Sermon from April 8, 2018
Rev. Todd Weir
Scripture: John 20:19-31
Jesus Appears to the Disciples and Doubting Thomas
“I will believe it when I see it.” How often have you spoken these words? When I was a supervisor for housing case managers, my job was to check up on their work through their case notes. My constant refrain was “If you did not write it down, it did not happen.” I’m at the age where I trust paper trails more than my memory! People often promise things, but when we have been through several disappointments, we might say, “We will see.”
When the disciple Thomas hears the other disciples say, “We have seen the Lord,” he says, “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.” Thomas gets a bad rap for this, earning the nickname “Doubting Thomas.” But I have to ask, why is it so bad that he had doubts? Didn’t everyone else have doubts? The gospels tell us that the other disciples did not believe the women who said Jesus is risen. In today’s reading from John, all the other disciples are locked in a room afraid. Where is Thomas while this is happening? He apparently was out and about, maybe not so afraid. Thomas just says out loud what Christians over the centuries have struggled with. How do I know this is true? How much will God reveal of the divine-self, so I can have certainty? Or at least confidence? How much of the biblical story must I believe to really be a believer? Can I have questions and still be faithful?
Tangible evidence is not a bad thing. You would not want to be accused of a crime without evidence. We weight legal evidence by the degree of its value. It can’t be hearsay (someone said it, so it must be true). We don’t trust circumstantial evidence (I saw him with the deceased, so he must have killed him.) You need a witness, some DNA, or some incriminating photos or an email- as real evidence. Seeing is believing.
If you take a medication, you want some evidence that it works. You hope there were some double-blind clinical trials, and some statistics showing it helps with your symptoms without terrible side effects. If you are in a budget meeting, you want the numbers to add up. If I said, “God told me we will double in size this year, so our pledges will double. Let’s build a budget on that number.” Would you pass that budget? (Oh, ye of little faith!) I suppose you want to see some Thomas Jefferson’s in the offering plate first. Show me the money! Next you will want to see the nail prints in Jesus’s hands too!
Evidence is not a bad thing, and doubt and skepticism can be a good thing. A skeptical filter is essential to our well-being. We have to watch our news sources for bias, we understand how privilege and power effect our decisions, we must be aware that many behaviors come from an unconscious source. Skepticism can clear our sight and motives, and protect us from blind faith.
So is there anything wrong with Thomas saying, “I won’t believe till I touch the nail prints in Jesus’s hands?” All he asked for was what the other disciples had already seen. And Jesus did not chastise him, he delivered what Thomas wanted. If Jesus is OK with Thomas’s skepticism, then doubt is not a bad thing. The only problem is that we will not likely get the same opportunity. For 2000 years, we have to go with Jesus words, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Some people have tried to prove faith through research. Studies show that prayer increases healing and recovery, reduces stress. Being a part of a church enhances your well-being. That’s great, but it does not prove there is a God, or that Jesus had a unique grasp on the truth. Bowling can reduce stress. Watching comedy movies can increase your post-surgery recovery. So how do we come to faith, when the evidence does not meet the test of clinical trials and scientific research?
We can’t make ourselves believe. Many people try. We might memorize a creed, or study the Bible, and force ourselves to accept it all as literally true, Absolutely True. When science or other evidence contradicts, we can try to explain it away, or ignore is a tool of the devil. In story of “Alice in Wonderland,” The White Queen tells Alice that all she has to do to believe is hold her breath and close her eyes. (This works for Fox News as well!) Emily Dickenson wrote, “Believing what we do not believe does not exhilarate.” I sometimes find myself like the man in Mark’s Gospel, whom Jesus asked, Do you believe I can heal your child? He cried out, “I believe, help me with my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)
I grew up Baptist and graduated from an Evangelical college, Sioux Falls College. I was taught that the way to faith was to believe in the authority of the teachings of the Bible. In a sense, to read the Bible is to find witness to the nail prints in Jesus’s hands. We find an authentic testimony and teaching from the early disciples that we can trust. To be clear, this did not mean accepting all parts of the Bible as literally true. I have never believed that Moses held up his staff and parted the Red Sea, that Jesus walked on water, or Noah somehow got two of every species on to the ark. I see these as mythological stories, much like Greek mythology, that contain wisdom into the nature of life. This is not to be dismissive of the great value of the biblical narrative. I think the myths are wonderfully instructive. If you want to understand the human soul, read Greek mythology. Freud did. I think the mythological parts of the Bible are to be cherished, even if I don’t take them literally.
Thomas Jefferson went through the Bible and took out all the miracles and kept all the teachings-Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, parables and so on. I understand the attraction of trying to separate the teaching and philosophy of the tradition, and separate out the myth. But I’m not a fan of chopping up works of literature. I find value in the whole Bible, even the myth, taking in the inspiring beauty as well as some of the horrible texts of violence, and miracle stories I am certain are not literally true. It’s our story, our spiritual inheritance, and it is sometimes contradictory and messy, just like my family tree. This Bible does not teach us good science, confirm social research or describe the ideal political system. It does show us how people have wrestled with the notion of God. Is there something greater, beyond our mortality, that guides us to deeper meaning and truth? I’m glad to have fore-bearers who guide me in the struggle, and I learn as much from their mistakes as their wisdom.
Faith and religion have a different kind of evidence to confirm our beliefs than natural or social science. Religion is more in the category of the arts and humanities. What makes art good? Why read a novel? Can you say with certainty that Picasso is better than Van Gogh? Or that Maya Angelou is more important than Toni Morrison? No, you appreciate each for what they are and the experience the bring. Picasso made real the horrors of the bombing of Guernica, and painted humans in hard edged shapes that mirrored a world gone mad, flattened reality. Morrison and Angelou show us the nobility and beauty of a soul living under the crushing weight of oppression and injustice. I read the Gospels of Jesus, the thunder of the prophets, the poetry of the Psalms, for the same reason. They move my soul. And I buy into them, I have faith, because they have stood a test of time, within a living community. Together we re-enact Christmas and Easter and Pentecost. Together we appreciate beauty and wisdom, and together we debate, and our skeptical of long held assumptions that may no longer be true.
Even in the Bible, people are allowed to debate God. Abraham bargained with God, Moses argued, Jacob wrestled with an angel, a Canaanite woman debated Jesus and challenged him, and Jesus himself cried out from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” So we get to do the same thing. This is how we find the still speaking God.
Kierkegaard found it strange that people complain about all the things they don’t believe in the Bible, when there is enough to believe in to keep us busy for a lifetime. Mark Twain quipped that the portions of the Bible that disturbed him the most were not the parts he did not understand, but the ones he didunderstand.
I understand the desire for certainty, at the level of Thomas asking to see the nail prints in the hands of the Risen Jesus. If certainty were possible, then the word faith would be unnecessary. I have faith, but it is not blind faith. What I have most retained from my Evangelical days is that faith is a living relationship with the God I know in Jesus Christ. It is an ever-growing and changing dialog created through hundreds of Sundays and Committee meetings, through readings and reflections and prayers, and through human relationships with people like you. After all that I cannot hand you certainty, but I can share with you a confident faith. Seek and you will find, knock and the door will open. Follow and live.