Faith and Doubt

Sermon for Low Sunday at St James, 12 April 2015

Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31 Research notes

Today – two for the price of one – there are so many things in today’s gospel that provoke new ideas and thoughts and challenges.

I have always had trouble with today’s gospel story. I think it is because my father’s name was Thomas and I always regarded it as an insult to him because he had such faith and trust in Christ his Saviour. And I am not alone in struggling with the theological implications of this passage – there seem to be more commentaries, sermon helps, discussion documents and blogs on the Internet about this event than about the resurrection itself. It all hinges around the label put on Thomas – the one who doubts. But the original Greek for the word in the passage, which is spoken by Jesus, does not refer to doubt but to unbelief. Jesus says to Thomas “Do not be unbelieving, be believing.”

Now there is a huge difference between unbelief and doubt. Doubt admits the possibility that something may be true, but unbelief does not. Thomas is not questioning the details or their interpretation. His statement is a flat denial of the possibility of what he has been told. I find this a much more comfortable picture than that of a man wavering about whether to accept what he has heard or not. Thomas’s response to the news of the resurrection and Jesus’s treatment of him after this goes far beyond the simple idea that it is all right for us Christians to doubt. What the story actually says is that it is alright for us not to believe it.

How can this be? Well, much of the bible, not least the resurrection narratives, is hard to believe. Theologians, as well as more normal thinking people, have spent reams of paper and ink trying to explain, justify or interpret Biblical text, to make it more believable or to make us more comfortable with it. If we find the text uncomfortable, then we simply determine to find another explanation which is more believable for us. We work with and through the text, listening to others but ultimately, like Thomas, coming to our own conclusions. This is part of the way in which we come to faith and in which we develop our life in Christ. We have to understand things for ourselves. And it often strikes me that many of the troubles of the Christian community arise from precisely this interpretive factor – we would all much prefer it if there was one absolute certainty which everyone subscribed to in the same way. One set of wounds, perhaps, into which we can put our fingers. Provided, of course, that it was our interpretation, or that of our faith community, and not someone else’s. We are all Thomases, saying, I don’t believe what you are telling me, I only believe what I experience for myself.

There is nothing wrong with this attitude – it is how each of us has learnt all that we know – nothing wrong, except when it leads us to drastic statements of the kind that Thomas makes, and even worse, into drastic actions. Certainty is all very well, but it is a rock on which other people can be broken. And sometimes our sources are less certain than we think. Take an instance the simple word ‘because’ in Jesus’s comment on Thomas’s great declaration of faith. We read this morning: “Have you believed because you have seen me?” A question with a reason. But the word translated ‘because’ is a conjunction with several meanings, including that of simply introducing Jesus’s actual words. And the actual words, in the order of the Greek text, are: “You have seen me, Thomas! You have believed.” The implication is simply that Thomas has seen and does believe - a statement, not a question, a simple fact, not a reason. Jesus accepts Thomas’s difficulty with believing in the resurrection and he knows that this has changed to belief because of the reality of the experience of meeting him in this new state of life.

So is it alright for Christians to have doubts about and problems with the stories of the Bible and particularly the New Testament? Yes – from this story it is obvious that, although Jesus often stresses the necessity for faith, rather than proof, not understanding the whole meaning of what is happening is common to most human beings. After all, the rest of the disciples didn’t react as one might expect to this amazing and world-changing news – either! Read the stories again and count how many ‘doubts’ and ‘disbeliefs’ you can find. Yet Jesus comes to them again and again, until they are able to accept his new life and his commission for them.

Our faith is the same. There will be times when we will waver and be uncertain. There will be times when we are actually unbelieving. But Christ will not give up on us. We will encounter him again and again, particularly in unexpected places where he seems at first to be missing altogether. We encounter the living God in whom, even though we may not all see him with our physical eyes, we can believe and trust.

This is not an easy story nor is the apparent proof as easy to believe as might first appear. So I would like to spend some minutes in a meditation on this story and to think how it might have appeared to Thomas at the time:

“Let’s get it right. To start with, I didn’t doubt their story. I absolutely did not believe it. Would you? Hysterical nonsense brought on by post-traumatic shock – that’s what I thought.  Wouldn’t you? We had all let him down, all run away, all hidden as the terrible ending unfolded moment by moment. Having sworn never to leave him, we did. We were all guilty. There was nothing we could ever do to put that right. Some of us, no doubt, felt as suicidal as Judas, but with less resolution.

“After all, when we had followed him to Lazarus’s tomb, when I rashly declared “let’s go and die with him,” I don’t think any of us really realised what the circumstances of that death would be like. O yes, we had all seen executions. We just didn’t believe for one moment that anyone like Jesus, a respected rabbi and healer, a man who had done nothing but good, a man who was the promised Messiah, could possibly be handed over to the civil authorities to be crucified. Whatever I thought, when I asked him what he meant by saying he was going ahead of us – when he told us all that his was the true way to life – neither I nor any of the others understood the terror and the agony of that way.

“And now it was all over. O, there were rumours, stories, messages – confused accounts of highly emotional people, most of them women, that didn’t make sense or amount to much, except that his body was missing. That was clear enough. But who had taken it or for what purpose – well, your guess was as good as mine. There was nothing left, not even a dead body now. Nothing to do but go back to wherever you started. Go back with nothing to show for it but the memory of his teaching and his deeds. And in that memory, to try to live life and make something of it. That was what I was going to do. Or so I thought.

“But it isn’t easy to cut loose from people you’ve lived with, day in, day out, for the best part of three years. It isn’t easy to say goodbye and to walk away. Especially when they kept saying that they’d seen him and he was alive: Jesus – who was crucified, as we all knew beyond doubt. They were so certain, so excited too. They said that he had sent them to do his work and given them his spirit to release people from the chains of their sin. Well, we all needed releasing because we’d all got it so wrong. They were euphoric with joy. The transformation in them was unbelievable – just like their faithless desertion such a short time ago.

“So I wasn’t having any part of it. After all, I hadn’t been there. I hadn’t been forgiven. I hadn’t been sent. O yes – they’d seen someone. Yes – they thought they’d seen Jesus. But how could they know? How could they trust the evidence that was not even visible all the time? They were hallucinating. Or someone was playing a joke on them. Or it was just imaginative wishful thinking. Easy enough to conjure up visions for yourself when you’re in the kind of mental state we all were. So I said what I said. Prove it to me. Prove that it really is him. The him who was crucified. Seeing is believing, isn’t it? Or is it?

“That was what I thought, until I did see. That seeing was so different. I don’t mean his sudden appearance without even having entered the room. I don’t mean the shock of recognising that familiar voice. Or realisation that he was still so ordinary you could fail to recognise him in a crowd or unexpectedly on the road or in a dawn-lit garden.

“It was the aliveness. The sheer power of triumphant new life, sweeping everything before it. There were wounds, all right – but not the wounds of a dead body – and not the wounds that would be healing in a mortal life. These were wounds of identity. Wounds that said “I am myself.” Just as I had asked, there they were. No need to touch. No need to question. He was alive and he was breathing new life into us, who had been dead and bound by the chains of our guilt and fear. I saw and believed. This is the one who was and is and will be alive always; the one whose new life can and will be perceived by others in ways that I cannot imagine. This is my living God. The God of the Living. The Lord of Life.”