The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.

 

Honoring the Skeptic

 What’s so bad about being a pending Christian?

by Rev. Mark Stenberg, Ph.D.

 Gospel Reading: John 20:19-31

 For Sunday, April 15, 2012: Year B—Easter 2

 ”Doubting Thomas.” His name lives in infamy, the subject of scorn and shame.

We’ve even invited our children to ridicule him for his unbelief in a Bible Song from the mid 20th century boom era of the church, a chorus in which young children delightedly wagged their fingers in shame at that naughty doubter Thomas: Don’t be a doubting Thomas, rest fully on God’s promise, why worry, worry, worry, worry, when you can pray? And all that finger wagging turns into the shame-based reprimand: “Have more faith!”

More Faith?

“Have more faith?” As if having more faith is something we can simply will ourselves into. “Don’t be a doubting Thomas!” “Pray more.” “Worry less.” “Be good.” “Have more faith!”

Why has all this shame been directed at poor Thomas? Who made him the designated doubt-catcher? Maybe that says a lot more about us and our self-defensiveness, our fear that it might not be true.

Honest and Honorable

Look. Thomas just happened to not be in the room when Jesus first shows up. So what if he’s just being honest? He says: “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.”

But if you look more carefully at the gospel of John you have to wonder how he developed such a bad reputation. Because you do not have to read the text in a way that shames our dear skeptic, Thomas. In fact, I will set forth the slightly risky (but way more fun) reading that Thomas is actually given a position of honor in John’s gospel. Here me out.

A Great Riddle

Here’s how John works. In the prologue, we are given a great riddle, a puzzle: the mystery of the Word made flesh. And the rest of John can be read as an unfolding, a revealing of that great mystery. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” “And the Word became flesh.”

The gospel of John ends with this confession, with Thomas, the doubter, proclaiming “My Lord and My God.” And in John’s big bold crazy symbol-laden story of Jesus, these words are huge. It is Thomas, the skeptic, who gets to answer the great riddle with which the gospel begins. Thomas is the one who gets to put in the last piece of the puzzle, deliver the punch line, light the torch, solve the mystery with his: “My Lord and my God.” Here at the end of the story, Thomas the doubter gets to answer the great riddle of John’s prologue.

Less Faith

Maybe we ought to try having less faith, focusing not on what we possess but on what we lack. Having less of it might even lead us to a more humble, hopeful, historical, future oriented faith.

How about confessing our faith in what we don’t know for sure, waiting to see if it’s true. In the words of the Thomasian Creed: “I want to believe in God, the Father Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord. But I won’t believe until I stick my hand in his side.”

The Hardest Question

Which brings us to the hardest question(s): When we recite the creeds or defend the faith or claim we are Christian, are we overstating our beliefs? Why shouldn’t we just wait and see? I mean, it worked out pretty well for Thomas, right?

What’s so bad about being a pending Christian? A Christian in waiting?


Mark Stenberg is a trained academic theologian who got side-tracked planting churches. He started House of Mercy House of Mercy, with co-pastors Debbie Blue and Russell Rathbun in 1996 and ten years later he left that call to launch Mercy Seat Lutheran Church along with his current colleague, Kae Evensen. Mark holds a Ph.D. from Northwestern University where he studied philosophy with the likes of Jürgen Habermas. He is also an adjunct professor at Luther Seminary, teaching in homiletics and in the D.Min. program. Mark lost his spouse to cancer in March of 2007 but is profoundly grateful for every moment he gets to spend with his amazing children, Angela and Mateo.

Comments

  1. Pastor Jo says:

    Thanks for defending Thomas! I’ve also tended to be a great defender of his in my world.

    I’ve often enjoyed posing the question – where was Thomas? The rest of the disciples were in a locked room because they were afraid. Was Thomas the only one brave enough to go out for bread? Was he out preaching? We don’t know where he was, but we know he wasn’t locked up, quivering in fear. I think that’s enough to require that we give him a break from his bad rap…

    Also, he says he’ll need to touch and feel, but then when faced with Jesus, doesn’t follow through. His declaration ‘My Lord and my God’ comes without satisfaction of his previous demands. In the end, he’s a good guy, certainly not worthy of his ‘cautionary tale’ kind of reputation.

  2. Amigo Cowboy says:

    Thank you for giving voice and affirmation to the role of doubt in faith.

    Though I’m careful who I share it with, I’m learning to live into a “healthy doubt.” Too much of it, left unchecked, can potentially lead to dark cynicism. Yet, to little of it, left unchecked, can potentially lead to sing-song blind optimism (and a host of ugly cousins like denial, distorted views of reality, etc.). I confess I do express doubt to God. I doubt God’s answers, I doubt God’s attention to personal concerns, I doubt the effectiveness of God’s church, and so on.

    But a curious thing happens…it is as you say in your post…Jesus shows up…unannounced, unexpectedly, surprisingly. Sometimes he even audaciously confirms my worst doubts. Thomas discovered Jesus in the midst of doubt, ultimately resulting in an amazing confession. The paradox is that there is faithfulness in doubt.

    You brought it out beautifully, and thanks for affirming an often-banished role in discipleship. The trick is to teach this somehow–that doubt has a role…but I’ll leave that alone because it’s provoking a whole new set of hard questions.

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