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DOUBT'S FAITH

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock

2024.0407.Easter2.B. Doubt

[Acts 4:32-35;1 John 1:1-2:; John 20:19-31]


I know that I am not alone in my feelings about Easter Monday.  With all the fervor, effort, and commitment that so many put into the events of Holy Week and Easter, the Monday after is … what? Somewhat of a letdown.  In last week’s worship experiences, we actually got a taste of the transforming reality of following Jesus to the cross and beyond the empty tomb.  Through the heart-warming gathering in the Upper Room, to his betrayal, arrest, and torture, to his brutal crucifixion and entombment, and finally to his surprising and up-ending victory over death, together we got a real taste of the God-life.  And so, is it any wonder that come Easter Monday, our spirits sink somewhat because the world around us appears so unchanged, so much as it always has been?

 

Last Tuesday, the Tuesday in Easter Week, I joined some clergy colleagues for a zoom meeting.  We checked in with one another, specifically reporting on how Holy Week and Easter Day went for each of us and for each of our communities.  I am glad to say that in each case the respective worship experience was important and powerful; and also in each case Easter Monday contained a kind of “day after” thud.  And with that “thud” an element of doubt can also creep in.  Easter Monday seems inevitably to carry in its bones the infamous refrain from that old hamburger commercial:” Where’s the beef?!” 

 

Yes, questions exist: such as, how do we sustain the impact of what we glimpsed on Easter Day?  How do we not lose resurrection’s reality simply because of the preponderance around us – and in us -- of a world that ignores such a gift?  What do we do about the nagging doubt we so often feel in light of how much war and destruction and hate remains around us and with us?

 

Almost in response to these hard, “morning-after” questions stands the gospel account that always tells the story of “Doubting Thomas”.  What we heard as our gospel lesson for this day is always the gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter.  It is as if the liturgical tradition of the church anticipates our Easter let-down by placing the story of Thomas’s confrontation with the Risen One as a kind of spiritual antihistamine – something to mitigate and direct our reaction to what is, in fact, the incompleteness of the resurrection’s impact on our lives and the life of the world. 

 

I refer to the resurrection’s “incompleteness” among us and in the world because all of us some of the time have a hard time receiving this transforming gift completely.  The result of which leaves us and the world somewhat stuck between the old and the new, as in a breech birth.  This creates a situation that fosters doubt and may even retrigger anxiety and fear.  Yet, it is to this stuck situation, this incomplete condition that I find “Doubting Thomas” both familiar and helpful.  It is also the reason I am grateful that we have an entire season of fifty days specifically to explore and embrace Easter’s truth.  And in this, I encourage each of us to pay serious attention to what the Eastertide scripture lessons have to teach us about the reality of resurrection life in and through the actions of the Risen One, Jesus.  In this regard, a case in point arises on this “Thomas Sunday”.

 

The scene is a familiar one, spawning the unflattering expression of a person’s mistrusting proclivity in terms of being a “doubting Thomas”.  But such judgment may be an unfair and even a cowardly matter of scapegoating, designed to protect one’s own weak faith and to cover-up one’s unwillingness to commit.  I say this because contrary to popular opinion, “doubt” is not the opposite of faith.  Fear is.  Consequently, as with so many pressing issues among us, it behooves us to know what we are talking about before we draw lines in the sand. 

 

I find that the description of “doubt” by the late, great American writer, theologian, and Presbyterian cleric, Frederick Buechner, to be exceedingly helpful.  As only he could – or would, Buechner wrote about “doubt” this way.  “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God. if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep.”  He continues: “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.  They keep it awake and moving.[1]

 

It seems to me that the heart of the issue about “doubt” is what we do with the doubts we have.  On the one hand, if we use our doubts as an excuse for not being curious and for not participating, then our doubts are actually a matter of laziness – or worse.  On the other hand, if we regard our doubts as signs that we need to pursue what challenges us, then our doubts become stimuli to grow in our awareness and to mature us in our willingness to “show up”.  In other words, are our doubts the source of our excuses; or are they what propels us forward to deeper understanding and appreciation?  Enter Thomas.

 

Thomas was a follower of Jesus, one of the Twelve that our Lord formally chose as his original, student-interns.  According to the text, he was a “twin” but the matching “twin” never appears on the gospel story line.  (Perhaps, this is an indication of the painful reality of family and faith life not necessarily coinciding or being shared.)  Be that as it may, from the scant description of Thomas in the gospels, we do recognize a passionate (if not stubborn) teammate and partner.  For instance, when Jesus chose to go to Lazarus in his friend’s deepest time of need (that is, when his friend was sick unto death), and in spite of the fact that doing so meant that Jesus was walking into his enemies’ neighborhood, Thomas made the first of his two “big” gospel appearances.  Among the Twelve who doubted the wisdom or valor of going to Lazarus’s aid, Thomas, indiscreetly and alone, stood out to cry: “Then, let us go out and die with him.”[2] – the “him” being Jesus.  As I say, Thomas was a passionate teammate and partner, not a deep and strategic diplomat. 

