April 27, 2014
“The Duty of Doubt”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
19 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.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 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.”26 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.” 27 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.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 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.”
How many of you have ever had a nickname? How many of you actually like your nickname (anyone want to share one?)? The problem with nicknames is that they often stick with you longer than you would like. Take one of mine for example.
When I was elementary school aged, my hair was very short, and also very curly, so in fourth grade I was given the nickname “fro-girl” which my friends still liked to bring up when in was in high school, long after I stopped looking like a puff ball.
Thomas, more so, has been burdened with this nickname, “doubting Thomas,” which seems unfair. Time to relieve him of it.
To set the stage, in the dark hours of Sunday morning Mary Magdalene goes out to mourn at Jesus’ tomb and finds it open and Jesus’ body gone. She runs to find Peter and John and they race back to the tomb.
And then they go home – nothing to be done. Someone has taken the body. Perhaps they think that the dislike of Jesus was still so great that someone was willing to go so far as to desecrate his grave.
Probably a good reason to get back indoors.
Mary is not yet willing to leave and she stays and weeps alone. And there she meets the risen Jesus – and Jesus tells her to go back to the disciples and tell them that he is ascending to God the father.
And that is where we pick up the story in our text today. It is the same day, in the evening, the followers of Jesus have barricaded themselves in. They are hiding in fear – the text tells us because of the Jews.
Perhaps Jesus’ followers thought the anger towards Jesus was not yet over and could reach out and harm any one of them.
Note that they are not meeting to throw a party because Jesus is resurrected.
They already have what we would consider to be the greatest good news of all – but do they believe it? This is where Thomas’ nickname seems unfair. Couldn’t we call all these disciples doubters?
They have heard the news and yet they don’t know what to believe. Doubt isn’t the exception, but the rule. No one — even after all the predictions — no one says, “Welcome back” or “We knew it” or even “What took you so long?”
No one anticipates Jesus return and when he shows up, everyone doubts.
One commentator suggests that it was not only the Jews that the disciples were afraid of, perhaps it was Jesus too. They had all abandoned him, left him to die alone, except for John who stood at the foot of the cross with his mother. And now Jesus was alive again. What do resurrected people do? Do they remember betrayal? What was Jesus going to do once he found them?
Jesus, of course, is not stopped by locked doors. He appears in their midst and the first thing he says is “Peace be with you” – be at peace, my friends. And Jesus shows them his hands and his side. And they believe, and now they allow themselves to be happy, to rejoice.
Now Thomas was not there. And when he comes, he hears the same news that the other disciples received from Mary. And his reaction is no different from any of the other disciples.
Thomas was sure Jesus was dead. Of all the disciples, Thomas was the most willing to accept that Jesus was eventually going to die.
Earlier in John’s account, when Jesus’ friend Lazarus gets ill and dies, Jesus proposes to travel back to Judea where people tried to kill him and then tried to arrest him. And the disciples say to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and you are going there again?”
And Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Whenever Jesus speaks of his death, his disciples typically try to talk him out of it. In one memorable exchange, things get so heated between Jesus and Peter, that Jesus rebukes him and says. “Get behind me Satan.”
So you see, Thomas was well aware that Jesus was mortal – when he is told that Jesus is immortal, well that is much harder to grasp.
And he asks for nothing more or less than what the other disciples have seen and experienced – the same thing – to see the proof of the nail marks in his hands – otherwise, he says, he will not believe it.
Doubt, wrestling with the truth, is the companion of faith, not the absence of it. Plenty of deeply faithful people have written honestly about their doubts.
The cover of the September 3, 2007 Time magazine shows the deeply lined face of Mother Teresa with the caption: “The Secret Life of Mother Teresa: Newly published letters reveal a beloved icon’s 50-year crisis of faith.” The Time article describes how, in letters to her confessors and friends, Mother Teresa wrote about times of darkness and spiritual dryness, of God-forsakenness.
The Rev. James Martin, the author of “My Life With the Saints”, writes, “[her doubts] may be remembered as just as important as her ministry to the poor. It would be a ministry to people who had experienced some doubt, some absence of God in their lives. And you know who that is? Everybody. Athiests, doubters, seekers, believers, everyone . . . Who would have thought that the person who was considered the most faithful woman in the world struggled like that with her faith? And who would have thought that the one thought to be the most ardent of believers could be a saint to the skeptics?”
