The Second Sunday of Easter
Father Chris Harris
or Psalm 150
It is probably appropriate that in the week after Easter the lectionary invites us to consider the topic of doubt having just celebrated the miracle of all miracles. Not just the raising of Jesus from the dead, but God’s final and definitive no. It’s the powers of evil and death. It is probably appropriate that we are reminded today that even amidst the greatest triumph of our faith lingers a persistent companion, doubt.
Easter, I think, is such good news that like Thomas, we, too, can have trouble wrapping our human minds around it. In the face of our own human fears and anxieties, we struggle to accept just how wide open the doors of heaven have been truly been thrown. Did this really happen? Does this include me? Do I dare to believe that this is true?
I think it’s a particularly appropriate question this year when on this past Easter Sunday the shouts of hallelujah had not yet faded from our ears when we learned that multiple churches in Sri Lanka had been bombed, killing more than 250 men, women, and children. A horrifying reminder that the victory we celebrate on Easter is here and not yet.
We live in this in between time where we follow Jesus’ footsteps and proclaim the in breaking kingdom of God, both as a present reality and one that stubbornly eludes our grasp. And so it is in this in between time that our faith must live alongside doubt.
“Blessed are those who believe but have not seen.” These words are aimed at us. The future generations of disciples who would follow in the way of Jesus but without ever witnessing His earthly ministry firsthand. We follow not because we have seen or physically touched His wounds but because like Jesus, we have each come to experience new life through our wounds.
If we pay attention, we can see the cycle of Holy Week playing out in our own lives. We experience suffering and lost, and like Peter and the others, we can fall into a time of fear and confusion as we scramble to make sense of the Good Fridays of our life. These moments of crisis can be so overwhelming at times that the promise of new and renewed life can seem like a distant memory. And so when we finally do come to that Easter season that inevitably follows, like the disciples, we, too, can fail to recognize the risen Lord. And so yes, we believe that we have not seen and we have moments of doubt.
For some of us these moments can turn into hours, whole days, even years. Periods of time when God feels more absent than present. When the faith that we thought we could rely on has seemingly failed us. Some doubts are more like minor cribbles aligned in the sermon, maybe something I’ll say today aligned in the creed, a medieval atonement theory that we can’t just get our minds around.
Good fodder for forums and bible study debates, I recommend the Wednesday morning at 7:00, if that’s your style. But other diodes can be truly frightening because they can go to the heart of our faith. With help, they can help us feel untethered from God’s love. And if you can relate to any of this, you’re not alone.
A Barna study in 2017 revealed that some two-thirds of Christians admit to experiencing doubt. And it’s one of those surveys that I would likely guess that it’s probably a bit higher than that. But so many of us grew up thinking that doubt was a dirty word, something to be denied. Something to be resolved. Something to be rooted out as quickly as possible, lest it somehow spread.
Look no further than today’s gospel and how the tradition has dubbed poor Thomas forever, doubting Thomas. Why? Because he had the courage to share his doubts with this friends. But he’s hardly alone. If you recall the reading last week, Mary sees the open tomb, sees the empty tomb, and goes and tells Peter and the beloved disciple, yet they could not believe her. They, too, had to see it for themselves.
And even when Mary sees Jesus herself, she at first doesn’t believe it. She mistakes Him for the gardener. The disciples on the road to Emmaus walked with Jesus perhaps for miles without recognizing who He is; so caught up as they are in their own grief and doubt. In fact, doubt is pervasive in scripture. Abraham, Moses, Jacob, David, Job, all wrestled with their faith. Even Jesus cries from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yet somehow, there remains a culture of shame around doubt.
Over Lent, as many of us gathered in small groups to share our spiritual autobiographies, it was inevitable that while we shared our faith stories that we would also share our doubts. And I heard over and over again by the participants how liberating that was that they could have a safe space to share their doubts and to discover they weren’t alone.
Why this fear of doubt, I wonder? I think, perhaps, it’s from the fact that somewhere down the line as parts of the church began to mistake belief to be a mental thing, something up here rather than here. Despite Jesus’ best efforts to liberate us from a religion of requirements and rewards, parts of the church turned right belief into just that. A requirement for the reward of heaven.