 

Yet, in light of Buechner’s portrayal of “doubt” and to his credit as a follower of Jesus, Thomas refuses to take Jesus and the reports of his resurrection as secondhand information.  At the other disciples’ report that they had seen Jesus alive, and in their midst, Thomas insists stubbornly and in the strongest (most rigid?) of terms that, “Unless I see the nail holes in his hands, put my finger in the nail holes, and stick my hand in his side, I won’t believe it.”[3]

 

We all know what happens next; but in what happens next in the Fourth Gospel’s account we get a direct and poignant insight into what resurrected life and its reality are about. 

 

St. John tells us that eight days later (that is, eight days after Jesus’ resurrection – another Monday after!), when all the Disciples (including Thomas) were together in their Jerusalem safe house (the Upper Room), Jesus came through the locked door.  (As an Eastertide aside to keep in mind throughout these fifty days, what do you think the physics are of Jesus moving through a locked door? – just asking!)  Appearing to the disciples for a second time Jesus speaks these words: “Peace be with you”.  Then, Jesus zeroed in on Thomas and spoke these revealing words: “Take your finger and examine my hands.  Take your hand and stick it in my side.  Don’t be unbelieving.  Believe.”  Breathless with shame and shaken by the deep joy welling up inside him, Thomas confessed: “My Master.  My God.” [4]

 

In this confrontation, what might we learn about the reality of resurrection and Easter life?  In what ways does this dramatic scene involve you and me?  What does it say about the place of “doubt”?  And what does this gospel story indicate about what you and I are to do as followers of the risen and active Jesus?

 

Lots and lots of questions, which is again one reason I am glad to have the next fifty days to continue to explore them with you and to put them on like new Easter clothes.  But for now, let me name some of what strikes me about this post-resurrection scene.

One is to reiterate that in Thomas ‘s passion for Jesus (perhaps truthfully in his hard-headedness), Thomas demands first-person validation.  As he insisted, not until he put his fingers in the mark of the nails and his hand in Jesus’ side would he “believe”: that is, not until he got his hands on all this would he give his heart to resurrection.  No shortcuts for Thomas and those of his ilk.


Another element of depicting resurrection’s reality is that Jesus walks through a locked door, a door that is bolted for fear that those who killed Jesus would have the disciples on their follow up list.  In mentioning Jesus’ appearance in spite of the locked door, I quipped and asked what the physics of such a thing might be.  And I wasn’t being facetious.  For instance, if we take an electron microscope and examine a solid door, what we will see is how much space actually dominates what we call “solid”.  My point in this is to say that seeing what is really real requires a perspective that is automatically our own.


Of all the resurrection elements in the Thomas Easter story, two stand above everything else for me.  One rests in what Thomas says about Jesus’ wounds and how Jesus invites Thomas to make good on his protesting doubts.  Jesus invites Thomas to do exactly what the “doubting” disciple demanded he be able to do: to touch the wounds of Jesus.  But please note, Thomas, confronted by those sacred wounds, never follows through; but simply in seeing them (at Jesus’ clear beckoning) Thomas comes to belief: “belief” being “giving one’s heart away”.  In Jesus’ resurrection, nothing gets lost.  All is transformed, especially what has caused us to fear and hurt.


The other telling element moves on from the first.  In Thomas’ encounter with Jesus’ wounds, Easter’s truth – one we shared with each other on Easter Day: namely, “God’s love is stronger than death and to that love we are all returned – encountering Christ’s wounds reiterates Easter’s truth that resurrection does not eliminate life’s scarring pain.  Rather, resurrection overcomes life’s wounds, and being thusly transformed they become sources of strength, courage, and new life.  As Henri Nouwen told us in class forty-five years ago, in these resurrected wounds we, too, can become “wounded healers”. 


Let me close by re-emphasizing what I see at the heart of Christ’s resurrection.  Christmas!  Christmas is completed.  Incarnation is fulfilled.  Life on God’s terms fully overlaps life on our terms to demonstrate that God’s life and love, working through us and all creation, is stronger than fear and death and even our doubts. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

[1] Frederic Buechner.  Wishful Thinking, p. 20

[2] John 11:16.

[3] John 20:25b -The Message

[4] John 20:27 -28 -The Message



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