Rev. Warren McDougall
2nd of Easter – Fifth Week of ZOOM Church
April 19, 2020
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 Jews, 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 Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father 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 Lord.’ 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 Lord 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 Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
We in the United Church have been called many things – we’ve been called progressive, inclusive, and liberal… we’ve been called wishy-washy, lukewarm and “so open-minded that our brains fall out”… relevant and “in tune with the times”… unorthodox and heretical… the NDP at prayer… the Patron Church of Doubters.
Well, if the United Church really is “the patron church of doubters”, then our patron saint is the disciple Thomas who – when confronted with the risen Christ – said something to the effect of “well, show me the money!”
Many of us – [probably most of us] – grew up thinking that doubt was the opposite of faith, the enemy of faith. This was certainly true for me. I remember when (at the age of 12) – [as I prepared for my Confirmation] – I had to memorize the Statement of Faith and Catechism (do these look familiar?), which presented the various points of Christian doctrine in the form of questions and answers – someone else’s questions, and someone else’s answer! For example:
Q. What is it that gives meaning to our life?
A. It is God’s high purpose that gives meaning
to our life.
Q. Who is God?
A. God is the Almighty Father
who made and controls all things
according to his holy, wise and good purpose.
Q. What are the works of God?
A. The works of God are creation,
providence and redemption.
(The fun just never ends, does it?!)
Our preparation for Confirmation consisted largely of memorizing the prescribed answers and being able to recite them pretty much verbatim in class – and then, on the big day, in front of the whole congregation.
All of which begs the question… what would happen if we had a question that wasn’t included in the Catechism? Well, it was assumed to be a question not worth asking! The most unthinkable question of all would have been: is this teaching really true? Do I really have to believe this in order to be a member of the United Church? These were questions that one just didn’t ask.
I’m thinking that most United Church folks would agree with this statement by (American theoretical physicist) Richard Feynman who said: “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered, than answers that can’t be questioned”.
And I love the story of the person who asked their rabbi: “Why is it that rabbis always answer a question with another question?” – to which the rabbi replied: “So what’s wrong with a question?”
And Dr. Leslie Weatherhead, prolific author and (for close to 30 years) Minister at the famous City Temple in London, who once said that “any minister, standing in the pulpit, who is not agnostic, is dangerous”.
Of course, some kinds of doubt can be devastating – when you doubt that you are loved… when you doubt that you are worthy of being loved… when you doubt the loyalty and commitment of someone you trust. But in areas of faith and spirituality, doubt is not always a bad thing! A healthy spirituality encourages us to foster our inquisitive spirit, to avoid the illusion (the arrogance!) that we have final and absolute answers, and to leave the ultimate questions to God.
There’s a line in the hymn that we’ll be singing after the reflection today, “You Tell Me that the Lord is Risen”, a line in the 3rd verse that speaks of “the rich courage of doubt”. I believe that to doubt is not a sign of weakness and failure at all! It takes courage to honestly admit doubt, to ask the questions everyone else is afraid to ask!
Ellie Wiesel went through the horror of Auschwitz. In his autobiographical account, entitled “Night”, he describes how the sight of burning babies destroyed the faith of his childhood. “Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever… never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust”.
Maybe some of us can identify with Wiesel. Maybe our faith has been shaken to its very core by some tragedy in our own lives or in the life of someone we love.
That was certainly the experience of the disciples in our reading this morning from the Gospel of John. They’ve been plunged into a real-life crisis through their loss of Jesus and the loss of their vision for the future. Everything that had ordered their world and given their lives meaning had been thrown into chaos. They were afraid and unsure of what and whom to trust. They want to remain faithful, but the ‘markers’ of their lives and faith have been destroyed.
When they encountered the Risen Christ, the disciples “believed”… except for Thomas, who “doubted”.
Doubts which come with life crises tend to emerge because old assumptions or beliefs no longer “work” – or “fit” – or “make sense” – in this new situation.
People adopt a ‘set of beliefs’ in their lives to help organize and make sense of reality. This includes beliefs about God and about the way we should live our lives.
But when the reality of our lives is radically changed – [when things happen that radically challenge our belief systems] – this creates both tremendous anxiety and pain AND also tremendous possibility.
When a radical disconnect emerges between old beliefs (on the one hand) and a new reality and new needs (on the other hand) – we are forced to reassess our beliefs and start all over again to ‘make sense’ of our lives in our world.
I’ve had to do this over and over again in my adult faith journey, we all have – to re-assess what we believe in the light of new experiences and new knowledge.
This is what happened for Thomas. And while his doubt was perhaps not “comfortable” for him, or for the others, maybe it was “necessary” in order for him to “make sense” of this “new normal” and in order for him to eventually declare “my Sovereign and my God!” The crisis… the resultant challenges to Thomas’ belief system… including the doubting… have all paved the way for a radical reformulation of faith.
So, this story obviously has something to say to us about the nature and reality of doubt in our spiritual lives. But it also has something to say to us about the nature of community – specifically Christian community.
The early Christian community, of which Thomas was a part, was a community that relied on a common interpretation of beliefs and mission in order to survive in what was a very hostile environment. So, when Thomas refused to believe – when he refused to “salute the flag” like everyone else – when he expressed his deep doubt – this put him at significant odds with the rest of that community.
What is so interesting about this story for our time is how Thomas is completely accepted by the rest of the group. He is still with them at the end of the week. He isn’t “booted out” of the movement, he hasn’t been asked to leave, he hasn’t been ostracized, nor has he been browbeaten into pretending that he is of one mind with the rest. Even though he has been left out of the group experience and takes a different point of view from the rest, Thomas still belongs to this community. His individual needs are honoured, and the community holds Thomas in the midst of his doubts and differences.
Not only is Thomas tolerated despite his profound difference and doubt, but Jesus himself invites Thomas to touch and see without blame. Jesus invites him to honour his doubt by doing whatever he needs to do in order to “make sense of this new reality”. Thomas doesn’t have to pretend he’s someone he isn’t; he doesn’t have to pretend to believe something that he doesn’t; he doesn’t have to leave the community because of his difference. He is accepted for who he is, and, in the end, the whole community is enriched by his different point of view.
And yes, I dare say that there may be a message here for the United Church – that, yes, maybe there is a place in the United Church’s “big tent” for atheist minister Gretta Vosper and her congregation at Westhill United Church, and others like them.
I, for one, really appreciate the “doubters” – [the agnostics and atheists] – in my life, because they keep me honest. Translation? They keep me from saying DUMBASS things that I’m not able to defend or explain – or maybe even believe myself – you know, the “clichés” that roll off our tongues because we don’t know what else to say.
Which reminds me of a book that I just read – [recommended to me by my colleague and our friend, Linda Butler] – the title of which is self-explanatory: “Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved”. [The author is Kate Bowler.]
For those of us who have experienced significant crisis and pain in our lives – and I think that’s most of us – [for those of us whose very basic convictions and beliefs have been called into question] – doubt may, in fact, be a very healthy and healing experience.
Perhaps we are called – not only to accept the reality of doubt in our lives (we can’t really avoid it, can we?) – but to actually embrace and even celebrate the role of doubt in our lives. Letting the new break in with its resultant doubts – [and living with the mystery and the ambiguity that this creates] – may well set the stage for new and empowering possibilities for life and faith.
Thanks be to God!
Photo Credit: Jon Tyson, unsplash.com