4/23/17: The Scandal of Belief, John 20:19-31
The Scandal of Belief
Second in the series: Scandalous Good News
First Lesson: 1 Peter 1:3-9
Second Lesson: John 20:19-31
Rev. Scott Dickison
One of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, tells of her monthly visits to a nursing home on the poor side of town. Each time, she celebrated communion with the residents, those poor souls who, as she puts it, “spend their days strapped in wheelchairs against the walls of the television room.”
“Once a month,” she writes, “nurses roll ten or fifteen of them into the sun room and park them in a semicircle around a small table. Some of them complain as I prepare the elements – “Get me out of here! Take me back to my room right now!” – while others doze or stare or drool.” If you’ve ever visited a place like this, you know what she’s talking about. It’s hard. “Few stay awake through the whole twenty-minute service,” she says. “When it’s time for them to take communion I go from chair to chair, patting them awake and asking them if they want the bread and wine. About half let me press the elements to their lips; the rest refuse to be roused or else they look at me as if I am a burglar. It’s one of the hardest things I do because I sometimes doubt the power of the sacrament to break through their fog. I say all the comfortable words and wonder if anyone hears them. I stand there with my arms raised over the bread and wine and suspect that I might as well be flying a kite.”
One day she went on a late Monday afternoon. A volunteer warned her that everyone’s medication was wearing off. It was, Taylor says, a mixed blessing. They were more awake than usual, but also more vocal. One woman sang, “Row, row, row your boat,” bouncing against her restraints.
“What shall I read from the Bible this afternoon?” she asked them. “What part would you like to hear?” The commotion lessened enough for one old woman’s broken voice to be heard above everything else. “Tell us a resurrection story,” she said. Her words settled over the room and the sleepers opened their eyes. “Yes,” someone else said, and then someone else. “Yes. Tell us a resurrection story.” (1)
Friends, whatever else they are, these curious scenes from the 20th chapter in John are “resurrection stories.”
They’re stories of encounter with the risen Christ, and these stories and others like them, more than the stories we have of the tomb found empty, are resurrection stories. Easter is not a celebration of empty tombs, Easter is a celebration of resurrection, and resurrection is about more than empty tombs, it’s about encounter: encountering the risen Christ. It’s these stories, the stories of our encounter with Christ, that are the “stuff” of our faith. It’s these stories that keep us the church: that keep us people who not only claim that Jesus Christ has been raised, but the far more scandalous claim that we have been too! And it’s been that way since the disciples gathered in fear on that first resurrection evening.
Earlier that morning, the tomb had been found empty and Mary had mysteriously encountered the risen Christ—but so much remains unclear. What will happen when the authorities find the tomb is empty? Surely they will comefor the disciples, and might they meet the same fate as their savior, their Lord—or as he called himself at the last supper just a few days before: their friend? And yet was he still their friend? Some have wondered if deep down the disciples aren’t also the slightest bit fearful of the risen Christ, and what he will have to say to them—who abandoned him in the time of trial. They who ran and hid while he suffered. Might he be a bit disappointed—even a touch angry? What is one to expect from a dead person now apparently walking and appearing to people?!
They’re gathered in fear of their enemies and perhaps even their friend, and the risen Christ comes to them in their fear and says: Peace. Don’t worry. You have nothing to fear: it’s me. It’s me—see, here are my hands and my side. And they rejoice: the impossible has been proved possible, whatever danger they may face they will face knowing that Christ lives. Christ gives them the Spirit, commissions them to go and tell the story, be messengers of gospel truth and forgiveness—have you noticed this? How Christ charges them with being agents of forgiveness, specifically? As if to tell them, You, too, have been forgiven. All has been forgiven and they’re off—off to tell others what they have seen with their own eyes: what once was dead is now alive again. What was just moments before shrouded in fear, is now bursting with hope—it’s a resurrection story. And it wouldn’t be the last one.
Thomas, one of the twelve wasn’t with them that night, for reasons untold, and upon hearing their resurrection story, remains unconvinced. He needed his own resurrection story. And so they find themselves in that same room a week later, Thomas with them, and the risen Christ appears to them again. He again offers them peace, and turns to Thomas and says, Here, see my hands. Reach out and touch my side. Don’t doubt, but believe. And Thomas does: My Lord and my God! he says—perhaps the most powerful testimony in all the gospels.
Of course, history has not been kind to Thomas. “Doubting Thomas,” we know him as, and have been conditioned to read this exchange between him and Jesus as a kind of scolding—as if Thomas’ resurrection confession was somehow tainted because he had to see the risen Christ for himself. As if his demand was unreasonable—or even more than the disciples had needed! No, this is simply a resurrection story, same as the others. It’s a story of Thomas’ encounter with the risen Christ. Just as the rest of the disciples encountered him a week before. Just as Mary encountered him before that. No, the disciples’ story wasn’t quite enough for Thomas, but neither had Mary’s story been quite enough for them, or else they wouldn’t have been huddled in fear. And none of them truly heard Jesus when he told them what was to happen time and time again. No, each of these—Mary, the disciples and Thomas—needed their own encounter to believe.
And while history has not been kind to Thomas, in recent times he’s become something of a source of hope of many. He’s seen as the patron saint of doubt and skepticism, granting us permission to not rush into faith too quickly, but with resolve—honoring what we need to see, to hear, to know before we can give ourselves over to the many ridiculous claims of Christian faith—not the least of which is that Jesus rose from the dead.
