Conformation Sunday

The day before an election is probably not the best time to be preaching on blind faith. If ever there was a time when we should be asking our leaders to put their cards on the table, to prove there promises are real, this is it. In fact, that’s actually our job as voters – to question and challenge, not to settle for hearsay and conjecture. It’s our job to be the doubting Thomas – and ask for evidence.

Poor Thomas. He’s become a cliché, the term for someone who questions beyond what makes sense – who insists on seeing the facts even when the truth is obvious. And in our Gospel this morning, he is certainly, on first reading, cast as the antagonist, the disciple who arrives late to the party and then demands an encore performance from Jesus. The disciples tell him of the visit from Jesus, but Thomas claims that he will not believe until he has seen for himself. Learning of his doubts, Jesus appears so that Thomas can touch him and know it’s true. “You have believed because you saw,” Jesus says to him. “Blessed are those who believe without seeing.”

But the gospel lesson, as always, is more complicated than this. Jesus, after all, chose to settle Thomas’s doubts by appearing before him: perhaps Jesus understood that for the road ahead of them, Thomas needed his faith shored up as firmly as possible. We often assume incorrectly that Thomas was not included in the second part of what Jesus says. But Thomas appears prominently in another part of the gospel – in John, Chapter 11. Jesus has just told the disciples that Lazarus has died and he wants to return to Judea for the funeral. The disciples aren’t keen: the last time they were in Judea, the people there had tried to stone Jesus. They waffle about making the trip. But it’s Thomas who steps up. He says to the others, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” That hardly sounds like doubt.

When we are young, we ask all kinds of questions; we come into the world curious. But as we get older, it seems like our curiosity gets tired, we get more distracted by all the things that need to get done, and we forget to question. Yet, the strongest faith is built on a series of questions, on the layers of doubt thoughtfully and intentionally transformed into belief. Faith should never be something that can hold up to a good debate. And as Grethe can attest, we had quite a few of those in confirmation class.

The trick, I think, is to recognize good doubt from bad. Was Thomas’s doubt good? Well, certainly it was fair. The disciples had gotten to see Jesus, while he had missed out – it would have been human nature to questions why he didn’t merit the same faith-bolstering moment. But bad doubt can make us foolish. We can take it too far and lock ourselves in a lie, like the so-called “birthers” in the United States who accuse President Obama of not being born in their country, even in the face of documented evidence to the contrary. Doubt can make us fail to see opportunity, or the chance for reconciliation, or the grey area in which life is so often lived. And perhaps the worst kind of doubt makes us question ourselves, or has us accepting the image of ourselves that other people want to draw – that we can’t do something, that we aren’t good enough, that we fall short. That kind of doubt is corrosive: it prevents us from living up to our full potential. And faith makes us strong against it, to know, as I hope Grethe and the other confirmands have learned or are learning, that God accepts and loves us, that God does not doubt our abilities. God believes in us, so that we might also believe in ourselves.

Good doubt, on the other hand, makes us question the world around us in a healthy way: to be skeptical when people say, “But it’s always been this way,” or, “Trust me, I know what I am talking about.” It makes us question truths that are universally accepted. In a world in which people strive so hard for wealth and fame, healthy doubt wonders: Do those things really matter? Will they make me happy? Do they help build up society? We are so overloaded with information – and for the next generation it will only get worse – that perhaps the most important question taught by our faith is why? Don’t ever stop asking questions — in your conversations with God, with your inner conscience, and with others. Your truth is yours to decide, and yours alone.

But, God also asks one more thing of us. Doubting is good, but only if it leads us somewhere. Doubting Thomas also came to have another name: Thomas the Believer. After Jesus appeared to him and answered his doubt, he responded with belief. Thomas is believed to be the only apostle to have travelled outside the Roman Empire to spread the word of the Gospel. That was very brave on his part and he paid with his life for it. But what we learn from him is that it is not enough to ask the questions: we must seek out the answers. If we question a party policy during this election, we have to do the work to find out what we think is right. If we want to stand up and challenge what has “always been this way,” it is our role to fill the vacuum with something better. That means not complaining about society, but voting to change it. Or not saying the bullying in my school or my workplace is wrong, but finding a way to stop it. Doubt and apathy may be the worst posture of all – that is cynicism, and you find me a true cynic who has made a real difference in the lives of others.
Now, here’s the thing: there will be times – there are times for all of us – when that same doubt will make us question God and even turn away from the gospel, and fail to live up to our faith in the way that others may expect. Don’t feel guilty about that. Challenge yourself to ask why, to ask what belief is filling the space. Sitting in a pew is like spending time in a chatroom with other people who believe in God: it helps to remind you of the Gospel. But if that’s all you do, it doesn’t mean anything. Your conversations with God, even the questioning ones, even the most doubtful ones, should clarify what you believe, and how you will practice the faith you have learned here.

Ultimately, Thomas was both doubter and believer. And in faith and in life, we can only hope to be the same: freed up to doubt, to ask the tough questions. And strong enough, and smart enough to turn those doubts into belief. Carry the questions of the gospel in your life: Why? Is it true? What is just? God believes, God has faith that you will find the right answer.


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