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He was an observant Jew, likely from humble origins. We know nothing of his family, but history leads us to believe he may have been the son of a carpenter and a carpenter himself.
Despite his humble beginnings, he would have an impact on the world that continues to this day.
When Jesus sought to return to Judea to attend to his sick friend Lazarus, the other disciples balked and said it was too dangerous. He said “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
When Jesus spoke of his coming death and going to prepare a place for his followers, he asked for directions to the way.
Church history tells us that in the year 52 he went to India and carried the gospel with him.
He shared the good news and founded churches that are still in existence today. This church is proud of its nearly 170 year history and you should be proud of not only what you have accomplished in the last centuries but you should be proud of who you are today. But there are churches in India that are 2,000 years old that carry his name. And not only Christian churches, but sacred places that are recognized by Christians and Hindus and Muslims. If a person who lived 2,000 years ago can peaceably bring people of different faiths together, that is someone we should look up to as a hero and an example.
But instead of looking up to him, we look down on him.
Despite all of this, despite a man who went from obscurity to probably having travelled more miles and founded the longest standing churches of any of the twelve, when we hear his name it comes with resignation. Thomas. Doubting Thomas. We can’t even really say his name without adding the adjective, doubting.
I have two problems with this.
First, it seems unfair. Other than Judas, none of the other apostles and no one else in the Bible or church history has such a moniker attached to his name.
Thomas is not the first person to have doubt.
When three strangers show up at Abraham’s tent and talk of the elderly couple having a baby, Sarah laughs. But we don’t call her doubting Sarah.
When Moses encounters a burning bush he lists all kinds of reasons he can’t go (he doesn’t know God’s name, he is slow of speech, he wont know what to say) but we don’t call him doubting Moses.
Even when Mary, Jesus’ mother, is told of her looming pregnancy, she asks the angel, “how can this be?” But we don’t call her doubting Mary.
If we read this scripture closely, even the other apostles who Jesus first appeared to didn’t initially get it. John writes, “he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced.”
So, if Thomas only did the same thing as the other apostles, why does he get stuck with the title, “doubting”? But Thomas doesn’t simply do what the other disciples did, he actually takes it a step further. When he sees the marks he exclaims, “My Lord and My God!” Thomas is the first person to make the declaration that the resurrected Christ is God.
The second problem I have with this is that by attaching this label of doubting, we make doubt sound like a bad thing, as if doubt is the opposite of belief.
Doubt is not the opposite of belief; doubt is the road to belief. From my experience, it is in moments of doubt and struggle and questioning that our faith grows from a very surface level affirmation of historical facts to a much deeper truth.
As a pastor, when someone comes in to my office and tells me they are struggling with their faith and really working through some hard stuff, I listen to them deeply and walk with them in those times. But there is also a part of me that is secretly saying, “yes!” I wouldn’t show that to them, I don’t want to belittle the hardship a person is growing through. But, I know that this is how saints are made, this is how people develop a deep faith. Look at anyone you know who is an elder, who is spiritually mature, who is the kind of person you want to be when you grow up, and I can guarantee you that person has gone through some stuff.
Doubt is not the opposite of belief; doubt is the road to belief. John describes this kind of belief in the last sentence of the chapter, which is really a summary of these appearances of the resurrected Christ. He writes, “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
This kind of believing is something more than factual. It is not just a matter of believing that there once lived a historical figure named Jesus who is the Messiah and Son of God. That is important, but it is only the most basic level of understanding.
John says that through this kind of believing, you may have life in his name.
A belief that leads to life.
Let me share with you a few examples of how belief can lead to life.
I believe in the theological concept of imago Dei, that every person is created in the image of God. In Genesis, Chapter 1, we read that women and men are created in God’s image and that God called that creation good. This is not just a theological abstraction for me, but the ground of my ministry. I believe every person we see reflects something of the nature of God. Perhaps it takes the diversity of 7 billion different people for us to begin to see who God is. I believe that in every person’s eyes we see Christ. As a result of this belief, the big picture motive for me in my ministry is to widen our understanding of the circle of God’s love to include all people. I feel especially feel drawn to including people often excluded by the church, including people experiencing homeless and poverty. This belief has led me to come to the South Side and serve as a missionary at the Church for All People.
I believe that our God is a God of abundance.
