A sermon preached [remotely] by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 11 April 2021 [Easter 2]: Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31
Doubt’s Believing Work
Question: In confronting Jesus’ resurrection, what does “Doubting Thomas’s” experience have to do with our experience of the pandemic? Answer: In both cases, we are called to move beyond our expectations of what is real and enter into what life is like with God at the center.
Today, on this Second Sunday of Easter, we have the privilege of reconnecting with two important and ongoing facts.
The first is that the Easter proclamation that “Christ is risen!” is not limited to one early spring morning; nor is the reality of resurrection simply about something that occurred in the life of Jesus. Quite the opposite, Easter’s proclamation speaks to the fact that in Christ’s rising from the dead, what is really real bursts upon history’s stage so that we can see and hear and smell and touch what life is like on God’s terms. And so it is that Easter is much more than a mere day; it is a revealing of the faithful fact that with God life is much more than we make of it, much more than fear and death can contain or control. “Christ is risen!”: Three words that change everything.
The second fact that is revealed in this ongoing and specific Easter focus is that with the “Good News” of the victorious God-life comes also a very big challenge. For it is one thing to have the news of God’s triumphant life made clear; it is another to allow that resurrection life to be own. This is to say that for most of us it takes time and work to allow resurrection to be the compass of our lives. This is the reason that in the church’s spiritual and worshipping traditions Easter is a season and not merely a day.
For fifty specific days, we regularly confront Jesus’ resurrection so as to absorb its life-changing presence. As with our Covid vaccinations, it takes time to build up the Easter anti-bodies that fight against the fear and the death that have made themselves at home in our bodies and our souls and distorted our lives and the life of the world. Very few people, it seems, are actually immediately ready for Easter, or at least to live Easter. And there is no more life-sized example of this than the figure we always meet in the gospel lesson for the Second Sunday of Easter. That figure is Thomas.
“Doubting Thomas”: In the liturgical tradition, the Second Sunday of Easter is subtitled, “Thomas Sunday”. The gospel from John is always read on this day, describing for us one of Jesus’ disciples who blatantly struggled with resurrection and the new life Jesus’ rising entails. And I love Thomas. I know Thomas. I know him well. He might even be identified as the patron saint of those who deeply wonder.
By now, you know the story. As John uniquely tells it, on the evening of that first Easter day, the disciples were huddled together, having retreated to the familiarity of that same Upper Room. The heavy wooden door was bolted shut, for fear that those who orchestrated Jesus execution would soon be looking for them, as well. Of the eleven remaining disciples, one was missing when, to everyone’s astonishment, the Risen One appeared to them. Evidently no longer confined by such things as locked doors, not to mention death itself, Jesus physically stood among them and greeted the disciples with his peace. As if to alleviate the prospect of the disciples having a collective stroke, the Lord showed them his hands and his side, the sight of which allowed them to recognize him not as a figment of their tortured imaginations but as his true and risen self. But as John is soon to remind us, Thomas was not among them.
Eight days later, when Thomas did show up after the fact, his brothers intuitively shared what was “Good News” beyond all thinking, and the disciples told Thomas what had happened in the Upper Room, which triggered the infamous remarks that made Thomas known. “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.” [John 20:24f]. This is the genesis of the “Doubting Thomas” saga.
No other Thomas incidents are recorded either in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or in Acts. Only in the Fourth Gospel do we have two glimpses of Thomas and his character and the nature of his discipleship.
The first comes in the wake of the news of Lazarus’ death and Jesus intention to come to his tomb (albeit quite slowly). Knowing that this trip meant returning to the very area in which Jesus’ enemies were on the look-out for him, the disciples eagerly pointed this fact out; but it was clear that Jesus would nonetheless take this risk, to which dear Thomas erupted, saying, “Let’s go with him and die with him!” This may belie that Thomas was not a great strategic thinker, but he was someone who, once he made up his mind, was passionately involved. He was someone who made for a very good teammate, someone you could trust to have your back.
Another brief glimpse into Thomas’ character is gleaned when (again in John’s gospel) Jesus prepares his followers for his death by saying that in his Father’s house there are many rooms and that he is going to prepare a place for them, coming back to them to take them where he is. And with words offered with what can be imagined as an accompanying wink of his eye, Jesus adds that they, of course, know where he is going. It is at this point that Thomas again interrupts with an unvarnished honesty, essentially admitting the embarrassing truth that the disciples are (once again) clueless and have no idea where Jesus is going; how could they? [14:5]
A more sophisticated student would do more to protect, if not hide, the fact that in spite of all that the teacher has done to spread enlightenment among the class, no one gets it. So, only unpretentious, plain-thinking Thomas, would dare to admit ignorance and ask publicly if this question will be on the test.
