Have you ever sat by a fire just gazing into it’s flames? There’s something about a good fire, or even the flame dancing on the top of a candle, that can transfix us, mesmerize us. In it’s unpredictability, its infinite mystery, we find ourselves consumed, even if just for a moment, in watching the fire burn.
The sixteenth century explorer Hernan Cortes wanted his men transfixed, mesmerized, consumed. He had landed in the new world, visiting Cuba and then on to Mexico, with a goal of seizing lands for the Spanish Crown in the name of the Roman Catholic Church. He had gold lust, wanderlust, and pride, which fueled him to drive his men mercilessly toward those goals.
The men rebuked him. They doubted his plan. They wanted their own way, and so several conspired against him. Cortes discovered the treachery as he landed on the eastern shore of modern-day Mexico, near Cozumel. Upon landing, he summarily executed or maimed the conspirators and then scuttled his ships.
Legend has it that he scuttled his ships not by sinking them alone, but by burning them. We can imagine his men, staring back out to sea, transfixed, mesmerized, as their ships burned off the coast. There was no going back, there was no return, their lives were now permanently in this New World.
The men must have been scared beyond belief, but for Cortes, the rationale was simple. The burning of the ships erased all doubt about their mission. If there were no ships to escape back to the old world, or back to Cuba, there could be no doubt about moving forward with the mission. If they could not escape their current circumstances, they had no choice but to blindly accept Cortes’s leadership. They had no choice but to be completely transfixed, consumed, mesmerized by their mission for gold, land, and the glory of the Spanish crown because they no longer had the luxury of doubt.
As the flames burned, transfixing their eyes on the ships, Cortes erased all his men’s doubt.
So often, that’s how we interpret the doubting Thomas story. He’s full of doubt that Jesus, like Cortes, rebukes. He stubbornly refuses to accept that Jesus is risen and among them until he can see the wounds Jesus received from the crucifixion.
So let’s hear that story again, listening for the role doubt plays:
Doubting Thomas. It’s a reputation that’s stuck. But let’s look more closely at the scripture.
At the beginning of our scripture this morning, the other ten remaining disciples have the same reaction that Thomas does, here. Jesus comes and stands among them and says “peace be with you.” But the disciples don’t respond affirmatively to Jesus until he shows them his wounds. It wasn’t enough to see Jesus and hear his voice for the other ten disciples to believe; doubt remained until they, too, saw the holes in his hands and his pierced side.
In fact, doubt begins the story. The disciples followed Jesus everywhere, they believed whole-heartedly in their mission with Jesus while he was engaged in his earthly ministry. But after the crucifixion, John tells us they’re in an upper room with the door locked, for fear of reprisal or their own execution as traitors and instigators. They have serious doubt about their last three years. Had it all been for a waste? Their leader was gone! Had they fallen victim to a charismatic, but wrong-headed leader? Their hopes and dreams had burned to the ground on that Friday at Golgotha, and they were transfixed, mesmerized, consumed by grief and doubt.
We’re not wrong to call Thomas “doubting Thomas,” but we’re wrong to single him out. All the disciples are consumed by their doubt. The fire of the passion of the religious and secular authorities seemed to burn down their dreams, taking their leader with it. He’s dead, there’s no hope.
So we shouldn’t be surprised when they all doubt Jesus even after seeing him and hearing his voice. We tend to treat the disciples, and especially Thomas with disdain and judgment. How could they not believe? They got two things that we’ve never had: hearing his voice and seeing him face to face. Surely that should have been enough! Surely his voice and face should have left no doubt in their minds. But it wasn’t. They needed more.
Doubt begins this story. And for all of us on faith journeys, which means all of us humans, doubt begins our story, too. But is doubt good or bad? What do we do with doubt when we have it?
The election of 1800 was one of the nastiest in American political history. It was the first major clash of two established political parties, each led by a man who hated the other. John Adams had come to loathe Thomas Jefferson. He was everything that was wrong with America, Adams thought. Running for re-election as president, Adams feared more than anything else what Jefferson would do to the country if elected.
Jefferson felt the same way about Adams. For Jefferson, the Adams Administration had been ruinous for the country, expanding upon the politics of George Washington that were already making the federal government too powerful at the expense of states rights and the liberties of local farmers everywhere.
Neither man were shy of letting the other, and the public, know exactly how they felt. They traded barbs in newspapers and took out ads in the same slandering their opponent. One called the other, quite memorably, the son of a nutmeg dealer; a turn of the 19th century slur equivalent to calling someone the son of a drug dealer. Sides formed across the country, the election looked to be a close one and, indeed, it was very close. Until the Kennedy-Nixon contest of 1960, it was considered the closest presidential election in American history.
Jefferson won and Adams left for home in Massachusetts a bitter and defeated man. He hated Jefferson for the whole eight years of his presidency and worked against him at every turn, using his political influence as far as he could. Adams doubted that Jefferson had what it took to run the country. Jefferson was convinced that was true of Adams. Out of that doubt, they became enemies.
But then, in 1809, when Jefferson left office, a funny thing happened. They began to exchange letters and found a common bond. They worked out their differences in sometimes contentious letters, but as they did so, they became friends. In fact, they became the closest of friends; a legendary political friendship across philosophical differences. Doubt gave way to friendship.
