April 24, 2022 Sanctuary Worship, Sermon, "Doubt: The Seed of Faith"

Apr 24th  |  The Reverend John Vanderzee |  John 20:19-31

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Every family has their great stories that have become legendary, bordering on the mythic. One such story in our family happened on Easter Sunday 1945 while my brother Len was about a month old. My mother invited several ladies over to the house after the church service to see baby Leonard Jr., the fourth child born to Leonard and Elizabeth VanderZee. I came along three years later.

Inevitably, there came a time when Leonard had to be changed and the ladies, for whatever reason, came along. But after Mother took off his diaper, suddenly without warning a perfect stream of pee arched from brother Len right into the top of Mrs. DeVries’s straw Easter bonnet. The visit ended abruptly, much to my mother’s chagrin and probably to my brother’s infantile delight.

From that time onward, Len never could abandon his reputation as troublemaker, which was fine with him, unless he got the blame for trouble I started. That’s what happens when you have a reputation. It was and is source of pride even now for my brother.

It should be no surprise that he grew up to become one of the best-known preachers in the Christian Reformed Church. It makes me wonder what kind of reputation our beloved Pastor Kevin had when he was a kid.

For as long as I can remember, hearing the post-resurrection story of Thomas, I have felt kind of sorry for poor Thomas. Even today I think that Thomas, unlike my brother, may have gotten a bad rap. Deserved or not, Thomas has been forever associated with that word which we believers are loathed to speak, but the experience from which no Christian can escape - Doubt. He is not just Thomas, but “Doubting Thomas”, and that title has now become synonymous with anyone who has misgivings about essential matters.

If you were to ask anyone apart from the most astute students of the Bible, what Thomas was known to have said or done apart from today’s story, very few could probably tell you. There are, in fact, two other incidents, both in the Gospel of John, which involve Thomas. 

There was the time when Thomas, along with the other disciples, was with Jesus at supper before his arrest and betrayal.  Jesus was talking about how he would be leaving them soon to go to some unnamed place, and that when things were made ready, he would come back for them. Jesus went on to say that they, the disciples, all knew the way there.

Thomas was the only one with the nerve to speak up and admit that he didn’t know what on earth Jesus was talking about. “How can we know the way,” he said, “if we don’t even know where you’re going.” Sounds like something Thomas would blurt out, right? What Jesus said in response, of course, is one of those verses we all have known probably since Sunday School: “I am the way, and the truth and the life.”  

The other story tells of the time when Jesus, having been told that his friend Lazarus was dead, decided that he would go to Lazarus’ house in Judea to raise him from sleep. When the disciples, smelling a trap and fearing for Jesus’ life - and probably their own - tried to dissuade Jesus, it was Thomas who piped in, “Let us also go that we may die with him.”

From these stories we get the impression that: 1) Thomas was not afraid to speak his mind, 2) he was not one to retreat from danger, and 3) he was fiercely loyal to Jesus. 

Okay, yes, at the end, Thomas deserted Jesus just like the rest.  Still, it seems more than a little unfair that Thomas’ legacy is forever connected to the time he refused to believe that Jesus was alive when any reasonable person put in the same position would have come to the same conclusion.  

It was the evening of the first day of the week. The disciples were huddled together in a secret place presumably in or near Jerusalem, doors bolted shut, and so frightened that they didn’t dare to speak above a whisper. Earlier that same day, according to John, Mary Magdalene, fresh from her own personal encounter with the risen Lord, barged in and told them what had just happened. Considering the disciples’ response, she might just as well have told them she had seen a ghost. 

And even if, for some inexplicable reason, Mary was right, and Jesus eluded death, they feared his enemies would certainly come looking for him among his followers. And so just about the time when the suspense was killing them, Jesus, without so much as a knock or the turn of a key, suddenly stood before them. To dispel any doubt that he had not escaped death but was victorious over it, he showed them those wounds that revealed the depths of human cruelty and the outer limits of redemptive love. And they rejoiced!

Only someone was missing. Where was Thomas?  And why wasn’t he with the others? Maybe he was so paralyzed by his grief, that to be among his fellow disciples would only aggravate his feelings of emptiness and loneliness. Maybe he was so riddled with remorse about having abandoned Jesus to his executioners that no amount of “we’re in this together” camaraderie could assuage his guilt. Or maybe, as one writer surmised, tongue firmly planted in cheek, Thomas simply decided to “go out for a cup of coffee or just sit in the park for awhile and watch the pigeons.” Thomas, for whatever reason, was AWOL the evening of that first day of the week. 

Well, the disciples could hardly contain themselves when it was time to tell Thomas just what he had missed: “We have seen the Lord!” 

Thomas’ reaction was about what we would expect from what we now know of him. “Unless I see with my own eyes and feel with these fingers his mortal wounds, I cannot, I will not believe.”

We need to be very careful not to read too much into Thomas’ refusal to believe. Nowhere does it say, nor can we draw any conclusions, that Thomas did not believe in Jesus. The point is not that Thomas lacked faith in his Lord any more than the others. We are simply told that he did not believe the eyewitness testimony of his brothers. Thomas was a realist.  He would only believe what his own senses told him. He needed verifiable proof of the existence of a risen Christ. 

While giving witness to her long, agonizing journey from unbelief to faith in her book, Amazing Grace, poet and essayist Kathleen Norris concludes that the word “belief” has become an “impoverished word.” It has come to mean heart-over-head emotional consent - not a thing of the mind. When people ask you what you believe your natural inclination is to make an instinctive statement about this or that element of Christian doctrine. “I believe that Jesus is the Son of God,” or “I believe that Christ died for our sins” without giving it a whole lot of thought.

