Faith and Doubt

A sermon by the Rev. David A. Ames, St. Martin’s Church, 2nd Sunday of Easter, April 28, 2019

Throughout this year, and I believe for the rest of our lives, the Church and all of us will be paying particular attention to the care of God’s creation.  During this past season of Lent St. Martin’s, along with many other Episcopal churches used the publication, “A Life of Grace for the Whole World.” Its purpose was for discussion groups to focus on the suffering of the earth.  It is time for us and for the whole world to work for the common goal of renewing the earth as a hospitable planet for the flourishing of all life.  We are called to speak and act on behalf of God’s good creation.

As our rector stated in his Easter sermon our epic Biblical story of salvation history including the Resurrection is about the repair of creation by bringing about a new heaven and a new earth. The first Christians recognized that raising Jesus to new life revealed in real time a foretaste of the future promise of a new heaven and a new earth. They felt called to a new way of living, in a new kind of community, where the goal was to leave this world in a better state than the one into which they were born.  

The Resurrection event itself was not, however, an immediate and decisive experience for all of Jesus’ disciples.  Today’s Gospel story about Thomas poses a certain tension between belief and doubt.  I find myself resonating to this story every year because Thomas raises some significant questions for all of us who tend toward skepticism as we continue the human quest for meaning and direction in our lives.  We live with science and technology as our constant companions.  We want to know that the products of scientific research and technological development will fulfill what they promise.  It is the same with our belief and our faith.  We want to know that what we believe is true and that our faith can be trusted.

In the earliest days of the Christian movement following the Resurrection of Christ, there were a number of different groups of Christians.  Near the end of the first century these groups were known by their loyalty to a particular apostle.  There were, for example, Peter Christians, Thomas Christians, and others devoted to Matthew, Mary Magdalene, John, or Paul. 

Since 1945, with the discovery of several early texts near Nag Hammadi in northern Egypt, biblical and historical scholars have been studying these documents for their impact on the early Christian movement.  Four of them are considered most important and examine differences among groups of Jesus’ followers.  They are the Secret Book of James, the Gospel of Thomas, the Book of Thomas, and the Secret Book of John.  It wasn’t until the end of the second century that the Canon of the New Testament as we know it came to be the accepted norm for all Christians.

The biblical scholar Elaine Pagels, in her book titled Beyond Belief, has a chapter about the differences between the authors of the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas.  For example, “John says that we can experience God only through the divine light embodied in

Jesus.”  Thomas, however, goes in a different direction.  He says, “the divine light Jesus embodied is shared by humanity, since we are all made ‘in the image of God.'” John challenged Thomas’ claim that “this light was present in everyone.” (pp, 40-41)

John also makes the point that belief is crucial: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  What does John mean by belief?  In the gospels of Matthew and Luke Jesus berates his disciples for their lack of faith.  Those who beg for healing are required to have faith before Jesus can work a miraculous cure, and some of them pray, “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.” 

The Greek word translated as faith is pisteo, which means “I trust.”  It has to do with loyalty and commitment.  When the Greek was translated into Latin, the noun for faith became fides, and the scholar Jerome, used the word credo, which means “I give my heart.”  It was not until the late seventeenth century that our concept of knowledge became more theoretical, and the word “belief” was used to describe intellectual assent to a hypothetical proposition. 

Jesus did not ask people to believe, nor did he make claims about his divinity.  What he asked for was commitment, he wanted his followers to engage with his mission, to give all they could to the poor, to feed the hungry, refuse to be hampered by family ties, abandon pride, put aside their sense of self-importance, live like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, and to trust in God.  They were to live compassionate lives. 

In John’s gospel, unlike the other gospels, Thomas is singled out from the other disciples.  In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Thomas is referred to as “one of the twelve” and is not labeled a skeptic or doubter.

According to John, Thomas however, was skeptical and rightly so, because he was not present with the other disciples when Jesus appeared to them.  When the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord,” Thomas replied, “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.” “I will not trust what you are saying.”

We don’t know where Thomas was or what he was doing when Jesus appeared to the other disciples, but we can imagine that he was grieving the loss of his friend.  In fact, all the disciples had been grieving, collectively and individually. But then, when Jesus appeared to them it was a Resurrection experience.  Jesus said, “Peace be with you…receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.”

Elaine Pagels cites three instances in which the Gospel of John sets Thomas apart by focusing on his skepticism.  John’s writing was near the end of the first century following Jesus’ death and resurrection.  It was from that point onward that Thomas would be known as “Doubting Thomas.”

The first instance of this occurred for John when he reported that Thomas, when hearing that Jesus was going to Judea to raise Lazarus from the dead, did not believe Jesus could do this.  He said, “Let us go, so that we may die with him.”  Here, Thomas is pictured “as one who listens to Jesus in disbelief, imagining that he is merely human like everyone else.”

In the second instance Jesus anticipated his own death and urged the disciples to trust in God as he promised to “prepare a place for you.”  He said, “You know where I am going, and you know the way.”  Thomas replied, “We do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  Here, Jesus’ response to Thomas was, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, except through me.”

Then, in the third instance Jesus returns after his death to rebuke Thomas.  He says, after Thomas was invited to see and touch the wounds of his crucified body, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Both Matthew and Luke have Jesus appearing to “the eleven” disciples.  Only Judas Iscariot was not present when Jesus conferred the power of the Holy Spirit upon them.  John’s account is different.  He stated, “Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.”  (Pagels, pp. 70-71)

What are we to make of this?  The fact that Thomas had to see, touch and feel is not at all bad.  It presumed a level of intimacy.  The story about Thomas also tells us that doubt and faith are related.  The more intelligent and deep the doubt, the more mature will be the depth of faith that needs to be expressed.  Doubt and faith are always in tension.

Thomas wanted his faith to be grounded in Jesus, not in what the other disciples said.  Our situation today is similar; we have received our “belief” and “faith” from our families, communities, and the generations that have preceded ours.  The meaning and the essential point of the story about Thomas has to do with Jesus’ compassion.  Jesus allowed Thomas to satisfy his “doubt” by letting him experience his wounds.  Thomas responded with a statement of profound reverence: “My Lord and my God!”  It was a feeling of deep respect, love and awe.  It is a “knowing,” a Resurrection experience of divine love.  It is also contemplative.  Jesus wanted his followers to have this experience of being loved by God and of being one with God. 

Today, in our wrestling with faith and doubt we are invited through Christ’s resurrection to new life to experience God’s love and to do the compassionate work of loving and caring for others and for all of God’s creation.  It is about trusting in Jesus and committing our lives to his ministry of bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovering sight for the blind, and letting the oppressed go free.  It is by doing the compassionate work of ministry to those in need, and by caring for God’s creation that we trust in Christ and faithfully practice resurrection to new life.  Amen.

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