A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Second Sunday of Easter, April 3, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the day are Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; and St. John 20:19-31. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)
Every year on the Second Sunday of the Easter season, we read the story from John’s Gospel of Thomas’s refusal to accept the testimony of his fellow disciples, but in each year of the Lectionary Cycle, it is coupled with different lessons from the Book of Acts and a different epistle lesson. So this year, in Year C of the cycle, we have heard of the confrontation between Peter and the high priest about the apostles’ teaching in the Temple, and we have heard part of the introduction of John of Patmos’ Revelation.
In the first, we see the clash between two parties each absolutely convinced of the truth of their conception of God: the high priest, speaking for the council, is absolutely sure that his God, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, had nothing to do with the itinerant rabbi from Galilee; Peter, speaking for the fledgling Christian community, is just as certain that his God, the Father of Jesus Christ, had everything to do with him. There is no way to avoid conflict between these two camps, their spokesmen, and their very different understandings.
In the reading from Revelation, John of Patmos gives us yet another view of God, whom he quotes as saying, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” and who (says John) is and was and is to come. John’s God is a god of multiple times, multiple places, and multiple possibilities.
These lessons encourage us to grapple with the story and example of Thomas, the apostle whose insistence on solid evidence of Jesus’ Resurrection earned him the epithet “the Doubter,” but who in fact made the first post-Resurrection statement of convicted faith, crying out “My Lord and my God!” upon seeing Jesus.
My friend David Henson, a priest and journalist in North Carolina, says that “it hardly seems fair” to brand Thomas as “the archetypal doubter, the skeptic that demanded proof.” “He wasn’t the only disciple in the Christian gospels to express disbelief or doubt at the reports of resurrection.” (Easter for Doubters: The Unexpected Faith of Thomas, Patheos, April 1, 2013) And Professor David Lose, president of Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, agrees with him:
When you read through the resurrection accounts of all four gospels, you quickly realize that Thomas is not alone in his doubt. In fact, doubt isn’t the exception but the rule. No one – even after all the predictions – no one says, “Welcome back.” Or “We knew it.” Or even “What took you so long?” No. No one anticipates Jesus return and when he shows up, everyone doubts. Everyone.
Which makes me think that maybe doubt isn’t the opposite of faith but, actually, part of it, maybe even an essential part of it. (Faith and Doubt, Dear Working Preacher, April 8, 2012)
Last week in The New York Times, William Irwin, professor of philosophy at King’s College, a Roman Catholic school in Wilkes-Barre, PA, wrote an op-ed piece entitled God Is a Question, Not an Answer (The New York Times Opinionator Blog, March 26, 2016). In it he said:
People who claim certainty about God worry me, both those who believe and those who don’t believe. They do not really listen to the other side of conversations, and they are too ready to impose their views on others. It is impossible to be certain about God.
We should all feel and express humility in the face of the question even if we think the odds are tilted heavily in favor of a particular answer.
Thus, Prof. Irwin says, “The believer should concede that she does not know with certainty that God exists. There is no faith without doubt.”
Today, we will baptize Laura May and Anthony Jon, and welcome them into the household of faith, into the community which believes not only that there is a God, but that that God is most fully revealed to humankind in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Over the course of their lifetimes, they will explore with us what that means.
We could tell them, as many Christian preachers do, that “God is the answer.” They will encounter people like the Christian writer Dana Gatlin who begins one of her books with this firm statement and admonition:
In every human difficulty I have learned to center on God as the way out. God is the answer! ~ Center on God quickly, completely. God cannot fail! God loves you, right now is waiting to help you, and if you really put your trust in Him with all your heart, He will not fail you. Trusting in Him utterly, you cannot fail! ~ Whatever your dilemma or need may be, God is the answer. (God Is the Answer, Kansas City: Unity School of Christianity, 1940, p 7)
And they will encounter many others who witness that many in this life do in fact fail and that there always seem to be dilemmas which cannot be resolved and needs that are never met, and thus just as firmly assert that not only is God not the answer, but that there is no God. This conflict of certainties is not unlike that between Peter and the high priest about which we heard in the reading from the Book of Acts.
In this Easter season of alleluias we can sometimes be blinded to the reality of human doubts, fears, and pain, even our own. We tend to forget, as Professor Lose reminded us, that for the first disciples, for every one of them, not just Thomas, there was fear, doubt, pain, and confusion before there was understanding and joy at what had taken place. The loud alleluias of Easter can make us forget that, as Prof. Irwin suggests, we “all exist along a continuum of doubt. Some of us will approach religious certainty at one extreme and others will approach atheistic certainty at the other extreme. Many of us will slide back and forth over time.” The story and example of Thomas serves as a reminder.
