SJF • Easter 2b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus 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.”+
There are all sorts of little sayings you hear in the church, little sayings that are said so often that people come to accept them as if they were Holy Writ. The problem is that many of these little sayings aren’t in the Bible, and worse than that they aren’t even true. One of them is, “Jesus said, ‘Love the sinner but hate the sin.’” Whenever I hear that one I always ask for chapter and verse; for, of course, Jesus said no such thing, at least as far as the Scriptures record. But that’s for another sermon.
+ + +
Today I want to look at the little saying that goes, “Doubt is the prelude to faith.” At least that’s one form of it. Alfred Lord Tennyson put it more poetically (which is fitting for a poet), “There is more Faith in honest doubt than in all the creeds.” Well, as someone who says the creed every day and twice on Sundays, I want to challenge that little saying, and on the contrary assert that doubt is the enemy of faith, something to be overcome; not an essential prerequisite or prelude to faith, but a poison that can infect or destroy faith.
Of course I acknowledge that doubt exists, but I affirm that faith survives and triumphs because it overcomes doubt. Many great Christians have had moments of doubt, moments in which they felt they’d made a terrible mistake, dark nights of the soul when they’ve felt so abandoned by God they began to doubt God’s providence, maybe even God’s existence. However, they survived those doubts; they regained their faith. We should hardly have heard of them if they had remained doubtful, certainly not as great Christians! In the same way people can survive deadly diseases: but that doesn’t make disease a beneficial stage towards a healthy life! Health comes with the end of the disease. And while it may be true that a healed broken bone is stronger than one that has never been broken, that is hardly a recommendation to go out and have all your bones broken!
No, I’m afraid that doubt remains a detriment to faith. It is something to be overcome, not embraced. Jesus puts it plainly when he faces the doubter Thomas, in five sharply pointed words: Do not doubt but believe. You can’t do them both at the same time!
As for Tennyson and all the others who have sung doubt’s praises, to be fair to them, what they’re talking about probably isn’t doubt at all, but ignorance. And those are two different things. Doubt is the enemy of faith, as much as suspicion is the enemy of trust. You can’t really trust them if you are suspecting them at the same time. The doubting skeptic will deny, until he is given reason to affirm. He tries to subsist in the world of “wait and see” — and “show me the money” — and since there are many things one never can or will see or be shown, things which must betaken on faith or the testimony of others, the doubter may spend an eternity waiting. Doubt, then, is thinking that something is false until proven otherwise; it demands first hand evidence.
Ignorance, on the other hand, keeps an open if not an empty mind: ignorance is simply not knowing — and given our human limitations, ignorance is a major part of our human condition: there are many things we do not know of a certainty, yet in which we have faith. To put it another way, Ignorance can be informed, but doubt must be convinced.
+ + +
Let’s look at our lessons for today, because they can help us see the difference. Peter addresses the people of Jerusalem, those responsible for the death of Jesus, in a moving speech that shows just how far God will go to forgive. He tells the people that they rejected Jesus; they chose to have a murderer go free, and killed the Author of Life. But he goes on to call them “friends,” and tell them that they “acted in ignorance.” As Jesus himself had said, “they know not what they do.” This ignorance, this clouding of the mind as Paul would later say, was necessary in order for God to fulfill what had been foretold through the prophets, that the Messiah must suffer. And Peter calls on them to repent and accept the truth of which they had been ignorant.
Peter is an eyewitness to the resurrection, there to testify and convert their ignorance into knowledge and bring them thence to faith, from unbelief to belief. And many of them accept his testimony.
+ + +
In comparison, consider doubting Thomas. For years those who want to cherish their own doubts have tried to exonerate Thomas. They want it to be okay for him to have doubted the reality of Christ’s resurrection, to have doubted the witness of the other disciples, and swear he had to see with his own eyes and feel with his own hands before he’d believe their testimony. After all, once he would see, their testimony would be superfluous. And although skeptical Thomas went on to do great things — tradition tells us he went as far as India, the apostle to bring the gospel into Asia — he couldn’t have done that if he had remained Doubting Thomas. Had he remained Doubting Thomas there would have been no gospel for him to preach, only his empty doubts.
Thomas’ doubts were not okay. They were something to be gotten rid of, to overcome. They would have killed his faith were it not for our Lord’s extraordinary willingness to put up with this disbelieving apostle, this disbelieving skeptic, and pay an additional visit to that upper room.
Jesus had shown his wounded hands and side to the other disciples, but he invites Thomas to go further. He invites the skeptic to poke and prod, to touch the risen flesh, delivered from death by the power of God. And he says to him, Do not doubt but believe.
There are paintings of this famous Gospel scene that show Thomas sticking his finger in the Lord’s wounded side. Personally I find that very hard to believe, nor does the Scripture tell us that Thomas accepted the invitation to handle Jesus so roughly. No, the text simply tells us that Thomas answered his Lord’s invitation with, “My Lord and my God.” And I picture him shocked and hardly daring even to look up, let alone to poke at Jesus’ wounds.
Even then, Jesus doesn’t let him off so lightly, he doesn’t let the beam of his severe attention drop. Okay, so Thomas now believes because he has seen. His ignorance, which should have been informed and dispelled by the witness of the other disciples, had hardened into doubt, had calcified into skepticism and it took a personal appearance from Jesus to wipe that doubt away: that first hand evidence, as Canon West used to say, of a hand with a hole in it.
And so Jesus goes on to say, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Blessed are those for whom the news of the gospel, lightening their ignorance, is enough. Blessed are those who only need to hear the good news, to gain the knowledge of God’s saving mission to humanity. Blessed are those whose faith rests not on the foundation of a ruined doubt, but on the solid rock of plain honest ignorance enlightened by the testimony of the Gospel.
+ + +
The evangelist John wants us so much to understand this. That’s why he wrote the Gospel, after all: to tell those who would come after what had happened. Doubt is not good. It can kill faith as much as jealousy can kill love; as much as suspicion can murder trust. Ignorance, on the other hand, is not our problem; it is our condition. The evangelist John, to make this point, steps forward for a moment at the end of the reading we heard, he steps forward as the author of the gospel to remind us, his readers, that there are many other signs Jesus performed “which are not written in this book.” He repeats this author’s note in the very last verse of his gospel, when he states that if everything Jesus had said and done were written down the whole world could not contain all the books it would take to tell it. In short, John is saying, I don’t have space or time to tell you everything. You are still ignorant in part. But you don’t need to know everything. What I have told you is enough. It is sufficient. The Scripture you hold in your hands, the Scripture you hear with your ears, is enough so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you might have life in him — and blessed are you who have come to believe.
+ + +
This is our condition, my sisters and brothers in Christ. We don’t know everything about Jesus. We don’t know how tall he was, what his voice was like. We have probably lost any number of his teachings and sayings along the way, things he did or said that no one ever wrote down. We are in partial ignorance; as Saint Paul said, “we know in part.” But, as Saint John reminds us, we know enough — and are blessed in that sufficient knowledge: like the daily bread that is enough for each day; we have enough.
We do not need to poke at the nail holes and the spear wound. We do not need even to see our Risen Lord as did his disciples in that upper room. We are among those blessed with limited knowledge, but also blessed with abundant faith, blessèd ones who though we have not seen, yet we have believed through the words of John and the other witnesses. For though we now can touch the Lord’s body only through the outward forms of bread and wine; though we now can serve the Lord only through our ministry to each other, and to the downtrodden and the needy, yet in our faith, our faith that thrives in the knowledge and the love of God, in our faith we are strengthened to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and believing in him, to have life in his name; and in his name we pray.+