Doubting like Believers



by Carrivagio

a sermon from April 15, 2012 (YearB Easter 2)

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 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. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he 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.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt [be without faith] but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

What you expect affects your ability to perceive.1 The overall understanding you have of the way things are can prejudice your ability to understand what is going on right now.

The gospels consistently portray the reluctance of Jesus’s disciples to believe that Jesus had risen from the grave.

  • These words (by the women) seemed to the apostles like an idle tale and they did not believe them.” (Luke 24:10-11)

  • Jesus said, ‘Why are you troubled and why do questionings rise in your heart?” (Luke 24:38)

  • Unless I see in his hands the print of nails and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25)

  • Put your finger here and see my hands. Put out your hand and place it in my side. Stop doubting and believe.” (John 20:27)

  • Jesus said to the two on the road to Emmaus, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.” (Luke 24:25)

  • The eleven disciples went to Galilee to the mountain which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:16-17)

Peter and the beloved disciple among others run to the tomb to check out the impossible report of the women. The beloved disciple sees the shroud and head covering lying neatly folded at the head and foot of the place where the body had been and believes the resurrection. The first in John to believe it. But we do not hear what Peter makes of it. Maybe he just doesn’t know what to make of this piece of information.

Mary Magdalene who seems to be the first person who saw the risen Jesus is not able to recognize him. Possible her tears, for Jesus asks her “Why are you crying?” But more likely it is that running into Jesus is just not something that is anywhere in her imagination or her mental list of possible matches with experience.

People can be so sure of what the answer is that they just do not see anything that does not fit that assumption. We have this pattern of how things are and we are prone to make things fit that.

Commitment can be a lens for seeing clearly or a blinder preventing reception of any information that conflicts with our stake.

Resurrection was something that was viewed as a possibility by many Jews in Jesus day. Particularly the Pharisees. It is based on prophetic words of Isaiah 25-26, apocalyptic writing of Daniel 12, the rabbinic reinterpretation of Job and psalms, and Hosea. Basically the hope sketched out was that this life is not enough for God to mete out punishment of the wicked or reward of the righteous. But there would be a Day of the Lord, a day of judgement and reward when the dead, at least the wicked and the righteous, would be raised so that God could send the wicked to face the natural results of their evil and the righteous would “shine as the stars” in the kingdom of God. On that day death would be destroyed forever.

Martha comes out to meet Jesus and confronts him,

If you had been here my brother would not have died.”

23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

That describes the general hope of folks who believed in resurrection. It was something for the last day.

That is why the very followers of Jesus had so many other theories for the empty tomb or the reports of Jesus sightings. The tomb was empty because, well, maybe, the body had been removed by someone: thieves, Roman guards, the Jewish leaders, other disciples, Mary even suspects “the gardener.”– “Where have you put him?” You see resurrection was not the first thing that popped into their minds. It was not part of their theory about how things are suppose to be.

For the same reason the disciples say the women’s report was due to hysteria, or grief, fantasy – “an idle tale.”

Until they of course were accosted in the upper room by Jesus. And then their report just like the women, “we have seen the Lord.” Thomas was not there to experience the encounter so he does what the other have done– he looks for another explanation—Maybe, he says they had seen a ghost.

I need to mention that ghosts were also something that first century Jews thought were possibilities. To condense the investigation, when a person died there might be a kind of shadowy immaterial sort of existence for a while. You see people back then had experiences of running into a vision or dream or ghost or we might say a hologram of a dead person– just as some report today. But this was clearly not a resurrection. The experience of a ghost was confirmation of a death, not a testimony that a person was fully awake and alive again. Ghost were to living people what sleepers were to wide awake folk. There was sort of a veil between. For the hope of resurrection was very much having a real body. Granted it might be a transformed body, but it would be real and able to do things in the everyday real world others inhabited.

Thomas suggests that they had gotten spooked, telling ghost stories after what the women had told them about seeing Jesus. For him the cold fact was that Jesus was dead and he could not believe that the real Jesus, the one who was crucified, was alive unless he could touch the wounds. This is said a bit sarcastically.

