So, Christ is Risen!
Christ is risen, indeed, and the Easter cry isn’t only for Easter, of course. For while each and every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection, we have 49 days between Easter and Pentecost in which to focus our attention on the resurrection and all that God accomplishes through it.
At the same time, I am also mindful, on this day and with this text, of what God does not accomplish and, I suspect, so are all of us. We are in the midst of a seemingly endless pandemic, our economy is dismal, we are swamped by crime and corruption, infrastructure is collapsing around us, thank goodness not so much in our part of the world, and each one of us has personal difficulties or tragedies to contend with.
And so, sometimes we come to church on Easter or in the weeks after, and our alleluias ring hollow and Easter acclamations wear a bit thin. If this is you, or if you think it might characterize some of your friends and family, then the story of Thomas is right on the money!
Truth be told, I think Thomas gets a bit of a bad rap. I don’t think he’s a “doubter” as much as he is a realist. I mean, he saw Jesus nailed to the cross and die. And so you can’t blame him for wanting a real encounter with a really risen Lord just like the other disciples got.
We don’t know him as “the Twin” as John describes him. No, for us he is forever, “doubting Thomas.” But think about it: He doesn’t ask for anything more than the other disciples have already received. Sure, it’s easy for them to believe – they actually saw Jesus. But he didn’t, and given the emotional torment of the last week no wonder he refuses to enter into what must have seemed like a severe case of denial.
And that’s what strikes me about this story: the realism. Not just that of Thomas, but the realism also about how hard it can be at times to believe. When we read through the resurrection accounts of all four gospels, we quickly realize that Thomas is not alone in his doubt. In fact, 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. No one anticipates Jesus’ return and when he shows up, everyone doubts.
Which makes me think that maybe doubt isn’t the opposite of faith but, actually, part of it, maybe even an essential part of it.
Frederick Buechner wrote: ”Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving!”
And this, in turn, shapes the way I hear Jesus’ words to Thomas: “Do you believe because you’ve seen? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe!” I don’t think, as I used to, that Jesus is rebuking Thomas. Instead, I think Jesus is blessing all those, from John’s community up to our own, who have managed to believe without the benefit of direct experience; all those, that is, who have managed to come to a faith that is not the opposite of doubt, but which lives with doubts and yet still finds a way to believe.
I suppose that makes us faithful people; I think faithful people don’t feel the need to hide, let alone banish, their doubts, but believe in spite of and alongside of their doubts.
Faithful people don’t need to have it all figured out before coming to church, or helping out a neighbour, 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. Because, frankly, don’t you ever wonder if your acts of mercy or care make a difference? There are so many hungry people; will the few I can help really change things? There is so much hurt in the world; does the hand I extend or listening ear I offer really change that?
I believe they do, but I, like you, at times wonder; and doubt. And yet, because we are faithful people, we believe as well as doubt. And believing, even in this more fragile way, we act; we reach out, we feed, we care, we tend, we struggle, we work, we love, and we do all this without any guarantees. We do it with just a promise from the Lord, who continues to bless those who believe amid their doubts and keep faith amid their uncertainties.
What is important, is that the Risen One is strong enough to bless our faith, bear our doubts, and use even people like us to make a difference in this world that God loves so much. The point is that being faithful people isn’t having no doubts, but living with them.
Joan Chittister and Rowan Williams write in their book, Uncommon Gratitude: Alleluia for All That Is, that doubt is something for which we should give profound thanks. For as they write:
There is simply a point in life when reason fails to satisfy our awareness of what is clearly unreasonable and clearly real at the same time; like love and self-sacrifice and trust and good. Data does not exist to explain these unexplainable things. Then only the doubt that opens our hearts to what we cannot comprehend, only the doubt that makes us rabidly pursue the truth, only the doubt that moves us beyond complacency, only the doubt that corrects mythologies not worthy of faith can lead us to the purer air of spiritual truth. Then we are ready to move beyond the senses into the mystical, where faith shows us those penetrating truths the eye cannot see. (p. 17)
To be sure, doubt is not comfortable, and depending on the circumstances can be downright terrifying. And yet, for me, it’s only when I’ve allowed myself to stand still in my own doubt that I have discovered answers and meaning and hope again.
And as easy as this sounds, it often leaves scars on us, and we do sometimes recognize one another by our scars. Thomas thought he needed to see and touch his scars to be certain it was Jesus. In his quest for the truth he was not afraid to ask the hard questions which led him to an ever deeper faith. But, in the end, as the story is passed on, he didn’t need what he asked for. When Jesus simply stood right before him Thomas was able to embrace the truth of who Jesus is with all of his being. The scars told part of the story, but only part of it, it seems. I wonder though. Would Thomas have gotten to that point if he hadn’t asked the questions, if he hadn’t ‘doubted’ first?
One of our brothers who often gets his metaphors mixed, once famously said about something: ‘I will see it when I believe it!” It seems to me this is what Jesus had in mind when he showed his wounds to Thomas.
In what John writes, he doesn’t care what we see with our eyes; he wants us to see with our inner eye who Jesus really is. He wants us to see with our hearts.
So, let us look at and see Jesus with our hearts and show that Jesus to the world. Amen
With thanks to David Lose and others.