Second Sunday of Easter 2016
Readings: Acts 5 27-32: Psalm 150: Rev 1, 4-8; John 20, 19-end
Hymns: 73 Ye choirs of new Jerusalem. 373, Help to help each other Lord, 82 Jesus lives! 80 alleluia, alleluia
Faith, religion and doubt are important questions. God wants us to know God, hence God revealed in Jesus’ earthly life, spent translating and demonstrating God that we might know, and God revealed in the Holy Spirit, as we heard in our first reading, our continuous companion and friend. The Christian religion is the organised human translation of that revelation of God, and so it sets out beliefs, formal doctrines, and prescribed do’s and don’ts. We responded to those doctrines when Matthias was baptised. But faith is actually responding to God’s revelation in our heart, our mind, our emotion and the way we live our life in response to God who made us, God who saves us, God who stays by us. Unlike religion, faith cannot be learnt from a book, but rather lived and seen in the fruit. Fragile, firm, or fleeting for fringe and core follower alike, faith is.
But there can be a problem when faith is conflated with religion, for the whole can seem absolutely fixed, either right and good or wrong and sinful. Doubt, even reflection beyond prescribed boundaries, is then easily ruled out as impious if not blasphemous. But even if living growing faith without doubt is possible- and I reject that view – it would be unwise and vulnerable to collapse. One Christian base-line was that humans began exactly as Genesis 2 says, and that 4000 plus years ago: then came Darwin’s apes. Some Christians had no problem, seeing Adam and Eve as a story explaining life, but for others, if that article of religion was demonstrably not true, then was it all a lie? Certainty that God loves us so much to come to earth and teach us, suffer, rise and send the Spirit to be with us as three-fold God, our Alpha and Omega, our start and our completion, is our religion and should inform our personal faith. But doubt, questions, wide ranging reflection on the congruence between our religion as it is and has been practised, constantly compromised by power and context, that does not rule out your and my faith, but enables it.
‘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 does us all a 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? Sometimes, having correct doctrine becomes an idol to be worshipped, without reflection lest that be wrong. I remember a South Australian Lutheran lady asking me to find out if anyone else in the town didn’t believe in the Real Presence at Communion: she daren’t ask in case the pastor heard her doubt and excluded her! Seeds of faith are easily crushed by anxiety about ‘correct’ belief, just as life’s experience can temporarily crack 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. 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, receiving and living in the spirit, ministering 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 to feel whole for a few minutes; people come for the waves of prayer and the comfort and challenge of community and Communion, to listen and to chat. 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. Let us give thanks for whatever faith we have, not seeing doubt as failure. Whether we pray in words or in silence, let us live faith with the helpful honesty of Thomas. If that’s still a step too far, hold the seed of faith and practice doing the little works of love in thanks for God’s gift of life.
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping
Heidelberg, 3rd April 2016