Poet Denise Levertov in her poem St. Thomas Didymus remembers another man in scripture who, like Thomas, expressed his doubts, a father who came to Jesus in the midst of fear and pain seeking healing for his child. Mark tells us the story of the man who brought his son to Jesus saying, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. * * * If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus replied, “All things can be done for the one who believes.” In answer, the man cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:17-24)
Levertov imagines that Thomas witnessed this encounter and, remembering that Thomas’s name means, “the Twin,” names the father as Thomas’s “spiritual twin.” Her poem gives voice to Thomas’s doubts and their resolution:
In the hot street at noon I saw him
a small man
gray but vivid, standing forth
beyond the crowd’s buzzing
holding in desperate grip his shaking
and thought him my brother.
I heard him cry out, weeping and speak
Lord, I believe, help thou
and knew him
a man whose entire being
had knotted itself
into the one tight-drawn question,
why has this child lost his childhood in suffering,
why is this child who will soon be a man
tormented, torn, twisted?
Why is he cruelly punished
who has done nothing except be born?
The twin of my birth
was not so close
as that man I heard
say what my heart
sighed with each beat, my breath silently
cried in and out,
in and out.
After the healing,
he, with his wondering
newly peaceful boy, receded;
dwells on the gratitude, the astonished joy,
acceptance and forgetting.
I did not follow
to see their changed lives.
What I retained
was the flash of kinship.
all that I witnessed,
his question remained
my question, throbbed like a stealthy cancer,
only to doctor and patient. To others
I seemed well enough.
So it was
that after Golgotha
my spirit in secret
lurched in the same convulsed writhings
that tore that child
before he was healed.
And after the empty tomb
when they told me that He lived, had spoken to Magdalen,
that though He had passed through the door like a ghost
He had breathed on them
the breath of a living man –
when hope tried with a flutter of wings
to lift me –
still, alone with myself,
my heavy cry was the same: Lord
help thou mine unbelief.
blood to tell me the truth,
of blood. Even
my sight of the dark crust of it
round the nailholes
didn’t thrust its meaning all the way through
to that manifold knot in me
that willed to possess all knowledge,
refusing to loosen
unless that insistence won
the battle I fought with life.
But when my hand
led by His hand’s firm clasp
entered the unhealed wound,
my fingers encountering
rib-bone and pulsing heat,
what I felt was not
scalding pain, shame for my
but light, light streaming
into me, over me, filling the room
as I had lived till then
in a cold cave, and now
coming forth for the first time,
the knot that bound me unravelling,
all things quicken to color, to form,
not answered but given
in a vast unfolding design lit
by a risen sun.
(St. Thomas Didymus in Denise Levertov, The Stream and the Sapphire; Selected Poems on Religious Themes, New York: New Directions Books, 1997, p 81)
In a moment, we will baptize Laura May and Anthony Jon. Before we do so, their parents and Godparents will make some promises and commitments on their behalf and then, as the presiding priest, I will ask them and you some questions about belief: “Do you believe in God the Father?” “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?” “Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?” And each time the answer will be, “I believe.”
Perhaps for some of us, perhaps sometimes for all of us, the unspoken answer will be “I believe, help thou mine unbelief.” The affirmations of the Creed, which is what those answers are, are not statements of certainty like those of Peter or the high priest, of the author who asserts that “God is the answer,” or of the atheist who insists there is no God. They are, rather, statements of faith, statements of hope, statements of trust in the God who is the Alpha and the Omega, who is and was and is to come, the God of multiple times, multiple places, and multiple possibilities.
The Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote, “You cannot be a [person] of faith unless you know how to doubt. You cannot believe in God unless you are capable of questioning . . . .” Therefore, he said, religious faith “is a decision, a judgment that is fully and deliberately taken in the light of a truth that cannot be proven.” (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, New York: New Directions Books, 2007, p 105)
It is said that when the early 20th Century novelist and poet Gertrude Stein lay on her deathbed, her life partner Alice B. Toklas at her bedside, Stein roused herself and asked, “What is the answer?” Toklas was unable to respond and sat there silent. “In that case,” Stein said, “What is the question?”
The question is God. God is the Question. When we welcome Laura May and Anthony Jon into the household of faith, we welcome them not to a life of nailed down certainty, but to a life of exploring the Question, in the course of which some lesser questions may be answered, but for the most part they will find that, like Levertov’s Thomas, their questions (and ours) will not so much answered as given their part in a vast unfolding design lit by the risen Son. Amen.
The illustration is “The Doubt of St. Thomas” by the Chinese artist He Qi.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.