Sunday, April 11, 2010

Blessed Are Those Who Question

Second Sunday of Easter – Year C (RCL)
Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 118:14-29; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31
Sunday, April 11, 2010 – Trinity, Redlands

“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (Jn 20:29)

When you consider this statement by Jesus in light of how everyone has reacted thus far to the various resurrection appearances, it’s nothing short of a miracle that we are even here today. Everyone who witnessed a post-resurrection appearance of Christ initially had a hard time believing what they were experiencing. We start off on Easter morning with Mary Magdalene going to the tomb and finding it empty. After telling the disciples, she has a direct encounter with the Risen Lord, but she does not recognize him until he calls her name. Once she has the confirmation she needs that it is indeed her Master, she runs and tells the disciples what she has experienced. But later that evening, when the Risen Christ appears in their midst as they hid in fear in a locked room, they don’t seem to recognize him, even though Mary has told them that Jesus had indeed risen. Only when he speaks and shows them the wounds in his hands and his side do they recognize him. When they tell Thomas what had happened, that they have seen the Risen Lord, he doesn’t believe them. He needs to see for himself. A week later, he gets his wish. Jesus appears to him and invites Thomas to touch his wounds. Without even having to touch them, he knows that this is indeed his Master. None of them – Mary, the ten, or Thomas – initially believe, despite the facts that they are Jesus’ closest companions, despite the fact that he had prepared them for this, telling them on more than one occasion that he would be killed in Jerusalem and then would be raised up on the third day.

What I particularly find amazing is that despite his own followers, those who knew him best, having a hard time believing his resurrection, that so many people afterwards came to believe. If the eyewitnesses to the resurrection had such a hard time believing, how could those who had not been there be expected to believe? Mary and the disciples were ultimately able to believe because they saw the Risen Lord, had direct contact with him, were able to verify that he was who he said he was, that what he claimed had indeed happened. “Have you believed because you have seen me?” Well, yes.

We don’t know for sure how many people actually had first-hand experiences of seeing the Risen Lord. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians tells us that in addition to the eleven disciples, he appeared to “more than five hundred brothers and sisters” (1 Cor 15:5-8). But despite only appearing to a total of, say six hundred people max, many more people than that have believed. In the time since Christ’s resurrection, literally billions of people have believed in the Risen Lord, despite not having first-hand knowledge, despite having no proof. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” To me, this is truly a miracle.

When I hear Jesus’ words, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” I cannot help but think of a former co-worker of mine. Karen was one of the staff biologists at the consulting firm I used to work for. She was a top-notch scientist, but also struggled with issues of faith. She had been raised Roman Catholic, but had drifted away from the church sometime earlier in her life. It was during the early years of my friendship with Karen that I had a re-awakening or a renewal of my faith journey. It was during this time that I found the Episcopal Church and was launched headlong into parish life and intensive exploration of my own spiritual path. Karen was aware of all of this and we would often have conversations about religion and spirituality. Being the consummate scientist, I think some of this was a challenge for Karen. Once she set her mind on figuring out or understanding something, she was tenacious. And while she saw no conflict between science and religion, I think she tried to approach religion from a more scientific, rationalistic perspective to seek answers, which just didn’t work. This was a cause of great frustration for her. Karen and I were very much alike in a lot of ways. Professionally we were both in fields that required logical, orderly approaches to issues and problems. And I think what was frustrating for her was that I was somehow able to suspend my engineering brain when it came to matters of religion and faith, whereas she did not quite know how to do that. On more than one occasion she would say to me that she saw how important my faith was to me and that she wished she could have that experience, too. She would ask me how she could “get” what I had.

I felt so helpless. I really wanted to help her, but didn’t know how. All I could tell her was that the expression of faith is unique to the individual and that we all have our own path to realizing that. As such, there is no way I could know, let alone tell her, what was right for her. All I could do was invite her to go to church with me, which she did regularly. Now that wouldn’t have worked for some people. But since Karen had a basic foundation due to her early years in the church, and a profound desire to explore her faith, to try to understand it, she would have a fighting chance.

Karen did join the Episcopal Church and seemed to find some satisfaction in our tradition and the broadness that it affords. I have lost touch with Karen, but I sometimes wonder, particularly when this Gospel lesson rolls around in the lectionary, if she ever found what she was looking for. And I often think that Karen and Thomas are two peas in a pod. Actually, I think it’s a pretty big pod, with lots of people keeping company with Thomas and Karen.

