WIthout a Doubt

How to certify a birth in the kingdom of heaven? Faith and doubt are sisters... A Sermon for Easter 2

SJF • Easter 2a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

Any of you here with young children or younger siblings are no doubt familiar with the phenomenon of triangular conversation. This is what happens when you are trying to have a conversation with a person of your own age in the presence of those much younger than you are. It is a skill somewhat more difficult than the more primitive spelling-out of words that you don’t want the child to hear; which always risks the embarrassment of a wise child saying, “Mommy, I know how to S-P-E-L-L!” But for those who have mastered the art of triangular conversation, it can save many a headache, and a good deal of time. Once you have the system down, you may appear to be speaking to the child, but your message, what you want your spouse or friend to understand, gets across. When successful, the child feels included in the conversation but doesn’t understand the significance of what you are saying to the mature person.

The Gospel according to Saint John is in large part just such a triangular conversation. Although it is written as a series of encounters between Jesus and his disciples, much of it — if not most of it — is written for the benefit of those who will read it — including us. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is often speaking to us over the heads of the disciples.

This is perhaps nowhere so clear as in those closing verses of our Gospel reading today. The ones who “are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” aren’t the disciples, but are the members of the church who hear this gospel proclaimed to them — and that includes us at a remove of nearly 2000 years. Jesus may appear to be speaking to Thomas and the other disciples, but the message is for the church at large — for the many generations of believers who have come to believe not because of what they had seen but through what they have heard: the proclamation of this very gospel. As the last verse proclaims, this Gospel had a purpose, and is “written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.”

The whole incident preceding John’s conclusion leads up to it with a kind of inexorable logic. Remember that this is Jesus’s first appearance to the gathering of the disciples — prior to this he has only appeared to Mary Magdalene, and though she has told the disciples about it, they are still cowering in fear behind locked doors. Suddenly — and as I said last week, magically — Jesus appears in the locked room and reveals himself to the disciples minus one. Thomas the twin isn’t there. Why? The Gospel doesn’t say. But it would be fair to note that Thomas may not have been quite so fearful as the rest of them — perhaps the only one courageous enough to be out and about in a city grown threatening, truly now a stranger in a strange land indeed.

For whatever reason, Thomas misses out on the resurrection appearance, and expresses his doubt in no uncertain terms. Or perhaps it would be better to say, in uncertain terms. He expresses his uncertainty, his doubt, not denial. He does not affirm something that he knows, but something that he does not know. He confesses he does not know that Christ is risen — but he doesn’t declare that Christ is not risen. That would not be doubt, but denial. He does not say, “He is not risen,” but rather, “Show me the proof and then I will believe.” And once the proof is given, so he does.

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People sometimes wrongly say that doubt is the enemy of faith; but that is not really true. Doubt and faith are sisters; and whether you say “I don’t believe it” or “I do believe it” you are speaking primarily about your own state of mind and not about the ultimate reality or unreality of some objective fact. Facts, after all, are just facts. People don’t believe facts, they know facts. So knowledge is not the same thing as faith, nor is ignorance the same thing as denial. No one would say, “I believe that one plus one is two.” You would say, “I know that one plus one is two” — or, as I said before, “I know how to S-P-E-L-L.” Nor does my saying, “I don’t know how to do differential calculus or speak Chinese” mean that differential calculus or the Chinese language don’t exist. Ultimately, one does not need to have faith in, or belief in, something which you know to exist. Faith only is needed where doubt is possible.

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When Christ appeared to the other disciples they did not gain faith in him — in fact they had been just as faithless as Thomas. They had not believed the testimony of Mary, who had seen Jesus. What they gained when Christ appeared to them was not faith but knowledge. And Thomas seeks the same thing: he says he will not believe, but he demands knowledge — he literally demands hands-on experience — but faith is belief in the absence of hands-on experience , in the absence of certain knowledge.

And this is precisely why Jesus, and John as author of this Gospel, speak to us over the heads of the disciples including Thomas, in saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” We do not have direct knowledge of the living Christ, in the same way the disciples in that room did. But we do have their testimony. And as Peter also affirms — writing to a congregation long ago but who just as well might be writing to this congregation gathered here today, “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

None of us has seen the risen Lord with the eyes of the flesh, or heard his voice with our earthly ears — but we have seen him with the eyes of our heart and heard him speaking to us through the Spirit. He speaks to us through the Scripture over the heads of the doubting world. But more than that, we see him through the acts of sacrifice and service, to the wounded, the captive, the hungry, and the sick. We believe, and believing, have life in his name.

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Doubt and faith are sisters. Doubt will not harm you unless it hardens into denial, unless it demands physical proof, and incontestable evidence.

In his first novel, A Separate Peace, John Knowles portrays two privileged young men at a posh New Hampshire private boarding school in the midst of World War II. The two boys have engineered a fantasy in which they have come to deny the reality of the war itself — like some modern day conspiracy theorists, they think the war is just an elaborate hoax. They have made, as the title of the novel suggests, a separate peace; and it ends in tragedy. Denial catches up with them in the end.

And you might well say, how foolish not to know what is going on around you, not to believe the evidence of one’s senses, even after the seeing the newsreels and press reports. Or, in a more recent context, how foolish not to believe even when the much-demanded long-form birth certificate has been produced. Yes, there are still some who will continue to live in denial!

But is our disbelieving world any better for not seeing the signs of the presence of God in the hearts and hands of faithful people everywhere? That is our task, my friends. Not just to believe for ourselves, but to put our belief into action so that others may see what we have seen — not the risen Christ himself, or his wounded hands or side, but the hands and arms and shoulders of fellow Christians reaching out to lift and carry the weak, to comfort and heal the sick, to feed the hungry and console the orphan and widow. These are a certification of a birth far more important than a merely earthly one. They are the signs of the birth of the spirit in our hearts, and they certify our citizenship in the kingdom of God.

It is not for us to hear words from the lips of Jesus himself like those gathered on the mountainside, but to hear that message carried forth as testimony by many messengers — and to become messengers ourselves — apostles each and every one of us — sent to the far corners of the earth to bring the message of salvation and new birth, shouting out the Gospel over the heads of a disbelieving and unbelieving world, which, like a wise child, may realize there is more to the conversation than they know — so that all people everywhere might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and that through believing they might have life in his name.+