Consider Thomas in our Gospel today. "Doubting Thomas". Cautious. Skeptical. Critical. He is afraid of being taken in, of being duped. He is a doubter. He tests everything, he trusts no one. He wants to see it for himself.
The other disciples said to him: "We have seen the Lord!" But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
Now growing up in a Catholic parochial school I was trained to recognize that Thomas was wrong in his skepticism. After all, what could be more important than belief in the Resurrection of The Lord Jesus, this belief which is crucial for my eternal salvation?
But at the same time, being from Missouri, that state of the Union that takes as its motto "The Show Me State" and as its symbol the stubborn and highly independent mule, I have always felt a certain affinity with Thomas, that doubter, that questioner. I even secretly admired him. Questions and doubts have always been kind of attractive to me. In fact, growing up, my Dad who taught night school and knew something about learning, did not ask me when I came home from school, “what did you learn today?” But rather “how many questions did you ask today?” Because he knew that only by questioning and probing do we assimilate knowledge as truly ours. Questions and doubts, done right, are wonderful ways to learn and grow.
St. John, I believe, means for us to identify with Thomas, who is called Didymus = twin. He is our twin. And we are likewise doubters.
Having lived through the lies of the Viet Nam war and Watergate, then the Iraq War and the alleged “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” and through so many political scandals, and having been disillusioned by the Church on the sexual misconduct of priests and then worse, the cover-ups by Bishops, and seen the self-serving moral weakness of too many businesses, too many academic institutions, and too many professional sports teams and other organizations, I understand well why we as a culture have lost our innocence and must protect ourselves with the most profound skepticism. I have even subscribed to “Skeptical Inquirer” magazine. (hold up issue) We have come to value skepticism.
Doubting Thomas would fit right in our modern, skeptical, world.
So I am reluctant to come down too hard on Thomas. In fact I think doubts are an important part of the process of our growing in faith. You see we will never have God figured out. As St. Augustine of Hippo tells us, “whatever you think God is, that is NOT God.” God is way bigger than any concept or idea we could possibly have of God. God is an infinite mystery, and our hope is for all eternity to go deeper into that mystery, coming to know God more deeply, but never having God figured out completely. It is like the relationship of two people who have been married to each other for many years. They know each other intimately. They can finish each others sentences. They can read each other’s moods and expressions flawlessly. And yet, there remains as aspect of mystery. The relationship still has life and vitality because they have not exhausted the mystery of each other. The relationship still has the capacity to surprise. Because it is still alive.
So with us, our relationship with God can grow for all eternity. It is inexhaustible. Our understanding of our faith is always somewhat provisional, somewhat inadequate. It is never full and complete.
Doubts about our faith can be gifts of the Holy Spirit urging, pulling, prodding us to go to a deeper, more complete, more mature level of faith.
Doubts and questions can be the impetus, the push, to go beyond the comfortable formals of faith we have fashioned to struggle and achieve deeper, more comprehensive, more inclusive and mature concepts and levels of faith. Doubts can be gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Thomas, that doubter, strikes me as a presciently modern man. Thomas will not accept the testimony and the witness of his friends and peers. The other disciples said to him: "We have seen the Lord!" That won’t wash with this skeptic. "But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
This buys Thomas protection against being deluded and mislead. But at a very high price. If all we can trust is our own personal experience, then any communal understanding of God is ruled out.
In that case, we must each become a church unto our own-self. And this is a profoundly lonely place to be spiritually: it is existential isolation. It is Yuck!
Well, Thomas did not remain a skeptic. The whole point of the Gospel is that he became a believer. Thomas had an experience of the Risen Lord that lead him to profound faith: "My Lord and my God!" was his response. No holding back, no inner mental gymnastics, but authentic, integral faith.
What about us? How do we remain appropriately critical so that we do not have to turn our minds off when we enter church or deal with religious things, but also move beyond the sterility of skepticism so that we can authentically embrace the faith that gives life? Must we too, like Thomas, personally experience the Risen Lord?
Yes. I believe that we must.
When we gather in worship and praise of God as the Body of Christ, and Christ’s word is proclaimed to us in the Gospel, and the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood is shared among us, then The Risen Lord is truly present with us, and His presence is Real. And therefore His presence can be sensed. We can experience The Risen Jesus with us, even after all these years and so many miles from Palestine.
But our mere physical proximity is not the same as being gathered in togetherness. And the mere hearing of sounds is not the same as being open to the proclamation of the Gospel. And mere eating the host and drinking the wine is not the same as receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. It takes openness to another kind of seeing, another kind of sensing. It requires, at the very least, a willingness to be touched by God in and through one another.
And then a miracle can happen. Occasionally dramatically, but usually slowly, imperceptibly, in an organic manner, the gift of faith blossoms. We come to sense more clearly and more deeply the presence of the Risen One with us. And not only with me individually, but more importantly, with us communally. We are able to say: "My Lord and my God." Then we are alive.
For as St. John tells us at the conclusion of today’s Gospel, he wrote his Gospel “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.” AMEN.