Asking Questions with St. Thomas

Traditional Collect for St. Thomas’ Day:

ALMIGHTY and ever-living God, who for the more confirmation of the faith did suffer your holy Apostle Thomas to be doubtful in your Son’s resurrection: Grant us so perfectly, and without all doubt, to believe in your Son Jesus Christ, that our faith in your sight may never be reproved.  Hear us, O Lord, through the same Jesus Christ, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory, now and forever.

 Introduction: God has grace for the questioner

Ours is a faith that may be received wisely, intelligently, informed.  Take another look at the Collect of the Day that I read for us before the Scripture readings.  Although the disciples’ doubt and questioning were often met with chastening by our Lord, Jesus did “suffer [his] holy Apostle Thomas to be doubtful in [his] resurrection.”  Even that little statement in today’s Collect is an expression of grace for which we can be thankful – when we have doubts and questions, God does put with us.  Even if we look like small children constantly asking their parents, “Why?  Why,” he lovingly provides us with all the answers we need.  But of course, as the Collect goes on to pray, God’s grace is given for a specific purpose.  He doesn’t just humor his children, he gives us answers so that we may believe “without all doubt,” and “that our faith in [his] sight may never be reproved.”

In other words, God wants us to grow up.  And so there is an art to asking good questions, and that’s what I want to explore with you today.  If we are to grow in faith and mature as Christian men and women, we need to make sure, first, that our questions are sincere; second, that we heed God’s answers; and third, that we go to the right sources to look for answers.

Part 1: Our questions must be sincere

We don’t ask questions just to be picky and argumentative.  You’ve all had that friend who liked to ask questions just to poke fun at your faith, or poke holes in your beliefs.  Maybe sometimes their questions helped you to make sure you’re being consistent about what you believe, but questions with that kind of hostile intention almost never benefit the one asking the question.  If we desire to grow in faith and closeness to God, then we have to get past our pickiness and argumentativeness to the heart of the matter.  Sometimes that does mean going through a period of time of childish whining, but it’s once we get past that to the serious questions that we begin to recover and learn.

There’s a great comparison of question-asking in the Gospels.  Both Zechariah the PriestZechariah the Priest and Mary the Mother of God were visited by angels promising them a son of their own.  On the surface their questions seem very similar.  Zechariah asks “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”  Mary asks “How shall this be, since I have no husband?”  Now perhaps there is something in the wording and timing of these two questions that set them apart, but we can also just look at the Angel Gabriel’s response to these questions.  Zechariah is rebuked “because you did not believe my words,” while Mary’s question is answered: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”  The substantial difference between their questions is faith – Zechariah’s question was one of skepticism and doubt; Mary’s question was one of faithful curiosity.

To put this another way, we ought to be seeking answers.  The classic question in times of trouble, “Why, God, why?” can go either way – we might be testing God in our bitterness and confusion, or we might be genuinely curious about his mysterious ways.  For our questions to benefit us unto Christian growth, we must ask from a position of faith, desiring to learn.  This leads us into the second point of this lesson.

Part 2: We must heed the answer

When we get an answer from God, we must heed the answer.  Both Zechariah and Mary heeded their answers and were blessed for it.  We also see this in two of today’s readings.  Job and Thomas responded with increased faith and worship when they received their answers.  And this is a very important observation to note: what kind of answers did they get?

Job asked a difficult question: “Why, God, why?”  He wanted to know why such injustice took place, why calamity befell him, why there was such rampant evil in the world, why bad things happened to good people.  God’s answer hardly counts as an answer at all: “I am wiser than you.  I am the creator of all things.  I am the Lord of all things.”  It wasn’t so much an explanation as it was a reality check on Job’s perspective.  Job realized that he can’t understand everything and there are times to let God be God, no matter how mysterious, wild, or untamable he might be.  And so, receiving his answer faithfully, Job responded in repentance and obedience.

