Monday, April 08, 2013

"The Integrity of Doubt" Easter 2C

Acts 5:27-32
When the guards had brought Peter and the apostles, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him as Leader and Saviour that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey God.” When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to the council, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” They were convinced by him, and when they had called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonour for the sake of the name.

John 20:19-31
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the religious leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Saviour. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Creator has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Saviour.” But he said to them, “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.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said 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.” Thomas answered him, “My Saviour and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 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 Child of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Will you pray with me? God of the living and the dead, immerse us in your resurrection life. Give us the desire to be patient as you have been patient with us, to be merciful with doubters as you are merciful, to encourage and enable those who waver, even as you have encouraged us. Through Christ Jesus our risen Saviour, amen.

I have to say, first of all, that I have a certain sympathy for Thomas. It is a pretty wild tale the others are telling. Jesus, alive? When the power of the Roman Empire crucified him? How can this be? It simply makes no sense.

Through the centuries, Thomas has been criticized for this attitude. He is called "Doubting Thomas," and tradition says he went to what we know today as India, to bring the gospel to people who had never even heard of Jerusalem or Judaism and to whom even Rome was only a rumour, as was fitting for someone who had to see to believe, that he preached the Gospel to people who not only had not seen but had no context for what he was teaching.

But I think Thomas is wiser than we usually consider him. He won't believe something others tell him, even though he wants to believe. He won't follow the crowd, won't believe just because he wants to believe. He needs to find out for himself, needs to know the truth for himself, not what Peter and John and Mary and James are telling him.

It must have taken some courage to do that; to say, "I don't care what you think you saw, or heard, or experienced. That was your experience, not mine. It would be beyond wonderful if it were true, but I need to know for myself."

And then when he does see Jesus, how does Thomas respond? He says, "My Lord and my God!"  He doesn't need to do what he had claimed he wanted to do--touch Jesus' wounds--to know it was really him.

There is a lot to be said for someone who will not fall into something without careful consideration, who needs to know for themselves. Thomas found the truth out for himself, not as a result of someone else's work or theory or experience. It comes from his heart. Even a weak speech sounds better when it comes from someone who truly believes what she is saying. We have all heard bosses, politicians, even pastors, say things they didn't truly believe. One of the reasons I came out was because I found that I had to be fully my authentic self, if I was going to be any kind of a pastor. I had to be able to speak all my truth, and to preach and counsel and lead from a place of authenticity.

So Thomas is doing exactly what he needs to do here. He is testing what he has been told, not daring to trust to what he wants or hopes, but needing to know the truth.

This is the glue that fastens belief to our hearts--our own experience. I can speak truly to people about coming out because I have. I can speak authentically about cancer survival, and to parenthood. However, I cannot speak of recovery, for example, because that is not my story. I can be supportive and encouraging and sympathetic, but I have not lived that experience.

Thomas and Peter are the disciples that give me the most hope for myself as a follower of Jesus. Thomas struggled to believe- but when he knew what he believed, he went literally to the ends of the earth to share the good news he had found. Peter denied Jesus three times--and yet became the leader of the early church.

The question is not how quickly a person believes, but how strongly and truly. A sudden faith can fade as quickly, burned out by the excitement of new belief. A faith that has grown slowly, through tests and trials and pain and doubt is a tested and strong faith.

Today is Yom Ha’Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance; we remember the millions of Jewish people, gay men and lesbians, people living with a disability, seniors, Poles, Roma, and others, killed by the Nazis for the crime of being alive. We might expect the survivors to have little or no faith—who could believe in a God that allowed such things to happen? And yet, we find that they do have faith, a faith that has been tested and made stronger.

A strong faith is like a brick wall, built carefully, one brick at a time. If you look carefully at a brick wall, you can see that some of the bricks are turned sideways, so the short end is exposed instead of the long side. That’s called a "bond," and there several of them—Sussex bond, Flemish bond, and so on, depending on the pattern of the bricks. They are there not merely to make the wall more attractive, but because they make the wall stronger. Without the bond, the pressure of the top bricks would push the lower ones out of line and the wall would collapse. The bond redistributes the pressure, and the wall stands firm.

Thomas's doubt is the bond in the wall of faith. Those doubts, which seem out of place--they don't go the same direction as the others--are in fact what makes the faith stronger. Knowing what you do not believe makes what you do believe stronger.

I was once warned against seminary, because, I was told, it would make me doubt what I believed, and turn me away from Christianity. Yes, I did have to question the basis of my faith in seminary. I had to dig deep and really look at why I believed, and what I believed and what the consequences were of that belief. Think about it for a moment--would you really want as your spiritual leader--which is who seminaries are training--someone who hadn't examined their beliefs, hadn't tested them, didn't know the basis of their faith? Because into every life come some times of doubt and questioning, if we are honest, and if we have done that work of examining and testing and hard work of doubting, then we have a surer foundation to stand on, we know that even though we are uncertain and afraid, we know why we believe and it is a little easier to hang on to our faith. We have created that bond in our wall of faith, and while it may sway, that wall won't fall.

As we go out into our week, have faith in your doubt. It leads to a stronger faith. In all God's names, amen.

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