For many, Thomas’ simple request to see and to touch for himself, or the idea that someone so close to Jesus would need still a closer look, or even that Jesus didn’t give up on him despite his reservations—this can be a spiritual life raft.
I was a junior in college, studying religion, and on the one hand feeling my world and my mind being expanded in ways I never could have expected, but being excited and energized by it. But knowing on the other hand that all this was taking a toll on the faith I had known to that point. But doubt was not something that I had ever incorporated into my faith—in fact, doubt was never something I even knew could be incorporated into faith. Now I was off away at college—this sort of archetypal scene—and finding that myself confronting these doubts for the first time. Asking myself, What is it that I believe? And even more, Who does that make me?
I was sitting in my bed reading for one of my first upper level Religion classes. It was a few chapters from the book, The Dynamics of Faith, by Paul Tillich. Tillich was a great theologian from the first have the of the 20th century, and focused his scholarship on what Christian faith has to say to a modern world, specially, a world with nuclear bombs. And the Dynamics of Faith is this little volume where he argues what faith is and what it is not. Faith is, in his mind, the condition of being “ultimately concerned”—of having something, or idea, some God, be the focus of our lives. And in his mind, you always have faith in something, but rarely is that something God.
This seemed true enough, but I remember turning to the chapter on “faith and doubt,” and reading as he argued that faith is not certainty. In fact, it’s more of the opposite of certainty. It’s giving yourself over, in some way, to something you can never be sure of, but know deeply to be true. Which means that doubt is not necessarily opposed to faith, but is instead a vital part of it. To doubt, he said, is to understand the magnitude of what it would mean to believe. To understand what’s at stake. You don’t have doubts over things that don’t mean anything to you. Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith, Tillich writes, “doubt is the consequence of risk of faith.” (2)
This is why cold feet before a wedding isn’t so bad a thing! It’s why it was so powerful for a me some years ago when a college student who had been attending our church for sometime came to talk with me and shared that he was considering being baptized but didn’t know if he was ready yet. He said if he took that step, he would have to change a lot of things. He understood the risks he was taking. I didn’t see him too much after that conversation, but I’m still holding out hope—and I’m serious about that.
I remember reading these words there on by bed that day, and as I underlined that sentence in my book (which i just took off the shelf again this morning) and beginning to weep. I wept right there in my room. I wept because for me in that moment, Jesus had been raised from the dead all over again. It was a resurrection story.
Honest doubt can be a healthy and clarifying and even essential part of faith and belief—the church needs to be better about embracing this truth. But it’s also true that not all doubt is honest. We have to say this too—and this is hard because we’re all at different points in the journey. Some doubt is just fear masquerading as courage. I know this because I’ve have those kinds of doubts, too— after that moment in college. The poet Christian Wiman is helpful here. He says we can…know the value of [our] doubt by the quality of the disquiet that it produces in [us]. Does our doubt produce a kind of anxiety that doesn’t allow us to move, or is it an “ironclad compulsion to refute,” or find rational explanations? “Is it an almost religious commitment to doubt itself, an assuredness that absolute doubt is the highest form of faith?…
Honest doubt, what I would call devotional doubt, he writes, is marked…by three qualities: humility, which makes one’s attitude impossible to celebrate; insufficiency, which makes it impossible to rest; and mystery, which continues to tug you upward—or at least outward—even in your lowest moments.(3) Honest doubt—devotional doubt—is doubt that knows its own limits, that knows it’s incomplete. You could say it’s doubt that urges us to run to something instead of run from. Doubt can be a crutch, the same as immature faith. Ultimately, to be a person of faith is to accept the risk of giving ourselves over to something we can’t know completely. It takes a lot of courage to doubt. But it takes even more courage to move through that doubt to a place where you can say, “I this what I believe.”
I think this is what Fred Craddock meant when he told his congregation he thought that one Sunday they ought to all form a circle with some garbage bags and put in them all the things we don’t believe anymore. We’ll fill up lots if bags, he told them, but the critical moment will come when we have filled the bags and then we look at each other and say, ‘Now what is it we do believe? What do I believe? (4)
I wonder if this could be a tradition each year on this first Sunday after Easter when we hear about Thomas and the other disciples—and really, when we read any of the post-resurrection stories in the Gospels. If there’s one thing that’s consistent in each of them it’s some kind of honest doubt. Some hesitancy to believe, even hearing the testimonies of trusted friends. Even with the risen Christ standing there in front of them—they knew what was at stake. This should be a comfort to us. But maybe this can be the Sunday each year when we confess our doubts, our struggles to believe. But then ask ourselves if the doubt we have is honest doubt. If it’s devotional doubt. And then—and this may be the hardest part of it all—if we all confessed what it is we do believe. What is the object of our faith, really? To what do we give our life? It may be that the only thing more scandalous than confessing what we don’t believe any more is confessing what we do believe.
And maybe the best way we can do this is by telling our resurrection stories. Those stories that always begin as stories about fear and doubt but through God’s imagination end up being stories about unexpected new life. The stories that the stories that awake us from our fog. The ones that in the end keep us living. The ones that keep us the church.
(1) Barbara Brown Taylor, from The Preaching Life, 64-65
(2) Paul Tillich, The Dynamics of Faith, 21
(3) Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, 75-76
(4) Fred Craddock, “Faith and Fear,” from, The Cherry Log Sermons, 34