Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, April 15, 2007, delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
Doubt, Faith, and Fire
“Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
Today is a good day to talk about doubt: yours and mine. We have just shared the marvels of Christianity’s most sacred week. Most of us here this morning participated to one degree or another in the experiences that make up the journey from Palm Sunday through Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter – candle light and star light, attentive silence and ringing bells, the raw wood of the cross and the scent of Easter lilies. We listened to the core narrative of Jesus’ dying and rising. We re-told, re-lived, and reaffirmed the foundational story of our faith.
And today, as we do every year on the Sunday that follows Easter Day, we make room for doubt. Thomas is remembered for many things: he is the disciple who asked Jesus to show him the way to the Father’s house [John 14:5]; tradition says that Thomas brought the Gospel to India; and there is a non-canonical Gospel that bears his name. Still, because of the passage that we heard this morning, Thomas is remembered above all as “Doubting Thomas,” as the disciple who wasn’t there when the risen Christ appeared to the other disciples and to the women, and who insisted that he would not believe until he had seen the evidence for himself. When the other disciples tell him, “We have seen the Lord,” Thomas replies, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” [John 20:25].
Thomas is a man of doubt, a skeptic, a man who insists on evidence. Second-hand testimony is not enough for him. Someone else’s belief is not enough for him. He wants to know the truth for himself through his own direct experience. And I want to say: let’s hear it for that kind of doubt. We need critical, analytic, and doubting minds to break the spell and cut through the fog that cloud our consciousness.
Years ago I saved a New Yorker cartoon entitled “Fatalism and the seeds of doubt.” A family leans over a toaster that has just burned two slices of bread to a crisp. Smoke rises into the air. With a tragic face, the mother declares, “It is God’s will.” The father declares, “Had the toast been destined to be edible, it would be so.” Their startled son looks up at his parents and says, “B-b-but ”
Thank God for the “But’s.” Thank God for the seeds of doubt. Thank God for the questions that propel us to explore the truth, to look for answers, to discover for ourselves what we really know and trust and believe. Doubt can impel us to test our experience and to refuse to settle for believing something just because other people say it’s so. What’s more, doubt is part of being human, and, as the writer Frederick Buechner once put it, “If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.”
It seems to me that the Christian life needs both faith and doubt in the same way that a fire needs both logs and space in order to burn. Here is part of a poem by a poet named Judy Brown.
What makes a fire burn
Is space between the logs,
A breathing space.
Too much of a good thing,
Too many logs
Packed in too tight
Can douse the flames
Almost as surely
As a pail of water would.
You know how it is when you build a fire. You have to pay attention not only to the wood but also to the spaces between the pieces of wood. As Judy Brown goes on to say, “It is fuel, and absence of the fuel/Together, that make fire possible.” (1)
If we hang on to faith too tightly – if we banish all doubt and cling rigidly to our convictions – before long we’ll turn into a fanatic enclosed in our own small world, our own narrow ideology. Without some space for doubt, faith morphs into self-righteousness, and before long we’re likely to pick up the logs of our convictions and start wielding them like weapons against someone else.
Doubt gives us space for humility, space to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers or possess all the insights. We know what we know, but we also know that there is more to know. Doubt keeps us open to fresh evidence and makes us eager to learn.
On the other hand, if all we hang on to is our doubt, if we trust nothing but our doubt and our capacity to criticize and challenge, if we question and belittle every expression of faith in the people around us and in ourselves, then we will stake out for ourselves a very small world and hold ourselves back from the fire and mystery of life.
I think of doubt and faith as existing at their best in a kind of dynamic tension: faith gives us the willingness to believe, to trust, and to give ourselves in love. Doubt gives us the willingness to question, to stay humble, and to admit that there is more to learn. Together, faith and doubt are like logs and space that make a powerful and life-giving fire.
Take Thomas, for instance. He is called “the Twin,” the Gospel tells us, and he is our own twin, too. He is a man of faith, for he is a disciple who has followed Jesus through thick and thin. But Thomas has now reached an impasse. He’s been stopped by a wall of doubt. “Unless I see for myself, I won’t believe.” It’s not that Thomas refuses to believe – we don’t get the sense that he is invested in clinging to his doubt. It’s just that he needs more evidence, some direct experience of his own, before he can take the next step in faith.