To say we believe in something, especially if it is a religious belief, involves, for some, a kind of suspension of the intellect - something that could not stand up to the rigors of rational judgement.

So, Norris wrote that when she came to realize that there were religious people who were psychologists, and mathematicians and scientists, she could not just assume that religious belief was simply some anti-intellectual wishful thinking. This led even more to her despair because, if these people, with all their intellectual abilities could believe, she thought, then how could she, with her doubts, ever belong in the company of believers, the church? 

She finally came to the realization that belief was not as scary an activity after all, because at its Greek root, “to believe” simply means “to give one’s heart to. Thus, if we can determine what or to whom we give our heart to,” she writes, “then we will know what it is we believe.” Still, it was not until she immersed herself as an oblate in a Benedictine monastery, that Norris came to embrace her doubts as a necessary element of faith. Or as an old monk told her, “Doubt is merely the seed of faith, a sign that faith is alive and well.” I prefer the way Frederick Buechner expresses it: “Doubt is the ants-in-the pants of faith.” 

Well, Thomas could have wallowed in his doubt, boxed up what little remained of his faith and gone back to fishing, or whatever it was he did before he met Jesus. But he did not. One week to the day later, Thomas rejoined his fellow disciples who seemed to have forgotten everything about what happened just seven days prior. 

The doors were shut and locked just as before. Suddenly Jesus, appearing again seemingly out of nowhere, said, “Peace be with you,” and walked straight over to Thomas. Jesus invited Thomas to do what Thomas said was his own litmus test for belief. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach your hand and stick it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 

I find it interesting that John never tells us that Thomas took Jesus up on his invitation - touched Jesus’ wounds to confirm what he saw. He didn’t have to because Thomas never really stopped believing. His eyes simply had to see what his heart had hoped for all the world to be true: “My Lord, and My God!” he said.

About thirty years ago, I was completing a Doctor of Ministry project for Bethany Theological Seminary. I titled it “Ministry to Persons with Chronic Illnesses,” and an important element of my study was a series of interviews I conducted with persons who had chronic illnesses of varying types. 

One such person, who I called Meg, was a 61-year-old woman who lost the use of her legs to polio in 1950, and now was suffering a devastating relapse called post-polio syndrome which was endemic in the 80’s and 90’s. 

As we came to know one another, she began to trust me with some of her deepest spiritual struggles. One day I asked Meg a question that I routinely asked everyone I interviewed.  “What if anything, sustains you or gives you hope.” I was not prepared for her response: a hodge-podge of hope, ambivalence, anger and unrelenting faith. This is what she said:

“I learn to say, ‘Hallelujah anyway.  God, I’m going to praise you anyway even though sometimes I wonder if I really mean it or feel like it.  And I don’t know why I’m saying it except I know that you are real, and I want to be on your side though I don’t understand any of this, and I’m miserable and lost and confused, and all the Scriptures that I’ve ever read don’t make any sense right now.  But God, I want to live with the paradoxes, and I want to be faithful regardless.’” 

What I remember more vividly even than her words, was the way she looked at me without so much as a blink, as if to say, “I dare you try to make sense of what I just said because you won’t, but that’s all right, because it’s just how I feel.”

I like to think that there came a time when Meg resolved her uncertainty and anger, but she probably never did. Yet Meg was able to make friends with her doubts and affirm her faith in God. And even praise him. 

Thomas believed, but unlike Abraaham, who believed without seeing, it was not counted to Thomas as righteousness. “Blessed are those,” Jesus went on to say to Thomas and to all would-be believers that ever lived since, “blessed are those who do not see but who still do believe.” Blessed are those who believe despite their doubts or maybe even because of them. 

The most important breakthrough regarding belief for Kathleen Norris came when she learned to be as consciously skeptical of her doubts and her disbelief as she was of her budding faith. There comes a time when you just let your doubts be nothing more than a few blemishes on the landscape of your faith. Instead of focusing on the roughness of the terrain, you gaze upon the horizon. There comes a time when you simply decide that you must believe - that you can do nothing more than give your heart to the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. 

Parker Palmer, the influential educator, and mystic, wrote this about the dynamic of faith and doubt.  Listen closely because it is packed with meaning:

“The deeper our faith, the more doubt we must endure; the deeper our hope, the more prone we are to despair; the deeper our love the more pain its loss will bring: these are a few of the paradoxes we must hold as human beings.  If we refuse to hold them in hopes of living without doubt, despair and pain, we also find ourselves living without faith, hope and love.”

 

We don’t have to be Benedictine oblates, like Kathleen Norris. If we are willing to let go of that pretence of perfection and acknowledge that our faith is never complete and always in the process of becoming, then God can do marvelous things. Just look what happened to Thomas. He went on to write a Gospel of his own.

Yes, it seems a shame that Thomas has been stuck with that unflattering appendage to his name. But it is my hope that now you will understand that doubt is not the antithesis of faith, but the very thing that keeps religious belief alive, fresh and flexible. Have you ever doubted whether God was real or whether Jesus still matters?  Well, if you have, then be reassured that God still has something in you to work with.

 

People of God, be watchful, stand firm in your faith,  Be courageous, be strong. Let all you do be done in love.

May the God of hope fill you with all peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.