The Reverend Ken Kesselus, a colleague in the Diocese of Texas, tells the following story:
Once when a certain preacher launched into a children’s sermon, she was confronted by a visiting child, an eight-year-old friend of a regular member. The boy was new to this church, but was a regular attendee at another congregation that did not have children’s sermons. Nevertheless, the visitor tried his best to follow the line of the preacher’s effort to connect with the children. Attempting to hook the children with something familiar before making her point, the priest asked the children to identify what she would describe. “What is fuzzy and has a long tail?” No response. “What has big teeth and climbs in trees?” Still no response. After she asked, “What jumps around a lot and gathers nuts and hides them?” the visiting boy could stand the silence no longer. He blurted out, “Look, lady, I know the answer is supposed to be ‘Jesus,’ but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me.”
Human beings usually want to give the “right” answer, the answer others expect. The eight-year-old boy had more courage than most of us might have had. He acknowledged what he thought others might want him to say, but he found a way to express his doubt.
Each year on the Second Sunday of Easter, we read the gospel account of St. Thomas the Apostle in which he expresses his own doubt about reports of the Resurrection of Jesus (John 20:19-31). He had not been in the company of the other Apostles when Jesus appeared to them that first Easter. When the others told him they had seen the Risen Savior, he couldn’t believe it. He may have wanted to “go along in order to get along” with the others, but he was compelled to express his doubt. He might have said, “I know the answer is supposed to be that I believe you saw Jesus, but it sure sounds like a ghost to me.”
A week later, Thomas had the opportunity to see for himself and confirm in his own experience that the Risen Christ was not a ghost. But for a period of time, he was skeptical. His questioning and doubting must have been as hard for him as it was for the little boy trying to understand the illustration about the squirrel. Because we too struggle with what may seem clear to others and with accepted norms, we can identify with Thomas and the little boy.
I am grateful to be a part of a Church where it is safe for people to express their doubts and ask their questions and challenge accepted norms. It is a Church where we don’t have to mindlessly accept what seems to be the accepted answer or point of view. It is a Church where it is okay to be doubtful, confused, and skeptical. It is a Church where we can remain in the company of others as we struggle with matters of doubt and faith. It is a Church where from childhood we are encouraged to ask questions and to wonder as we journey toward faith and as we seek the truth.
The example of Thomas’ honesty and forthrightness fosters hope in us and empowers us in our seasons of doubt. We need that kind of faith community as we wonder where God fits in with harsh and frightening realities of life and death. We need a faith community where we can be encountered by the Risen Christ who can lead us to the truth, just as he led Thomas. In such a community, we can work through our uncertainties and emerge on the other side with an even stronger faith, just as Thomas did.
The story of Thomas affirms that doubt can give way to faith, just as death is overcome by life. It assures us that the God we worship can handle our doubts and fears. It tells us that honesty is necessary in our relationship with God and God’s own people in times of uncertainty as well as in times of confidence.
The Apostles were blessed because they saw the Risen Christ and believed. Their subsequent ministry was to nurture faith among others who had not seen. Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” The ongoing work of this Church is to continue the ministry of the Apostles and foster the even greater blessing that comes from walking by faith. And for every generation of Christians since the first one, if we are honest about it, we have to admit that faith in Jesus Christ requires at least some struggle with doubt.
That’s really what Easter is all about. We are Easter People, traveling together on a marvelous journey toward those faith-filled moments when we discover the Risen One at work in our lives and in our world – moments so profound that we can only exclaim with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”
The Very Rev'd Ron Pogue
St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church
P.S. Here's an old hymn based on this gospel passage and sung to a new tune by Marty Haugen.