And so, the story tells us, the risen Christ appears again, says “Peace be with you,” and invites Thomas to reach out and touch his hands and side. “Do not doubt but believe.” And Thomas answers, “My Lord and my God!” [John 20:27-28]
What just happened? Jesus had mercy on Thomas’ doubt and on the suffering that Thomas must have felt in holding back. Thomas was searching for a deeper, more direct experience of the risen Christ, and that is just what Jesus gave him. Jesus went looking for Thomas, even moving through closed doors to find him. He spoke gently to the astonished disciple with words of peace, and then invited him to reach out and touch his wounded hand and side. And in the intimacy of that mysterious encounter, Thomas’ faith caught fire. He experienced some kind of inner transformation. His doubts fell away, his fear turned into boldness, and his sorrow into joy. “My Lord and my God!” he exclaimed, in what is really the climax of the Gospel of John.
It’s that kind of release of energy and hope that marks the early Church. The Book of Acts is full of stories of men and women so filled with confidence in the reality of the Risen Christ and the transforming power of the resurrection, that they stand up again and again to the political and religious powers of their day in order to proclaim the power of the kingdom of God. As Peter and the other apostles announce in the passage we heard this morning, “We must obey God rather than any human authority” [Acts 5:29]. That is where the life of faith and doubt can take you – out into the world, on to the streets, to proclaim that love and not death will have the last word. It’s the kind of energy that sent tens of thousands of Americans on to the streets yesterday – including a fine group from Grace Church – to proclaim that carbon emissions must be cut 80% by 2050 and that we will not stand idly by and watch climate change take down this planet’s web of life. (2)
And notice this, please: Jesus is talking to you in today’s Gospel. He is talking to me. Turning to Thomas and to every one of us down through the ages who has wrestled with doubt and with faith, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” [John 20:29]. Here we are — partly believing, partly doubting — and Jesus is giving us his blessing. Bless you, he is saying to you and to me. You may not see me fully. You may not understand completely who I am, or who you are to me. But I know you are searching, and I know you are coming to believe. And I bless you. I bless you.
A friend of mine, poet and teacher Annie Rogers, joined us at Grace Church for the Easter Vigil. She told me a while ago that although she grew up attending church, somewhere along the line Christianity stopped singing to her. And so she stayed away. But something drew her back last week, some mixture of uncertainty and desire, doubt and faith that only she can name.
Annie wrote a poem about what happened at the Easter Vigil, and she has given me permission to share it.
Still in our winter coats we wait
in the dark for it all to start.
At the back of the church a fire
flares in a barbecue pit, and the
tall candle’s lit. We walk around
to the front, while in the Lord
Jeffrey Inn, the dining room is full
and over on Pleasant Street, friends
line up for the cinema because
something good is playing.
The poem goes on to portray the entry into church, the acolytes who lit our candles, the biblical stories we listened to. Finally the time comes for the Eucharist, and Annie ventures to come forward. Annie writes,
in a red t-shirt kneels beside me, crosses
his arms on his chest, and the priest’s hand
falls light on his head to bless his refusal.
I have teetered with disbelief, and were I
truthful, I want only this: a blessing
on my incredulity
“A blessing on my incredulity.” That is what Jesus offers us this morning: a blessing on our incredulity, a space for our doubts, for they are part of who we are.
Who knows what happens next. Anything can happen.
As Annie leaves the church, she heads into “the cold Spring night” and hears bells pealing out over the Common. And whatever she can or cannot say about Jesus, she does know this:
the sound invades me
hammers into me a strange joy
that defies all logic, all possibility.
(1) Judy Brown’s poem appeared in an email from Spiritual Directors International.
(2) For news of Step It Up – and for photos of our Grace Church contingent – visit StepItUp2007.org .
(3) Annie Rogers, “Who answers?” unpublished manuscript.