Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
Doubt: a status between belief and disbelief that involves uncertainty or distrust or lack of sureness of an alleged fact, action, motive, or decision. Doubt brings into question some notion of a perceived “reality”, and may involve delaying or rejecting relevant action out of concerns for mistakes or faults or appropriateness.The Gospel reading for the Sunday after Easter is always John’s story of Thomas and two appearances of the risen Jesus—one from which Thomas is absent. Consider the significance of this. Every other Sunday of the year—including Easter—has alternating readings on a three year cycle yet this one Sunday is exempt from that shuffle. On this Sunday we always hear the same Gospel Thomas and his doubts. There’s got to be something to that, don’t you think?
The account we heard today is a two part story—one the very same evening of the day of the resurrection and the other exactly a week later. In both cases, we find the desciples hunkered down behind locked doors. Pilate had brought the charge of sedition against their leader accusing him of wanting to cause an insurrection against the authorities and the eleven had every reason to believe that they would be accused of that as well. They had gone into hiding for survival but Jesus surprised them—and that’s putting it mildly—by walking right through the doors and into the middle of their fearful company.
John’s account first begs the question “where was Thomas and why wasn’t he with the rest of them?” We could speculate until the cows come home. Was he out getting provisions? Had he decided it was time to break away from the whole thing? Did he have family who needed him? All of these and more have been entertained as possible answers to that question. I wonder, however, could it be that he was the only one with courage enough to be out in the world, continuing the work of Jesus? In any event, he was missing when Jesus appeared that Easter evening and, when the others told him what had happened, well, he had his doubts. The irony here is that it is Thomas alone who goes down in history as the patron saint of doubt—and becomes the brunt of it all, even the coining of the label “Doubting Thomas” for those who question the facts about things.
Ironically, the whole bunch of them were unbelievers. How odd that these intimate friends of Jesus who were so central to his life and ministry, who witnessed so many miracles, not the least of which was the raising of the dead man, Lazarus, how odd that they did not believe the revelation about his resurrection when Mary and the other women told them. They were female and thus had no standing in this male-dominated culture. So, if we’re going to talk about “doubt,” we need to look beyond Thomas. And, if any of us has our doubts, we’re in good company.
We tell this story—and every gospel story—to glean from them both what is different from the time in which they occurred and to honor the eternal truths that are encapsulated therein. There are many experiences that are as real today as they were in the first century—fear and doubt among them. Thomas, like the rest of his friends, was scared of what might befall them all and did what so many others have done in the centuries that followed: he absolutely refused to say that he understood what he really did not understand.
Theologian Frederick Buechner coined a memorable phrase: “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith; they keep it alive and moving.” The church that Jesus gave us, the church we have become, the church to which we invite others to make their home is not a church with all the answers. Most of us, at one time or another, continue to struggle with any of a number of anguished questions. But the best of religion is a search for meaning and community—a community which invites and includes everyone, no matter who they are or where they may be on their faith exploration.
It is in that experience where we find life and energy, healing rather than wounding, love rather than hate, the embracing of one another’s differences rather than an attempt to exclude those who differ from us—or don’t believe what we believe. Søren Kierkegaard, the Christian existentialist philosopher and theologian, suggested that for one to truly have faith in God, one would also have to doubt one’s beliefs about God; the doubt is the rational part of a person’s thought involved in weighing evidence, without which the faith would have no real substance.
Faith, for Kierkegaard, is not a decision based on evidence that certain beliefs about God are true or a certain person is worthy of love. No such evidence could ever be enough to pragmatically justify the kind of total commitment involved in true religious faith or romantic love. Faith involves making that commitment anyway—in spite of our doubt.
On Sunday, April 25, at 3 pm, we’re offering a “St. Paul’s on the Town” excursion to see John Patrick Shanley’s play, Doubt, at Music Theater of Connecticut in Westport. Our own Kevin Connors is directing the play and Jim Schilling is playing the role of Father Flynn. Tickets will be on sale after this morning’s service and seating is limited to 45 people. I hope you will consider attending what is a profound dramatic presentation about “doubt” on a number of levels.
The play is set in the St. Nicholas Church School, in the Bronx, during the fall of 1964. It opens with a sermon by Father Flynn, a beloved and progressive parish priest, addressing the importance of uncertainty “Doubt,” he says, “can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.”
We tell the story of Thomas’ uncertainty every year on this Sunday after Easter because it is crucial to faith. We all have our doubts and we all have our fears. Sometimes it is easy to believe and sometimes it is not. Faith is a struggle, not a given. It was no easier for Thomas and the other desciples than it is for us. The spectacular, awesome news for the eleven gathered on that late Sunday afternoon was that Jesus did not come to chastize them for their cowardice, their betrayal, their lack of belief. He came to bring peace and forgiveness.
The difference between the disciples’ uncertainty and ours is that we are the “blessed” ones of whom Jesus speaks in this passage—those who have not seen, yet do our best to believe. The eternal truth is that the same spectacular, awesome good news awaits us on this Sunday after Easter. God walks right through our locked doors and intrudes in our lives to bring us that blessing of peace and acceptance. The locked doors may be metaphors for our difficulty in believing, our fears about our security, our poor self-esteem, our desperation, our profound human vulnerability and neediness.