This sermon was given by Rev Sue on Wednesday 3 July. Technology let us down so there is no recording, but you can read it again here:
Doubt is a word that doesn’t always get a very good press in churches. Take our hymns. “Through the night of doubt and sorrow”, or, from “Take my life and let it be”, “Many a conflict, many a doubt”. Doubt can be seen as a negative, a lack of faith. I would argue that that is not so.
Today is the feast day of St Thomas the Apostle, the original doubting Thomas.
He wasn’t there that first Easter Sunday when Jesus appeared to the disciples. You might have thought that after 3 years of travelling with the others he would have believed them when they all told him the same thing – they had seen the risen Lord. Not so. And not only did he insist that to be convinced he must see for himself, but he needed to actually touch the wounds of Jesus to prove that it wasn’t a hallucination. A week later, once more the disciples are behind a locked door, and this time Thomas is present. Again, Jesus appears to them, but not as a ghost, but as a solid body that can be touched. And he repeats Thomas’ words back to him. “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side”. Not only does Jesus appear to Thomas in all his real physicality, but he also knew what Thomas had said the week before. Jesus continues “Do not doubt, but believe”. Thomas responds with an amazing declaration of faith. “My Lord and my God”. Jesus replies “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”.
Now Jesus does not tell Thomas off – its not the other disciples who are blessed, it is the ones who haven’t seen. Furthermore, Thomas’ declaration of faith “My Lord and my God” is unique. Nowhere else in the gospels is Jesus referred to as God. That bold statement of faith came not after years of reflection but in a single moment of realisation. Thomas the doubter was now way ahead of the other disciples.
There are different sorts of doubt. Firstly, there is a healthy scepticism. If I receive an email from you telling me that you are stuck in South America and have lost your passport, and if I send £30.00 you will be OK, I am inclined to doubt that the email actually came from you. We have to have our wits about us to avoid being scammed. We live in an age of Fake News, and increasingly we think carefully about everything we read, hear or see on the media. We need to be as wise as serpents to avoid being fooled. For years the media ran stories linking the MMR vaccine to autism. Many parents risked their children’s health by refusing it. The scientists kept saying “show us the proof” but were largely ignored. Eventually the doubters were vindicated and the story shown to be the work of one fraudulent researcher. To reserve judgement until you have seen the evidence is a healthy form of doubt.
Secondly, there is spiritual doubt, when the inner certainty we felt about God has disappeared, and we wonder whether after all it is just a fairy tale. Not everyone, but many people, feel the presence of God in a way that cannot be doubted. He is as real as the sun or the person you are talking to. But sometimes that can disappear – that experience is often referred to as the dark night of the soul. Belief is then on the basis of remembering how we once believed, and a decision of the will to carry on believing that it is true, even if for the moment we cannot see it.
At the age of 36 Mother Teresa was on retreat. She clearly heard the voice of Jesus calling her to work with him in the slums of Calcutta. “Come, be my light” he told her. It was an overwhelming experience and she dedicated her life to working with the poor for the next 50 years. And yet her prayer life was one of silence and emptiness. She described it as torture, and said that she doubted the existence of heaven, and even of God. Mother Theresa is no less a saint for having doubted – rather her determination in carrying on without the inner consolation of belief makes her a truly heroic figure. She is one who believed when she could not see.
Thomas was right to doubt. If he had believed the other disciples without proof he would never have come to that deeper faith. Mother Theresa proved that doubt can be painful, but it need not have the last word. So, if you have doubts you are in some very good company.