The biblical texts for the Sundays of the Easter season are not only full of resurrection appearances by Jesus, but they are full of doubt and fear by the people who knew him best. What place does doubt have, if any, in the Christian experience?
On Sunday, we will reflect on the important role of “Doubting Thomas”, one of my favorite characters from the motley crew Jesus calls and trains to become the bridge people to continue his work on earth. What, might you ask, was Jesus thinking when he chose doubters like Thomas, deserters like Peter or betrayers like Judas?
Isn’t Jesus supposed to have X Ray eyes and see right into our souls? How could Jesus get it so wrong? Sometimes these men would get things right as they were trying to understand what their rabbi was up to. Jesus and the group trusted Judas with the money for several years before he was bribed by the Roman authorities and the religious leaders to share insider information on where they could find Jesus to arrest him. Wouldn’t it have been better if Jesus had doubted Judas’s loyalty and protected himself from the get-go? Doubting or questioning someone’s loyalty or ability to fulfil a task may not all be negative (ask the search committee about that in a few weeks!)
Thomas seems to ask the obvious questions no other disciple is asking. He is more scientific and wants to authenticate this resurrection thing. He wants to see the wounds before he believes this phenomenon is real. Sometimes, the people around us who are asking the good and difficult questions are vitally important to keep us honest and prevent us from getting into more trouble. Blind faith can be as much about intellectual laziness or sheer stupidity as we put ourselves or others at risk for some disaster. Doubting someone’s intentions can be a blessing sometimes and until we get to know someone and what being in relationship with them elicits. This takes time and experience. What are the patterns of dependability and fruitfulness? We see this in all decision making from simple dating to choosing the next rector. It’s easy when you are charmed, or in love or when everyone is putting on their best face -but give it a few years before we can fully make up our minds about this person as “the right one”. Doubts, flaws and inconsistences seem to be important tiles in the human mosaic, and they allow us to discern, love and grow into something else. All the great Jewish heroes of the Bible were deeply flawed, and all doubted at one time or another. But God uses them mysteriously and they DO grow into something else.
What about doubt in the resurrection of Jesus? I would ask what the resurrection means to you before I could answer that question. If it means a resuscitated corpse, or a zombie Jesus, then I would share doubt in this kind of phenomenon. This may be a popular misconception about what we just celebrated last Sunday, but it does not attest to the gospel accounts. There are very different accounts of the resurrection in four gospels, so we are all allowed some margin or error or our own particular vantage point to come up with an explanation. If I doubt the resurrection, am I am bad Christian or simply a doubter? I would say no. I don’t believe in that kind of resurrection either in the same way I cannot believe in an old guy with a beard in the sky keeping a ledger on all my good and bad deeds (to be used on judgement day?). Isn’t the God Jesus talked about a very different kind of mystery than the heavenly accountant? I doubt that kind of God exists also!
I find people have a hard time believing in the kind of God and Jesus that is portrayed in church, in the media and in popular culture, so it is easy for people to simply doubt and finally reject it. We have anthropomorphized God and Jesus (gods in our own image) rather than allow the dismantling of our own preconceptions and beliefs (necessary to encounter the real thing). I know biblical literalists and fundamentalists who have made certainty their god and where there is simply no room for mystery or even doubt. It’s too bad that they have missed the point of what Jesus came to teach us about God, faith and even doubt.
When Jesus cries from the cross “My God, my God, why have you deserted me? Surely, he is doubting God’s love and protection of him? So, doubt may not be a contradiction to faith after all, but a necessary loss of an image we need to keep pushing through to finally get to the real thing. The real thing implies we are experts in the doubting process itself and maybe there must be a continual peeling away of the real thing itself? Often, people will fear they are losing their faith in God or Jesus when they in fact about to have a break-through. People who have experienced and survived a painful loss or tragedy know something about doubt (as well as how our broken fragmented selves are mysteriously being knit together) and resurrected. Resurrection is a complex process this side of the grave that some of us have experienced and so it may be easier to understand the way God uses violence, loss and illness to help us understand our frailty as well as our eternal transformation as God’s ever-changing creation. God is not sending punishment (usually we do that to one another already) but the idea that God is with us in the process of death, destruction, pain and healing is implicit in the natural and scientific order.
God is also bigger than what we see and experience and somehow is holding the whole thing together, even when it is experienced as falling apart. Doubt is vitally natural and to be expected. Without it, faith can never be brought into being and we are simply frozen in our own controlling certainty. “Unless a seed falls to the earth and dies” …. Jesus suggests, there cannot be new life. It’s the falling and letting go of our perceptions, education and assumptions that most of us struggle to retain. When this happens, we, like the first disciples’ resort to fear, astonishment or simply reject the notion that God is indeed up to something else and invites us to enter that new mystery. The more we practice this letting go (where doubt plays a crucial role) the more we ease into the image of God in us. That itself is another sermon!
I loved the Harvey Cox definition of sin and death that I shared on Easter Day with St. Paul’s that went something like this: “Sin is what chains us to the past and death is what holds us back from embracing or imagining our future.” Doubt in God, Jesus, the church, ourselves? Doubt is the chainsaw that can liberate us from sin and death cutting right through all that is holding us – tight and frozen. Good for Thomas! Anyone in the business of personal growth and transformation should make doubt a friend because they somehow keep showing up when we least expect or want them to. Like Thomas, doubt is an integral part of the whole story, so let’s not be so fearful of our doubts.