The Doubting Dozen

Heritage Presbyterian Church

Second Sunday of Easter
April 16, 2023

Scripture reading:  John 20: 19-31

Throughout much of the past 30 years or so, I have used nicknames to remember many, many people.  Often the nickname sticks well after the person’s real name has faded badly from my memory.  And I try to get imaginative with the nicknames I have given.

A few examples of some nicknames I have given and others I have known:

  • When I was a classroom teacher, I always struggled to learn the names of all of my students.  This became almost impossible when I moved to middle school and taught many more students during each day.  During my final year of teaching, there were two pretty Hispanic girls who slightly resembled each other – which confused me.  To make matters worse, their last names were similar too.  They were Natalie and Amanda, but I began calling both of them “Namanda” just to maintain my sanity.  Believe it or not, it worked.
  • An awkward, shy 10-year old young man who was all elbows and big feet needed something to help his self-confidence.  One day, for whatever reason, I called him “Killer.”  He LOVED it and it stuck.  Even some of the kids called him that.  I explained it to his mother, but she was chuckling and nodding her head the whole time.  When I ran into her a few months ago, she told me how “Killer” had grown into a fine, successful man.
  • My grandson calls me “Dah” – usually at the top of his lungs.  So, I dropped all the attempts to guide him to another grandfather nickname and just embraced “Dah” as my name, my title, and a quick way to get my attention.
  • My aunt Roberta once put a nickel in a candy machine and the candy got stuck.  She pounded on the machine for 15 minutes trying to get it out.  Finally, one of her friends remarked, “C’mon, Rache, give it up.”  Rache is a word from some dialect that means “cheapskate.”  That is what our entire family called her, including her twin brother, my dad.
  • I still struggle with the nickname “pastor.”  I still prefer “Mark” to anything else I am called by you, my church family.  But I must admit that “pastor” certainly beats some of the nicknames I have earned in my life…and no, I am not going to share those nicknames with you!

The point of all this is that for better or worse – nicknames can be quickly earned and seldom forgotten.  You make one little mistake, you do one thing out of line with everything else, and you’re labeled for life.  Look no further than the topic of today’s Gospel reading: “Doubting Thomas”…a passage that even non-believers know about.

It’s SO unfair!  Thomas only gets two real scenes in the Gospel, besides the lists of Apostles.  He is quoted as saying, “Let us go with him and die with him” when Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, even though everyone knew there was big trouble waiting for him.  Then Thomas couldn’t believe it when he was told that Jesus was alive.  In fact, he double-downed on his disbelief by stating what would have to happen before he would believe: put his fingers in the nail holes and his hand in the Lord’s side where the spear had pierced him.

Poor Thomas…labeled for life as the point of a lesson from Jesus: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”  It’s enough to make you cringe when you hear it.  It’s enough to make you wince when you hear it.  So, let’s push our imaginations a little further.  Perhaps with a few hard questions for the rest of the Apostles.

  • “Hey Peter…didn’t you deny you even knew Jesus?  And didn’t you do it three times?  I guess that makes you “Three-Times-Pete.”
  • “Hey Matthew…you are known as Levi, but you have also been “Matthew the Publican.”  For those in our house today, that is not a good nickname.  That’s the tax collector’s official title, and those guys worked FOR the Romans collecting taxes from their own fellow Jews.  I’ll bet “Matthew the Traitor” would also fit.
  • “Hey John.  You’re the only one who stayed at the cross as the Lord died.  And you were one of the first who saw the empty tomb.  No matter what, that makes you “John the Faithful.”  So why are there no passages in which you try to convince the rest of the doubting dozen that Jesus was alive?
  • “Hey Judas.  You messed up so badly that even if you had the best of intentions, you really didn’t mean for the Lord to be murdered.  Your name is so hated that it is a nickname all by itself… “Judas” does a wonderful job of describing someone who would betray those he is supposed to love.
  • And what about the rest of you…Apostles?  Didn’t you all flee when Jesus was arrested?  And after he rose from the dead, appeared to you, showed you his hands and his side, appeared in Galilee and cooked and ate fish with you…after all that, Scripture tells us that just prior to his ascension to Heaven, “SOME DOUBTED?”  Really, guys?

You get the idea.  All of the Apostles deserved nicknames for one thing or another, and maybe those nicknames would be accurate but not very positive.  

