Sermon for April 11, 2021, Easter 2B
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When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “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.”
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
I often begin the welcome to our worship service saying that you are in god company here whether you have strong faith or lots of doubts and questions, or are somewhere in between.
I wonder where you put yourself on that continuum? Do you feel settled and at ease when it comes to faith or do you feel like it’s a toss-up?
This story from John’s gospel allows us to address the topic of doubt head-on. In some faith communities, doubt is frowned upon as if it represented a deficiency of character. Nobody wants to be labeled a “doubting Thomas.”
But I believe that is a gross misunderstanding. I believe that this story exists to acknowledge the fact that doubt is part of the experience of everyone who is trying to be a follower of Jesus, especially those of us living in the years after his earthly life and physical presence.
I want to begin, not by looking at Thomas’ doubt in this story, which, by the way, I take as a parable, but rather at Jesus’ doubt. Yes, Jesus experienced doubt. There are at least three indications we have of Jesus’ doubt.
First, Jesus came to doubt what everyone else around him believed about God. Jesus came to doubt what his Hebrew Bible said about God.
In what way? They call it the doctrine of retribution, meaning you get what is coming to you. The Hebrew Bible teaches that if you do right if you are faithful to obey, you will be blessed by God.
Alternatively, if you are unfaithful and disobedient, God will curse you. Many people still believe that today. Maybe you are one of them. I hope not.
Now, I want to acknowledge that this is not the only view expressed in the Hebrew Bible. The whole book of Job is about how that karma-like theology doesn’t always work out. Good people like Job should have been blessed, but he suffered horribly, so his friends believed he was being cursed by God for some secret disobedience.
They were wrong. Job was righteous but suffered. So the book of Job represents an alternative view. But that is the minority voice that did not win the debate. Overwhelmingly, the Hebrew Bible proclaims blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. That is what God is like, or so it said.
At some point in his life, Jesus started doubting if that were true. Why? The indication we have from the gospels is that Jesus concluded that that view of God simply did not match his experience of the world.
When asked about whose fault it was that a man was born blind, the disciples assume there are two options: either it was the blind man’s fault — although that’s hard to believe since he was blind from birth, before he ever had a chance to do anything wrong. Or, it was his parent’s fault, although that too seems unfair. That’s why they asked Jesus the question: it was a puzzle for them.
Suffering blindness must be a curse, so someone’s sin was the basis for it, but whose? Jesus’ answer reveals that he had doubted the doctrine of retribution to the point of rejecting it. Who sinned that the man was born blind? Jesus said,
“Neither” .(John 9:1)
He said it doesn’t work that way. Jesus said,
“[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” .(Matt. 5:44)
He also said, “[God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” .(Luke 6:35)
So Jesus doubted what everyone taught him about God, and came to a different conclusion based on his experience.
Doubt in the Garden
The second occasion of Jesus’ doubt was more existential than theological. It was in the garden of the Mount of Olives on the night of his arrest. This is subtle, but I think we can see the doubt in Jesus’ mind and heart as he prayed for the cup of suffering to be taken from him.
Maybe he was only doubting his own courage, but I think it went beyond simple fear. I believe he doubted whether God would be there for him. He overcame that doubt, but he experienced it.
Doubt from the Cross
The third case is the most intense and unmistakable. The gospels report that on the cross, Jesus cried out,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”(Mark 15:34)
That is doubt, pure and simple. Yes, even Jesus doubted God. Jesus felt literally God-forsaken. If Jesus himself doubted God, then doubt is baked into the cake of Christianity.
Suffering and Doubt
Of course, it is. Suffering is horrible. We don’t understand it. We ask why? and look for reasons. But sometimes there are no reasons, like when someone is born blind, or dies of Covid, or cancer. Who can explain why some people have mental illness or are the victims of gun violence?
The explanation cannot be that God simply lets suffering, that could have been prevented, happen. That kind of God would not be good. That kind of God would not be love. That kind of God would not be the kind Jesus taught us to trust.
God, I have come to understand, is not a being at all. God is the ground of being, that which makes existence possible. God is Spirit. God is present always, everywhere, and to everyone. God is not controlling, because love would never seek to control the loved one.
God is present spiritually, luring us, coaxing us, encouraging us to goodness, even after we have experienced suffering or evil.
The name we give to this spirit is the Spirit of Christ. Some theologians call him the Cosmic Christ, because the Christ-Spirit is present throughout the world and throughout time.
But because God’s spiritual presence is invisible and because suffering does happen, it is impossible to avoid times of doubt. It was impossible even for Jesus to avoid times of doubt. But doubt does not change anything. God did not abandon Jesus, and does not abandon us.
John’s Dream-like Parable
So John told a dream-like story, a parable, about Jesus appearing twice, inside a locked room after his crucifixion. Each time his message is “peace.” He commissions his fearful followers, sending them, just as he had been sent, to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God.
He breathed on them, symbolically conferring the invisible Spirit of God into them, just as God breathed the breath of life into Adam, according to the Creation story. And doubting Thomas is part of the story because all of this can be hard to believe.
But we can do hard things. We can believe things we cannot see. We can affirm that even despite local setbacks,
“the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice” as Dr. King said.MLK
We can believe in the power of love to conquer evil, even though there are still mass shootings, even though people in this state refuse to pass hate-crime legislation, even when, for now, transgendered people are trampled upon and minority votes are cleverly suppressed. The struggle continues, and we believe that justice, equity, and inclusion will prevail.
We have not seen Jesus with our own eyes or heard him pronounce his blessings on the meek, the peacemakers, and those who hunger and thirst for justice, but we have read and believe the blessing Jesus gave all of us when he said,
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Not that you will avoid all moments of doubt, but that you will take the risk that it’s worth believing, meaning trusting, even through times of doubt, just as Jesus did.