I recently listened to a podcast with Walter Brueggemann who is one of the most important Old Testament scholars of the last 50 years. At the end of the interview he was asked if he could tell his grandkids one biblical story, what would he say. He said he would begin by telling his grandchildren about God providing manna in the desert, and to go on from there to talk about loaves and fishes, and how the disciples didn’t get it because they were caught up in the ideology of scarcity. But he would say to his grandchildren, “you are not children of scarcity, you are children of abundance, and don’t you forget it.”
I have long agreed with this belief of God’s abundance, but it has only moved from a simple belief to something life-giving since I have been doing ministry on the South Side. Almost every day I have the incredible opportunity of experiencing abundance in very real ways.
On Monday mornings I teach a health and wellness class down at the Reeb Avenue Center, just a couple of miles south of here. If you haven’t been to Reeb yet, you need to check it out, it is a remarkable place where we are seeking to build a diverse community.
This last Monday we were doing check in for our class and a woman shared that she woke up Easter morning and had no food to feed the people in her house. Nothing. In response to an empty refrigerator, she simply prayed that God would provide. A couple of hours later a friend showed up with a large honey baked ham, all of the sides, and other basic necessities they needed for their house like toilet paper. God provided.
It might be easy for us to dismiss this kind of thing as coincidence or happenstance, but I experience this type of thing almost every single day. Having served a missionary here now for just over a year, this place has challenged my faith as I have seen belief lead to life in powerful ways.
I believe that all people are created in the image of God and that leads me to work in this area of ministry with the poor… I believe in an abundant God, and that gives me a freedom to trust that God will provide. Third, I believe in the power of resurrection. Theologians have spilled endless amounts of ink on what resurrection means and whether that is something physical or spiritual or temporal or eternal. I am not interested in that so much, as I am in how a belief in resurrection brings life.
I have seen resurrection happen in people who have struggled with addictions and have found freedom: not only addictions from drugs and alcohol, but addictions from fear and ego and pride. A belief in the power of God to set the oppressed free brings life.
I have seen resurrection happen in people who have lost loved ones, even who have lost children, but have gone on to find a spiritual depth that touches everyone around them. Perhaps they have learned to transform the love they gave their children to the rest of us. A belief in the power of God to comfort those who mourn brings life.
I have seen resurrection happen in the history of the last 30 years. It is easy to get consumed by the negative news of a ridiculous presidential campaign, but think of how the world has changed. I lived in Germany when the wall came down and I saw resurrection as divided families reunited and oppressed people found hope. The apartheid of South Africa crumbled and racial hatred was countered with the love of truth and reconciliation. Much news is filled with declining numbers in the church; and yet, at the same time, more people are describing themselves as spiritual than ever before. A belief in the power of God to feed those who hunger and thirst for righteousness brings life.
These are the core things that I believe and that form me and shape me and have led me in to this work as a pastor and a missionary.
But I don’t share this with you today to simply give you a report on the beliefs of one man, but I want to invite you to identify for yourself what are the core things you believe and how do those things lead to life?
We can believe many things.
If you want to know what the people around you believe, it isn’t hard. Simply open Facebook or Twitter and you will know pretty quickly what people believe.
But do those beliefs lead to life?
I want to offer you a filter that we can use to assess our beliefs. First, identify for yourself what are the core beliefs that you hold on to and then ask yourself, do these things I believe make me more loving? Do they challenge me to open my heart to God? Do they lead me to love my neighbor and even my enemy? Do they move me to a place where I even love myself?
This is the measure of belief. Belief is not about how strongly you agree with dogma or doctrine, belief is about whether you are willing to rip your heart open to love God, others, and yourself.
Identifying this belief is the first part.
Remember, the scripture says that through believing you may have life.
How are the things you believe life giving? How do your beliefs inform and motivate your actions? Your beliefs don’t have to result in changing occupations or becoming a pastor or a missionary, but they can shape who you are as a wife or husband, employee or student, friend or lover.
It is easy to get swept away by the way things are done. We naturally copy the behaviors of our families and our community. We do things because that is what the dominant culture around us has always done them. But instead of allowing these outside forces to dictate who you are and what you do, how does your faith, how does your belief, lead you to life?
I want to invite you to sit with these questions. To prayerfully consider this idea of life giving belief; and, to ask yourself how the things you believe can open your heart and give life.
I believe, that when we allow ourselves to be led by these kind of beliefs and we see the power of a loving, abundant, and resurrected Christ in our world, then we too will be awed like Thomas and we will declare “My Lord and my God!”