Alan Neale

Writer • Speaker

Sermon “Doubt!” Sunday April 23 2017. Trinity Church, Newport RI. The Reverend Alan Neale

Today’s sermon is about dear, dear Thomas who over the centuries has earned the sobriquet “The Doubter.” As with all the apostles, I can identify with Thomas; I share with him flashes of insight and shadows of despair (faith and doubt.)
Recently I watched the harrowing, inspiring film “Silence”, during the film I heard this quotation, “Long years of secrecy have turned their faces into masks” – too much and inappropriate secrecy have caused many to wear masks of confident faith when underneath their hearts and souls are churning. Thomas encourages us to stop this business and “come clean” and then get renewed.
Always I am stunned by the miracle of that little post-Easter community that could contain the doubter with the ebulliently faithful; I want to be part of such communities.

The text is below the sermon audio.

Sermon Preached at
Trinity Church, Newport RI
Sunday April 23rd 2017
The Reverend Alan Neale
“Doubt… fired”

After the busy exhaustion of Holy Week and Easter, some have kindly asked me, “So how are you?”. I reply, “Oh just loving… post-Easter.” Quasi-lightly yes, but quasi-seriously too. I expect and I want to see how the resurrection triumphal declarations are going to make an impact on the “graves” I see around me… bringing new life, don’t you?

Two thousand years ago Jesus used a certain phrase as he spoke about eunuchs, centuries later Shakespeare used the same sentence construction to write about greatness and now, in 2017, I use that same pattern to preach about ‘doubt’.

Some doubt by birth, some doubt because of the actions of others and some choose to doubt.

Doubters by birth. Maybe there is some genetic disposition in some of us that causes us to doubt – such a genetically engineered person spends too much time seeing another side, another perspective, another angle and in so doing has a default mechanism to doubt, to hesitate. There is, believe me, an enormous work developing as to how much we are shaped by our genes leading to books such as “My Genes Made Me Do It” amongst others. Such possibilities do not determine our future but we neglect research at our cost.

Doubters by association. It must be incontrovertible that those of us who grow up in situations where life, decisions, conclusions are doubted by those closest to us then we tend to doubt. Those raised in situations where those we trust, upon whom we depend, are fickle, inconsistent, unreliable – then we tend to doubt. The child that grows in an environment where love is doubted, will surely find it all too easy to doubt love throughout their lives.

And, doubters by choice. Maybe in this cynical, wary, cautious world we almost consider it a badge of intellectual prowess to doubt. We espouse doubt, we express doubt because we think it somehow bestows upon us a certain rational standing.

The question for today… is Thomas, spoken of in today’s Gospel, a doubter by birth, by association or by choice? What do you think?

Thomas the Doubter makes his first appearance in John 14:4-5. Jesus tells the disciples, he tells them, that “You know the way”. Thomas, it appears immediately, responds, “Lord, we do not know the way”. By the time we come to John chapter 20 Thomas appears as the fully fledged, soundly graduated doubter of doubters. “I will not believe,” he tells his brothers, “until I have seen with my own eyes and touched with my own hands”.

Maybe Thomas was doubter by birth – his nickname (Didymus, The Twin) provides insight into his character that doubtless caused his friends to use this nickname. As far as we know, Thomas had no twin so maybe the nickname indicated that whenever he faced a decision he found himself immediately in converse with himself (a twin), faced with any decision it was as if a committee established itself in his soul and endless conversations ensued. Even Didymus is somewhat onomatopoeic – didymus, didymus, didymus.

Maybe Thomas was doubter by association – the Gospel records show ample evidence that his fellow disciples were often beset with doubt at best and sometimes downright unbelief at worst. It is not easy to be apart, aloof from doubt when those we whom we live a spiritual journey often doubt themselves.

And, maybe Thomas was a doubter by choice – whenever I hear this Gospel passage I hear something of pique in Thomas’ whining complaint… “Unless I see… I will not believe”. All this has for me some resonance with a whining child who is peeved that others have what he/she does not and will not come out to play unless he/she enjoys the same experience, receives a similar gift.

Many years of parish ministry have taught me that questions about faith, leading to expressions of doubt, often have more to do with the psyche of the doubter than with the presenting theological conundrum.
The eleven disciples are gathered in that tiny room after the awful, wretched and stunning events of Good Friday. They lie low and they fear for their lives. When John writes, “The door were locked were fear of the Jews” maybe he refers not only to the substantial door barred at the entrance but also to the lockdown that had taken place in the souls of the disciples because of fear, uncertainty and anxiety.

For a short while Thomas leaves the group; when he returns he expects to encounter the same psychic situation but all has changed. Probably the ten disciples, somewhat insensitively but thoroughly understandably, rush to John and at one time all try to tell Thomas… what he has missed. Maybe Thomas thought, “Well that sucks” or some more contemporary Aramaic expression? “I venture out on some errand for you all and what is my repayment… you all bubbling over with faith and me… nothing!”

But all this presents us with what I consider to be a stunning miracle of community, an admirable example for churches and all faith communities. For one whole week this community of faith was also a community of doubt; for one whole week the community sustained and supported not only the faithful but also the doubter. And this is how it should be and this is what I believe to be the authentic nature of the Anglican/Episcopal church.

You realize how it could not have been easy – Thomas cautious and wary not to unsettle the resurrected faith of his friends and his friends cautious and wary not to have Thomas feel ostracized and alienated.

And it occurs to me that this brilliant pattern of a community of faith may also resonate with those of us who from time to time feel torn between faith and doubt. What do you think?

John 20 portrays not only glorious statements about the Resurrected Christ but also about doubt itself, four brief points:

1. Doubt is human; we do ourselves damage to repress it, ignore it or demonize it.
2. Doubt is to be expressed and it is best expressed in a loving, secure, accepting faith community.
3. Doubt will be treated by our loving Lord Jesus in a way that is personal, appropriate and sure. And…
4. Doubt will not, cannot, should not and may not affect the attested truth that Jesus died and now lives.

Today is the feast of St. George (the patron saint of England), the dragon-slayer. Some doubt is to be embraced and other doubt fought as if it were a dragon itself. Thomas, and all the saints, Jesus Lord, help us to know the difference.