As I continue to ponder what it is that keeps me from living into the power of resurrection, fear and doubt keep bubbling to the top of my list. And the Gospel post-resurrection stories speak directly to both of those experiences. John 20:18-31 is perhaps the best example of how fear and doubt can be transformed into faith and belief.
Fear and doubt are like the proverbial chicken and egg question; it’s hard to decide which comes first, but the two certainly seem to usually come in tandem. John’s Gospel tells us that the disciples are hiding in a locked room on the night of Jesus’ resurrection because they are afraid. Earlier in Chapter 20 Peter and John have seen the empty tomb, but we get conflicting reports about what that experience meant to them: “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.” (20:8-10). Verse 8 says they believed, 9 says they didn’t understand; and 10 says they were so unmoved they simply go back home.
But Mary Magdalene, who was the first one at the tomb remains behind and personally encounters the risen Christ (vs. 11-17), and in verse 18 she goes to tell the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” They must not have believed Mary’s tall tale. Women are still often ignored as being overly emotional in such situations. So that evening all the fearful disciples (except Thomas), even though they heard the amazing news of the resurrection, are still locked away in a self-imposed prison of doubt and fear. Jesus comes to them, brings them the peace of the Holy Spirit, shows them the proof of his scarred hands and side, and they see, believe and rejoice.
My friend and colleague, Mebane McMahon, pointed out in last Sunday’s sermon that even though “Doubting Thomas” gets a bad rap for his lack of faith, at least he was out somewhere in Jerusalem while the other ten were in hiding. There’s some evidence of Thomas’ bravery earlier in John (11:16) when Jesus puts his own life in even more danger from his powerful enemies by raising Lazarus from the dead. It is Thomas who says to the other disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
But courage is not the same as faith. When told by his friends later that they have seen and touched the risen Christ, Thomas says, “Sorry guys, unless I see this with my own eyes I cannot believe this impossible story.” His rational doubt is stronger than his hope, bolder than his experience of seeing Lazarus resurrected. He, like us, wants evidence, tangible take-to-the bank proof.
Don’t we all? In life’s darkest moments don’t we want certainty? When I was a very naïve college student a co-worker of mine learned of my decision to finally accept my call to ministry. Thinking that one small step gave me insider theological information, she asked me a tough question one day at lunch. Her husband of many years had died suddenly several years before, and even though she seemed to be getting along well as a widow, she was still troubled by something that her pastor had said to her when her husband died. She had asked the pastor an honest doubting question, namely would she see her husband again in heaven. Like all of us, no matter how strong our faith, she wanted some assurance about what happens when we die. The pastor gave her an equally honest answer which was, “I don’t know.” I’m sure he said some other words to comfort her, words of hope and faith in what he believed the answer to her question was, but what she heard and remembered was the doubt.
Of course, unless one has had a near-death experience, “I don’t know” is the only honest answer to that question, and I admire that pastor for his honesty. I do, however, have serious questions about whether he picked the most teachable or pastoral moment to demythologize my friend’s concept of heaven. But the point of the story is that knowledge cannot be the solution to theological doubt. Knowledge about God is important, but living into the power of resurrection requires more than facts to empower a leap of faith.
I am still learning that lesson. I remember walking into my first intro theology class in seminary many years ago thinking, “Finally, I am going to know the answers to all my nagging questions about God!” Remember I said I was even more naïve back then. I had been educated in a system where there was always a 1:1 ratio between questions and answers, not in the mysterious realm of theology where ambiguity is the normal state of being. I wanted concrete answers and instead was taught to seek a faith in things unseen. I felt like Einstein’s teacher the day she asked him “what letter comes after ‘A?’“ His reply was not the “correct” answer she expected. He said, “They all do.”
Like that teacher we want one correct answer to our faith questions. We want faith to eliminate our doubt, but in this life we must learn to be content and trust God when we barely “see in a mirror dimly.” (I Cor. 13:12). Part of our humanity is living with the paradox expressed by the man whose son was healed by Jesus and proclaims, “I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Jesus has his moment of doubt on the cross, Peter’s doubt sinks him when he tries to walk on the water; the women at the end of Mark’s Gospel are scared into silence about the resurrection. So how do we live in the power of resurrection, even when doubt threatens to overwhelm us in fearful situations? Is the answer information and education and knowledge, or is it faith and belief? Is it a matter for the head or the heart?
