Courage to Doubt
| John 20:19-31
||Sun, April 27, 2003
|A Sermon Preached in University Hill United Church,
Vancouver, British Columbia
2 Easter; April 27, 2003
John 20: 19-31
“Doubting Thomas”, is a familiar phrase even for people who have never read the Bible. If you walked up Robson Street on Friday night after the game was over, and asked the average hockey fan about doubting Thomas, I expect most of them would tell you that, Ÿes, they knew a few doubting Thomases – they were the ones who didn’t think that the Vancouver Canucks cold come back from being down 3-1 and get by St. Louis! None of them were doubting Thomases of course. They were the true believers, the people of real faith. They always knew that Marcus Naslund would finally get on track, or that Dan Cloutier would exorcise the demons of past years – another Biblical phrase. And they would question the loyalty of those folks who only become interested during the playoffs, who then lose faith at the first set-back. These were the second class fans, the doubting Thomases, not the true believers who were celebrating that night on Robson street.
And that’s what doubting Thomas is to many church people who read the original story – second class fans of Jesus Christ. They had no faith, they had doubts. Thomas is known as the last disciple to believe in the resurrection. His feast day is December 21, the darkest day of the year. He wasn’t going to accept what the other disciples said – hearsay evidence was not going to do it for him. Unless I see the print of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the print of the nails, and put my hand in his side, I will not believe!” Jesus seems to rebuke Thomas when he comes back to give him the proof he had demanded – Ÿou believe because you have seen, Thomas, but you’ve missed out on the blessing that comes to those who have not seen and yet believe anyway.
I can’t think of the story of Thomas without thinking of Carravagio’s wonderful painting of the dazzling Christ and the shadowy Thomas. Caravaggio was a pioneer in the use of light. In the painting of doubting Thomas, all the light in the picture seems to come from the body of a luminous Christ, as Jesus takes Thomas’hand and guides it to the wound in his side. Thomas’ head is mostly in the shadows, the rest of the disciples in the picture are only visible as the light of Christ illumines them.
In Caravaggio’s day, this painting would have enormous power because the church was the keeper of the Christ light, which was kept in a box at the front of the church. If you doubted the church then you doubted Christ – you were like Thomas, a second-class Christian, one of those people in the shadows of doubt, people of darkness. There was lots of darkness around back then in 1600. Many were questioning the authority of the church The Protestants had been attacking the church for about 50 years and were getting stronger. Religious wars had been breaking out all over Europe..
So the Thomas story was a handy tool to divide the good people from the not-so-good people, the true believers and the trouble makers. This is especially true in the church. Whenever institutions feel themselves threatened or under siege they often cut themselves off from the threat by clothing themselves in the light of unreasonable righteousness, and deciding that those who oppose them are people of darkness.
Caravaggio lived at the same time as another famous Italian whose name was Galileo. Galileo was also a pioneer in the use of light, but Galileo’s light was the light of reason, measurement and observation. His methods of making careful observations and then inferring what was going on in the world became what we call the Scientific Method, which eventually led to the scientific/technological world that we live in today. Not surprisingly, the church opposed Galileo’s view that the direct observation of the universe could trump the teachings of the church. Galileo’s methods were too much like those of Thomas in that both of them rejected simple faith and demanded proof, evidence, measurements, and observations before he would believe. Galileo invited the doctors of the church to look through his telescope but they refused. “We know from the scriptures that the earth will never be moved” (1 Ch 16:30), they argued, so it cannot travel around the sun. But Galileo was adamant: “The church teaches how one goes to heaven,” he used to say, “not how heaven goes”.
Galileo and others started a period called the Enlightenment – interesting, isn’t it, that use of the word “light” again. It seems that the group who is power gets to call themselves the people of light. In the age of faith, it was the church that held the light of Christ, and sceptics, the doubters, the Thomases were the people of darkness, the people of the shadows. As the church lost its power and the secular, scientific world took control, then the Age of the Enlightenment dawned. The scientists now became the soldiers of light and knowledge, while the church became a place of darkness, superstition and ignorance.
In the last century it has become obvious that the scientists seem to have won the day. The church feels increasingly under siege from a hostile secular world. Doubt has led to outright denial: faith is now thought to be an immature response to uncertainty in the world. Psychologists argue that we create God to protect us from the demons of our lives, but there is no such reality as God really. Many hold that Jesus was perhaps a real person, but was at best only an itinerant teacher who fell afoul of the Roman authorities and was killed like a common criminal. The resurrection is a fantasy created by his disciples to keep his message alive, but nothing really happened on that first Easter morning.