Poetically, they both died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. When Adams died that afternoon, he said, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” He was wrong; Jefferson had died about five hours before, but so close was their bond that Adams thought of Jefferson as he died, glad to think that his friend lived on.
And that friendship found its foundation in doubt.
Doubt made Adams and Jefferson question each other’s motivations and character. Doubt made them enemies for a time. And in the refining fires of their enmity and doubts about each other, they created a firm foundation of trust for their deep and meaningful friendship.
I think that’s the case with any relationship. When we fall in love with someone, the happy, lighter-than-air feelings eventually give way to doubts about those feelings. Are they true? Is this person the one? Are they as good, as worthy of intimate relationship with us, as they seemed to be when we first fell in love?
Those doubts cause us to really get to know the person: to examine the nooks and crannies of the relationship, to poke the places that seem troublesome and work out those difficulties. They cause us to test, to examine, the other person, which sometimes causes conflicts, but also lights the refining fire that deepens relationships.
It’s that way after marriage, too. Good marriages keep poking, testing, examining, questioning the relationship as doubt creeps in about motivations, character, and even about the relationship in general. Doubt left unexamined, untested, leads to the demise of the relationship as the foundation crumbles. But doubt that is examined, tested, questioned, leads to a firmer foundation when the conflict is resolved.
The same is true of our divine-human relationship. When we have doubts in our faith, questions about God, doubts about whether the promises of scripture are really true, we have the opportunity to embrace those doubts, examine them, wrestle with them. When we do, God is good to answer our questions, providing the opportunity to test them, like Jesus did for Thomas. If we don’t choose to wrestle with the doubt, we hurt our faith. But if we’re willing, like Thomas, to test our doubt, to engage with our doubt, our doubts lead to the strengthening of the foundation of our relationship with God because God will turn our doubts into truth.
Doubt left alone is dangerous; it festers into infections within the wounds of relationships. But when we engage our doubt, letting it motivate us to explore, examine, and test our doubt, it becomes a powerful force that strengthens the foundations of our relationships.
That’s the power of engaging our doubt. It may create conflict, it might be unpleasant, but when we engage with it and seek out its resolution, firm foundations of trust are created in relationships, whether between us and another individual like a spouse, or between us and a team, or even between us and God.
That’s the power of engaging our doubt in the story of doubting Thomas. Thomas and the other ten disciples doubt, they question, whether or not this crazy, unbelievable thing called the resurrection, could really be true. And faced with Jesus’s face and voice, they still question. It’s not until they engage their doubt, examining, testing, for themselves to see if this is really Jesus, that they find the foundation to rest their trust, their belief, that this is, indeed, the risen Christ.
That’s Thomas’s testimony for us. If Jesus had thought doubt was a problem, he would have sternly rebuked Thomas for his doubt. Instead, Jesus offers Thomas the chance to examine for himself the holes and the pierced-side. The gospels are full of moments of Jesus’s rebuke for people’s unbelief, for lack of faith. Here, instead of rebuke, Jesus affirms Thomas’s request to examine, to test, to engage his doubt.
That’s what the life of faith is all about. We, like Thomas, naturally have our doubts. Is God real? Does God really move and work in the world? What about all the evil, the sin? What about the fact that we, unlike the disciples, can’t even see Jesus’s face nor hear his voice? What’s the point of applying myself to the spiritual life when it’s so hard, when it’s so difficult, when it’s so challenging? Where’s the reward for all my efforts?
Sometimes, when I’m in a rush to clean the house, I sweep some of the dust from the floor under the carpet. It’s faster, it’s more efficient, than getting the dustpan out, carefully sweeping the dust and stuff from our floors into the pan, and then depositing it into the trash. But I think we’d all agree, it’s not the best solution.
We do the same thing with these difficult, doubting, questions: we tend to sweep them under the carpet, avoiding them because they risk conflict, they risk unsettling us.
But when we do, we just make the problem worse. One day, I’m going to move that carpet and I’m going to have a mess on my hands. And one day, a problem will come along that will raise all our unaddressed doubting questions and suddenly the doubt will seem overwhelming.
That’s why Jesus says “do not doubt, but believe.” It’s not a simple “forget your doubt and just choose to believe,” it’s a call to examine the doubt to find belief. Otherwise, Jesus would not have offered Thomas the opportunity to examine his body. Otherwise, Jesus would have sternly rebuked Thomas. Instead, Jesus offers the opportunity to test and see the truth by engaging Thomas’s doubt.
So don’t avoid your doubts. Embrace them as opportunity to believe. God gave us a faith that seeks understanding, not a faith that is without understanding. While we can never know God in God’s fullness, for that would make us God, we must always be about the examination of our faith; we must always be seeking understanding, which means engaging our doubts.
We seek understanding the way we watch a fire. As the flames dance, as the wood crackles, as the candle wax melts, we find ourselves mesmerized, transfixed, consumed. As we ask the difficult questions and engage them, we will also find ourselves mesmerized, transfixed, consumed by the holy mystery of our religion. When we engage our doubts, God reveals more and more of who he is to us.
So don’t avoid your doubts. Willingly engage with them. Be consumed by them. God will meet you there and you will, again, believe.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.