A sermon delivered by Kathy Pickett, Pastor of Congregational Life, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on April 15, 2012.
John 20: 19-31
Thank goodness for Thomas and his need for experiential proof. Poor guy, he has gotten a bad rap for a long time and really, his demand for proof provides us just what we need to explore our own doubts, our questions, and it exposes the disciples very human fear. John’s gospel is the only place Thomas shows up, but his challenge of doubt, or disbelief, and the fears of the disciples more realistically represent who we are as the people of God on the journey of faith.
Thomas’ doubt, really his disbelief, is a timeless, very much alive biblical story. Even though Thomas is not asking questions he is asking for proof, and not just proof, but an experience of the risen Christ. He wants to stick his fingers and hands in the wounded flesh of Jesus hands and side.
But isn’t that how faith is? We don’t’ really believe it, or we disbelieve it until we have an experience of what we are seeking to understand. The journey of faith is messy and twenty first century communities of faith need to make room for messy, questioning, doubting, faith and disbelief.
Leading up to Easter resurrection through the weeks of lent, we explored the Old Testament stories of God’s continual desire to draw us into deeper relationship and partnership in God’s kingdom. God’s covenant comes through rainbows, seemingly impossible old age births, writing God’s law on our hearts, through Jesus’ incarnational birth, life, ministry, the Easter resurrection.
God over and over again forgives us while continually inviting and welcoming us into Holy relationship and partnership.
The disciples are locked in the house for fear of some of the Jews and scripture says, “Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he provides his evidence to them and shows them his hands and his side to prove it. Again he says, “peace be with you, as the Father has sent me, so I send you. “ And in that Holy moment, Jesus breathes the breath of God’s covenantal life, and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”Eugene Peterson’s translation says, ‘What are you going to do with them anyway?’ With the Spirit’s life giving breath, Jesus shares the gift of the Holy Spirit and missional ministry is launched.
But, Thomas was not with them.
Christianity, religion, society is in an era of time that Phyllis Tickle calls the Great Emergence. Her premise is, every 500 years Christianity goes through a huge transformation. Well, if we do the math, Thomas was in the midst of a huge transformational shift in religion and on the cutting edge of the Christian faith. We are in a similar time, where those of us, even with our own doubts, fears, and disbeliefs need to create sacred space for others to explore their faith and, if possible, without giving them all the answers first.
When our son was about four years old, he was insistent that he wanted to eat a hard boiled dyed Easter egg. We had finished the hunt, his basket was full of brightly colored eggs with a few plastic ones, and he climbed up in the kitchen chair ready to eat one of the eggs. I was surprised, because I knew he didn’t like them. I guess the color had him confused. I told him what it was, what was on the inside, and reminded him that he did not like hard boiled eggs. He was insistent to explore and discover for himself. So, we cracked the egg, cleaned it off, and as he pulled the white layers apart and the hard yellow yolk plopped on the table, sadness and confusion covered his face when he said,
“Where is the candy?”
Our very human nature, doubts, questions, and must experience that which we do not believe.
Unfortunately the Doubting Thomas story has created more of a problem than a help
It has typically been used in a way to shame or guilt folks for their doubt, but that’s not the point of the story. Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book, Home By Another Way, says, “John’s problem [in John’s gospel] is a continuing problem for the church. How do we encourage people in the faith when Jesus is no longer around to be seen or touched? The story of Thomas gave the gospel writer a way to do that. By detailing the reluctant disciple’s doubt, John took the words right out of our mouths and put them in Thomas’ instead, so that each of us has the opportunity to think about how we do, or do not come to believe.”
So, how do we do this? How do we make space for bold individuals like Thomas, folks who want to explore their faith and seek for theological proof? How might doubt and disbelief lead to even greater faith and make room for a greater understanding of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection?
Peter Block, who describes himself a citizen of Cincinnati and a partner in Designed Learning, has written several books dealing with the extreme societal shifts and the great need for creating communities of belonging that many congregations and communities face today. He suggests that “one of the ways to work towards a greater sense of belonging and community is to create space for doubts, fears and dissent. In fact, “we need to invite doubt and dissent in. There is no way to be awake in the world without having serious doubts and reservations. Each of us takes many walks in the desert, and in some ways our faith is measured by the extent of our doubts. Without doubt, our faith has no meaning, no substance; it is purchased at too small a price to give it value.”
When we welcome and invite folk’s doubt, dissent, fear, and questions, to share openly and honestly, even when we disagree, we grow in our faith as well. We don’t have to respond to their doubts, we don’t have to try and fix them instead, we should be interested in them, listen to them, respect where they are coming from, and if possible provide them with a hands on experience.
Block says, “Doubt and no are symbolic expressions of people finding their space and role in the future. The moment people experience the fact that they can disagree, say no, or, in softer form, express doubts, and not lose their place in the circle, they begin to participate more fully.”
This Great Emergence we find ourselves in desperately needs communities of faith who not only will invite the stranger in, but will welcome their doubts, fears, their challenges and questions, before they try to give all the answers. When this happens honestly, purely, more authentically out of our call to be the presence of Christ, the peace of Christ shows up through the experience.
The days of folks accepting what we have to say without doubts and questions are gone. Parents can no longer get away with, ‘because I said so, that’s why!’ We have taught and encouraged questioning, exploring, challenging, science, creativity, and while this experiential faith might be frustrating for some, I find it really refreshing and re-energizing to allow space for doubts, fears, questions, as we all struggle along.
Recently a friend was sharing his story of faith, beginning in childhood. He told of his father who was very fundamental, born and raised deep in Louisiana. He said there were no questions, only answers, and his dad had all the right answers, even when they were the wrong answers. When he might push to closely, he could tell by the look his father was getting on his face. What has been interesting though, as his dad gets closer to being eighty, and in a different phase of life, he has been asking some of his own questions, and voicing some doubts and fears. Through his renewed exploration, his relationship with Christ has been reenergized and his relationship with others, renewed.
In the midst of our doubts, fears, confusion, grief, through the locked doors of our disbelief, Jesus shows up over and over again saying, “Peace be with you.” He invites all doubting Thomases to the Easter resurrection celebration to experience the risen Savior. Jesus provides the experiential evidence needed to boldly move beyond the locked doors of our fears and doubts, beyond the doors of the sanctuary, to begin sharing the good news. Our twenty first century task then is to be the presence of Christ, inviting and welcoming others, listening and making space for the messiness of our doubts, disbelief and questions by offering the experiential peace of Christ wherever we may be gathered.