Second Sunday after Easter
Readings: Acts 4 32-35; Psalm 133; I John1:1.1-2.2; John 20, 19-end
Hymns: 77 Jesus Christ is risen today, 373, Help to help each other Lord, 82 Jesus lives! No longer now 73 Ye choirs of new Jerusalem.
If we walk in darkness, says John’s first letter, we lack Christ: if we walk in light, we have fellowship with Christ and one another, although we still sin despite walking in faith with Christ. But faith isn’t testable like an exam, nor do we shop for this or that item of faith: faith, unlike doctrine, is lived and seen in the fruit. Fragile, firm, or fleeting for each fringe or core follower, faith is.
And doubt? ‘It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ,’ wrote the Russian Orthodox Dostoevsky: ‘My Hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.’ And a little earlier, the Lutheran Kierkegaard insisted ‘Doubt is not the opposite of faith’- that being despair – ‘but is an element of it.’ A more recent writer on faith and doubt, the French Protestant Ellul, wrote that ‘people who live in the world of [firm] belief feel safe…(but) faith is forever placing us on the razor’s edge.’
Labelling Thomas as The Doubter, implying he wasn’t quite up to scratch, has done many honest followers a great disservice. Thomas was human: he hadn’t seen Jesus alive and wasn’t sure. The others hadn’t been sure either, but Thomas was honest: ‘I daren’t believe it unless I see the wounds!’ But his faith was not flabby. In John 11, Jesus had mentioned going to Judea, and the disciples were concerned he’ll be killed- or concerned for their own skin. But Thomas says, ‘Let’s go, and die with him.’ Again in John 14, Jesus says, ‘you know where I’m going, I’ll prepare your place.’ And it’s honest fall-guy Thomas who says ‘actually, we haven’t a clue, so how do we know the way?’ Thomas in John 20 didn’t need more evidence to believe than the others had had, and one feels their cockiness irritated him.
How often in matters of faith do we keep quiet, afraid others will think our faith is thin, unworthy of the name? Parsley-seeds are tiny, and hard to germinate, and parsley-seeds of fledgling faith are easily crushed by anxiety about ‘correct’ belief: life’s experience can temporarily crack and even shatter faith. Thomas risked asking, and that should be our example if we read him generously and are generous to ourselves. This story doesn’t just highlight Thomas’s relation to Jesus and challenge assumptions that a doubter is an outcaste, but also his relation to his friends, and ours to fellow Christians.
What message might we take home? Firstly, doubt belongs to the human capacity for reflection, memory, forethought, and communication through indirect means of letters and messages, to our need to make sense of events and ideas. Never to doubt would be never to think, which has no merit at all, either because we were incapable of thinking, in which case not doubting is not a choice, or we would be totally apathetic, which is a deadly sin along with lust and greed: Kierkegaard’s ‘Doubt is not the opposite of faith but part of it,’ is sound. Labelling doubt as sinful, or worse as the unforgivable sin, entangles Christians in much nonsense. Take a prayer meeting I was once at. The leader, Dora, asked ‘Which is the worst sin?’ We were silent, for her questions had only one answer, and we daren’t guess that one! Finally Frieda risked it: ‘Murder?’ ‘No!’ replied Dora: ‘Doubt.’ We fell silent, but later muttered among ourselves that the victim, family and friends might disagree. We lacked the courage of Thomas to speak. It’s not faith or doubt, but an interweaving of the two: faith and doubt, and the tranquillity to accept what we have of both.
And Thomas: fall-guy, role-model, person of moral courage, ready to go to South India and die a martyr’s death there? Maybe the Thomas of John 11, 14 and 20 didn’t go there, though Christians there are as certain honest Thomas carved his cross as others are that betraying Peter was the first Bishop of Rome. Why do we make this pecking order for the disciples, with John and Peter at the top, Judas at the bottom and Thomas on the next rung? Does it suit us to keep Peter and John as goodies and the rest as lesser beings, giving the former more powers and the latter lesser status and fewer obligations and challenges? Sounds suspiciously to me like setting up priests and laity as two separate categories under Christ.
If Easter has ongoing news for us, and it does however quietly we listen, it is that in forty-three days Pentecost comes as the final leaf of the Trinitarian shamrock, setting all of us up equally to receive and live in the spirit, to minister to all through faith lived in love for all within and beyond the church. All here have been marked by God in some way. Some come for a little time-out, for solace and, please God, to feel whole for a few minutes; people come for the waves of prayer and the comfort of community and Communion, to listen and to chat. Clearly ordained people are marked out for public duty, but we are all marked by God and loved, we have all fleetingly felt the presence of God. We are all disciples, all equally in this together, each person having something to offer to God and to the community
So from now till Pentecost, let us give thanks for whatever faith we have, not parsing or analysing it, itemising or comparing it, or feeling if we can’t analyse each line of the Creed, we’re flabby doubting failures. Whether we pray in words or in silence, let us live faith with the helpful honesty of Thomas. If that’s too scary, hold quietly to the parsley-seed of faith on our finger-tip and practice doing the little works of love in thanks for God’s gift of life.
Heidelberg, April 12th 2015