The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of the 2nd Sunday of Easter
23 April 2017
1 Peter 1:3-9
I must admit that I love this week’s Gospel reading… I think it was written specifically for Episcopalians!
I’ve spoken a few times now about testing the faith that I grew up with, re-examining it as an adult, and Jane challenging a lot of the unexamined assumptions that I had about my faith. What I haven’t mentioned is that the two most enduring reasons I found a home in the Episcopal Church are that it is honestly and authentically a welcoming place, and beyond questioning not being discouraged, it is actually encouraged. I remember one of the first experiences I had of the Episcopal Church was of a fellow youth group member telling us that she was wiccan and gay, and that she came to our youth group because it was a place where she could be herself without apology, without regret, and without judgement, where she could ask some of the hard questions of life, and not be given placating responses. It was a place where she felt both loved and at home, and affirmed for having a questioning spiritual heart. With her and others at Trinity in Menlo Park back in the early 90s, I felt safe to voice my own doubts and questions about Christianity, about my faith, and about a God that sometimes didn’t seem to fit with what I had been taught growing up. In many ways, Thomas is the patron saint of questioners, doubters, and seekers who aren’t satisfied with a surface reading of a faith that transcends the pages of scripture and infiltrates real lives and hearts thousands of years after the last pages of the bible were recorded.
My brother and I grew up having conversations late into the night that would likely have made my dad throw up his hands in despair. We secretly questioned and speculated about the miracles in the Gospels, the overlap between the account of creation in the bible and the fossil record supporting evolution, the ongoing work of creation beyond the seventh day, the local versus global interpretation of the flood, the multiplication of loaves and fishes, the differing accounts of the gospels, and the meaning both of many of Jesus’ parables and of Revelation.
Continuing this line of inquiry as a teen new to the Episcopal tradition; as a young adult discerning holy orders; as an adult challenged by the love of my life to reexamine my blind spots; as a seminary student, challenged to read between the lines of the imperial canon for the voices being silenced by power; as a young priest seeking connections between life and faith; as a doctoral student, seeking the deeper relationships that found society, culture, and our collective spiritual yearning as a human species; and continuing into the here and now, as Priest-in-Charge at Calvary, seeking both new and familiar ways to re-engage with God and each of you as we celebrate the relationships of our close community and beyond, I have learned of many more assumptions that I hadn’t challenged in conversation with my brother. I found and find that I disagree with a lot of the theology I was born into, with the justifications of hate, exclusion, inequality, environmental domination and dominion, with placating dismissals of suffering, hurt, and loss, and with a conception of a God whose plan covered everything from the trials and hurts we would endure in our lives to whether or not we were going to heaven or hell. It’s not as tidy a faith, certainly, but it’s also not a fragile one. It’s one that has weathered many storms of doubt over the years, and one that can handle big questions without fear of the answers toppling a house of cards. [In honesty, it’s a bit like the growth, deepening, and enriching of love in a long and successful marriage.]
And to all of this, today’s gospel is a nod of affirmation. In relationship with Thomas, the risen Christ affirms our doubts, our questions, our fears, and our concerns.
There was Thomas, standing speechless in front of the risen Christ—being beckoned to come forward. “Come, place your fingers in my hands, place your hand in my side.” Little could Thomas have known a week earlier that Jesus would be able to hear every word of his doubt when the other disciples told him they’d seen the Lord. Yet he had heard it. Everything Thomas had said Jesus had heard and he beckoned Thomas to him using Thomas’ own words. John gives us no insight into what Thomas was thinking, but we can almost feel Thomas’ doubts and fears melt in that moment when he stood in the presence of Jesus and heard his own words of uncertainty, doubt, and disbelief visited back on him with the offer to satisfy every condition he had set in order to believe. Jesus’ response was not one of condemnation, reproval, or even disappointment, but one of grace and love. Jesus met him where he was and offered him what he needed in order to have faith. The common translation of what Jesus said next is “do not doubt but believe,” however the Greek more closely translates to “do not be without faith, but with faith.” Jesus wasn’t admonishing Thomas, but was saying: Come, satisfy your needs and have faith… you don’t have to be without faith anymore, I’ll meet you where you are.
Thomas was called just as the other disciples were called—just as we are called—to be witnesses of the Risen Christ. But just as we go through our own trials of doubt and disbelief, Thomas too—a disciple of Christ even while he was here in the flesh—had his faith challenged. He wasn’t present when the other disciples met Jesus and all he could remember was the horror of watching Jesus die just a few short days before. How could that awful finality have been overcome? It had likely been the darkest hour of his life, and he didn’t dare allow himself to hope that his saviour had undone death itself without experiencing the proof with his own senses. And who can blame him? Who among us has never felt any uncertainty about our beliefs?
