This fear is a dreadful burden to carry. It really is. We don’t notice it, because we’re so accustomed to it, but it’s like a load of bricks on our back. It’s a way of letting death win in advance. And here’s my pet theory about it: It’s not that we, as modern Americans, are so in love with our own lives—that we are so overflowing with joy and satisfaction that we lash out at the slightest hint of possible danger. It’s that we do not believe in or value our eternal souls. As if so many of us believe we are not prepared to bring our sins before God. Or maybe worse, as if we think there is no such thing, and there will be no accounting of our actions.
Now for Luther, the big problem was that people didn’t pray boldly enough. They didn’t expect good things from God, because they were afraid of God. He compares the person who asks for too little from God to a beggar. A rich and mighty emperor invites the beggar to ask for whatever he might desire, prepared to give him “great and princely gifts.” And if the beggar asks only for a dish of beggar’s broth, he would be “considered a rogue and a scoundrel who had made a mockery of his imperial majesty’s command and was unworthy to come into his presence.”
I didn’t stay there. If I were assured of a hundred more years to live I don’t know that I would ever read Niebuhr again. Part of the problem with the blazing sunset era of high Protestant theology was that its authors sought to provide us with a place to stand–where faith and reason, revelation and science all worked together–when all they could offer was a point of transit. From the perspective of one moving out of Christian faith, however defined, those points of transit seem feeble and dishonest. For one moving into it, they can seem necessary and providential. Christians have a tendency to ask for kinds of assurance, whether from theological faculties, great collections of bishops, or second-century papyrus, that none of these can give. Our needs and our doubts give shape to the theories of revelation or ecclesiology or whatever else that we may then point to in order to meet them.
All the disciples devoted their lives to this story. At first, the people who believed the resurrection were fewer than are in this church today. But they suffered exile, violence, hunger, and worse to tell that story to anyone who would listen. Because why not? If God’s power is so great and glorious, why not risk everything to share it? If God’s power is so close at hand, why not ask anyone at all to imagine it? What are we afraid of? To believe this story is to be changed by it.
So how does Jesus answer Thomas’s doubt? He appears also to Thomas, and he invites the very violation that Thomas says he demands. And I like to imagine that he does it just as Professor Most suggests: gently, sadly, lovingly; seeking not simply to be Thomas’s Lord and God, but his protector and friend. Jesus had his hands and side pierced by his enemies, and now he invites a disciple to do the same thing. He has suffered to redeem the whole human race, and yet he is willing to suffer again in order to bring his friend to faith.
Now here’s the thing: Thomas doesn’t, in this story, turn to his friends and say, “It seems you were right,” or “ I’ll be darned, he really is alive.” Or even “this must be some kind of hallucination, or a ghost.” Everyone believed in ghosts back then. Instead, he answers “My Lord and my God.” All of his pent-up love, all of his frustrated faith, all of his hope and yearning for Jesus comes out in that one moment. Jesus asks, rhetorically, “have you believed because you have seen?” But in a sense, he hasn’t. Thomas has seen because he believed already, without really knowing it. He wanted to see Jesus. He hoped to see Jesus–if only in the meal he shared with the disciples. And so he saw Jesus.
In America the past becomes history very quickly, at least for some of us. By the time I was growing up, Martin Luther King, Jr. was an official symbol of the nation, which he still is today. I learned about him in school in a town that had deliberately excluded African-American homeowners into my lifetime. What was left out of the picture I was given was the profound hostility many people, north and south and everywhere else, felt toward him at the time of his death. What I had to learn later, on my own, is that he spent the last years of his life warning about the danger posed to American cities, and to the American soul, by generations of oppression and deprivation; that he spent those years trying hard to prevent chaos and violence; that he was not heeded by politicians or public opinion; and that the chaos and violence came, most explosively after his own murder. No one who was living in Chicago in 1968 can forget that.
As the big day of confirmation got closer, my anxiety increased. Everything I was preparing to say I believed became harder and harder to swallow.
But you would not know any of that from the people who had been willing to accompany me on this journey. I had been away from church for a long time, but I was welcomed back with open arms. I was skeptical, but people were eager for me to believe. Where I was sarcastic, my friends and pastors were patient, tender, and completely without religious snobbery. They willingly invited me to see and touch and ask and test everything they believed. People I came to admire, trust, and love passed on the gift of faith to me wrapped in their own good work and faithful witness. And someone they admired, trusted, and loved passed it on to them. And someone else passed it on to them. And someone else to them, and on and on, a great chain of gift-giving that goes all the way back to that locked room. This weekend we even add a new link to that chain, as the children of the parish are invited to take this great gift of faith in their hands, to enjoy it, and to some day take up their own role in passing it on.
A colleague of mine, writing about the process whereby adults are received into the Catholic Church, reports that most people go through it for their spouse or spouse-to-be. But she has met others who have started inquiring about the church out of their battle with an addiction, or because they read a novel by Graham Greene at an impressionable age. People discover yearnings that they never learned a vocabulary to express; or they might need a new beginning, or a way to identify with something outside of themselves. Whatever you may think of those motives, they are perennial. Whatever you may think of the church, it has a ritual in which they can be given a place.
And yet now, having known the consolations of a loving marriage, pursued the full course of my formal education, tasted the vocations that define my life, and treasured the unspeakable joy of fathering a child, the prospect of a parting sometimes fills me with far greater bitterness than it did back when my life was still a blank canvass. I’ve had to explain to skeptics that when Paul says, rhetorically, “where grave is thy victory; where O death is thy sting?” he is referring to the final resurrection, not to our own mind here and now. Here and now the grave wins its victory and death inflicts a palpable sting, to those who leave too soon and to those who are left. Yet youth is perhaps innocent even of this.