Now we ought to appreciate the scepticism here. Folks get into a lot of trouble when they fall for whatever they are told. This is an election year and political advertisers are pretty blatant about exaggerating, distorting, bending the truth, scaring– if you are not a little skeptical, you will be duped. Miracle cures, diets, get rich quick schemes– be careful. A new book by Ross Douthat Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics argues that Americans have become less invested in traditional Christianity but in part because they don’t have a good grasp of Christian scriptures they fall for all sorts of heresies– they fall for the Da Vinci Code, or prosperity theology that God wants you to be rich, just as badly as you want it; or a kind of narcissism that rather than pushing us to be transformed gives God’s blessing to the impulses you already have, self-fulfilling rather than serving something greater than ourselves.

It is odd that I see at the same time atheists organizing against religion in the name of reason and yet doing it with the illusion that their position is not a leap of faith. I see people touting reason and yet falling for outlandish theories.

We ought to be sceptics. But doubt should be only one tool in our mental toolbox.

Galileo said , “Doubt is the father of Discovery.” “Galileo’s more accurate understanding of the structure of the universe was born out of his doubt of older understandings. But that doubt does not preclude faith.

To use doubt to lead to discovery, Galileo had to have faith: faith in his calculations; faith in his own reasonings. Doubt becomes the father of discovery only when it is matched by some sort of faith in the process by which doubt is resolved.”

It might be we should add if Doubt is the father of discovery, faith is the mother, for you will never advance unless you have some inkling that you are going somewhere.2

You never get to the truth if you don’t have a healthy hesitancy and a healthy confidence.

Back in September, 2011 CERN reported some neutrinos arrived 60 nanoseconds earlier than the 2.3 milliseconds taken by light between Switzerland and Italy and the. results that suggest subatomic particles have gone faster than the speed of light.” In physics-as-we-understand-them, it is the absolute and ultimate speed limit in our universe. We’ve tested and retested the speed of light, measured it in as many ways as we can think of, and much of modern physics is built upon the idea that nothing can exceed it.” So there was a lot of interest in seeing if the experiments could be duplicated.

Instead Scientists at CERN claimed that

In February, 2012 Science Insider said the “60 nanoseconds discrepancy appears to come from a bad connection between a fiber optic cable that connects to the GPS receiver used to correct the timing of the neutrinos’ flight and an electronic card in a computer.”

The data did not fit the theory. So there was a lot of resistance to accepting the data. As it turns out this was right. Einstein’s theory still stands.3

It is also a good rule not to put overmuch confidence in the observational results that are put forward until they are confirmed by theory.” 4

Centuries ago, Copernicus doubted that the earth was the center of the universe and Christians round him were using the Bible and quoting the Bible to prove that the earth was the center of the universe. His doubt of their reading of the Bible lead him to a larger and deeper understanding of the Christian faith.

Centuries ago, during the time of Columbus, certain Christians were using the Bible and quoting the Bible that the earth was flat and had edges and if you sailed too far, your boat would fall over the edge off the earth. Columbus doubted the Christianity he had been taught, and his doubts led to a deeper and larger faith.5

But that cannot happen unless along with doubt you have faith.

Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.” — G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

And on the other hand faith comes to new truth very often by being disturbed by questioning and doubt.

Frederick Buechner has said: “. . . if you never doubt the certainty of your position, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith, they liven things up and keep us from falling asleep.”

When Jesus encountered Thomas he never chastised him for having questions or doubting the word of the other disciples. Here I was surprised to see our translations have let us down. We have been saying doubting Thomas so long that we miss the richness of the word in the gospel. Jesus never criticized Thomas for not crediting the disciples. Instead Jesus invites him to faith. “Do not be a-pistis,” he said. “Do not be without faith, but with faith.” You see, and I think this is an important distinction, Jesus does not say never doubt, but never be without faith. You can have doubt but still be open to faith.

The first definition of faith: “a confident belief in the truth, value or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.”6

It would be impossible to act without faith. “Every aspect of our existence depends on faith reinforced by trust – between spouses and friends, parents and children, teachers and students, employers and employees, nations and nations. We even depend and trust in material things like cars, computers, and airplanes.” We are always take little leaps of faith.

Isaac throws himself in the pool or even off of playground equipment because he trusts one of us will catch him. He doesn’t doubt gravity or the danger of deep water. But in addition to those facts he has faith that we are there to catch him.