Kathleen Norris, a poet who rediscovered her faith and began attending her grandmother’s Presbyterian church, writes this: “In working my way back to church, I found that even when the hymns, scripture texts, and sermons served to welcome me, the Creed that we recited each week often seemed a barrier, reminding me that I was still struggling with the feeling that I did not belong. . . I’ve horrified people who otherwise demonstrate little regard for the Christian faith, by admitting that I carry my doubts with me into church, particularly my doubts about the creeds. In the midst of one such conversation, a friend told me in a sharp tone of voice, ‘If you don’t ascribe to all of that crap, you have no business being there.’ I found my friend’s remark interesting, but not enough to keep me out of church.”
Looking at Thomas, of course he had difficulty understanding the resurrection. Of course he had questions. Let’s look at what he did with those doubts.
And here is where Peter Rollins words are helpful. [Peter Rollins is a writer and speaker from Northern Ireland and he writes about doubt – And he says that he not really about doubt, he really wants to know what you believe. And he says that the heart of our belief is not in what we say but in what we do. He uses the example of child slavery.
I can say that I do not believe in child slavery but then I go and purchase a chocolate bar made from cocoa beans harvested from the Ivory Coast by children with no rights who are abused sexually and physically. I say I don’t believe in child slavery but of course I do because I’m buying the chocolate bar. If you want to know what you really believe, don’t listen to what you say, look at what you do.]
Let’s look at Thomas in that way – not at what he says, but at what he does.
In spite of his professed doubt, he stays. He stays in the community, he engages in the struggle for understanding. In the face of doubt (someone who I know to be dead is now supposedly alive and I don’t know what to do with that information), the cowardly thing is to walk away. The courageous thing is to live with the questions, to keep at it.
So a week later, Thomas is still there. And Jesus appears again and shows Thomas exactly what he needed to see, and says to him, “Do not doubt but believe.”
And Thomas replies, “My Lord and my God.”
And Jesus says to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
It feels like Jesus chastising Thomas, as in, O you of little faith, have you only believed because you have seen? – but this is not meant to be judgment but blessing – blessing on every person who didn’t live two thousand years ago and has not see Jesus in flesh, and yet has come to believe – and so it is a blessing on all of us – all who call upon the name of Jesus and come with our doubts and beliefs.
There is another tale of doubt, in Mark’s account of Jesus life. The father of boy who suffers from frequent convulsions – he has brought his son to the disciples and they can do nothing to help. Jesus arrives and asks what is happening here. The father tells about his son, saying sometimes the boy falls in the fire, sometimes in water and nearly drowns. Can you help him, he asks. Jesus replies, “All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
Flannery O’Connor wrote to a friend, “I don’t know how the kind of faith required of a Christian living in the 20th century can be at all if it is not grounded on the experience of unbelief. The prayer ‘Lord, I believe, Help my unbelief’ is the most natural and most human and the most agonizing prayer in the gospels, and I think it is the foundation prayer of faith.”
Followers of Christ, Easter people, don’t need to have it all figured out before coming to church, or helping out a neighbor, or feeding someone who is hungry, or caring for someone in need.
If we have to figure it all out ahead of time, then we’ll never get started.
Don’t we sometimes wonder if our acts of kindness or care make a difference? There are so many hungry people — will this small act really change anything? There is so much hurt in the world — does the hand we extend or listening ear we offer really change that?
Sometimes we are certain they do and sometimes we doubt. And yet we still act — we reach out, we feed, we care, we tend, we struggle, we work, we love, all without any guarantees, just a promise from the Lord who continues to bless those who believe amid their doubts and keep faith amid their uncertainties.
Author and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “By the time I resigned [as pastor] from Grace-Calvary [Church], I had arrived at an understanding of faith that had far more to do with trust than with certainty. I trusted God to be God even if I could not say who God was for sure. I trusted God to sustain the world although I could not say for sure how it happened. I trusted God to hold me and those I loved, in life and in death, without giving me one shred of conclusive evidence that it was so . . . This understanding had the welcome effect of changing faith from a noun to a verb for me. . . ”
We act as though faith is a noun, something we either possess or we don’t. And if we don’t, then we walk away. Faith, as a verb, is something different – it means keeping at it, sticking with it, wrestling with the questions perhaps, and waiting.
The take home message is: not to allow doubt to push us away from God. Rather, it is to encourage us to explore the questions we may not have the answers for immediately. Thomas had to wait a week – for you and I, it may be longer. And it is to encourage us to balance those questions with worship of a God who is both knowable and unknowable, and therefore worthy to be worshipped. And it is to encourage us to seek out trustworthy doubt companions and to be, ourselves, trustworthy doubt companions for others.
And as we hold faith and doubt together with prayerful hands, perhaps we can become more comfortable with mystery than with certainty.