Jesus became someone to believe in, rather than to follow. And doubt became a dirty word. Something we dare not admit, lest our own souls perhaps somehow be at risk. And, frankly, I think belief is easier. After all, mere belief that something is true requires very little of us. We can believe in the Virgin Mary. We can believe in the miracle stories. We can believe that Jesus paid the price of our sins. We can believe all the right things.
And as Marcus Borg likes to remind us we can believe it all and still be mean. That is we can remain utterly untransformed, just as self-centered, just rigid, just as fearful as we always were. And so the opposite of faith it was assumed had to be doubt. But if we take seriously the idea that Christianity is the way of Jesus and the way of Jesus is a way of life for all of us to follow, then Christianity becomes something that’s a little bit less about belief and a little bit more about journey, a little bit more about personal transformation of dying to our old life so that we might rise to a new life. No longer as spectators, but as participants in God’s redemption of the world.
When we see our faith as journey, then the opposite of faith isn’t doubt. It becomes certainty. Because it is certainty that can close us off and shut us down. Certainty brings the spiritual journey to an end because there’s nowhere else left to go. We become complacent. We can even become rigid. We can become upset or angry if we hear anything that might challenge or cause us to question our beliefs.
I think that this may be one of the appeals of fundamentalist expressions of all faiths. This promise of finality that comes with certainty can be very comforting in an uncertain world. But for me, I prefer my faith to live alongside my doubts. I’ve always been very concerned about a God that I could ever completely understand, or about any faith, tradition that we try to fit God into a neat, little box. My doubts keep me humble. They allow God and God’s ways to retain some of their mystery and their majesty. Because it is when I am uncertain that I find I rely on God more and myself less.
Doubts keep me on the path and can lead me to new meanings and new expressions for God. They can be a catalyst of new and renewed faith as they lead us to question old beliefs that always seem to set a limit on God’s infinite love. For me, doubt is as necessary to a vibrant faith, as vulnerability is to a vibrant relationship. Because it’s when we finally let our guard down. When we finally put our cards on the table, we start to get real.
It reminds me of that old saying that the opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s actually indifference. And I think that same wisdom applies here that one of the great enemies of faith isn’t doubt but apathy. Faith can be most alive when we wrestle with God, like an argument in a relationship. Doubts are not something to be avoided, they’re something to pay attention to. Something to engage with. Because behind them is the Holy Spirit probing us, poking us, prodding us, and inviting us to go deeper into relationship, into the relationship that always lies on the other side.
And I know that doubt can also be a real, very real spiritual crisis at times. It can make us feel like an outsider to be surrounded by so many believers. Our doubts can be isolating. The same study that showed that most Christians have doubts also said very few ever talked to their priest or their pastor about them. And that’s why they should be shared and they should be brought into the light so that fellow pilgrims might help you to bear them, might help you to make sense of them, and might help you to hear what the spirit is trying to say through them. Even so called Doubting Thomas stayed with his fellow disciples and his doubts until Jesus came amongst them again bringing with him total forgiveness and total peace.
Today’s Psalm calls us to a posture of unending praise, not because we have no doubts, not because we understand God, not even because we might be feeling good about our faith. We are called to constant praise because as the Psalm says we breathe. It reminds me of Elie Wiesel’s story about inmates at Auschwitz, who in their despair and unimaginable anguish in those cold barracks as they waited to die, how they put God on trial. They accused God of violating His covenant with the Jewish people. And though they may have found God guilty, they ended that night in prayer. They ended that night in praise to a God they did not fully understand but so desperately needed. They ended that night in praise because they, too, still breathed.
Perhaps, that is the lesson for us on this second Sunday of Easter as we reflect on Christ’s triumph over evil and death, yet still find us in a world surrounded by it. We should remind ourselves that Jesus has breathed new life into us. Not that we would finally and fully understand God, but so that our very lives, with all their doubts, might be a constant praise to God. And that we, too, might proclaim with our very lives, my Lord and my God, praise Him with timbrel and dance. Praise Him with strings and pipe. Praise Him with loud clanging cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Hallelujah.