It is not much of a stretch to imagine that Thomas was not alone in his doubt…   he was just the last one standing.  The others had also seen Jesus for themselves… and THEN they believed…sort of. Remember that they were hiding in that upper room, hoping to avoid being captured by the Jewish authorities.  Doesn’t exactly sound like they were confident the Lord was going to return in human form.  

And yet only Thomas gets the nickname…not really fair.

Those Apostles walked with Him, ate with Him, watched Him do amazing things, listened to Him, lived with Him.  And yet they all doubted.  Instead of “The Apostles” or “The Twelve” they could have just as easily been called “The Doubting Dozen.” And it would have been fair.

But they were doubting the Lord!  We already know he died and yet rose from that death.  We already know what those Apostles didn’t know – that Jesus really was the Messiah, that he really was going to die and rise from the dead, that he was going to take all of our sins upon himself and sacrifice himself on our behalf.  We already know the story.

We also know the other stories…the stories of how he healed people, cast out demons, made the lame walk, fed thousands with only a few fish and barley loaves.  We already know how he calmed the storm, walked on water, turned water into wine, and reached out to those whom society has rejected.  

We already know all that.  

We know of his power, and we know of his love.

So why do we doubt?

We doubt.

  • We look at problems and we see no solution, so we slip quickly and easily into despair instead of having faith.
  • We can’t figure a way out of a big problem, so we doubt that anything can be done.  
  • We are given an obstacle and instead of standing up tall and facing it…we doubt.

And what’s worse than doubting?  FUSSING!

We also fuss!  Ask yourself if you have ever heard any of these statements…or ask yourself if you have ever SAID any of these statements:

  • “Well, I knew it was a bad idea.  I just didn’t say anything.”
  • “I told you that wouldn’t work.”
  • “God hates me.  That’s why this is happening.”
  • “We’re foolish to even try.  We should just cut our losses.”

Fussing and whining reflect doubt instead of confidence in God’s plan for us.  All of these – and more! – show we believe more in what we can see for ourselves than in what we believe can actually happen.  And yet we dare to label an Apostle of the Lord “Doubting Thomas” and use his momentary lack of judgment as a lesson in being faithful.

In our current society, there are far too many angry voices that are full of doubt.  Doubt in our denomination, doubt in our younger generations, doubt in our elected leaders, doubt in our ability to make peace with other nations, doubt in our ability to solve long-term problems, doubt in our elected leaders – from BOTH political parties, doubt in everything.  To be positive or even hopeful is to appear naïve and childish – and that will get you quickly sidelined and dismissed.  

No one wants to be around that type of person, those positive Pollyannas who always look on the bright side of everything instead of facing reality and sinking down in despair and doubt like the rest of us.

But who is Jesus calling?

Who does Jesus want carrying his message?

What does Jesus do with doubters?

Well, it can’t be a terrible thing to be a doubter.  All of the Apostles helped to spread the Gospel in the very early church, and in the span of less than 70 years.  Following their leadership, their boldness, and especially their witness to the salvation of Jesus Christ, The Doubting Dozen began the most amazing growth of the early church.  The various readings from Acts describes a church that most of us would struggle to recognize in the Christian church of today.

And yet all of them doubted.  

Yes, Thomas too.  

But they did great work.

And so can we.

Do you doubt?  I don’t mean doubting the Lord is real.  I mean do you doubt in his work and his love and his mercy?  Do you find yourself filled with fear, despair, and even…doubt when things go wrong?  Do you wake up in the night wondering if the Lord is going to help you or not?  

Why do you doubt?  Why do I doubt?  Why do we doubt?

We know better.  But we doubt!

We have his word from the Gospel.  But we doubt.

We know more than his own Apostles knew.  But we doubt.

We have seen His great work in our own lives!  But we doubt!

We doubt.

But I reject the label “doubter.” 

I may doubt at times, and I confess that.  

But I also wait on the Lord.  

I sometimes despair when I can’t see things working out.

But that is more my own pride and failure to recognize it than doubting.  

That’s weakness…not doubt.

We may not have a church that resembles that early church.  But we have a good church, a loving church, a human and fallible church.  

We ARE a church of Jesus Christ, the Risen Savior.

We shame ourselves when we require proof of the Lord’s work…so recall what he told a completely freaked-out and humiliated Thomas on that wonderful day: “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

Our answer should always be the same as that of Thomas the Doubter: 

“My Lord and my God!”