Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Blessing of Doubt




John 20:19-31
April 23, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

As the Easter season continues, the stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances continue. These stories have been told so many times that many of them can be referred to by a single word or phrase to identify them. This story, from John’s gospel, has come to be known as the story of “Doubting Thomas.”

Apparently, Thomas got stuck with that label sometime back in the 1600s and he hasn’t really escaped it yet. It’s a shame that he got that nickname, because it is really very unfair. If we can attune our hearts to listen, we can hear a powerful message of faith and trust in this story of Thomas.

Let’s listen for God’s good news for us in 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 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." 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 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. 25 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.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.


Yesterday, all across our country, people marched for science.
Next week, in Washington DC, people will march for the climate.
If Thomas the Apostle were alive today, I think he would be marching with them. Maybe most of the disciples who followed Jesus would be there, too. Probably not Peter – he was the denier in the group! (Just kidding.)

If you think about science as a method, a form of learning, then questions and doubt are essential to that enterprise. After all, how does the scientific method work?

(Kids, listen for a minute – if you haven’t had this in school yet, you will, and if you’ve already had it, it is good review.) The scientific method is a five (well, six) step process.
1. First, make an observation. That means noticing something that seems interesting, or intriguing. Perhaps you notice that every Spring, the tulips bloom at different times.
2. Second, ask a question. If you see something that causes you to wonder, what questions arise for you about that observation? Why don’t the tulips bloom in the same week of the year each year? Could it be the temperature? Of the soil, or the air? Or some other factor?
3. Third, form a hypothesis, or testable explanation. Once you have a question in mind, state that question in a way that you can research to find an answer. What soil temperature is needed for the majority of tulips to bloom?
4. Step four, make a prediction based on the hypothesis. What do you think the answer or answers to your question might be? The average tulip blooms when the soil temperature reaches x degrees.
5. Fifth, you test the prediction. This is the actual scientific investigation – observe the tulip bulbs, maybe in the lab and the garden. Note the soil temperature at the same time or times each day. Notice when the tulips bloom. Record your results.
6. And there is a sixth step: iteration – repeat the steps! But use the results to make new hypotheses or predictions.

If we did this with tulips blooming in the spring, we’d learn that there is a genetic factor called Apetala 1 that functions like a switch, to make the flowers bloom. And we’d learn that the progression of warmer winters has changed how and when the flowers bloom, altering their patterns and the possibility of pollination, because the bees are flying before the flowers have bloomed.[1]

Then we would see a new pattern, and there would be new questions. One Orthodox priest describes the process like this:
“When scientists gather facts, they are at first uncoordinated.
Then the scientist gathers them together, and some kind of general picture emerges.
It seems integral. At this point, if [she or] he is a true scientist, they will pose a question to themselves: where are the cracks? I will search for a fact that will dismantle the integrity of my conception, since my conception is limited.”

This is the example set by Thomas. He has collected the facts before him, and is looking carefully at them. But his collection of facts, the whole collection, is not adequate. The whole is greater than the sum of all Thomas’s facts: it is deeper and broader and fuller than anyone can imagine.

Thomas only gets a mention in the other gospels, when Jesus calls him. But in John’s gospel, Thomas appears several times in crucial moments. His first starring role is in the 11th chapter of John, when Jesus gets word that his dear friend Lazarus is ill. But he doesn’t hurry back to Bethany where Lazarus lives. Even though he loves Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, Jesus delays his return for two more days. By then, Lazarus has died. Here’s what the gospel tells us:

“Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”
The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”

And in one of those typical Johannine dialogues, Jesus answers in poetry:
“Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”

The disciples don’t get it, of course, but then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.
For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

Jesus is making the journey back to Bethany, to raise Lazarus from the dead.
Jesus is returning to Bethany, where he is in danger, so that the disciples will believe.
The rest of the disciples are worried – they tried to stone you, Lord. 
(And they might do it – and they might stone us too!)
But Thomas doesn’t waver, doesn’t protest. 
He simply said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” 
That’s Thomas.

