“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told 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 in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 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.” (John 20:19-31)
The story from John’s gospel about Thomas and his doubts is the standard lectionary reading each year for the second Sunday of Easter, probably because someone long ago in their wisdom decided that it’s appropriate to pause in the wake of Easter to consider the relationship between faith and doubt, between certainty and skepticism, between blind acceptance and honest questioning. Faith, I think most of us would agree, isn’t something we’re just born with, that grows over time like our hair or our waistline. I think of faith more as a jigsaw puzzle that’s presented to us in our formative stages, and that we spend the rest of our lives putting together, piece by piece. I can’t speak for you, but my experience is that some pieces of the faith puzzle slip into place pretty easily, while others seem determined to elude my best efforts to fit them in. But with time and perseverance, gradually the puzzle gets put together, and a picture emerges. Sometimes I think that we put our puzzle of faith together without actually knowing what the end result will look like – it’s like we’ve been given a bag of pieces but the box with the picture on it is missing. In that sense, we’re in a different position than the first disciples, who had the picture right in front of them in the shape of Jesus himself, who walked and talked with them, shared his life with them, and challenged and changed them.
What we have are different pieces that we keep picking up and moving around, hoping to integrate them into some logical system of belief – at least that’s what I keep hoping as I slog away at my own personal puzzle of faith. And according to John’s Jesus, we who believe without seeing are blessed …. by which I understand that the satisfaction of completing the puzzle of faith will be all the sweeter for having undertaken it without having the actual picture in front of me as a guide.
About 15 or 20 years ago a woman of my professional acquaintance shared a very personal story. Her husband had been brought in to the hospital by ambulance one evening, having suffered a massive coronary at home, and she had been escorted into a quiet room to wait for the doctors to report back on his condition. When they did, they broke the news to her that things didn’t look good, and in fact her husband’s chances of recovery were not only bleak…. they were nil. They answered her immediate questions, and then at her request left her alone to process what she had just been told. Predictably she was pretty upset, but as she stood looking out the window trying to absorb the news, she felt a touch on her shoulder, as if someone was standing behind her – and she knew immediately and with certainty that the doctors were wrong, and that her husband would recover and come back home. The touch was so noticeable that she actually turned around to see who was there – and of course no one was. The only thing in the room with her was a profound sense of peace and a confidence that at least for the immediate future, all would be well. And she believed, in that touch on her shoulder, that Jesus had been with her. (And, to round out the story, her husband did go home, and ended up living for several more years).
We hear of such stories from time to time, and although I’m generally quite open to these sorts of experiences, I have to say that when she told me, I felt something like I imagine good old Thomas felt in the gospel reading. Without tangible proof, my need to understand life in a rational and predictable way took over – and despite my best efforts to be open-minded, I found myself mentally explaining away her experience as wild imagination ignited by the shock of the situation in which she found herself. The human mind is a marvellous machine, and hers had obviously been working overtime. And because what she said fell outside the realm of my own experience, I really wasn’t sure I could ascribe anything spiritually significant to it. That was the automatic voice of reason playing in my head. And yet … there was something sincere and convincing about her words and manner that struck a chord, and for all my need to place some defining logic around what she said, I found I was unable to simply dismiss her story. In fact, her story has become part of my own faith puzzle, as I try to figure out where such experiences fit into the bigger picture. Because in hindsight I don’t doubt that something life-altering and even faith-changing happened to her – it’s just that I don’t get how or why these moments of insight happen to some people and not others, why some people experience moments of uplifting hope while others sink into the depths of despair; and what triggers those momentary glimpses of a different reality, where the gap between heaven and earth is temporarily suspended. I love the questions, because that’s, I believe, where faith truly lies – in the questions, not in the answers; in the shades of grey and not in the black and white. It’s not that we’re somehow demonstrating our lack of faith by asking questions; it’s that we’ve got faith enough to ask them in the first place. And Thomas, bless his heart, is our model for that. Thomas gave voice to his doubts, his frustrations, his questions… and was blessed with his own experience of the risen Lord.
St. Augustine said, “I believe, in order to understand; and I understand, the better to believe.” When viewed in a positive light, doubt only means that faith is alive & breathing; it is the rule, not the exception. As we continue to fit the pieces of our faith puzzle together, let’s give ourselves permission to have faith in our doubts. They may just enable us to see Jesus as we have never seen him before. Thanks be to God. Amen
The Venerable Nancy Adams