April 12, 2015
04.12.2015 Preaching Text: “But [Thomas] said to them, ‘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 20:25b)
If the apostle Paul were writing today, he might be tempted to rewrite the ending of his famous 13th chapter in 1 Corinthians, the “love psalm.”
“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;” he might say, “and the greatest of these is doubt.” (It’s a whopper of a rewrite, I admit! I took a few liberties!)
But the reason I say this is because doubt today is frequently championed as the highest aspiration of the religious mind, rather than a means to an end.
I myself have been known to quote Alfred Tennyson, the 19th century British poet, who famously wrote: “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.”
As you know, every year on the Sunday after Resurrection Day, the lectionary treats us to the account of Thomas’ doubt. Since he hadn’t previously been around to see the risen Christ appear to his fellow disciples, he will not believe.
Doubt, of course, properly understood, has an important role to play in faith, thus Tennyson’s statement. Unlike much of what otherwise passes for doubt, its truest form actually implies faith.
I don’t tend to stay up nights wondering, or doubting, whether the moon is made of cheese. I know it isn’t, so I don’t give it much thought.
When it comes to matters of faith, of belief in an invisible God, or a supernatural reality beyond the purview of my five senses, doubt plays an essential role.
Doubt is faith seeking understanding. If we didn’t believe in a God, as with my ‘cheesy’ moon illustration, we wouldn’t actively struggle to understand or believe in him.
Thus the opposite of faith is not doubt, but indifference. Doubt is the passionate struggle to make sense of that about which we have honest questions. Which is to say that doubt often leads to greater understanding, even greater belief.
In our contemporary world, however, doubt is not always seen this way (as a means to greater understanding and faith). Instead it is lifted up as the highest ideal, the end point, if you will, of the religious life!
Years ago, in a PBS documentary entitled “Faith from the Ashes” aired on the first year anniversary of 9/11, a conga line of religious authorities from different faith traditions were paraded before the cameras to declare that in the face of the abject horrors of 9/11, the only thing we can do is question our faith.
The idea, mind you, wasn’t that doubt tends to be a natural human response to evil, but that one should search no further than doubt, because, presumably, it is faith itself that’s the problem. If we religious folk were just a little bit less certain about things, such atrocities might never happen.
In truth, certitude, or faith, depends entirely on what it is we’re certain about. There’s good certitude and bad certitude. There’s good faith and bad faith. To be certain that murder is wrong, or that stealing is wrong, hardly seems controversial. Things get a bit dicey, however, when you assert unquestioningly that the moon, for instance, is made of cheese.
Being certain about something that is false, then, is one thing. Being certain about something that’s true is another.
So when it comes to faith and doubt, certainty and uncertainty, what do we Christians do with the Resurrection? I must confess that in my earlier days I doubted it. I thought it was something the church cooked up as a way to explain the internal disposition of Jesus’ earliest followers.
A perfect expression of this was found in a recent, pre-Easter “Matters of Faith” column in the Cape Cod Times. In it, a fellow pastor here on the Cape sang from this very same hymn book.
If you’re looking for historical facts regarding the Resurrection, he implied, then you’re barking up the wrong tree. After all, because the earliest gospel was written three decades after this event (it was probably later than that), any belief in the Resurrection cannot be historical, but a matter of faith.
“As the Christian movement grew,” he writes, “and as the first generation of Christians began to pass away, a more uniform way of telling the story was needed.” And since we “cannot prove” the historical events found in scripture, “we are challenged to live as though they were true.” [Italics mine.]
He then leaps, predictably, into full apologetic mode. “You have every right,” now directing his words to his “atheist or agnostic” readers, “to call Christianity into question, because we have bungled this up in a big way.” (We’ve passed off an ahistorical fantasy, in other words, and sold it as fact.)
From here, as if on cue, he then launches into the usual litany of perceived sins of the church throughout history (much of it exaggerated, if not downright false, while simultaneously ignoring the unquestioned good the church has done for over two millennia).
But all is not lost! He assures his readers that the Resurrection has merit, but only to the extent that we live lives “set free from guilt,” that we live lives of generosity. The Resurrection is “about the reign of God coming near…” And this is a reign shaped by “peace, justice, love and life.”
The truth of the matter, however, is that the Resurrection is either a historical fact or it isn’t. And if it is a historical fact, it doesn’t matter one whit whether I believe it or not, or whether I live a life “set free from guilt.”
Despite my colleague’s certainty about the fictitiousness of the Resurrection, there is wide scholarship that begs to differ. Paul’s writings, for example, precede the earliest gospel, Mark, by some 20 years or so. Paul is thought to have begun writing his letter around the year 50 A.D., just 20 years after Jesus’ crucifixion.
When Paul wrote about the Resurrection, many of the original players were still very much alive, and many of his hearers would have witnessed these same events. If Paul was lying, this would have been an issue.
In addition, something truly profound caused an otherwise dispirited and fearful group of disciples to suddenly and at once come forth, boldly proclaiming Christ crucified. Only one of the original disciples, John, is thought to have died a natural death. The rest, presumably, were martyred for a kindly fiction!
There are indeed many other arguments one could make to bolster the historicity of the Resurrection, too numerous, in fact, to discuss here. Suffice it to say that rather than timidly apologizing for the Church’s central affirmation – the Resurrection – perhaps we should look more deeply into it.
With all due respect to my well-meaning colleague, most people probably would say that they don’t need the church to live a life shaped by “peace, justice, love and life.” What they do need is the life-changing power of the Resurrection in order to face life’s many very real challenges, not the least of which is death.
For too long the church has retreated into the cultural cul-de-sac of trendy scholarship, meek apologies, and vague nostrums about ‘sharing and caring.’
It’s all a bit of weak tea, it seems to me, and one unlikely to motivate anyone, atheist, agnostic, orChristian, to get up early on a Sunday morning and trudge off to church.
One might just as easily, and with far less effort, enjoy a good yawn, roll over, and go back to sleep. Amen.
04.12.2015 Preaching Text: “But [Thomas] said to them, ‘Unless I see the