The Tao of Doubt

Readings for the Second Sunday of Easter:

Acts 5:27-32

Psalm 118:14-29

Revelation 1:4-8

John 20:19-31

This sermon was preached at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church on Sunday April 11, 2010.

After the grand drama of Holy Week and the glorious celebration of Easter, we might feel overwhelmed with church on this second Sunday of Easter. (It is little wonder that today is often called “Low Sunday.”) The initial excitement of the Resurrection may have begun to fade into the background of our busy lives, along with all the Easter eggs and long-awaited “Alleluias” that came with it. And we might be left wondering, “Did the resurrection really happen? And if it did, does it really influence my day-to-day life?” And thus, we are confronted with doubt about the validity and potency of that most provocative statement: “Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!”  The lectionary seems to foresee this potential for doubt by inviting us to spend some time with the patron saint of doubt, the Apostle Thomas.

In all four Gospels, Thomas is listed among the twelve disciples, but it is the Gospel of John that offers us the most insight into his personality, presenting him as a bold disciple who is not afraid to ask his rabbi difficult questions. In today’s reading, we see Thomas being honest with his doubt and this has unfortunately given him the name “Doubting Thomas,” an unfair misnomer when we look more closely at the text. The other disciples displayed just as much doubt, if not more. Mary Magdalene, the Apostle to the Apostles, had told them that she had seen the Risen Lord. And their response was to lock themselves up in a room. Clearly, they failed to respond in faith to Mary’s proclamation.

When the disciples tell Thomas that they have seen the Risen Lord, Thomas shares his doubt with his friends, instead of silently cowering in fear. As a result, Thomas receives a personal visit from the Risen Christ, who is more than willing to meet Thomas’ criteria for belief. Thomas then becomes the first disciple to confess Jesus as his God. Thus Thomas becomes the model disciple, arriving at the very conclusion at which the author of John wants the reader to arrive: “This is written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God” (John 20:31).

Now Jesus says some things to Thomas that, at first glance, seem to be rebukes for his doubt. First, he says to Thomas, “Do not doubt, but believe.” However, in those words, I do not hear Jesus scolding Thomas because of his doubts. Rather, I hear Jesus leading Thomas into a deeper faith. A more accurate translation of Jesus’ words might be, “Do not become someone who never believes, but rather become someone who is trusting and believing.”  According to the Eastern Orthodox Church, Thomas obeyed Jesus, since they refer to him as “Thomas the Believer.”

Then Jesus asks Thomas a rhetorical question, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” And then concludes with a Beatitude: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” These words also seem to be admonishments for Thomas’ doubt. However, I do not hear reprimand, but commission. Whenever the Risen Christ appears to someone he gives a commission to go and share what has been witnessed.[1] A few verses earlier, he commissioned the other ten disciples when he said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” and breathed the Holy Spirit upon them, giving them the divine power of forgiveness. Thomas receives his own personal commission from Christ, whose words to him convey the Holy Spirit, the power of forgiveness and the promise that many who have not seen will come to believe. Many who have not seen will come to believe because Thomas will tell them! According to tradition, Thomas evangelized Parthia, a region that is now covered by modern-day Iran and Turkmenistan, and then traveled even further east to evangelize southern India, where churches today still boast the name “St. Thomas Christians.”

When Thomas was honest with his doubt, Christ invited him into a deeper faith and then commissioned him to confidently broaden his vision of Christ’s power and influence, all the way to India. Honest doubt, we learn from Thomas, can deepen our faith and broaden our vision as well.

In my junior year of college, I experienced what many call a “faith crisis.” I began having serious doubts about Christianity and its life-giving power for me. I turned to the East. I sought meaning and spiritual depth in the religious poetry of the Sufi mystics, the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad-Gita, and the teachings of the Buddha. Honestly, I found an enormous treasure house of spiritual riches in these writings and continue to find them compelling and even life changing. However, as I was falling in love with these sacred texts, I realized that the spiritual insights that I loved the most were those that reminded me of Christ and his teachings. In the words of Krishna and the Buddha, I was reminded of the words of Christ and felt a desire to return to his teachings and a more profound desire to leap back into his arms of love. I appreciated and admired these Great Teachers, but came to own the fact that they were not mine. I realized that the only Guru to whom I was willing to commit my life was Christ, a Jewish Rabbi whose teachings hit me harder than any Zen koan or Taoist insight. My doubt, when honestly confronted, deepened my faith and broadened my vision.

Serious doubt and faith crises have a way of testing and straining even the closest of friendships. In today’s Gospel, I am comforted and encouraged by the other ten disciples who do not criticize or ostracize Thomas because of his blatant doubt. Instead, the text says, “[The] disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them.” In this verse, I see the others keeping Thomas close, holding him in his doubt, and continuing to enfold him into their community. They refused to kick him out, as if they had never experienced doubt themselves. This is an important lesson for us all to learn, and especially in this community as our young people begin confirmation class, which will invite them to confront their own questions and doubts.

St. Augustine said, “Doubt is but another element of faith.” “The beginning of wisdom,” according to the twelfth-century theologian Peter Abelard, “is found in doubting; by doubting,” he says, “we come to inquiry, and by inquiry we come to truth.” There is a saying in Zen Buddhism, “Great doubt: great awakening. Little doubt: little awakening. No doubt: No awakening.” The Benedictine nun Joan Chittister says, “Oh, doubt is a wonderful thing, and it’s what people fear most and what people castigate themselves about most. Doubt is that moment in the faith life when we put down everybody else’s answers and begin to find our own. We look at everything we’ve been told is holy, is true, and we test it.”

Thomas, the patron saint of doubt, did just that. And he was not ostracized for it. Instead, his community held him close. And Jesus did not reject him. Instead, Jesus appeared to him personally, inviting him into a deeper faith and a broader vision. So did the resurrection really happen? I answer with a resounding “yes,” but, at the same time, I still have my doubts. And today’s Gospel invites us to be honest with our doubts and not exclude others for theirs because when we come together as a loving and inclusive community, there is no doubt that the Risen Christ will meet us there. Amen.

[1] Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8; Acts 9:6; John 20:21-23.

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