One of the really interesting things about being a pastor is seeing how people respond when they find out what you do for a living.
I imagine every profession has its own stories about this.
I had a friend who was once at a party and told someone he had just started med school, and the person he had just met suddenly rolled up his sleeve and said, “Oh, that’s so great because for the last couple of weeks I’ve had this really strange rash all over my arms….”
Well, as you might imagine pastors encounter a little bit of that, too.
There are many who say, “Wow, that’s great!” and others who say, “…Oh, that’s nice…”
But one of the responses that I receive always leaves me curious and rarely satisfied.
Because it would amaze you to know the number of people who say, “Oh, you’re a pastor? Well, I went to Catholic school.”
Sometimes they’ll even shudder as they tell you that before smiling nervously and saying, “The nuns didn’t like me there. I asked too many questions.”
More than once. I’m telling you.
And with that, they often look off over my shoulder for a moment and then mumble something about going to freshen their beverage before beating a hasty retreat.
It’s not just Catholic school alums, either, of course. Not by a long shot.
Many people will talk about a childhood in church as a strange experience of great love, great care, and great limits.
It can be painful to grow up in churches or in faithful families, and become aware of the difference between the way we talk about God as Christians, or about the importance of our faith, and then how we talk about the world, or about particular groups within the world.
It can be painful to grow up in churches or in faithful families, and become aware of the questions we have about those moments in life when the explanations, the answers, the truths that we affirm don’t seem to cover all the issues…and yet to see, or just know without being told, that our questions are not welcome.
Sometimes that grandmother who is so wonderful to us will come out with words that we’ll never forget—words that burn and bewilder us decades later—but which there was no way to ask about then, and for which there is no way to ask about now.
As I said: great love, great care, and great limits.
Then you add on top of that that each of us knows and recognizes God, or the Holy, or the meaningful, in our own particular ways.
Not only are our questions different, but what feels like a genuine answer may be different, too.
That makes sense, right?
I mean, for those among us who have been married, how did you know—really know—for the first time when your spouse loved you?
Some would say it was when she stopped rooting for Wisconsin and started rooting for Notre Dame.
Maybe it was when he agreed to give up being Methodist and to become Congregationalist instead.
Whatever the specifics of it were, surely, it was some moment when you felt listened to, or seen, or cared about in a way that you never quite had been before.
That’s what love is like.
On the surface of it, why that was the specific thing that made you feel truly loved may seem to make no sense at all. But to you, it makes all the sense in the world.
How it is we know the things we know – how it is that we know what’s true – is something that is probably unique to each of us.
That’s true of our spouses, or about so many parts of our lives that we discover we have fallen in love with.
And it reminds us of the fact that, when it comes to God, we know God’s presence…we recognize God’s character…we feel God’s love for us…each in our own particular ways.
That’s also why the story of “Doubting Thomas” from John’s Gospel is such an important story.
Now let’s admit that John himself might not agree with this reminder that God speaks to us in all our particularity–much less our doubt.
John tells this story because he has some profound concerns about doubt. Some doubts about doubt.
He tells us the story to commend those who come after the disciples, as he did, and as his first audience did.
He wants to commend the faith of those can believe in Jesus without being able to touch him, the way that Thomas did.
He’s saying that at a certain point, you have to trust, and that is absolutely true.
In the King James Version, Jesus tells Thomas, “Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side; and be not faithless, but believing” (20:27).
“Be not faithless, but believing.”
You can almost imagine a million churches with that carved in stone right over the front door.
(Actually, I’m surprised to say that I haven’t actually seen that before.)
But let’s admit that what the churches seem to mean by that may well be different than what Jesus meant.
Because certainly, Jesus understood that to believe is no simple thing.
Certainly, Jesus understood that doubts and questions are part of what it is to be faithful.
Let’s remember that among the very last words of Jesus on the cross were the words we have come to call his “cry of dereliction”—which is when he says, “O God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus understands doubt. He doesn’t just know about doubt. He knows doubt first-hand.
And so what if…what if…the point of this story is not to somehow condemn the reality of doubt in the life of Thomas or in the life of anyone else?
To me, the story’s deeper significance is in pushing us to think about how it is we know the things we know.
Is Jesus someone that we know about? Or is he someone we know?
How would you and I each tell the story of how it is that we first encountered him? And how would we say that we encounter him now?
What Thomas gets, in a way and perhaps, to a degree that is unique among all the disciples, is that to be a Christian is not simply to believe in an incarnational God.
To be a Christian is to be part of the love of God for God’s world in specifically incarnational ways.
The language he speaks of touching Jesus is not gentle, truth be told.
Our text this morning has Thomas say, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
The original Greek makes it clear that he isn’t talking about gentle caresses, or some other form of loving touch as we would typically imagine it.
The King James is closer when it translates it as “Except I…thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
His language is intense, actually almost violent in character.
But what it means is that Thomas is willing, almost uniquely among the disciples, to get into the blood and guts of what it is to believe.
So say what you want about his questions.
If the way he talks sounds skeptical and scandalous to you, as it has to so many, you are more than welcome to that opinion.
But recognize that those questions lead Thomas into places that nobody else had thought or dared to go.
And that’s what an incarnational faith is all about.
Thomas reminds us that, however it is that we know, we are called as Christians to get into the blood and guts of the world.
If that is where our questions lead us, then they are not simply our questions. They may well be God’s questions.
In a world of great love, great care, and great limits, so often it is our questions–it is the ways that God reaches out particularly to each of us–that bring us back to God and send us back to work.
It is our questions that thrust us into a love without limits. A love that will not let us go.
That is what Thomas encountered in his doubting.
Go thou and do likewise.