The point of all this is to say that Thomas’ response on the evening of that first day was completely in character. Practical, direct, plain-thinking, and blunt speaking, Thomas doubted what his disciple colleagues reported to him. As if Thomas were an ancient precursor to a resident of Missouri (the “Show Me” state), Thomas wanted proof. Like “Jack Webb” of early television’s detective show, Dragnet fame, Thomas wants “just the facts, ma’am” or in this case, “brothers”. And in all this hard-nosed resistance, Thomas and his doubting embody a most telling (and to some, very surprising) aspect of faith.
Contrary to common opinion, doubt is not the opposite of faith. Fear is. The issue at hand is not whether one has doubts. The issue is always what one does with those doubts. Again, I view Thomas as an important example and guide, when it comes to doubting and being faithful – that is, when it comes to trusting.
For a long time now, I have deeply appreciated what Frederick Buechner has written about the nature and place of doubt. In his wonderful little book of definitions, Wishful Thinking, Buechner writes this about his perspective on “ Doubt”: 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. [p. 20]
Once more, the issue is not having doubts; it is what we do with our doubts that matters. The phrase that our own Bishop has offered in these trying pandemic times applies: “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.” So, if we use our doubts to move forward, deeper into our spiritual lives, deeper into our relationship with a trustworthy God, then our faith will benefit from the maturing. Given that this work (and maturing faith in any relationship requires work) – this work is not usually easy or pleasant because such growth and maturing requires that we let go of what we conveniently hold on to; and that involves some dying on our parts. Yet, if we use our doubts as an excuse to justify where we are and what we are, as an excuse to give up, then fear and death still prevail in us. But the point with Thomas is that he did not fear to move or to explore or to risk growing.
In about 1604, the Italian Renaissance painter, Caravaggio rendered his vision of today’s gospel event. Entitled, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio clearly takes “poetic license” with the gospel scene and adds a most dramatic, interpretive element. Instead of merely inviting Thomas to “put your finger here” and to “reach out and put your hand in my side”, Caravaggio has Jesus grasping Thomas’ wrist and pushing the doubter’s index finger directly into his side so that Jesus’ wound bulges slightly at the penetration. Caravaggio appears to have Jesus, “Just the facts, Thomas, just the facts.”
Of course, the gospel quietly indicates that, contrary to the painting’s depiction, Thomas never actually touched Christ’s wounds. He only had to see the marks of Jesus’ death to have a complete turnaround in his thinking, a new orientation in his life. “My Lord and my God!”, as if to say: “It’s all true!”
I began this sermon with a question about what “Doubting Thomas” has to do with our pandemic experience. Within the context of what I have said, my answer is that while Easter’s proclamation that Christ has risen is indeed very “Good News”, it is also challenging, not casual news.
Like the pandemic, Christ’s resurrection forces us to see what we otherwise do not see, what we otherwise do not want to see. The sobering news of this Easter “Good News” is that in order to see resurrection’s new life, the woundedness of this life, the woundedness of our life, the woundedness of the world’s life must be acknowledged – and even touched. The pandemic, still dangerously lingering in our very midst (whether we want to see it or not) has ripped off the scab of our indifference and denial to reveal both the wounds among us and the wounds within us. From the simpler aspects of being so separated in quarantine and learning to re-value our social and personal connections more preciously, to having to face the ugly reality of the unjust disparities that are systematically between us (whether those disparities are a matter of inequivalent medical care or not having the luxury of working from home), the pandemic (like Caravaggio’s Jesus) has taken us by the hand and forced us to touch what scares us so, what we would rather avoid.
There is so much more to the Thomas story than “doubt”, and I hope that in the specific weeks to come that we will continue to focus on the continuously developing Easter narrative as it is told in the gospel tradition so that we can address faithfully for ourselves what resurrection life entails, including the reality of our bodies in God’s hands and the reality of our taking gradual and steady steps toward having our lives oriented around the Risen One.
But for now, in light of our friend and companion, “Doubting Thomas”, these Easter questions in a time of pandemic:
What has this experience of Covid and Easter taught you?
How has the pandemic in Easter changed you?
What new intentions about how you live will you pursue?
What Easter virtues are you developing as a result of this last year?
Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
Christ is risen! Easter continues. Thank be to God. Amen.