From time to time, I come across friendly “skeptics,” folks who say that they would believe in God if God would only send them a sign. I take them seriously, for there have been times when I felt the same way.
Frederick Buechner, a well-known preacher, and inspirational writer, once asked himself: Why doesn’t God send us a sign to dispel all our doubts, such as a message in the sky, written by the rearrangement of the universe, with suns and moons to dot the “i’s” and cross the “t’s,” so that the night sky would read, “I Am God! I Am Your God! I really Am! and you’d better believe it!”
Friends, there is nothing new about this desire to have a sign from God, won’t you agree? We want confirmation for the things we believe – don’t we? That’s why I have no issues with Thomas when he conditions his acceptance of the Risen Christ – “If I don’t see it, I won’t buy it!”
Why should we treat Thomas so harshly? After all, he was doing what many of us might do in similar circumstances.
Unlike other disciples, Thomas was not around Easter morning to see the empty tomb, or to have a friendly chat with a radiant messenger. So, when those who had met with the risen Jesus told Thomas about, he didn’t buy it. Unless I see the scars of the nails in his hands and put my fingers on those scars, and my hand in his side, I will not believe, he said.
The news of the Resurrection was easy news to dismiss. The first reports of the Resurrection took place in the dark and cold early morning hours. And the first witnesses were women – but they were not considered “reliable witnesses.” Ah, those women . . . extremely sensitive creatures, so emotionally and mentally strained and overwhelmed by the brutal death of their beloved friend Jesus – what could you expect from them? “They must have found the body stolen and imagined the rest,” reasoned Thomas.
As for those several close encounters with a “new” Jesus here and there and even on the road to Emmaus, well. . . Thomas reasoned that his buddies were longing so intensely for what could have been, they were trying to get Jesus back into the picture at any price! That’s why Thomas reacts the way he does when his friends tell him that Jesus is alive and well: Unless I see the scars of the nails in his hands and put my finger on those scars, I will not believe. Period!
Because of such an overwhelming doubting, we are so disappointed on Thomas – and yet, in many of us who there is always a bit of “doubting Thomas.” Like Thomas, we too have our doubts – don’t we? And when we have doubts, we want solid proof – don’t we? Quite often, for instance, we doubt that God really cares for us. There are those times when we doubt that the Resurrection and all its transforming power ever took place.
We want to believe, but we also wonder – what if? What if God doesn’t really care all that much about me? What if Jesus did not rise from death but remains buried in some unmarked and forgotten tomb? What if the God I have trusted so dearly from my Sunday School days is no more than a colorful projection of my innermost desires? What if? What if? What if?
We look down on Thomas and see him as a big spiritual failure because he resembles so much in us. To put it in different words – Thomas’ main problem was not that he doubted, rather he reminds us so vividly of our own spiritual shortcomings, of how often we too doubt and even give up on God. But by the end of the day Thomas had the courage to face his doubts head on. Unless I see the scars of the nails . . .
Aware of Thomas’ disbelief, or unbelief, a few days later the risen Jesus appeared to him and told him, “My dear Thomas, put your finger here, and look at my hands, reach out and put your hand in my side. Stop your doubting and believe.” And this time Thomas believed. And he believed like nobody else before. The other disciples had spoken of the Risen Jesus as Rabbi, Prophet, Messiah, King . . . but it was Thomas who claimed out loud, My Lord, and my God! The moment Thomas faced his doubts, he experienced an “aha” moment and his faith grew stronger than ever before.
I once heard a story about a thirteen-year-old boy who lived by the river. He had a very personal, intense, decisive encounter with Christ during a tent revival. The next week at school his friends asked him about his experience. “Did you see a vision?” “Did you hear God speak?” “Were you given a definite sign?” The boy answered “no” to all these questions.
“Well, how did you know you were saved,” they finally asked. The boy searched for an answer and finally said: “It’s like when you catch a fish. You can’t see the fish or hear the fish; you just feel him tugging on your line. I just felt God tugging on my heart.”
Friends, it is so good to feel free from doubt. Jesus himself said, Happy are those who believe without seeing me! Several centuries before, prophet Habakkuk had preached along a similar message. God called Habakkuk to warn his people about the impending Babylonian invasion and the material and spiritual devastation to follow. Even if all signs, all evidence of God’s presence in our midst were to disappear, I would still believe, Habakkuk told his people. “And I would still find joy in the Lord.”
When everybody else doubted, and even gave up on God and on hope, Habakkuk stuck to the “old” formula. He faced both his doubts and his doubting head on, and kept searching and praying for meaningful, comforting answers.
As for those friendly folks who prefer not to believe – or to disbelieve, or un-believe. I suspect they do so for the simple reason that whenever you don’t believe, no longer you must work hard to figure God out – you can ignore your doubts and hope they simply go away the way colds and headaches usually do. But I prefer the disadvantages of believing, my friends, even of hoping against hope!
And here I side with prophet Habakkuk, who said that “Even though the fig trees have no fruit, and no grapes grow on the vines . . . I will still be joyful and glad because the Lord is my savior.” I’d rather risk a life of misplaced spiritual expectations than a life without spiritual expectations at all! I’d rather keep searching and even begging for answers from God. I’d rather prepare well for God’s occasional silence. I’d rather go Thomas’ way, ready for yet another “aha” moment when I may feel God’s tugging on my heart once again.
Please let me conclude with a very brief comment on Jesus’s scars – “Here, Thomas, get close. Touch my scars.” Why in the world would Jesus still have scars on his resurrected body? Why would Jesus see scars as being important to retain?
As I was searching for answers, this past Thursday a meditation arrived in my email. From Pastor Erick Park, recently appointed to Christ UM Church in Manhattan — he wonders about those scars too. Perhaps, he says, Jesus is telling Thomas, and us here, that the scars matter, that the pain generated by the human pilgrimage, while far from being the end of the story, is not to be forgotten or dismissed.
Maybe Jesus’s scars serve as a reminder to us that the Risen Christ refuses to ignore our own suffering. And for this reason, my friends, I want to place my hands on his scars, for now I know that Christ does care for my own struggles, and for yours too, and for the struggles of the entire Creation. Whenever we place our hands on his scars, we too can feel that “tugging” on our hearts.
Thomas eventually did – and he too experienced a monumental “aha” moment –“My Lord, and my Savior!” And Thomas was no longer the same, for now he truly believed.