Monday, May 2, 2011

noticing the mess

He Qi's portrayal of "doubting" Thomas

Easter 2, Year A
John 20:19-32
St. Mark's

"Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

Every time we come to this Gospel passage I can't help but feel sorry for poor Thomas. In sermons he is often torn apart, scolded for his apparent lack of faith, forever dubbed "doubting Thomas." But can we really blame him?

Imagine it: A few days before, Jesus has been crucified. The disciples have spent the past three years following him, and less than 24 hours after his arrest, he is dead. It is hard enough to come to grips with the reality that all they have been working for is finished and that their lives are in even greater danger than before. But now Mary Magdalene and the other disciples are telling Thomas that they have seen Jesus, that he is back. Back from the dead? He'd seen Lazarus raised, but it was Jesus who had done that. So who raised Jesus? It is simply too impossible to believe something like this could happen.

So, Thomas responds the way I think any normal human being would respond, "Unless I see [him with my own eyes] I will not believe." And as the days go by without seeing Jesus, I imagine he becomes even more doubtful. Finally, though, after a week Jesus reappears, and this time Thomas is present. He sees the holes in Jesus' hands and side and responds with what is considered by some to be the most complete statement of faith in the New Testament: "My Lord and my God!"

To this, Jesus replies, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

I think it's important to remember that Thomas is not the only one of Jesus' followers who needed to see in order to believe that Jesus had been resurrected. Mary Magdalene begins to cry when she sees the empty tomb, thinking that Jesus' body has been stolen. Only when she hears her voice called and turns around does she realize that Jesus is the one speaking with her. Jesus then tells her not to cling to him but to go tell the others.

Similarly, Peter sees the empty tomb but doesn't believe until Jesus appears in the locked room. And the disciples only begin to rejoice after Jesus proves it's him by showing them the marks on his hands and side. In fact, the only person in this passage that believes without seeing is "the disciple whom Jesus loved."

"Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." These words must have been a great comfort to the people who first heard them. The Gospel according to John was probably written 40-60 years after Jesus had died. This means that most of the people who had been present during his lifetime were no longer living. These words, in a sense, spoke directly to them, encouraging them to believe and promising them blessings if they did.

Even though they faced persecution, in a sense, I think faith came easier to the first generations of Christians than it does for us in the 21st century. After all, they at least knew someone who knew Jesus, or knew someone who knew someone who knew Jesus. We are so much farther removed. The only things we have to go by are the words written in the Bible and a tradition handed down for about 2000 years. There seems to be more room for doubt with each passing generation.

But keep in mind that it is natural for people to have questions, to wonder, to struggle with their faith. As a matter of fact, I dare you to find one person who has never had any doubts in their entire life. Even the Bible is filled with examples of people who struggled with their faith. It is precisely in the struggles where our faith has the chance to grow, to deepen.

In her book, Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott writes, "the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns."

I experienced some of this in college. My campus ministry, WCF, was made up of people of various denominations, mostly Presbyterian and Episcopalian. Other than being small, as far as I know we were a pretty typical Christian group--we got together once a week to share a meal, pray, and hang out. One of my friends, who had spent time with other ministry groups on campus before joining ours, said that he felt more comfortable in our group. He said that with the others, there was an expectation that everyone believe the same thing. It was black and white--you either believed what they did or you didn't, and if you didn't believe, then you didn't belong. But at WCF, it was okay for people to be unsure, to be, as he said, "in the gray spaces" of faith. At WCF we didn't have to feel guilty for questioning or pretend to believe in something we didn't. We could just be ourselves, and that was good enough. 

I think this is true of St. Mark's and the Episcopal Church in general. It's one of the main reasons I love it so much. I think that most of us are here today because there is something about Jesus that draws us in, a sense of truth that resonates deep within our hearts. Our faith might be shaky at times. Maybe it's shaky today. What I think this passage is ultimately trying to tell us, however, is that it's okay not to be 100% sure of what we believe all the time. Where we fall short, the Holy Spirit fills in for us. And it's why we come here, week after week: to find strength in common worship in prayer, to be nourished by Christ's body and blood, and to be re-energized to go out of these doors together to share the great, impossible news with the world that our Lord and our God has risen from the dead.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

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