It is, of course, both/and. From the perspective of 68 years of life experience, I am now much more afraid of dogmatic certainty than honest ambiguity. Dogmatic religious certainty in any form results in the kind of bloody conflicts we see all around us today between Sunnis and Shiites, Jews and Palestinians, and yes, the ideological wars between different factions within Christianity. Dogmatism declares exclusion for those with different perspectives and experiences of God, and that exclusion threatens the security and survival of the human race. Paul O’Neill, former Secretary of the Treasury under President George W. Bush, described that danger by comparing philosophy with ideology. The former he said is open to dialogue, change and growth, but ideology is impenetrable by new ideas or facts. Questions of faith belong in the realm of philosophy, but we too often turn them into matters of ideology.
Frederick Buechner says, “Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith,” it is what keeps us alive and growing. Faith and doubt are two sides of the same coin. As good as certainty may appear as a cure for doubt, the reality is that it also kills faith. As Buechner also says, it is not the presence of God in our lives that keeps us coming back to church each week but the absence, the need for assurance to balance our doubt.
But here’s the good news. When it appears that doubt and fear have the upper hand, resurrection comes to the rescue. God breaks through whatever barriers we have created, appearing in a locked room, not once but twice. The second time is a full week later but notice Thomas is still there – his doubt has not driven him away, nor has it excluded him from the Christian community. And Jesus comes right to Thomas and offers him the same peace and power he gave to the 10 a week before.
Does our search for information, for knowledge about resurrection keep us from experiencing it? One of my personal problems with spending much of my adult life in academic settings is that intellectual pursuits can become doors that lock God’s mystery and ambiguity out. Heavy doses of education can make one suspicious of simple childlike faith. When we sing the great old hymn, “In the Garden,” it’s comforting to walk and talk with Jesus, but then it says, “He tells me I am His own,” and my degreed self cries out, “No, I don’t want to belong to anyone, I am my own person. I can think and reason things out for myself.”
I value my education highly, but I also know the limitations of the human intellect. Jesus doesn’t send Thomas off to seminary or grad school to resolve his doubt, but neither does he send him to an extremely dogmatic faith community on the emotional end of the religious spectrum. Jesus knows Thomas. He accepts him and his inquiring mind that is not afraid to ask hard questions. He has experienced Thomas’ doubts before. In the famous “farewell discourse” in John 14, after Jesus says, “I go to prepare a place for you, and you know the way,” it is honest Thomas who raises his hand and says, “Wait a minute, Jesus. We don’t know the way.” And Jesus, to paraphrase, perhaps showing a little frustration says, “How long have I been with you? How many parables have I taught you? How many signs and miracles have I given you? But you do know the way Thomas because you know me, and I am the way.”
Jesus doesn’t want or need disciples who just know about him; he needs followers who know him so personally that we are willing to be like him, resurrected people who embrace fear and doubt and are not crippled by them. Academics would say faith is not simply about epistemology (knowledge) but about ontology (Being). God’s response to fear and doubt is not an on-line course in theology. God doesn’t text us the answers to life’s hard questions. God inserts God’s self into the very midst of our doubting, fearful world to transform our whole being—body, mind and spirit, to resurrect the church, the body of Christ, and through us to transform the world.
God’s peace in Christ finds us, not vice versa, in the midst of our doubt and fear, not after all doubts are resolved. That peace finds us behind locked doors, in classrooms, factories, offices, in churches and seminaries, and even sometimes in the halls of Congress.
But here’s the catch – God’s peace comes only in surrender and relationship with God, to the power of Being itself. “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (Vs. 21-22). Peace and faith come only when we get close enough to Jesus that he can breathe on us. That’s really close. But we don’t like anyone invading our personal space, not even and maybe especially Jesus. I sometimes wonder if the disciples were hiding not just from the Jews that day but also from Jesus.
If Jesus gets close to us, really close, there’s a good chance we will never be the same again. They say that a child dies from poverty and hunger somewhere in the world every 3 seconds. 700-800 children have died in the time it takes to read these few pages. If Jesus gets too close to me I might have to actually do something about that, about those 20 that died in the last minute!
If Jesus gets close enough to breathe on us we might have to get out of our heads and into our hearts and out into the world. Faith is a very personal issue, not an intellectual one. It is not what we know but who we know and who knows us. It is who we allow to know us, doubts and all. And if we let Jesus get close enough to get into our hearts, faith trumps doubt and even we who have not seen but still believe can proclaim as Thomas does, “My Lord and My God!”