The second place we see Thomas prior to this story is in John 14, the beginning of what is known as the “farewell discourse” of Jesus. You’ve heard this scripture many times if you have been to funerals.

Jesus said to the disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

Do you see the pattern here? Thomas is not afraid to follow, AND he is not afraid to ask questions. Thomas, like a scientist of faith, collects the truths, arranges them into some kind of pattern, then asks questions about what he is seeing. When he does this, a new picture emerges, one he hadn’t seen before. It is deeper, broader, fuller, and more mysterious.

The same is true with each of us: we begin with our experience, and, imperfect though it may be, it is real for us. Then we begin to wonder – is my concept of God the truth?
Is this a reality, or just something somebody made up?

Our questions like that are a gift, a blessing, because they show us that we’ve outgrown our first understanding, and they show us that our knowledge is imperfect, that we need to learn and experience more, ask more questions. I’m very fond of the quote from St. Augustine of Hippo on this subject: “So what are we to say, brothers, about God? For if you have fully grasped what you want to say, it isn’t God. If you have been able to comprehend it, you have comprehended something else instead of God.” So as soon as we think we have the matter settled, we may trust that we are mistaken! 

That, too, is the blessing of doubt! But this questioning, this doubt that leads to investigation which only leads to more questions, this is not a methodology to dodge the demands that Jesus places on us! Kierkegaard has the answer for that one!

“The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? 
Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you?
Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God.
Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”[2]

Jesus appears to the disciples, on the day of his resurrection. He comes into a locked room where they are hiding, and shows them his wounds, and gives them his peace, the peace he had promised them in his farewell discourse. He had died, and now he is back, alive, on the third day, just as he had told them.

Why wasn’t Thomas there?
Perhaps he was the only one with the courage to leave their hiding place. In any case, when Thomas returned, and Jesus returned, Thomas had questions, just as Peter and the other disciple had questioned Mary Magdalene a week earlier at the empty tomb. Thomas wanted to see, to experience for himself what they told him. 
Could it be true?
Could he really believe it?

Jesus returned, and stood in front of Thomas – “Touch my wounds,” he offered. But there is no indication that Thomas did so. He simply breathed the powerful affirmation of faith that comes from the intersection of faith and doubt, question and answer: “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus answers: "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." Then, as if the fourth wall is broken, the writer of John’s gospel turns to us, the narrator breaking into the narrative:

“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.”

Here is the choice:
We can close our hearts and minds to any investigations or discussions, insisting that no doubts are allowed, that we will not entertain any questions, that we are certain of our absolute understanding of the truth. And if we do we foreclose on the possibility of greater faith; we concede that our belief is so tenuous that the least little jostling will knock it down, like a badly built brick wall.

Or we can wonder, and look around the world, and ask our questions. If we do we will find that our faith is flexible, and strong, like a trampoline that will lift us up into higher and more joyful places, and we won’t be afraid to jump, or to ask our questions.

Here is the blessing – if we are willing to receive it. We find it at the intersection of seeing and believing, the crossroads of questions and answers, the meeting point of doubt and faith. We will return to this crossroad many times in our lives, if we are attentive and willing. Each time, we may experience something new, something deeper, higher, broader, than we have known before.

We will ask questions of that new experience, perhaps forming a new hypothesis which will lead us deeper into faith, perhaps finding a new pattern we had not yet seen.

Then we can join our voices, with all our doubts and questions, along the words of 1 Peter 1: 8-9:
“Although you have not seen him,
you love him; and even though you do not see him now,
you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy,
for you are receiving the outcome of your faith,
the salvation of your souls.”

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

Amen.



[1]https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/nov/06/climate-change-is-disrupting-flower-pollination-research-shows
[2] https://lifeondoverbeach.wordpress.com/2011/06/25/kierkegaard-on-understanding-the-bible/

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