“Doubt: The Essential Component in Faith”
John 20:19-31; Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook;
Northwood United Church; April 23, 2017
Welcome to “Low Sunday”. What a lovely opening for an Eastertide reflection, hey? “Welcome to ‘low Sunday’”. That is what many churches informally refer to today as being: “Low Sunday”. We laugh, but as you think about it, how could the Sunday proceeding Easter Sunday be named anything but “Low Sunday”? The choir have sang their resounding Hallelujahs, the children have been baptized, the Easter lilies are gone, we can even find parking in the church lot. Churches have tongue-in-cheek called this second Sunday of Eastertide “Low Sunday” because there is a natural let down from what we experienced in the Resurrection last Sunday; where Mary Magdalene and the other Mary visited the tomb and were greeted by the angel, and an empty tomb revealed the possibilities of new life. And so, here we find ourselves on “Low Sunday”. I feel like I should be wearing my ‘Eeyore’ costume.
And, do you know what? I am so glad for this Sunday! I am glad that we are here because I believe that as each of us were returning home from Easter services last week; as we were putting away our Easter bonnets, and hanging up our Easter Sunday best, there was inside the hearts and minds of each of us… doubt. Doubt about what really happened, doubt about the empty tomb, doubt about God’s victory of love and compassion over the power of death. Most of you know that we go through a three year cycle of readings in the church year ~ with a new lection from the Old Testament, the Psalms, an Epistle and a Gospel lection. But only on this Sunday ~ the Sunday following Easter, the gospel text is the same every year. On the second Sunday of Easter every year, we ponder the story of Thomas’ interaction with the Risen Christ.
Some will recall that I had made a plea on Palm Sunday encouraging people to engage in the story of Holy Week by attending services and considering what happens during the Holy Week. Indeed, Easter loses its meaning, if we move directly from Palm Sunday’s “Hosanna welcome” to the resurrection of Easter. As we discussed, Easter must be considered alongside Maundy Thursday’s welcome into the Upper Room where Jesus demonstrates the meaning of servant leadership: washing his friends’ feet and serving them at table. Good Friday’s events lift up the darkness of our humanity and the depth of our cruelty. Having walked through these depths of our faith, Easter becomes understood as God’s response. We are greeted by an angel saying “do not be afraid” and a tomb revealing the mystery of God’s redemptive power. Indeed, in Easter we meet the power of love and forgiveness that would overcome and redeem the darkness in our human condition. So, we needed Holy Week in order to understand Easter. And, as much as we needed what preceded Easter, I believe that we need this Sunday ~ “Low Sunday”. We need this Sunday to allow an Easter faith to grow in our lives. This Sunday is critical because it lifts up the necessity of doubt in our faith. Faith without doubt loses its depth and strength and integrity. Doubt is an essential component of faith. Indeed, as much as we need Good Friday and Maundy Thursday to understand Easter, we equally need this Sunday to allow an authentic Easter faith to be alive in our spirituality.
I know that Thomas is generally not people’s favourite disciple. People might prefer to talk about some of the first disciples to be called. Disciples like Simon-Peter ~ “and you are the rock upon whom I will build my church” proclaims Jesus. Or they would rather speak about James or Andrew called away from their fishing business. But Thomas? Wasn’t he the doubter? He’s barely a step above Judas who betrayed Jesus we protest. It’s a shame that history has labelled Thomas this way because he wasn’t the only doubter ~ they all doubted. Mary Magdalene doubted. When she saw the empty tomb, she did not believe until the risen Christ appeared and spoke directly to her. The disciples also doubted. When Mary ran to tell them the good news saying: “I have seen the Lord”, they locked themselves into a room and hid away. The disciples doubted; Mary doubted.
What I love about Thomas and about this Sunday is that it makes space for our humanity when we are considering our Easter faith. And the space made is a genuine invitation for us to doubt, for us to ponder, for us to consider what has just occurred. It is deeply human for us to search for order. It is what we do. We try to organize data into our awareness. We try to make sense of things. We try to understand this complex world. And when we deal with matters of faith and meaning, our humanity needs the space to continue pondering, considering, and (yes) even doubting. Fuller Seminary preaching scholar Clayton J. Schmit in his book “Too Deep for Words” wisely described this dynamic saying: “faith is a mystery of the heart that the mind wants to solve”.
Thomas so deeply wants to solve that mystery that lies in his heart when he encounters the risen Christ. Immediately after the resurrection had occurred, that very night, the eleven disciples had all hidden away. The doors and windows were locked and the risen Christ comes to them, they aren’t sure who it is, they have their fears and doubts, until he shows them his hands and his side, and seeing that it is him, ten of them rejoice. Thomas was not convinced: “unless I see the mark of the nails I his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe”. A week goes by and Jesus returns. He says 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”. And then Thomas offers one of the most powerful declarations of faith: “my Lord and my God!” What is interesting is that somehow Thomas gets labelled as the ‘doubter’ through this entire exchange. It isn’t explicitly written, but all eleven disciples had back in some form of doubt until Jesus shows them his wounds. And Jesus meets them in their doubt. The first time Jesus arrives, he shows them his wounds and that satisfies the first ten doubters. And when Thomas is not fully satisfied, Jesus returns yet again, even inviting him to reach out his hands and touch him. 2,000 years of Christian art portray Thomas as poking his fingers into Jesus’ wounds, yet scripture only records Thomas as requiring a second look to satisfy his doubt.
I think this text reveals some wonderful good news for us in our faith. And that is that God, as reflected in the risen Christ, comes to meet us wherever we are: in our joys, in our hopes, in our fears and even in our doubts. For some of the disciples, they only needed one look and they came to believe. But for others, in this case Thomas, they needed a second look and God, as reflected in the risen Christ, will come to us there too. The good news is that God will come and meet us where we are throughout the various stages of our faith journey. 17th century mathematician Blaise Pascal who is remembered as one of the two inventors of the mechanical calculator insightfully wrote: “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every [one] which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus”. Doubt is that essential component in our faith that causes us to yearn, and struggle and search for God to enter into our hearts and to begin to fill that ‘God shaped void’. Doubt is truly an essential part of our faith. I don’t think one can grow without it. The text records, in fact, that in our doubts the gift given to people of faith was nothing less than the Holy Spirit. To the first ten disciples, after Jesus showed them his hands and his side, and they realized who it was, the text records that Jesus breathed on them saying “receive the Holy Spirit”. It was the same ‘God-breath’ that stirred over the waters at creation’s birth in Genesis 2; the same ‘God-breath’ that stirred over the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37. It is the same ‘God-breath’ that is given to you in you in your uncertainties, in your fears, and yes ~ even in your doubts.
This text is the concluding passage for the entire gospel of John. And who would have ever thought that John would have offer such a significant place for doubt in the spiritual lives of believers. John’s Jesus welcomes doubt; he returns to the disciples once, then to Thomas again, and he returns to you and I again and again throughout our lives reassuring us ~ even amidst our doubts ~ that the power of love and compassion will trump the violence and hatred of this world and bring us new life on an Easter morning and even on a ‘Low Sunday’ like today. The text concludes saying: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name”. May we open to share the doubts we have with God and with one another on this journey we call life. And may we be open to see the signs of wonder and grace, that we may have life in his name.