Based on Acts 5:27-32, Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:19-31
This week I was listening to the unedited podcast of a conversation between the poet Mary Oliver and the host of “On Being”, Krista Tippet. Krista always begins her interview with a question asking the interviewee to reflect on the religious or spiritual foundation of their lives. Mary Oliver noted in her answer that though she was raised in a religious household and attended church regularly, she broke with the Church because she had doubts about the Resurrection. I found this admission to be quite understandable and quite human. A lot of people have broken with Christianity over questions/doubts about the Trinity, Incarnation/Virgin birth, nature of God, Son and Holy Spirit, and other aspects of doctrine or theology. In my mind, the unresolved questions and doubts that believers have had over the millennia are the reason that there are 38,000 different expressions of Christianity! The most important thing for us to embody, is not that we shouldn’t have doubts, but rather how we live with those doubts.
I am a trained scientist with decades of clinical experience. Thus, I am comfortable with hypotheses – basically educated guesses, as a platform for engaging in experiments to prove or disprove the guess. I know very well the doubts that I have had about medical research reporting some breakthrough – until I was able to see the breakthrough in action in my patients. In fact, I made it a practice to openly doubt a new medicine until it had 6 months of clinical use to show me whether it lived up to the hype. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was a big believer in science and the scientific method and published a number of pamphlets called “The Primitive Physik” to help his followers and preachers keep up with the latest breakthroughs. Granted, the science knowledge of the mid-18th century is now seen as primitive and antiquated if not fully refuted, but it was cutting edge in his day. Wesley believed that faith in God and faith in science were not diametrically opposed, but rather informed one another and made both better.
Our scriptures for today without a doubt, put before us pictures of a God who was, who is, and who is to come. The reading from Acts shows the Apostles before the Temple High Priest and Council because they have been teaching about Jesus in Jerusalem. The reading from Revelation opens with the truth of how we experience the living God in our lives. The Gospel reading from John have the first post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus to the Disciples and the resulting teaching moment through a student who doubted. Before we go farther, let us go to God now in prayer and thanksgiving that God is always faithful in spite of our doubts…
The Revelation reading is a short introduction into the longer series of dream images. The book is written to the seven churches of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) to help relieve them of their doubts of the presence of God during their times of persecution. The author sets the tone for the whole book in this opening by reminding all who Jesus and God are for all believers. The author wants to remove all doubt as to the credentials of both divine beings and what they mean to living life in the Christ.
The High Priest and the Sadducees had imprisoned the apostles for teaching the people about Jesus. The Holy Spirit had miraculously let them out of prison and instructed them to keep teaching about Jesus. The apostles were found in the temple and brought before the Council. This is where we pick up our reading from Acts for today. Peter speaks for them all when questioned why they did what they were told not to do by the Temple leaders. Peter explains, “…We must obey God rather than any human authority….” Peter tells the assembled that they had killed Jesus and that the apostles and the Holy Spirit were witnesses to this crime. Peter’s faithful answer left no doubt about who was responsible for the death of Jesus.
We have the first post-Resurrection visit of the Christ to the Disciples in a locked room. The Risen Christ greets them with His peace and breathes upon them the Holy Spirit. Thomas, however, was not with the Disciples and did not believe what they told him about the visit. He said that until he saw this apparition for himself, he would not believe. The next visit, Thomas was present and was invited by the Risen Jesus to touch and see for himself. Without ever touching the body in front of him, Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God!” – faithfully calling out who was in front of him and removing any doubt that might have lingered.
Doubts and questions are not a problem for those of us who are growing in our faith. In fact, they are to be expected and welcomed – even though they are not at all comfortable or pleasant. Unquestioning belief is not faith…it is either belief that is unexamined and unlived, or dogmatic fundamentalism, and it is in my opinion the most brittle and unhelpful form of spirituality. Many people, like the Disciples at the beginning of their discipleship under Jesus, live with a belief that is formed in their childhood and is never reexamined or tested. Persons with this immature belief system are often the people that leave the Church when something happens to them that doesn’t fit their incomplete understanding of God and of the teachings of Jesus and the Church.
Fundamentalists, on the other hand, employ literalism as a tool to interpret scripture and then live into the purity codes and rules to guide their lives. This works until they come across something that doesn’t fit with their preconceived notions of God and orthodoxy (right belief). Then, they either quit religion altogether, or they go off to find a new doctrine that can accommodate whatever has happened in their lives. These people are never going to stay long in any denomination, or if they do, they will always have a belief system that is rigid, unforgiving, recriminating, and intolerant. We can see this in many forms of Christianity today. Yet, it is never an adequate representation of who Jesus was and what He taught – rather, it is a revitalization of the belief of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Thomas the Disciple gets a bad rap this Sunday every year. This is unfortunate because his questioning leads him to an epiphany that opens up everything for him. Thomas’ faith seems to require lived experience of the Risen Christ in order to make sense of his beliefs. All of us since the time of Thomas have had to grow in our beliefs through our experience of the Risen Lord and the action of the Holy Spirit. None of us have seen the Risen Christ, however, those of us of any age who still frequent a church have been nurtured by our experiences of the living God in our lives and in the lives of those around us. We have found our faith deepened and broadened by our faithful questions and our doubts. We have struggled to hold the tension of the known and the unknown/unknowable and attempt to wait to discover the answer from God.
The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke developed a “pen-pal” relationship with a young poet. The young poet would write letters to Rilke with questions about the process of becoming a poet and the doubts about his ability. The older Rilke would patiently write back to answer the questions and to try to help the young poet discover his voice and vocation. In the fourth letter (of 10) Rilke writes, “…I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer….”
This is what faithful doubt is – living and loving our questions until God’s grace provides an answer or way forward. Faithful doubt is so very important to our growth as disciples of the Risen Christ because of the lived component – because we don’t lock them away and ignore them, but openly wrestle with them like Jacob wrestled with God. We are admonished in scripture that in this life we will only see partially what is true and that we will be beset by sin and false understandings. The Bible never castigates anyone who questions or doubts, rather, it encourages the pursuit of knowledge through being open to the lived experience of God in our lives. As Christians, as Easter people who follow the Risen Christ, we are called like Thomas to bring the fullness of ourselves – faithful doubts and all, to our walk with God. Thanks be to God for giving us faith that lives and grows through doubts and questions. Alleluia and amen!