Reading John 20.24-29
Preacher The Revered Alan Sykes
We as a society seem to be besotted with league tables – for schools, hospitals, universities, the country’s wealthiest people. You name it, we rank it.
But, as far as I know, there is as yet no league table of popularity for stories in the Bible but, if there were such a league table, that story about the apostle Thomas would probably rank pretty high on the list.
Understandably so – it’s a vivid, striking and immensely positive passage, but in a way it does Thomas few favours. Or, more accurately, it does his reputation no favours, because Thomas has come to be defined as ‘doubting Thomas’.
We like to pigeon-hole people and that’s precisely what we’ve done here by suggesting that doubt was Thomas’ overriding and defining characteristic – as if a person can be packaged in a single word.
I suppose it’s easier that way. We don’t then have to take into account the complexities of the human person or the changes they undergo or the ungraspable mystery that lies at the heart of us all. We neatly summarise someone and then we move on. We simply close that particular compartment in our minds.
In a way we’re aided and abetted in this by the Bible. So often we have the bare bones of what happened but not the details. That sometimes leads us, I think, to some premature judgements about the characters we encounter in its pages.
I’m not complaining about the Bible – that’s just the way it is. In the recitation of any event we never get the full details, however full a description might appear to be. Only God knows the full details – one reason why we should never, ever pass judgement on others – at least any kind of ultimate judgement.
Now, Thomas isn’t the most shadowy figure in the New Testament by any means but he’s not someone about whom we know a great deal.
There’s the passage we’ve just heard. There’s also an episode earlier on in John’s gospel. Jesus declares his intention to go to Bethany where Lazarus has just died. It could be dangerous but Thomas says: ‘Let us also go that we may die with him’. So we might say that Thomas was impetuous or courageous or tremendously loyal. But we never hear of Impetuous Thomas or Courageous Thomas or Loyal Thomas. It’s always Doubting Thomas.
It’s as if we need to label someone as ‘doubting’. Perhaps doubt is something we all experience and yet something of which we are afraid or ashamed. Christianity has elevated belief to a pedestal and so doubt has become taboo.
Well, I think Thomas has been unfairly treated when he is called Doubting Thomas. In Luke’s gospel the other disciples are brought news of the Resurrection and we are told that it seemed to them to be an idle tale. So the other disciples also doubted but doubt – Teflon-like – did not stick to them.
So this soubriquet Doubting Thomas is unfair on two counts: firstly, he’s singled out when all the disciples were equally doubters. And secondly, he seems to be ‘tainted’ with doubt, as though doubt were some kind of psychological leprosy.
And yet doubt can be a creative force. If we just accept what we are told by those who seem to be authoritative, we never progress to greater truth. It’s those who kick against accepted truth who reveal actual truth.
So, for instance, in the middle ages what we now call science was dominated by the teachings of the ancient philosopher Aristotle. The study of the night sky was dominated by the ancient astronomer Ptolemy. They were both seen as authoritative.
And they both believed that the sun revolved around the earth. If Copernicus hadn’t doubted that perception, we might still believe the sun revolved around the earth – though I suspect that someone would have worked it out eventually.
As in science, so in religion. Doubt, uncertainty, can be a fruitful means of being led into a greater truth.
Now, there’s an added complication, which is that accepted truth is sometimes true, so the mere fact of kicking against it is no guarantee of being led into a greater light. If only it were that simple. Kicking against could even lead us into greater darkness.
Doubt can be a good thing. It can also debilitate and corrode.
When all’s said and done, the Christian faith isn’t about adherence to a set of statements about the nature of God. For one thing, we can’t really pin God down in words. God is greater than any word or any sequence of words.
In a few moments we’ll be saying together the Nicene Creed – in my view as wonderful a sequence of words as human beings have ever come up with.
Now, a theological health warning at this point: some Christians would disagree with what I’m going to say. They would say that every detail of what you believe matters profoundly.
Well, I’m certainly not saying that what you believe doesn’t matter. But above all what God wants from us and for us is to have a living and loving relationship with him, a living and loving relationship with other people and a living and loving relationship with all creation. It’s in those loving relationships, I believe, that we can learn to let go of doubt.
Now, I’m happy to concede that there is such a thing as doctrinal purity. I don’t go for that postmodern idea that there are multiple truths. That way madness lies. There can only be one truth.
If we have doubts about some parts of the Nicene Creed, then my advice – perhaps to myself as much as to you – would be not to worry unduly about it. God wants a relationship with us infinitely more than he wants us to adhere to every clause in the Nicene Creed.
And let’s face it, no-one, absolutely no-one, no human being has access to the absolute truth about God. If anyone did, that person would be an archangel. Actually, I’m not convinced that even archangels have access to such absolute truth.
Doubt in some form is always going to be part of our lives. It’s utterly inevitable.
G.K. Chesterton was once talking to a woman who had her very young daughter with her. The daughter pointed to Chesterton and said, ‘Mummy, what is that man for?’
Well, if God above all things wants us to have a living relationship with him, with each other and with the whole of creation, then that is what G.K Chesterton was for. It’s what we are all for.
And if doubt seems to be getting in the way of those relationships, and I can easily envisage circumstances in which it might, then doubt has to be dealt with. We do that, I believe, by entering ever more deeply into those relationships. Doubt can’t be eliminated but it can be transcended.