ask is to grow… and to grow is hopefully to expand one’s mind beyond absolutes and be able to entertain expansive ideas and possibilities. Dr. Phil Meadows, who was my professor of Wesleyan theology in seminary, used to say that one of the most important characteristics of a Christian is that we be “teachable.” Such willingness is how we allow the Holy Spirit the opportunity to reveal something different from what we already know or believe. In other words, we are asked to keep our minds open to consider and learn new things. It does not go without saying, that if Christian communities are places that have open minds to learning, that means we also need to have minds open to questioning… even if that strikes us as confrontational or annoying. The incessant stream of “Why?” from a two-year old can challenge anyone’s patience. And sometimes questions reveal limits to the knowledge of the wisest among us. I suspect that this means that any of us on the answering end of a dialogue might need to cultivate the humility to say in such moments, “I don’t know.” I wonder if true wisdom might be further expressed by following up by saying, “Let’s find out together.” Of course, there are other paths we could take. One of which is ripping a page out of Jesus’ script, who apparently was asked questions 153 times in the Gospels, and 147 times responded with another question. It’s helpful for us to keep in mind that this practice of Jesus’ was completely in keeping with Jewish tradition, which is remarkably comfortable with questions. Consider how the heroes of faith in the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament asked questions of God. The greater the prophet, the harder the question. Abraham asked, ‘Shall the judge of all the earth not do justice?’ Moses asked, ‘O Lord, why have You brought trouble upon this people?’ Jeremiah said, ‘You are always righteous, O Lord, when I bring a case before You, yet I would speak with You about Your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?’ The Book of Job, the most searching of all explorations of human suffering, is a book of questions asked by man, to which God replies with four chapters of questions of God’s own. The earliest sermons in Judaism began with a question asked of the rabbi by a member of the congregation. Questioning is SO much at the heart of Jewish spirituality that failure to ask questions is seen as a lack of depth. And in the yeshiva, the home of traditional Talmudic learning, the highest compliment a teacher can give a student is Du fregst a gutte kasha, ‘You raise a good objection.’ Philip Yancey, a popular Christian author, makes an interesting invitation to those who want to argue with him about God. He challenges them to find an argument in the writings of agnostics like Bertrand Russell, Voltaire, David Hume) or the newer ones (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris) that is not already included in books like Psalms, Job, Habakkuk, and Lamentations. How remarkable it is that we have a holy book that speaks not only of the freedom to choose or reject God, but also provides us with the arguments to employ in the conversation! If God is so tolerant… no, accepting… actually, INVITING of questions, does it not stand to reason that we would do well to emulate this? What if, we turned the story of Doubting Thomas upside down? Instead of thinking of him as a failure of faith, perhaps we could regard him as an outstanding student instead? Bravely showing us the way by speaking aloud the questions that everyone else is too scared ask! So, be of good courage, beloved. Ask your questions! Seek answers together. And if your inquiries yield more questions than answers, remember that this places you fully within the tradition not only of Prophetic Giants and Theological Student Thomas, but also of Jesus, and take heart! Amen.