April 23, 2017, Is There Life after Doubt? – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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In the six short years since I’ve been here with you at St. Philip’s, we’ve had to say good-bye to far too many of our beloved friends – it seems like so many funerals and memorial services for such a small church family. It’s hard on those of us who are left behind. It’s almost impossible to look out over the pews on Sunday morning without noticing those empty places that our friends used to occupy – Harriett and Ruth and Dot and Joan and Laura – and to feel that loss all over again. That sadness is a right and proper thing, because they were all so important to us, and they all gave so much of themselves to us and to the Church for years and years. But I can say with confidence today that all of the good people who have gone on before us have gone in the firm assurance of the hope that we proclaimed together last week – the hope of Christ’s Resurrection, and the steadfast love of the Father, and the promise that death no longer has the last word. Those holy women who were part of our St. Philip’s family, and our friend Marge, and my Mom, and so many other sisters and brothers in the Lord, went home to be with God in peace, even joyfully, because they held firm to the truth, the real substance of what we celebrate at Easter.
But that doesn’t mean they never had any doubts during their lifetime among us. I think it’s safe to say that every human being, no matter how rock-solid their faith might be, is confronted with the thing we call doubt at some time in their lives – and generally, I would say, many times in their lives. It is a natural part of life in this world that we have questions – why has God allowed such terrible suffering to happen to innocent people or why is God silent when we have cried out to him or why do the rich just seem to get richer and the poor poorer? Why doesn’t God reward us when we do the right thing? Why is there so much injustice? Why so little fairness? Why why why? And our questions lead to uncertainty, and our uncertainty to fear – because it is fear that is the heart of all our doubts. Whether they are intellectual or spiritual or ethical, it’s all about fear, and fear is the enemy of life.
As today’s gospel reading opens, it’s still Easter Day: “On the evening of that day,” John writes, “the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’” We can easily understand their fear. Just two days earlier almost every one of them – all but John and a few of the women – had fled in terror as the Temple guards and the Roman legions had seized Jesus and condemned him to death. And the howling mob, egged on by the Jewish authorities, had thrown themselves in on the side of the killers.
Which one of us wouldn’t be cowering in terror in a locked room, wondering what on earth was coming next and how were they going to survive now that Jesus, their leader and teacher and friend, was dead and buried. Fear, and its close cousin despair, must have filled that locked room on that first Easter evening like clouds of black, choking smoke. But suddenly Jesus was there, right in the middle of them. Remember we read a few weeks ago, Luke tells us that they thought he was a ghost at first, reasonably enough, until he urged them to touch him, to feel the solidness of flesh and bone that meant he was no ghost but a living man. And then, John says, then they were glad when they saw the Lord. Glad and relieved and amazed and stunned: all those things together, I imagine!
Fast forward eight days, though, and we find the disciples right back in that locked room. Except this time Thomas is with them. Even having seen Jesus alive and solid and real, the disciples obviously hadn’t completely overcome the fear that still held them captive. They’d been telling Thomas about seeing Jesus, but Thomas was as doubtful as they had been. “Listen, I’d have to see for myself,” he told them, “because unless I see the scars in his hands and feet and side, unless I touch them with my own hands, how can I be sure it’s really Jesus himself?” And once again Jesus is suddenly just there, right in the middle of them. Locked doors aren’t an issue for somebody who just got the better of Death itself, clearly. And just like he had done with the disciples eight days earlier, he let Thomas touch him and be assured that it was really himself, not a ghost or an impostor, but the man, Jesus, that Thomas knew and loved and worshiped. “Don’t disbelieve,” he said to Thomas, “believe!”
When I read this story about the doubting disciples – because it’s only fair to say that Thomas wasn’t the only one with doubts – I am filled with gratitude to see how gentle and loving Jesus was in response to his fearful friends. Remember, he had told them, time and time again, as they traveled together; he had told them exactly what was going to happen. “The Son of Man must suffer at the hands of the authorities and be killed, and on the third day rise again.” Here they were, the hand-picked friends of the Lord, trained and taught by his word and example for three years, and yet when the time came and everything he had told them was going to happen happened – they went all to pieces and ran away in terror and locked themselves in a room like little children.
But when Jesus came to them he came to reassure them, to lay their doubts and fears to rest, gently, kindly, “Touch me – do I feel like a ghost to you?” he said. “Here, my friend, put your finger right here where the nail pierced my flesh – don’t disbelieve any longer, but believe!” Having shared in the full experience of our frail humanity, Jesus never, in any way, despises our doubts and fears. But lovingly, without condemnation or rebuke, he reassures us, even those of us who are not able to see or touch him in the flesh. “Blessed are those who have not seen,” he said to Thomas, speaking of us, who would come after him with our own doubts, “and yet have believed.”
And John tells us why it is so important for us to overcome our doubts. “These things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is truly the Christ of God, and that by believing you may have life.” Faith is like breathing; it connects us with the source of our life. When John talks about believing, he isn’t talking about knowing the right stuff about Jesus. Having faith doesn’t mean having a correct theology of salvation or passing an exam on the Nicene Creed with full marks. Having faith is just what the disciples did as they stood fearful in that locked room – reaching out and holding onto Jesus. When we hold tight even in the midst of our fears and questions – in fact, especially in the midst of our fears and questions – when we choose to put our trust in him in the face of the opposition of the world, even when the voices inside us are telling us we had much better look for something a little more realistic – that is faith. And that faith, faith in the real person of Jesus: that is our lifeline, our connection to the “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” life that Peter says is our sure inheritance in him.
As Christians, we believe what we proclaimed last Sunday and every Sunday. And yet, as long as we live in this world we will surely find ourselves struggling with doubt and fear from time to time. But today, on the day we call “Thomas Sunday”, we are reassured that when doubts and questions and fears surround us Jesus isn’t disappointed in us or disgusted with us or disapproving of us. Instead he stands in our midst and invites us to reach out and hold on a little tighter, so that we can receive his life and his peace in the midst of our doubts.
There is a story in the gospel of Mark about a man who was in the very kind of situation that fills us all with fear and doubt: his son was desperately ill. When the suffering of the world intrudes itself into our own personal world, into the lives of the people we love, surely then we are the most tempted to question the power and the goodness of God? Nothing shatters our world like seeing our child, or our husband or wife, or our elderly parent – someone we cherish, whose life is closely bound up with our own – seeing them suffer, and being unable to do anything to help them. That’s how it was for this poor man. His child suffered from life-threatening seizures, unable even to speak. Whether that was caused by demonic powers, as people were apt to assume, or whether it had a medical cause, like a severe form of epilepsy, really doesn’t make any difference. The father was desperate, and he came to Jesus with a confused mixture of hope and fear, asking, “If you are able to help my son, please have pity and do something.” Jesus reassured him, replying, “Everything is possible if you believe.” And then the man answered Jesus with complete honesty, “I do believe. Help my unbelief.”
We can use that father’s prayer in our times of questioning and fear and doubts – in all those times when the promise of Easter and the joy of the Resurrection and the love of God feel frighteningly far away from us. It’s not that we have lost our faith in those times, any more than the disciples had stopped believing that Jesus was their Lord and Master. They believed, as we believe, but fear and grief and uncertainty had overwhelmed them as it so often does to us – until Jesus comes into the locked room of our doubts and breathes his peace into us, and we are able to cry out to him, “We believe, we do have faith – but please, help us in our unbelief!” And without condemnation, without rebuke, without disappointment, he holds out his nail-scarred hands to us, proof of his humanity and proof positive of his great love for us, and he invites to reach out to him and hold on tight.