This sermon was preached on April 7th, 2013, at Wallace United Methodist Church, on the occasion of Confirmation Sunday.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Magic Eye books were once the bane of my existence.
For those who don’t know what they are, Magic Eye books are a series of books with a series of images in them that, on first glance, don’t make any sense. They have some kind of apparently repeating pattern or design that, if you look at it in the right way, with your eyes unfocused, reveals a sort of hidden three-dimensional image. If you don’t, it just looks like nonsense.
I hated those books, because I could never figure it out. I thought it was dumb. I thought it was the biggest waste of time and energy, trying to see an image that clearly wasn’t there. All of my friends could see it. My brother could see it. My parents could see it. Everyone else seemed to be able to do this ridiculous, pointless thing, as simply being able to see the hidden picture in a Magic Eye picture, and I couldn’t. It made me mad. It made feel dumb. It made me feel like I was missing out on something cool, perhaps not life changing, but cool, and not being able to do it drove me crazy. It made me jaded. It made me angry. It made me want to lash out at all these other people who could see it, and who made me feel like a dummy for not being able to. It even made me feel like there wasn’t any secret image there, and that everyone was just lying to me and to themselves to make them feel better, like it was a grand conspiracy that didn’t make any sense.
And then, one day, out of nowhere, I could do it.
I could see the magic eye pictures, and see the secret image within them. It was like a bolt out of the blue. I was suddenly able to see the images that I had been trying forever to see! And I know, it was a small victory, but it was a victory nonetheless. I could see them, do something that I couldn’t before, something that was right in front of my face but didn’t make any sense. I saw the image, and I changed because of it.
It’s amazing how quickly one can change when one little piece falls into place. However, getting that piece to be there is the trick. The truth is, I couldn’t force myself to see those hidden images. Nobody could force me to see the hidden images. No matter how many times I had it explained to me, no matter how long I looked, it wouldn’t change. One day I couldn’t see it. The next I could. It’s hard to explain.
I say all this because of today’s scripture, the story of Thomas, and of today’s occasion, Confirmation Sunday. The story of Thomas and his famous doubt might appear to be an odd coupling with a day in which several people from our church will reaffirm their baptism, and recommit themselves in their faith. Doubt and faith may appear at odds, but I promise you, one cannot have faith without wrestling with doubt.
Just like I had problems with the Magic Eye images, one must first examine the picture closely before you can see the image hidden within. I had to wrestle with many doubts before I came to a deeper understanding of faith—and this is coming from a guy raised in the church by a pastor. I was far from immune to doubt. Like Thomas, I felt that I needed something firm, something tactile, something physical and real to believe. So it is for many people. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Christians have a bad habit of looking at doubt as a negative thing, and an even worse habit of looking down on people who don’t believe the same way they do. Many of us will often just throw up our hands at people who are non-Christian, non-affiliated, or even just “none,” and say “Why can’t they just believe? It’s so simple! It’s so easy! I can do it, why can’t they? Are they just stubborn, or foolish? There has to be something wrong with them for them not to see and believe in something that I can and do.”
My brothers and sisters, this is a habit that we need to break. We must break it because if we don’t, we wind up shutting people out of the good thing that we believe in because we are so insistent, so pushy, and so adamant. We can see the hidden image. It’s natural for us. It comes as something we take for granted. This is not so for a great many people, and this isn’t a bad thing. The thing for us to do, as Christians, is not be so pushy, or so condescending, or judgmental. Easier said than done, I know. I know, when I was a kid, my friends who could see the magic eye image weren’t evil, or bad, but because they were so firm in their ability to see it, it made me feel worse that I couldn’t. I felt that they were judging me. So do so many people outside of the church who feel judged by believers.
Thomas is a Disciple who was known for his doubt—so much so that he’s earned the nickname “Doubting Thomas.” Because of his skepticism, his reputation is known throughout the ages, but for what? For not believing that a man has come back to life? For not believing that someone dead could somehow be alive again, something that, as I said last week, just doesn’t happen? Honestly, you could be doubtful of much less miraculous things and still be considered a pretty reasonable person. I think Thomas gets a bad rap. He is simply raising honest doubts about the miracles of Jesus, something that I think any reasonable person could do.
Thomas got an opportunity to have his doubt tested, though, an opportunity that nobody else could get, not in the way he got it. Jesus appeared to him. He put his fingers in the holes in Jesus’ hand and side. That’s what it took for Thomas, and that’s what he got. In a way, Jesus forced Thomas’s eyes to see the picture. Jesus’s words at the end of this story though are the most telling. Thomas had his faith verified through physical proof, but not everyone will get that, especially future people like us. Therefore, because we don’t have the proof, our faith will need to be that much stronger. For us, the impulse to doubt is so much stronger—and therefore our faith must be that much stronger to be a follower of Jesus.
This past year, 3 young men and 6 adult men and women have participated in a class, confirmation class. This class is designed to instruct and inform Christians more about the history, doctrine, and faith of the church that they are a part of. They have all been baptized before, and so in that, God has already given them grace and love, grace that can never be taken away. In confirmation, they will be taking again the vows that they made, or the vows that were made for them, in baptism, as a way of professing their own faith in Jesus Christ, a faith that doesn’t have the benefit of being given physical proof like Thomas’s. These people have taken it upon themselves to learn more about their faith, what it means, and what it should do for their lives. In doing so, they have taken it upon themselves to live into the vows of their baptism. They mean to actively profess their faith in Jesus before their church family, and that is something worthy of taking notice of, and applauding.
Faith in our day and age is hard to have, but honestly, it was just as hard in Jesus’s day, even for one of his closest followers. If even one of his own friends, who followed from him, heard his teaching directly from him—if even one of his disciples had doubts, then surely it’s reasonable to have doubts now. But that is what is remarkable about us as Christians. We have faith, faith enough to say even without being there that we have seen the Lord. We have felt his love. We have witnessed his grace. We have seen the Lord, and today, we see our own brothers and sisters testify to that sight, that faith, that grace, through confirmation. When they take these vows, they take seriously the call to pick up their cross and follow Christ. In turn, we take our own vows, to be a loving family of faith for our brothers and sisters, to raise them up and encourage them in their faith.
I’ll push you a little further though. I want to push you to not look down on those who haven’t made their own profession of faith, those who have doubts. Doubt is okay. Doubt is the first step to deeper faith. Doubt is the soil in which faith grows. With healthy doubt, we push ourselves to further understanding and love of God. Don’t push too hard on those with doubts. Instead, do what Jesus said: Love them. Be their friend. Listen to them, because what they are going through is valid, and far from easy. In being their friend, you can do far more good than any biblical proof, any theological statement, any sermon that I preach. Friendship and love is what makes faith grow.
We all have our own faith journey to walk. Today, we renew our fidelity and faith in these brothers and sisters who confirm their faith before you and God. They have seen the Lord. When we do this, we respond to their faith with our own. We have seen the Lord. Thanks be to God! Alleluia! Amen.