Thomas asked a very straight-forward question: “Did Jesus really rise from the dead?”  It’s a simple question, but a crucially important question.  Multiple eye-witnesses told him, but he didn’t receive that answer, which earns him a rebuke from Jesus.  Nevertheless, Jesus “suffers” this question, as the Collect puts it, and offers Thomas the proof in his hands and side, making him an eye-witness too.  This is where we see Thomas’ question vindicated as one of faith, because he responds immediately “My Lord and my God.”  Had his doubt in the resurrection been born of skepticism, he would have found another question to ask; but his acceptance of God’s answer before his eyes is enough for him to believe and be strengthened in that faith.

Part 3: Where we find our answers

Our final lesson here is about where to look for answers when we have questions.  Job prayed, Thomas demanded proof, Zechariah and Mary asked the Angel Gabriel with whom they were talking.  Who do we ask with our big questions of faith and doubt?

I think the Epistle reading for Saint Thomas’ Day was picked with this issue in mind.  The ancient arrangers and editors of the lectionary were very wise, and I’m thankful for the silent witness of their study of the Scriptures to help us in our own journey of faith seeking understanding.  Ephesians 2:19-22 says: “You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”

This foundation of the Prophets and Apostles is key.  We stand in continuity with those who have gone before us; we receive the Word of God from the generations before our own.  We are rightly taught and raised in the faith by our predecessors, and pay special attention to those whose teaching and living are most Christ-like, hence the tradition of naming particular Saints throughout history.  But at the foundation of all this are the Prophets and Apostles.  They are not like any other Saints, they are the foundation.  They are the foundation because they are the eye-witnesses of God’s revelation and the writers of Holy Scripture.  We stand in one “Temple” with them, they are our brothers and sisters in Christ, but their words are God’s words, and it is from them that we must seek our answers.  If you want to get your questions of faith answered, then study the Scriptures, read them, and perhaps most especially, hear them preached!

But take note: we look to the foundation of the Prophets and Apostles, not the “inspiration” of the Prophets and Apostles.  There is authority there.  Even among Evangelical Christians who believe in the authority of the Bible, there is still a tendency to “preach based on the Bible” rather than “preach the Bible.”  The difference can be subtle, but is very important.  The Bible, being the Word of God, is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, as the book of Hebrews describes.  This makes it both very dangerous and very difficult to wield.  It can be so much easier to preach “topical sermons,” where a particular topic or doctrine is front-and-center, and Bible quotes are brought in to shore it up.  This is not a bad method of teaching, and there are times when this is perfectly fine in the pulpit; in fact that’s what I’m doing right now!  But the topical sermon is not the heart of preaching.  Preaching is for expounding the Word of God, and opening the Scriptures to God’s people.  A balance must be maintained, and actually preaching the Bible must take priority.  The Bible is not the “inspiration” for truth, but the “foundation” of truth.

Conclusion: Please do ask questions!

In conclusion, please ask questions!  Sometimes people talk about faith in such a way that any questioning is labeled as sinful doubt.  There are a number of anti-intellectual Christian traditions out there today, and even more lazy-intellectual Christian traditions around these days.  But we have two thousand years of experienced and studied Christians behind us as witnesses to the intellectual credibility of the faith.  We have no need to fear learning and intelligence; the human mind is a gift from God just as much as the human heart.

So we are free to ask questions.  Though if our questions are going to help us grow we should be sure that we ask sincere questions, that we heed the answers we get, and that we stay on the foundation of the Bible, for its cornerstone is Christ – God himself.  Don’t settle for anything less!  There are lots of books out there these days that are “inspired by” the Bible.  But remember, the French Revolution was “inspired by” the American Revolution; the castle in Disney World was “inspired by” European castles.  If you want something of substance, don’t settle for the imitations; go to the source.

And, last of all, most preachers love it when people ask them questions after the worship service.  Especially if a sermon was well-prepared there’s often a lot of extra information that didn’t make it into the final draft, and we love to share additional insights or fun facts that we discovered along the way.  Asking questions, getting your doubts voiced aloud, identifying points of confusion, help you to grow in faith and become a stronger follower of Christ.  It can also help keep your preachers and teachers accountable, if they know they can’t just get away with a quick and easy speech that nobody will question.  So again, honest questions with a desire for growth benefit everyone.  Ask them.

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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