Despair and doubt can be heavy burdens. Especially when you live in a world that seems to be turning away from what we were taught to see as “the Good,”—from compassion, from love of neighbor, including the stranger and the refugee. From basic honesty and integrity. From justice, let alone mercy.
When the apostles saw Jesus arrested, sentenced, and executed, they fled—all but one, the professed author of this Gospel, who, like Ishmael in Moby Dick, is the sole witness of the bitter end.
But endings are rarely clear and simple.
The 11 men of Galilee are hiding in the upper room they had rented for what turned out to be their last Passover with Jesus. They are cowering, afraid. Strike the shepherd, and then scatter the sheep, indeed (Matt. 26:31)
Except, the disciples don’t all scatter. Oh, a couple head off toward Emmaus, Judas has hanged himself, the women are—well, we don’t know where they are. But the majority of the Eleven hunker down.
They’re not safe—look how many people quizzed Peter if he was one of Jesus’s disciples—but they can’t quite bring themselves to flee. Among the detritus of the Last Supper, they–wait. It’s all they can do, really. They can’t give up on their years following Jesus, can’t admit that it is all over. In their hearts, they have what C.P. Snow described as “a bit of idiot hope,” or, more kindly, “the obstinate hope of the fibers.”
They can’t believe that this is the end. They doubt that life can be so empty, so cruel, so without hope.
In the 1970 movie Ryan’s Daughter, Robert Mitchum plays a schoolteacher in a tiny Irish village during the First World War. The schoolteacher marries Rosy, the beautiful young daughter of the pub landlord, played by Leo McKern, who is both a pillar of the local IRA, and an informer for the British. A wounded British soldier and Rosy have an affair—he’s so much more dashing than her aging, decent husband—and are found out by the villagers, who assume Rosy is the informer. Her father, afraid for his own life, lets the villagers seize his daughter, weeping at his cowardice. They publicly strip and shame her. Her betrayed husband opts to take her to Dublin so she can start a new life, though he is unsure that their love can be redeemed from her betrayal.
The village priest—who prevents the punishment of Rosy for her father’s crimes from being even more severe—gives one last word of advice as they get on the bus. In Trevor Howard’s clipped, accented tones, Father Collins says to the schoolteacher:
I think you have it in your mind
that you and Rosy ought to part.
Yes, I thought as much.
Well, maybe you're right,
maybe you ought, but I doubt it.
And dat's my parting
gift to you. Dat doubt.
That doubt—the doubt that it’s over, that it’s ruined beyond redemption—is what holds the disciples in place, and so they are mostly there when Jesus comes to them in the Upper Room. Paralyzed by doubt that hope can die, they are able to say to Thomas when he returns, “We have seen the Lord.”
Ah—when he returns. And where, I wonder, has he been?
Who is this disciple, forever known as Doubting Thomas? And what has he been doing?
Thomas has been out and about, while they’re all hiding.
Thomas may not have been the most spiritual of the disciples, but he’s got courage. And in fact he’s pretty bright. Because when Jesus tells the disciples about the death of Lazarus, and that he is going to Lazarus’s family and then back to Jerusalem, Thomas is the only one who knows what’s coming next.
Grim but loyal, Thomas says only, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (Jn. 11: 16)
So Thomas is skeptical of his remaining friends, who are still hiding away, while he’s doing whatever needs to be done in the city.
Of course, in the Synoptic Gospels, none of the disciples believe Mary Magdalene, Joanna or the other women when they report the empty tomb, and the strange men in dazzling clothes—angels? Almost certainly—who tell them that Jesus is not to be found among the dead, but among the living. The disciples dismiss the women’s testimony as “an idle tale,” except for Peter, who, hoping against hope, must see for himself—and sees that the tomb, at any rate, is empty.
But Thomas, that rather grim, pragmatic man who goes out to obtain food, or to find out if it’s safe for the disciples to leave Jerusalem—Thomas is, in the midst of his own despair, acting. He’s serving his brothers, seeing to their needs, their safety.
He is doing Jesus’s bidding, as Jesus did at the Last Supper, when he wrapped a towel around his waist and served the Twelve. Now, with Jesus and Judas dead, two other disciples departed, with the brotherhood of the disciples and their teacher shattered—Thomas keeps walking in the way Jesus taught him, even if the fire in his heart has been reduced to a flicker.
And Thomas’s courage, and his loyalty, are rewarded. Jesus comes back for him, to make sure that he doesn’t miss out on the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Of course, like any teacher, he answers Thomas’s challenge. He says to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
Thomas doesn’t take him up on the offer. Instead, he answers him, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus then says, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
That, in case you haven’t worked it out, is us. You and me.
We haven’t seen Jesus in the flesh. We’re two whole millennia removed from anyone who has.
So Jesus is holding out to us the hope that we can be blessed in a way one of his most loyal, brave disciples was not, simply because we have come to believe.
In the very first chapter of this Gospel, we are told that “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (Jn 1: 12-13)
Right, that’s not exactly self explanatory, is it?
Maybe we need to dig just a little deeper.
The Fourth Gospel, traditionally attributed to John, the son of Zebedee, is sometimes a very challenging one. It has dense, theologically rich discourses by Jesus about His role as the Bread of Life, or the vine to which we—that’s right, you and me—are the branches.
First, what we are called to believe is, as Jesus summarizes it, as we heard throughout Lent, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
But how can we love on command? I’ll steal a sentence from our Presiding Bishop: “Love isn’t an emotion—it’s a commitment.” Our as the teller of tales Steven Moffat put it, Love isn’t an emotion—it’s a promise. Make the commitment; vow the promise. And then walk the Way.
We’re not called to sentimental uselessness, but to action, action without malice, but with love.
Always remember that the early church didn’t see itself as a checklist of beliefs but as a way of life—it’s even called The Way, in the Acts of the Apostles.
And there is, I think, where we find the ultimate clue to what it is to come to believe.
Believe that you are loved. Don’t doubt it.
When you doubt it, because you will, don’t let that tear you down.
When you doubt it, because we all do from time to time, remember that when Thomas was too skeptical to believe the Good News at second hand, Jesus came back, just for him.
But there are things that you should doubt.
Doubt the cynical horselaugh.
Doubt the self-hatred that we all harbor within ourselves, that says you’re not worthy of God’s love.
Doubt the despair that invades your heart when you lie awake at night wondering what is it all for?
Doubt that might is right, that cruelty is strength, that mercy is weakness.
Because that is Thomas’s gift to us, that doubt. His example of going on, even when he couldn’t feel it, when all seemed lost.
But remember the even greater gift.
Most of all, don’t be afraid you’ll be left behind.
Jesus came back for Thomas; he won’t forget you.