Doubt is, in fact, a natural part of a healthy and developing faith. When we stop questioning and exploring our faith it stagnates. When we’re too afraid to ask the big questions and learn from the answers we discover, we risk halting our spiritual growth, and this, more than risking answers that unsettle our assumptions about God, is more often the path that leads people to losing their faith—particularly when those unchallenged assumptions become a stark and insurmountable challenge to our faith during a life crisis. Simply avoiding the questions doesn’t make the doubt go away. If we have never been willing to risk asking whether our faith is more than a simple superstition, can we say decidedly that we believe in a living God? If we have never been willing to risk asking, “Am I a Christian only because my parents were?” can we truly call our faith our own? If we haven’t found ourselves asking—or being asked by one of our courageous teens—what the Trinity is all about, how can we hope to join in the divine dance with the One who is cosmic harmony in relationship? And if we can’t seek some of those many facets of God reflected back to us in our own loves and multi-gendered faces, in the breathtaking beauty of creation that surrounds us, how can we hope to gain an ever-deepening appreciation for the fathomless breadth of God’s eternal face? Often we’re afraid to face our doubts because we’re afraid of what we might find.
What we may not realize is that God is already aware of the deepest, best kept doubts of our hearts. Just as Christ dealt with Thomas, God longs to tell us “Come, satisfy your needs and have faith; I’ll meet you where you are.”
But like Thomas, we must first have the courage to doubt—to examine our hearts and ask ourselves the questions that will reveal the deficiencies of our faith—before God can satisfy our needs. There are those like St. Paul who are so lost in their doubt that nothing short of a visitation by the Risen Lord Himself will bring them into faith. At the opposite extreme are those Jesus spoke of in today’s Gospel as Blessed—those who have not seen and yet believe— who have asked the big questions and who are truly without doubt. The rest of us—who, as Jesus pointed out consolingly to Thomas, are in the majority—are somewhere in the middle and simply have our doubts. It is to these also that Peter speaks in today’s reading from Acts. Fellow Israelites and others in Jerusalem to whom Peter extends Jesus’ same promises of faith, love, forgiveness, and fellowship in the Holy Spirit, stating a couple verses beyond today’s reading in Acts:
“O Lord, you are my portion and my cup;
*it is you who uphold my lot.
For you will not abandon me to the grave,
*nor let your holy one see the Pit.”
It’s not by any coincidence that today’s story of Thomas’ doubt appears in the Gospel of John. As the last verse of the Gospel explains:
Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ…
The Gospel writer believed that of all the miraculous things that Jesus did after his resurrection, this was one of those that, above all else, had to be written down—that had to be preserved. He knew that future disciples would have their doubts and he wanted to show that doubt is natural and indeed necessary to a living faith. That not only can those with doubts still be disciples and still be filled with the Holy Spirit, but indeed those who are truly without doubt are the exceptional cases. Let’s not forget that the other disciples had their doubts as well! They didn’t believe any more than Thomas when Mary told them that Christ had risen. Thomas was simply the last because he wasn’t there when the others encountered Christ. But he was also the only one to openly admit and face his doubt.
And in the end, did Thomas really need to physically place his fingers in Jesus’ hands or place his hand in Jesus’ side to believe? No. He in fact found that he needed far less to satisfy his
For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away,
everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” To these also, Peter’s epistle celebrates for the
testing of their faith that leads to its refining as gold is refined by fire. And of this tested
relationship, our Psalmist exults “ doubt. But only through identifying his deficiencies was he able to recognize the depth of his faith and to proclaim in renewed and deepened faith “My Lord and my God.”
So too, though my brother and I questioned the science of the miracles, though I’ve since questioned much, including the history of translations that have changed some of the original wordings of the scriptures, where I have arrived on the other side of answers that only come in the form of more questions is with a different perspective on the purpose of scripture—beyond changes in language that might change the nuance of a phrase, beyond the facts of miraculous encounters with the divine, what I seek from scripture has become “what do these stories teach us about God’s love affair with humankind? About God’s love, forgiveness, and steadfast faith in US, and about God’s eternal and relentless desire to know us and teach us how to love one another. Of all the miracles in the bible, perhaps the most impressive are those in which humans actually love as God loves, and the kingdom of heaven breaks through into the here and now of their world. These are the stories that have stood the test of time, and have come to us, that we too might learn to bring God’s kingdom to life in our world. [It is here that we can return to those sustaining and sustained relationships that teach us about God’s love through steadfast accompaniment and deep care. This week we remember and honor several milestone anniversaries in our Calvary family, and here, today we celebrate Murray and Carol’s 40th wedding anniversary. In just a few moments, they’ll come and join hands to reaffirm the vows that joined them in holy matrimony. While we might have preferred a different set of readings for them, the reality of life in relationship is that we do doubt ourselves and others. But one of the deepest forms of accompaniment and love is being able to have the conversations that help us to overcome our doubts, our fears, and our insecurities—to be able to say, “Come, satisfy your needs and have faith; I’ll meet you where you are.” Some of the scariest and yet deepest and most enriching conversations I’ve had with Jane over the past fifteen years have been just such conversations.
Admitting our fears, our doubts, our insecurities, and our perceived inadequacies to one who shares our heart draws us closer together, eases the burden of our concern, and allows us to not simply pine in isolation, or risk allowing our fears to open a rift between us and those we love, but to work through and past them, grow stronger together, and deepen our bond. And so in reflecting on today’s readings in the context of this joyous day of celebrating forty years of marriage, I can think of no greater testament to a love that has stood the test of time—One that has weathered many storms over the years, and one that can handle big questions without fear of the answers toppling a house of cards.]
And so, with Thomas, let us continue to doubt, to question, to search, and all the while find ourselves growing closer and dearer to God’s and one another’s hearts as we slowly become more and more like God’s love in the process.