‘I hate driving in the countryside at night’ said a friend who lived in the city. ‘The roads are so small and you never know what might be coming.’ Actually, of course, it’s far safer driving in the countryside at night because you can see a car’s headlights a mile away!
Maybe it was the potholes she had in mind. I met someone the other day near Norton who had not just lost a tyre, but the wheel nut had broken as well. It’s understandable that if you didn’t know the roads, and couldn’t see far ahead of you in the darkness, you’d end up driving slowly and cautiously, perhaps not even going out.
Doubt can be rather like that. Doubt can be like potholes in the road of faith. You never quite know when doubt might suddenly appear. You’re worried about pressing on because you don’t know how deep it will be. You’re not sure what it might do to you if you run into it. So one can become cautious, wary, maybe not venturing out.
The remedy of course is to look at the potholes in the clear light of day, and repair them. The right thing to do with doubt is to bring it to God, talk to him about it, pray and think it through, and seek advice from an experienced fellow Christian. Let’s be clear: honest doubt is not a sin. It can be faith seeking understanding, or looking for a deeper assurance.
Sometimes doubt can be sent by God – for instance if we’ve been brought up believing pat answers to the big questions of life, things that roll off the tongue but are actually sub-Christian; If we’ve been brought up with that, we’ll have an underlying sense that those simplistic solutions don’t add up. Owning that doubt, working with it can bring us to a deeper, more Christian, understanding.
Where doubt goes wrong is if we push it away, or shove it down into the subconscious. If we daren’t admit it to God or are too shy to try out a course, that’s when doubt becomes like a decaying tooth, a dull throbbing ache spreading poison. Far better to tackle it.
That’s what St Thomas did in our reading. He doubted. He was honest about it. God met him in his doubts. And as a result, Thomas was granted deep insight. I’ll be looking at the passage closely so do please follow it on page 112.
In v.19, On that first Easter day, the disciples were hiding behind locked doors in the upper room. The Resurrection has not yet transformed them. Jesus comes and stands among them, saying ‘Peace be with you.’ They can have peace because he is alive, he is with them always. The future holds no fear because Jesus has conquered death. Humanity can have peace with God because Jesus has died for our sins. Peace is Jesus’ gift at Easter, and as a result the disciples rejoice.
That peace is not for them alone. In v. 21 Jesus says ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you.’ The church is sent by Christ with his gospel so that the whole world may know peace and forgiveness. He breathes the gift of the Holy Spirit, giving us the power and courage to fulfil that task. The wonderful experience of Easter is not meant for us alone, but sends us out in mission.
But Thomas wasn’t there. The disciples tell him, it’s the first time they’ve shared the good news – and the recipient doesn’t believe! What a disappointment! Thomas is open and honest: ‘I need to see for myself.’
I think it’s a massive credit to all of them that they managed to keep together for an entire week before Jesus came again. It can’t have been easy, the disciples full of joy, reliving the event, speculating about what it all means. Thomas not wanting to be a party pooper but thinking they’ve all gone mad. Perhaps after a few days the disciples are beginning to question what happened– did Thomas’ doubts spread?
Somehow they held it together. It is so important that we are able to live as a community, holding together those with certainty and those with doubt.
It can take time for people on the edge of faith to come to a point of decision, and Christians need to be sensitive about when it is right to encourage commitment, and when it is right to give space. We must never give the impression that our continuing friendship is conditional on someone expressing faith.
Often, as in v.27 it’s the encounter with Jesus that enables people to grow. How many of you here have done the Alpha course? Talking to those who’ve done it, we often hear the same story: ‘the course was great, I got a lot out of it.’ What helped the most? ‘Well, it wasn’t the points in the talk, or the group discussions, or the great atmosphere and good food, although all that was important. The best bit was the Holy Spirit day. That’s when it all seemed real.’ It’s the encounter with Jesus which changes lives.
Jesus who meets us individually, to whom each one of us matters. Jesus who graciously responds to our particular issues: ‘put your finger here, see my hands. Do not doubt but believe.’ Jesus whose resurrected body bears the marks of his suffering, transformed and glorified.
And so Thomas, at this unique point, says in v.28 ‘My Lord and my God.’ A confession of Jesus’ divinity unparalleled in all the gospels; a deep insight which came about because he had the courage to own his doubts, express them and resolve them. Jesus replies, with us in mind: ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’. As v. 30-31 make clear, all these things are written so that we might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing we might have life in his name.’
So far in this sermon I’ve assumed that doubt is having honest questions about our faith. Can we really believe in the Resurrection, is it all true, how can a good God allow suffering, important questions like that. And I’ve argued that if we have doubts we should own them, bring them to God and seek out answers. I believe if we do that, God will help us and doubt will lead to greater understanding.
But I do also meet people who have other kinds of doubt, different reasons for doubt. And I think we need to be honest with ourselves – if I have doubts, why? There’s a spiritual discernment about what kind of doubt one might have and the role it plays in someone’s life.
For instance, I had a friend at university who had been to lots of events exploring Christianity. She said it all made sense. But that’s as far as she got – faith never became personal. And I’ve met other people who seem to have their questions answered, and then nothing really has happened. So I think you’ve got to live the Christian faith for it to make a difference. If it seems to make sense, then try it out. what I’d say to someone in that situation is: Don’t just look at the manual, and ask questions about it, test drive the car. It’s as you start praying, following Christ’s teaching, that the truth has an impact and is felt to be real. Addressing doubts at an intellectual level is important but it is rarely everything a person needs.
Other people correctly grasp that Christianity is life changing. If you believe this and put it into effect, all sorts of things could happen. Habits we’d have to give up, priorities we’d need to change. And if we’re honest that can be a scary prospect. Like St Augustine, we might say: ‘Lord make me chaste, just not yet.’ And doubts can be a very useful cover for that. Hiding behind doubt – ‘ah yes, but what about…’ can be a way of avoiding commitment. We need real honesty with ourselves to spot if that is happening. Bring it to God, he will not condemn but help you to see how his way is best, and how he is gentle with us.
Respectability too can be a temptation. In our society, it is acceptable to be a cultural Christian; to celebrate the festivals, support the church, and practice Christian morality. But regular commitment, conviction in Christian belief – in certain circles that seems overkeen, intellectually dubious. Politicians at election? For people who are influenced by those around them, staying in doubt can be kind of respectable. Again, if that is a temptation to which we are prone, we should bring it to God, who can take away fear and will help us to be clear yet loving in our conversation.
Whatever doubts we have, whatever the reasons behind them, it is good to bring them to God. So I have here a doubt box. I’ll put this on the Vicar’s stall during the offertory. If you want to, you can write any doubts or questions you have on these pieces of paper. That can be a way of entrusting the doubts to God. Saying, yes God, I struggle with this, will you please help me resolve it.
It’s up to you what you do with the paper. If you put it in the box, the only person who will see it will be me. I would use any anonymous items in there to inform my preaching, try and address them in sermons. Anonymously. If you put your name on the piece of paper, then of course that is still confidential but it does mean I can arrange to meet up and talk through any questions with you.
So an opportunity to think about our response to faith seeking understanding, and a chance to take a step of action. Let’s think about that for a few moments before we say the creed.