One of my favorite newspaper columns was “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” His column highlight the weird and unbelievable in the world was popular for 75 years and is still in syndication and on the web. There are 35 museums, odditoriums,– as close as Times Square. “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” aired on prime time TV until 2003.
The founder of this doubtful empire was Robert L. Ripley who was born in 1893, beginning his newspaper career as a sports cartoonist at the age of 16. Later, as a reporter he became fascinated by the odd and unusual, he traveled to the farthest corners of the globe, visiting over 200 countries to search of the weird, the impossible and the wonderful and share it with the world.
My parents didn’t approve of “Ripley’s.” Not that there was anything wrong with it, but it bordered on the sensational and tasteless. They suggested I read Mark Twain instead.
But boys at eight think weird is just great, so I loved Ripley. He expanded my world. With every picture, I had to make a decision of faith: Do I believe this or not? Can there really be a “Chinese Shrunken Head” the size a lemon or Wadlow the Giant at 8’11” tall? I had my doubt forever erased after attending a Ripley’s museum in Orlando where a cast of Wadlow’s body rose up through the ceiling of the lobby.
I believed it all. Maybe I was a little gullible. “Why not?” Anything on earth was possible, I thought. But as I grew older – and a wiser – I learned to question and look for a firmer footing for my beliefs. I looked for evidence.
And so when the disciples told Thomas the fantastic news that Jesus had left his tomb and they had seen him, Thomas response was understandably, “No, I will not believe unless I can see proof!” Jesus was supposed to be dead! Other disciples had been terrified when He appeared to them – just as we might have been, if we met one of our own recently deceased relatives.
It may be time to review the reputation of Thomas, the apostle who walks the corridors of history as “Doubting Thomas.”
It doesn’t seem to matter that Thomas was no better or worse than the average disciple who might not have believed what they had seen or heard after Jesus death.
It doesn’t seem to matter that he was the first among the disciples who put all the pieces together in the truth no one had quite figured out: “My Lord and my God.” Naming someone “Lord” was a typical form of Middle Eastern respect. Naming someone “God” was unheard of and a sacrilege to Jews.
It doesn’t matter that this same Thomas suffered martyrdom for the faith.
But will always be “Doubting Thomas.”
Thomas has been slandered by history. His reputation is undeserved because we’ve read the Gospel of John too casually. There are other passages in the Bible where we’ve seen other sides of the man. Can this “doubter” teach us about what it means to believe?
Hints about the personality of Thomas are seen when Lazarus dies. When Jesus announces that it’s time to go to Bethany to comfort the grieving family, the disciples can hardly believe their ears. Hostility is building against Jesus in Jerusalem. Bethany is dangerously close to that city.
But Thomas is the one who challenges his fellow disciples, “Let us go, that we may die with him.” This is a statement of great devotion and courage. Thomas was willing to lay down his own life for Jesus, his Lord.
Should we ignore his courage because of his caution regarding about what might be hysterical reports about Jesus’ resurrection? This could be considered prudent. So we could as easily remember him as “Courageous Thomas” rather than “Doubting Thomas.”
We can be grateful to Thomas because he asked questions when he didn’t understand something. In John 14, Jesus speaks obscurely about his future departure to heaven. Thomas admits that he, for one, doesn’t have a clue what Jesus is talking about. He says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” So Jesus clarifies his meaning through one the most memorable passages in the New Testament: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” These beloved words are spoken at almost every funeral and memorial service.
Imagine telling Jesus, “You’re not making any sense; I don’t get it.” Why don’t we call him “Honest Thomas?” Because he admitted his own ignorance, we are all the wiser. So. . .What’s wrong with doubt? “Why do many churches have a negative attitude toward it?”
We’ve grown up in a religious environment that considers doubt as the opposite of faith. Thomas is used to reinforce that lesson. But it’s not “doubt vs. faith.” The real opposite of faith is a refusal to believe. Doubt often plays a constructive role in our faith. It helps us to turn away from the false prophets.
So what should we do? We don’t want to be “Doubting Thomas’s,” but we have questions about our faith.
Too often we minimize any doubts or questions about our faith because we’re afraid of appearing un-Christian. Too often we simply repeat the same religious phrases we’re familiar with just to keep up the appearances of faith. Sometimes when we feel we possess some of the answers, we act like we have all of the answers.
Probably the three least-used words in our religious vocabulary are “I don’t know.” Something’s wrong when we can’t question.
Questions and doubts by are creative opportunities; they are teachable moments. Thomas can help us. We can learn from him that even though we don’t know where our journey may lead, we DO know that our Lord makes the journey with us.
And in those times when our faith needs the reinforcement of something that we can touch, our Lord does never meets these doubts with scolding or punishment, but with grace and understanding.
We all have unresolved issues of faith. But sometimes it feels like there isn’t any safety zone in a church where doubts can be raised without being made to feel like a second-class Christian. We hold up the image of Thomas the Doubter to drive those with questions away – and never darken our door again.
Understanding Thomas means having the courage to admit his lack of understanding and our own. Today we celebrate his willingness to express his honest doubts.
Would you believe that doubting might change the face of any congregation.
We could help each other more effectively by living a faith that is held in the presence of doubts, rather than a belief that removes all doubt.
We might discover and support members more genuinely when we can openly talk about personal doubts and faith struggles like their own.
We might find that others see us, not as folks who have all the answers, but as those who, like everybody else have faith in spite of the questions.
Let’s learn from Thomas. Learn that doubts may not always lead to answers, but they may always lead to faith.
Believe it or not!