So what do we do with Thomas? Based on today’s Gospel lesson, he gets the moniker “Doubting Thomas” and has become the poster child for anyone who doubts, who refused to believe something without direct, physical evidence – even if it’s obvious to the rest of us. Well frankly, Thomas gets a bum rap. A lot of people get the idea that because Thomas had doubts as to whether Jesus had risen and appeared to the other ten apostles, that he lacked faith.

But that’s not really fair. Because up until now, Thomas had not had the opportunity to question his faith, to struggle with what he truly believed. Up until now, Thomas and the others had traveled with Jesus and witnessed all sorts of signs and miracles that pointed the way to who Jesus was, to elicit faith in him as the Messiah, the holy one of God. Up until now, everything about Jesus had been proven to them. And now, when a new situation involving Jesus presents itself, Thomas would have rightly expected some sort of proof, just as had been provided in the past. I don’t think Thomas did not believe as much as his faith was clouded by uncertainty. And when it comes to faith, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Alan Jones, the former dean of Grace Cathedral, often quotes an unnamed English monk who once said “The opposite of faith isn’t doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.” Many people think faith and certainty go hand-in-hand. But in reality, when one is certain, particularly in matters of faith, he puts God in a box. When one is certain, there is nothing else to learn on the matter. Certainty closes off the need for or the possibility of questioning or further exploration. Certainty eliminates mystery. And what is our faith and religion if not built on mystery? Doubt, on the other hand asks us to open our minds to possibility. Doubt is about entertaining questions. Doubt invites us to go deeper in our exploration of the unknown, of ourselves, and of our God. Doubt invites us to enter into mystery, to experience the joy that it has to offer.

Episcopal priest Philip Culbertson goes one step further than Alan Jones. Culbertson believes “Doubt is . . . a crucial ingredient in faith. Faith and doubt have a sort of yin-yang relationship – dependent, complementary, energizing and focusing one another. Doubt is the energy of inquiry. Faith is never lost through the fearless search for truth. And so it was with Thomas. His initial doubting leads him to proclaim one of the greatest faith statements of the New Testament . . . ‘my Lord and my God’” (Culbertson, 24). He could not have made such a statement had he initially lacked faith, had he not had a core faith waiting to be brought forth to the surface, a faith wanting to be deepened.

In addition to his underlying faith that just needed to be coaxed forward, Thomas had one other thing that, as I see it, helped him through his period of doubt. Even in his doubts and uncertainty, Thomas was part of a community of faith, namely the other ten apostles. Even though he had his doubts, the community did not reject him. I cannot help but think that the other ten apostles supported him, maybe tried to help him work through his questions and his doubts. After all, what we tend to forget is that a week before, they were where Thomas is now. When Jesus initially appeared before them, they did not know what to make of him. They did not immediately recognize Jesus. While they did not specifically ask for proof, they were provided with it. They heard his voice, they saw the wounds in his hands and his side. In those signs they were assured that this was indeed their Risen Lord. Thomas was not asking for anything that they themselves had not had the opportunity to experience. Maybe they used their experiences of doubt to help Thomas deal with his own doubts.

That’s probably the most important lesson for us, removed two millennia from the resurrection event. We are those whom Jesus was talking about when he said “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” We have not had the benefit of the experiences of the ten apostles on Easter Day. We have not had the opportunity to experience Jesus as Thomas did a week later. Yet, through the witness of innumerable saints over the last two thousand years, through the testimonies of scripture, and through the abiding conviction of our own faith communities, we are able to believe that our Lord is risen. That does not mean that we do not at times question the veracity of the event, wonder about the specific details, the whys and wherefores. Such events are hard to fathom. Such questioning is natural, and if anything, helps us to further our faith – particularly when done in community – through Bible studies, through various groups in the parish such as Daughters of the King, ACES (Adult Christians Exploring Spirituality), and the Companions of Sts Benedict and Scholastica, and even through our informal conversations.

At one time or another, we are all Thomases and Karens. And at other times, we are part of the ten apostles, supporting the Thomases and Karens in our midst. And no matter where we are in our struggles, as long as we have that core faith that keeps us coming back even in the midst of our doubts, we will always be the blessed who may not have seen with our eyes, but have nonetheless seen how the Risen Christ has touched our lives and the lives of others, and because of that proof, cannot help but believe.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Culbertson, Philip L., et al. New Proclamation: Year C, 2010, Easter through Christ the King. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.


cuttone10 said...

I agree with you it is an amazing miracle for those who believe in Jesus and the resurrection without witnessing it first hand. Thank the Apostles and the leaders who are led by the Holy Spirit to stand up against a world against them the strength and boldness they show while teaching and proclaiming Christ is a miracle in itself!

God Bless

Joe Cuttone

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