Sermon for Second Sunday of Easter, April 3, 2005. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Genesis 8:6-16, 9:8-16Acts 2: 14a, 22-32
John 20:19-31

Faithful in doubt

I’d like to say a few words about the disciple we remember as Doubting Thomas.  Someone once said that two sorts of people please God: those who serve God with all their heart because they know God, and those who seek God with all their heart because they don’t know God.  Most of us have probably spent time in both camps.  We are finders of God when we have a sense of wonder and awe before the living Mystery in whom we live and move and have our being.  And we are seekers of God when we wrestle with questions and doubts and know that we can never come to end of what there is to know about God.  At one time or another some of you may have been members of churches that allowed no room for questioning or doubt–churches that taught you to be ashamed of your doubts and to keep them secret.  But as the wonderful Christian writer Fredrich Buechner once put it, “If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.”

Today’s Gospel reading from John is for all of us who dare to admit that sometimes we have doubts—maybe doubts about the literal truth of Scripture or about the goodness of God or about the presence of the risen Christ.  Thomas is the disciple who gives voice to our doubt.  He is the one who is unwilling to settle for second-hand testimony about the Risen Lord.  It is not enough when the other disciples report to him, “We have seen the Lord.”  No, to them Thomas insists, “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).

Somewhere along the line we may have been taught to treat Thomas with a touch of contempt.  After all, as Christians we want to be people who are deepening in faith, and here is a disciple who shamelessly puts it out there that he has some doubts.  Thomas–and all those, like him, who are willing to express their doubts–can make us uncomfortable.  We may be tempted to look down on him or to brush him aside.   But I believe that the disciple Thomas–and the Thomas that we all carry within ourselves–deserves our sympathetic attention and respect.  To entertain doubt is to be spiritually alive.  And through the grace of God, our doubts can draw us to God just as surely as can our faith.

I know this may sound strange.  Can doubts really draw us to God?  Is that possible?  I’d like to give three suggestions about how we can be faithful to doubt in a way that actually deepens our faith.

The first suggestion is this:  (1) Honor your doubt.  Listen to your doubt.  Be curious about your doubt.  As Fredrich Buechner also said, let your doubt be the ants in the pants of your faith.  Or to change the metaphor, let your doubt be the wind at your back that propels you toward the holy mystery of God.  Doubt can be a wake-up call to our faith.

Perhaps you are troubled by doubts about some aspect of Christian doctrine or belief.  If you are, I hope you will pay attention to those doubts.  Maybe they’re an invitation to learn more about contemporary theology and to realize that good people of faith understand these doctrines in very different ways.  The last formal Christian education that many of us received may have been years ago in Sunday School, and it is no wonder that we now chafe under the uncomfortable sense that our God is too small.  We have grown up and matured since then and learned a lot more about life, but maybe we’re still laboring under some childish conceptions of what we are “supposed” to believe and to accept as truth.  Doubt may be a sign that we’re moving from the stage of passively receiving our faith, of accepting what our elders or teachers told us simply because that was what they said was so, to appropriating our faith and making it our own.  Sometimes the way to honor our doubts is to dive more deeply into the life of the mind and to learn more about modern theology.

On the other hand, sometimes the way to honor our doubts is to recognize that we’ve reached the limit of what the human intellect can understand.  The doubts that assail us painfully in the middle of the night are not likely to be neat little questions about Christian doctrine.  They tend to be urgent, personal questions that can’t be answered adequately simply by reading a book or memorizing a creed.  Why is there so much suffering?  Given the state of the planet today, do we really have any grounds for hope?  Why has someone I love died?  How will I face my own death?  Is there really a God?  Does God really love me?  We can wrestle all we want to with questions like these in small group discussion and debate, but we can never resolve them with a glib, intellectual answer.  The big questions of life can’t finally be grasped by the intellect alone.  So when we are persistently aware of doubts, aware of questions, it means that we’ve come to the edge of mystery.   One of the great mystics, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, pointed out that “By love may [God] be caught and held, but by thinking never.”  It’s a sacred moment when we confess that our intellect can go only so far, and no further.

This brings me to my second suggestion about how doubt can draw us to God.  And that is (2) to pray our doubts.  Doubts are part of who we are, and if we want to grow closer to God, if we want to be real with God, we must be willing to share our doubts with God in prayer.  Doubt is a form of spiritual pain, and we can pray our doubt much the same way that we might pray our physical pain.  How do we do that?  We lean into the doubt.  We breathe into it.  We go into its center.  We don’t flee from our doubt or deny it or avoid it.  We let it be exactly what it is.  As we bring careful attention to our doubt, and share it very simply, very honestly, with God, we may notice that something is hiding behind the doubt. 

For example, maybe behind the doubt is anger: maybe I discover in prayer that what is really troubling me is not that I doubt the reality or the goodness of God, but that I am angry with God.  Or maybe I discover in prayer that what lies behind my doubt of God’s presence or care for me is a deep sense of abandonment and loss and grief.  Or maybe behind my doubt there lurks some kind of fear: maybe the fear of commitment, the fear of taking myself seriously as a spiritual seeker.

When we pray our doubts we open ourselves to discover the feelings that lie beneath the doubt, and then those feelings become our prayer.  We pray our anger and grief, our longing and fear.  It is in sharing our feelings with God that we often find our relationship with God becoming more authentic.  We often reveal more of ourselves to God by expressing our feelings — however briefly — than we do by spending an hour rehashing our thoughts.  So I invite you to pray your doubts and to be alert to whatever feelings may lie beneath them.  Doubt may become the doorway through which you discover a fresh and more authentic relationship with God.

My third and final suggestion is this: (3) Be ready to move beyond your doubt.  I’m not urging you to suppress or squelch your doubt or to force it away.  That would be to avoid the truth and to pretend to be someone you’re not.  But after honoring your doubt and praying your doubt, there may be a time when God invites you to move beyond your doubt.  There may be a time when you realize that doubt is holding you back from God, and keeping you from even dipping your toes into the ocean of God’s presence.

“Come and see.  Come and see.”  That is what Jesus said over and over again to the people who paused to look at him, and wondered who he was and what he was up to.  “Come and see.”  Come and discover for yourselves what theologian Rudolf Otto calls the “awesome and rapturous mystery” of God (mysterium tremendum et fascinans).

In our parish programs of Christian formation and education, in our Foundations class, in our concluding series on sin and our upcoming series on the Bible, we have a place to grapple with our doubts and to open to a deeper faith.  And just as Jesus invited Thomas to stretch out his hands to touch the wounded hand and side of the risen Christ, so in our Eucharist this morning we too are invited to stretch out our hands to touch the body and blood of Christ.  Maybe we reach out with a hefty dose of doubt and only a smidgen of faith.  Maybe we reach out with serene confidence.  I hope you will let Jesus see both your faith and your doubt, and let him speak in your depths the words our troubled hearts so long to hear, “Peace be with you.”

Wherever we are on our spiritual journey, whether we think of ourselves as people who have found God or as people who are seeking God, whether we are wrestling with doubt or filled with faith, the questions before us are the same:  Are we honoring our doubts?  Are we praying our doubts?  And, when the time comes, will we set our doubts aside?  When the Living Christ breaks in upon the closed doors of our minds and hearts, will we hold back from love, or, like our brother Thomas, will we utter those words of joyful trust and faith, “My Lord and my God”?