Easter Day was, is, and hopefully will always be a day of celebration: of rejoicing and relief, of love and life, of renewal and redemption. But like Lazarus stumbling from the tomb we experience resurrection as a return to the world we knew before. If there is a change it is in us and must be through us. We must still make real the resurrection experience in our daily lives and our broken world. (RCL Easter Two John 20:19-31)
From Easter Day until Pentecost we greet each other: “He is risen, he is risen indeed. Hallelujah!” We say it with great certainty and as though there are no questions. Yet for the first disciples there were questions – although it is what they wanted to be true it was not what they were expecting. They had seen Jesus die, they were devastated, confused and directionless. They took some convincing. And Thomas as much as anyone else.
So when we hear this story we hear a “proof” of Jesus’ resurrection. And indeed along with all the other sightings there is that raw real sense of stories that agree but differ. The forensic proofs do not quite agree on just how physical Jesus is – he can walk through closed doors but also his flesh can be touched? What all agree is that Jesus who was dead is alive again in a new and more powerful way.
But is that all we need – proof that Jesus was dead and came back to life? Most of us here have moved well beyond that question. But we have other questions and struggles. And we should feel deeply encouraged by this story that doubt is not only tolerated but questions and doubts can be how we grow, of how our faith is deepened.
So let’s explore this connection between doubt and faith, seeing and believing a little further. Firstly Thomas required no more evidence than anyone else! The other disciples presumably only came to believe in the resurrection because they got to see the risen Lord with their own eyes. Thomas was simply not there at that moment. So whilst it took him a little longer he only needed what the others had experienced – to see with his own eyes. Secondly Jesus is very patient, kind and maybe even amused, at his need. Jesus makes another appearance especially for him. Jesus does not suggest that because he missed out on seeing him that he will have to make do with a second hand report. Thirdly Jesus encourages Thomas in his investigations and invites him to poke around his wounds and to see for himself. And fourthly Jesus acknowledges how hard and blessed it will be for us who cannot see for ourselves but who will need to rely on knowing in other ways. In this story having questions, doubts, reservations is not judged harshly or even frowned upon. It is met with warmth, compassion and encouragement and answers!!
Asking questions, having reservations, experiencing doubt are only seriously damaging to faith when we can’t or won’t seek answers, when we don’t keep our communication channels open to God and others of faith. Doubt is dangerous to faith when it leads us to cut ourselves off from the very one we need to talk to about things – the Lord. But Thomas, having his doubts, wanted to see Jesus and to check it out for himself. He wanted to see and to talk to the one who could provide the answers! Having questions, it seems, actually increases faith.
All the great people of faith seem to have periods of desolation and doubt, sometimes referred to dark nights of the soul. The difference between people of faith and people who lose their faith is not so much the questions being wrestled with but the nature of the wrestle. Indeed great people of faith, if you read their memoirs, often seem to wrestle with the really big questions like the nature of God and evil, why there is human suffering, why we are called to sacrifice etc. There are no shortage of big questions and large and small terrible events to shake our beliefs.
If we take our questions, our rages and rants, our certainties and our uncertainties to the Lord in prayer, to Scripture, to Spiritual Directors, to theological books, for long walks in creation, we are far more likely to find answers than if we take our questions and uncertainties to some distracting movie, or holiday, or shopping spree, or new cause! It is not so much the size of the questions we ask that shake our faith, it is the openness or otherwise of our faith. Remembering that faith is about our relationship with God, more than our beliefs per see. And faithfulness in faith requires that we take our troubles to the one we are having troubles with. Thomas did exactly the right thing.
And yes, we who have come to believe since the ascension of our Lord do not have the easy time of questions and answers that Thomas seems to have had. Talking with God, asking questions of God, is a bit harder for those of us who must engage only with spirit and no longer with flesh. And this makes being in community with other believers very important. For the witness of other’s experiences can affirm, enlarge, and challenge our experience. It is part of why we find one another’s story of faith so encouraging and interesting, and why the faithful loving conduct of someone else gives our faith a boost. We are group creatures, we are designed for communion.
And it must be said that not all doubts and struggles are resolved in a week as the story suggests it was for Thomas. Some struggles last months, years, even a life time. It is in these deeper struggles that it is important to think of the journey of the soul as the focus of faith rather than a set of beliefs about God and Jesus that we can tick off yes or no to. Struggle, doubt, unanswerable questions are all part of the journey – like the pilgrim’s progress, in that classic Christian story, we must all travel through the landscape of temptation, despair, distortion, suffering, apparent meaninglessness.
In the early church the followers of the risen Christ were called followers of the way – faith was seen as a way of life, a journey through life, rather than belief in a body of intellectual dogma. Indeed for the first few centuries there was no “one” agreed upon dogma about Jesus.
The making of a soul, of a truly human person, is hard and life long work. It is a way of life, it is an orientation toward the light of God rather than a single moment of enlightenment – although the journey can certainly include peak moments in which grace suddenly restores our feet onto the path, encourages us, brings peace into the heart and mind of the struggle. And such peace we are promised. Not certainty or exemption from struggle, but peace.
Mother Theresa was known in her life time as a woman of great faith. After her death years of letters came to light in which it became clear that she had struggled terribly with feelings of despair and a longing for Jesus that was no longer satisfied in the way it had been earlier in her faith journey. But she did not abandon her faith and instead we have this record because she kept writing to her spiritual director and friend, kept hoping and exploring. Faith like all relationships needs to be stronger than just the feeling of the hour, the thought bubble of the day, the bumper sticker slogan of the era.
In this way of being faithful, where questions are encouraged and doubt is accepted as part of the journey, Thomas is our role model. So let us this Easter take our certainties and our questions, our hopes and our doubts to the Lord and let us give all our hearts, minds, soul and strength to God. As we are.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come and companion us in our celebrations and our questions.