Summary: Sermon designed to reveal the place that doubt can have in relation to faith.
Introduction: When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969 and sent back televised pictures of the earth, Britain’s Flat Earth Society continued to stick staunchly to its horizontal view of the world. It wasn’t willing to believe, even when presented with hard evidence. The disciple Thomas, in this week’s Gospel lesson, seems like one of those Flat Earth Society people. While the other disciples readily believed that Jesus was alive, Thomas was skeptical and wanted tangible proof. "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it." The difference with Thomas, however, from the closed-mindedness of Flat Earth people or with atheists, is that he was willing to believe. The adjective that’s preceded his name over the years--"doubting" --is inaccurate and unfair. To work your way from uncertainty to certainty is no sin--if you’re doubt is honest and you’re willing to believe. In fact, it’s being intellectually honest. If Thomas, when presented with the evidence of the risen Christ, had said, "I still don’t believe it," then that would have been wrong headed--and foolish. But Thomas looked at the proof he demanded--the nail scarred hands--and cried: "My Lord and my God." An exclamation of belief from a man willing to believe. Our story about Thomas reveals three things about the nature of faith and doubt. Let’s begin with the first.
I. First, there’s a difference between honest and dishonest faith. There are some people who aren’t honest in their belief. Some are so frightened to question their faith they’ll assent to anything. For people like this, Christianity’s a religion of fear. It consists of a series of doctrines which you had better believe or else you’ll be barbecued in hell. It’s no wonder that many people believe out of fear. Correct belief was all important in the early centuries of the church. Into the Athanasian creed was written these terrifying words, "Whosoever will be saved, before all things, it is necessary that he hold the Catholic faith, which faith, except every one who do keep entire and inviolate, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly."Today it’s difficult for us to understand what a new and important thing this insistence on the virtue of correct belief was. No other religion in the world had ever made such a demand upon its followers. Unbelief, doubt, even honest error became for the first time sinful. Have the wrong belief and you would surely roast in hell-fire. Perhaps this insistence upon "correct" belief is what gave rise to the old saying of the pious Catholic as he lay dying, "I believe it all, true or false." And all too many of us Protestants have been just as misguided about believing. In some conservative churches, believers are obligated to "believe" and accept religious assertions, such as a creed, by "blind faith," especially in situations where you find it impossible to support that belief by reason. That’s unfortunate, because that kind of faith is a fizzle. It’s not honest faith when you assent to something because you’re obligated to believe it. If we claim to believe something out of fear that we may burn, or from threat of punishment, that’s not really faith, it’s fear. People who believe out of fear are like the man who lived in the days of President Monroe and was suspected of not being a true patriot. A mob grabbed him and was just about to lynch him when he cried out, "I didn’t say I was against the Monroe Doctrine; I love the Monroe Doctrine, I would die for the Monroe Doctrine. I merely said I didn’t know what it was." Some people’s faith is like that man. They’ll tell you they believe but they don’t know why they believe and they’re afraid to question their faith. Which brings us to the second point.
II. Second, there’s a difference between honest and dishonest doubt. There’s a difference between Thomas’s honest doubt and the dishonest doubt of skeptics who won’t be convinced no matter what the evidence. A medical student once dissected a cadaver completely. Then he said, "I opened every organ of the body and found no soul, so, how can religious people say that a soul exists?" The medical student was asked, "When you opened the brain did you find an idea?" "No," was the answer. "When you cut open the heart, did you find love?" The medical student replied in the negative. "And when you dissected the eye, was vision seen?" Once again the answer was, "No." You see, unlike Thomas, the medical student wasn’t willing to believe. His doubt was dishonest. However, there is such a thing as honest doubt. One Christmas, the Los Angeles Times featured an article on the op-ed page entitled, "I Cannot Will Myself to Believe." It was written by Peter Bunzel, the editor of the Editorial Section of the newspaper. It was a thoughtful piece which recorded his struggle with the Christian faith. Caught up in the spirit of the Christmas season, he wanted so much to believe, but couldn’t. It was a poignant confession, and refreshingly honest. But in the end, he admitted he "could not will himself to believe." How true. You can’t will yourself to believe. Thomas couldn’t, try as he might, and no other seeker can either. But you can be willing to believe, and that makes all the difference in whether or not you find faith. An honest doubter is one who’s willing to believe. That brings us to the third and final point.