The modern church has usually responded to this attack on its faith in one of two ways – both of which are deadly to the future of the church in my opinion. The first is outright rejection of the criticism of modern society. The outside world is evil and must be kept at bay. Put up the barricades, close your eyes and ears and by all means close the eyes and ears of your children. Roll the wagons into a circle, expel all the people who do not agree with you and stay pure. The problem with this approach is that it condemns the world, the world that God loves. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world”(John 3:17). So we have to be out there in the world if we are going to be the Body of Christ. We are to be the salt of the earth (Mat. 5:13), and the light of the world (Mat. 5: 13-14) If we disengage from that world, we lose our reason for being – our saltiness is locked away from the food that they are supposed to enhance. Our light is hidden under a bushel.
The second approach is accommodation. In this response the church buys into the modern society’s view that the church is outdated and superstitious, and quietly drops its faith. Sermons become concerned with political and ethical questions, and the Golden Rule becomes the singular focus of the church’s belief system. With this approach, the church is absorbed into secular humanism and loses its saltiness altogether, and then is rightly trodden underfoot.
If we are to be the Church in our day we cannot reject the world, but we cannot entirely embrace it either. Ours must be a middle path if we are to follow Christ in our day. It will be a path that recognizes that there are no insiders and outsiders – no second-class Christians: God loves us all equally. On that Easter night, when the risen Christ came to the disciples in that locked room, he knew that they were all “doubting Thomases”. Here was Peter who had denied him three times; and over here were James and John, who with Peter had fallen asleep in the garden. And all of them had run away and left him alone to die. And yet, in spite of their treachery, their lack of faith here was Jesus, in the midst of them, forgiving them all. “Peace be with you”, he said, probably because they were terrified about what was about to happen to them now that he was back. And then the scripture says that Jesus showed them his hands and side – How about that! The other disciples needed to be convinced as well. Just like Thomas. And then these weak, faithless, cowardly people received the Holy Spirit.
Later, Jesus came back for Thomas. Just like a shepherd looking for a lost sheep. That’s what he did when he ate with the sinners and tax collectors when he was alive. (Luk. 15: 1-7). Why should we be surprised now? Why is it so hard to believe that we are loved just as we are?
So how do we respond to this great forgiving love? As modern day Christians, I believe that we are called to live fully in this fallen, secular, broken world of ours, but to do so as people of faith. It’s a path that walks through the worst that world can dole out. It leads through the shadows of doubt and uncertainty, but that’s only the start because this path also leads us through the deeper shadows of poverty, injustice, addiction and death. We walk through these paths with our brothers and sisters of faith, but more often with our brothers and sisters of no faith, no hope, no love. They are our neighbours. They live in the downtown eastside, in the house across the street or across the world. Our bombs explode over their heads, our consumption poisons their wells and their food supply, which of course are eventually our wells and our food supply as well. Often the shadows of our broken world will be too much to bear; our faith will falter and we will fall. That’s when we need one another in our community of faith to lift us up on our feet again, and encourage us as we continue the journey together.
I believe that Jesus loved Thomas because of his doubt. God gave us minds to study, to question, to test and to doubt. We are called to love the Lord our God with all our MINDS, and that means bringing our faith into the centre of our broken world and holding it up to the light. We do not need to worry that because of our doubt and our questions that we are somehow unworthy of God’s love. We need not imagine that because we cannot bring ourselves to “park our brains at the door” when we come to church that we are somehow second-class Christians. Jesus came back a second time for doubting Thomas. And Jesus also comes for us. So look, question, struggle and see that God is good and that we are loved.
We come just as we are – with our hopes as well as our doubts – with our strengths as well as our weaknesses. God knows us all very well, and loves us all just the same.
Thanks be to God!
We journey together because together we bear the light of Christ. When I watch the candle come up the centre aisle with the Bible, sometimes the light on the candle becomes so tiny that I’m sure that it is about to go out. It’s a realistic image of life in our time. The gospel often seems such a hopeless cause: How can we modern, scientifically literate people believe this stuff: empty tombs, appearances behind locked doors, a crucified Christ taking your hand and guiding it to the wound in his side.
And I begin to doubt. Yes doubt. But then I go back to scripture. “Jesus came and stood among them and said, Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
Wait a minute; did you hear that? So all the disciples saw his hands and his side. It doesn’t report what Jesus said. Maybe he looked at Peter and said, “Peter, you who denied me three times, come here and look closely, it is I.” “And James and John. You who couldn’t stay awake in the garden with me last Thursday night. Open your eyes now and take a good look”. “And the rest of you, I know you all ran away and left me to die alone. But it’s ok, because death is over for me now, and soon it will be over for you, and for everyone you touch as well. So come close. See my hands and side.
And then Jesus comes back the second time. He already knew what Thomas had said. He knew of his doubt. He probably expected it. Perhaps it would have been the same with any of the disciples. But still be came back. Why did he do that? If having doubts is such a weakness, why didn’t Jesus just write Thomas off as undeserving of the role of disciple.
Thanks be to God.