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.+

WIthout a Doubt

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.+