He does not doubt the possibility of falling, but he has faith in us.

Jesus is not asking Thomas or us never to ask questions. Even Mary asked, “how can these things be?” Jesus is asking us to trust him. To be open to the possibility that we can have a trusting relation to Jesus now.

There is an interesting parallel to this in the Odyssey. Odysseus has taken years getting back from the Trojan War and all the while his wife has held suitors off. They try to convince her that her husband must be dead. She is not willing to give herself to another.

Odysseus comes home in disguise. Even into the house only his old nurse, an old worker, and his dog recognize him. He lays a plan for wiping out the freeloading well-armed suitors who have been living off his estate.

At first Penelope doubts it is him, thinking it is someone posing to be her husband. The nurse who has recognized him alerts Penelope, but Penelope just tells her she is mad. But the nurse is insistent. Penelope gets a little hope, but still thinks there might be another explanation. The nurse is exasperated and finally tells her, that it is her dogged dread that her husband would never make it home that is keeping her from seeing that in fact he has.7 At last only when Odysseus tells her things about the building of their room that only the two of them could know does she finally realize that it must be him.

And weeping for joy she comes rushing into his arms. Penelope embraces Odysseus and asks forgiveness:

But be not now wroth with me for this, nor full of indignation, because at the first, when I saw thee, I did not thus give thee welcome. For always the heart in my breast was full of dread, lest some man should come and beguile me with his words; for there are many that plan devices of evil… But now, since thou hast told the clear tokens of our bed,… lo, thou dost convince my heart, unbending as it is. (0d. 23.213-30).8

Odysseus does not put her down for doubting, but praises her for being

a “wise and trustworthy wife, who is unwilling to hand over the bed and property of her husband to any other man.”

Some times what looks like doubt is really caution. Maybe even faithful.

The problem never was doubting, skepticism. It is whether you are able to doubt your doubts or whether you are uncritically critical. Whether you trust your doubts in such a way that you cannot trust faith.

Jesus did not say don’t have doubt he said don’t lock your heart to belief

The late novelist John Updike once said, that he knew all of the skeptics’ reasons for doubting the resurrection of Jesus, but he couldn’t quite make that leap into unbelief.

In our day and time we will hear much about doubting and not knowing. Can we believe anything? There are professional atheists whose works are bestsellers and whose talks seem rather fashionable.

But leave your heart open to trusting that this is true. That Jesus is risen from the dead and trusting that, as John says we may have life. Life that practices forgiveness as Jesus empowered those disciples. Life that is liberated to liberal sharing as we read in Acts. A community that has glad and generous hearts because Jesus is alive and present in our midst and in our world.

Peter Rollins speaks to what it might looks like to practice — or fail to practice — resurrection. Rollins begins with the intentionally shocking assertion that,

Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think.

After a dramatic pause, he continues,

I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system. However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.

There are a lot of things I do not know. I do not know how the end will come or what heaven is like or how God’s kingdom will ever bring justice. But I know in whom I have believed. Faith is not about having all the facts, but trusting the right person. And trusting Jesus, which means following Jesus, stills this restless soul and confirms the purpose of life.

Doubt if you will, but as believers.

1 provides an extensive list of cognitive biases which affect interpretation.

2“Doubt, Faith, and Discovery” by Rev. Ron Knapp, September 8, 2002.

3“Thomas Kuhn, a philosopher of science, has shown how progress in scientific research is not, as we usually think, a series of “discoveries,” but rather a succession of different “paradigms,” that is, different thought-models imposed on the facts, the data, in order to sort out some order among them. For a while one paradigm makes sense, but then scientists notice more and more evidence the old paradigm can’t make sense of, so they create a new one. And if they are good scientists, they remain open to the possibility that their paradigm will in turn be replaced by a better one.” Robert M Price.

4Arthur Eddington

5Edward F. Markquart, Sermons from Seattle.

6American Heritage Dictionary

7My child, what a word has escaped the barrier of thy teeth, in that thou saidst that thy husband, who even now is here, at his own hearth, would never more return! Thy heart is ever unbelieving (άπιστος ).

8“Un-Doubting Thomas: Recognition Scenes in the Ancient World,” by Stan Harstine. Perspectives in Religious Studies, December 1, 2006, pp.435-448.



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