Doubting Thomas: Faith in an Uncertain Age

Note: I preached this sermon on April 19, 2009–five months before I was ordained!–at Wicker Park Lutheran Church in Chicago.

Last year I was an intern at Bethel-Imani Lutheran Church in Englewood. It’s an African-American church, and the pastor there, Pastor L., is steeped in the traditions of African American Christianity. One Sunday he was doing a catechism during the worship service. He asked, “what figure in the Bible have black people most identified with?” He was looking for Moses–the liberation from slavery, the journey through the wilderness, the promise of a new start and a new land. No one was cooperating. One woman piped up, “I identify with Doubting Thomas.”

Everybody identifies with Doubting Thomas. It doesn’t matter what your age, your race, your position in life or in the world, everyone can identify with Doubting Thomas. And we identify with Thomas because the author wants us to identify with him. We are the disciples who are invited to believe without having seen Jesus in the locked room. We are the ones who are blessed to believe without having seen what Thomas insisted on seeing. We have to struggle with doubt and with our very human need for proof. The story of Thomas involves all of us because it gets to the heart of the question: what does it mean to have faith? Why do we believe what we believe?

This is a different question today than it was not that long ago. Back when most everyone was a Christian in America, there was a strength in numbers. Did Jesus rise from the tomb on the first day of the week? Well, 150 million Jesus fans can’t be wrong. Maybe our country was never as religious as people claim, but there was enough social pressure to make doubt the kind of thing that people kept to themselves. That was the world my father grew up in. He said in Luck, Wisconsin you had freedom of religion: you could join the Lutheran church of your choice. Most people went to church, or at least felt bad when they went fishing instead. No one wanted to be Thomas, ruining the party by saying “I didn’t see that. I want to see it too.”

We live in a different world now, in many ways. Most of us live and work in communities that aren’t particularly religious. We socialize with people of all different religions and people who have no religion at all. Most of us know first-hand that you can be a good, happy, honest, hard-working person without believing in Jesus Christ and his resurrection. If my father grew up in a world of disciples, we live today in a world of Thomases. Or more than that: a world in which people are not necessarily even interested in the question Thomas is asking. We live in a world of infinite possibilities. That means we live in a world of endless doubt. Maybe I’m wrong about this and my Muslim neighbor is right. Or maybe we’re both wrong and someone else is right. Or maybe no one’s really right and no one’s really wrong. Would anything change if I skipped church and slept in on Sunday? Is this story of an empty tomb and a risen Christ all hogwash? Perhaps you have asked yourselves questions like these. I have asked them myself. What does it mean to have faith in such an uncertain age? What does it mean, today, to believe without seeing?

Faith and doubt have always been roommates. Thomas is the one we call “doubting,” but his story is repeated in the lives of the saints in every time and place. What people doubt might change. But the experience of being cut off from the presence of God in Christ is the same. Christians make some very big claims about the world. We say that God is both one and three, and that love and relationship were therefore part of the life of God before there was any creation for God to love. We say that the world began at God’s command. We say that God chose one people to be God’s own and raised up Jesus as the Son of Man from that people. We say that he died for the forgiveness of human sin and that he gives us the Spirit to guide us through life. And most amazingly, we say that this Jesus was raised from the dead. And he was not resuscitated, or a ghost, but a glorified body prepared for eternal life.

These are hard things to believe! They can’t be verified by scientific investigation. They can only be held through times of struggle and doubt. Doubt is a measure of the importance of the question. If I ask myself whether I turned the lights off before I left home, I put it out of my mind pretty quickly (we’ve switched to compact fluorescents). If I doubt that my life comes from God, I worry a little more. When you spend your time asking the big questions, you spend some of the time in deep doubt. That’s the way it is. You’re always moving back and forth across that line from faith to doubt.

Now some people in our day have taken the wrong lesson from this, in my opinion. They look at the legitimate questions people have about the Bible stories. They look at our age’s demands for proof. They look at the world of noble religions that get by fine without Jesus and the empty tomb. They see lots of reasons to doubt and much less basis for faith. And so they try to bring all of our doubts into the content of our faith. Do you doubt the resurrection of Jesus, as you well may? There are plenty of scholars today who will say, “Of course you do! The story is not literal. It’s a metaphor. It’s a projection of the disciples’ grief and longing. It’s the crude image of a primitive age.” They write books and Newsweek or Salon profiles them every Easter. These are people who think they are making Christian faith compatible with our uncertain age. They think they are redefining Christianity in a way that will allow sophisticated people like you and me to continue to call ourselves Christians.

Unfortunately, the result is a view of the life of Jesus that makes both faith and doubt impossible. If the resurrection of Jesus is just a literal retelling of a purely psychological experience on the part of the disciples, there’s nothing that invites us to believe and therefore nothing worth doubting. What does it mean to have faith in an uncertain age? It doesn’t mean just splitting the difference between faith and doubt. That’s like splitting the difference between fire and ice. Rather than getting the best of both, you lose them entirely.

No, I’m afraid the life of the Christian will always be one divided between spring days of faith and cold, rainy seasons of doubt. Doubt, as I said, is the measure of the importance of the question. Think about it–what could be more important than the question Thomas asked: did Jesus really rise from the dead? Forget about the other miracles, the healings, and so forth. If all those are false and the empty tomb story is true, Jesus Christ is still the savior of the world. But if all the other stories are true and the empty tomb is false, Jesus was a powerful man. But he was nobody’s Lord and Savior.

If the Easter story is just a fable, we live in the same world that all humanity has known. We live in a world imprisoned by death; a world where injustice and cruelty are not overturned by God’s power.

On the other hand, if the Easter story is true, then everything changes. If the chains of death have been broken once–even in one special, miraculous case–they can be broken again and forever. If the story is true, then the world is not caught in an endless cycle of birth and death. If the story is true, then you and everyone you know is the potential heir to something eternal and glorious beyond all imagining. If that story is true, and if you hear and believe it, surely it is more valuable than anything else. Surely it demands your whole life in joyous gratitude! No wonder Thomas was doubting. Could all of this be true? Could the world be overturned so totally, so wonderfully?

And the question–did Jesus rise from the tomb–only becomes more important as the world becomes more uncertain. If any of you out there are like my friend at Bethel-Imani, and identify with Doubting Thomas today, I’m sorry that I don’t have a good enough answer for you. I am no stranger to doubt myself. I, too, wonder about being asked to believe in an empty tomb when all the world’s tombs are full.

But the disciples certainly did believe. For them, the resurrection of Jesus was not a metaphor, not a hallucination, not an illusion. I do not believe either that they were liars or frauds. The empty tomb really did change their lives. We have legendary stories of Thomas, the great doubter, leaving everything behind for India. Eventually he was martyred there. 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. That is the faith that built the church. And it is faith that launched into a disbelieving world from a moment of doubt. May it be the same with us in our uncertain world today. Amen.

One comment

  1. I really like this. I hate to bring up one point I disagree with when I just said I agree with everything else (which is a lot), but I don’t think Jesus went to the cross so that we would ‘give our lives in gratitude’ (“If that story is true, and if you hear and believe it, surely it is more valuable than anything else. Surely it demands your whole life in joyous gratitude!) When my parents gave me a gift at Christmas when I was young, they didn’t demand that I repay them with an eternal debt of gratitude. If that was the cost, I would have asked for no more presents from them. They gave me gifts for the sheer joy of me receiving them, asking nothing in return. Now, certainly it was part of a larger kaleidoscope of my love relationship with my parents, but it came from their love for me, not their demanding anything from me in return. Thanks for allowing me to comment and keep writing good stuff!

    Like

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