Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Carrying Out Doubts

December 19, 2018 - St. Thomas, tr.

In trying times, there are other people who carry our faith for us. As we pray in the burial office, "Give courage and faith to those who are bereaved, that they may have strength to meet the days ahead in the comfort of a reasonable and holy hope, in the joyful expectation of eternal life with those they love." Those who have faith--the collective community of believers--ask that God would give faith to those who are struggling. People pray for us when we cannot find the strength or focus or confidence to pray. The towering faith of those who come into our lives and journey beside us for a while helps us find our own faith. When the paralytic was brought to Jesus for healing, Jesus noticed not the faith of the man lying on the bed but the faith of those who had brought him and lowered him down through the roof, yet Jesus pronounces forgiveness of sins and healing for the man whom they had brought. In a real way, therefore, the faith of others stands in for our own faith until our faith can be made whole.

I wonder if the same is true for our doubts.

This week, we remember the feast of St. Thomas, which is celebrated on December 21, the longest night of the year. Thomas, of course, is remembered primarily for the encounter we hear in the gospel lesson appointed for his feast: "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." It is this moment that gives Thomas the true yet unfair nickname Doubting Thomas. One way to hear these words is to imagine a defiant Thomas, perhaps disappointed and hurt that he had been left out the first time Jesus appeared to his disciples, flatly refusing to believe what the disciples were saying to him. "We have seen the Lord!" they exclaim, but Thomas will have none of it. But is that what the story bears out? Thomas does not respond to the disciples, "I will never believe--not even if I see and touch it for myself!" Instead, he admits, "Unless I see it and touch it, I will not believe. Until then, I cannot believe." Might there be agony in his voice? Couldn't he be desperate to see what his colleagues had seen?

Jesus, in fact, gives Thomas exactly what he needs. A week later, he finds the disciples again and duplicates the first encounter, seemingly just for Thomas' sake. Before Thomas can say a word, Jesus responds as if he had heard already Thomas' disappointed struggle: "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Remember, as Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2018 points out, that Jesus had refused to give the disbelieving, hard-hearted Pharisees a sign, but he willingly gives Thomas a sign so close and real that it is to be touched. Jesus is responding to Thomas' openness. Despite his doubts, Thomas seeks faith, but the reality is that he cannot produce faith all by himself. He needs help. "Lord, help my unbelief!" the father of the epileptic boy cries out to Jesus. Thomas, in his own way, has uttered the same cry, and Jesus has heard it.

Without questioning the historicity of Thomas' encounter with Jesus, I note this episode's literary importance. In the gospel of Jesus as John tells it, the incredulity of the world needs a hero, and Thomas provides it. The resurrection of Jesus was--and for many still is--unbelievable. As Josephus wrote, a resurrection itself isn't beyond thinkable, but a crucified and resurrected messiah is preposterous (not his words but mine). To think that the rejected, defeated, shamed criminal who died on the cross at the hands of God's clearest enemy, the Empire of Rome, would still become the champion of God's reign, the one through whom God's victory would be declared, is incomprehensible. Yet it is true, and I believe it. But how do I believe it? How do I get over the hurdle of doubt? How can I know what the faithful know without first being faithful? Thomas shows us what it means for another to carry our doubts.

Thomas is the embodiment of our deepest questions, our sternest reluctance. Thomas' bold encounter, his honest inability to believe without proof, carries our skepticism to the feet of the Risen One. In him, the Holy Spirit gives us permission to say, "Unless I, too, see the mark of the nails in his side and place my finger in the mark of the nails and place my hand in his side, I will not believe." We receive that permission because we know that Jesus response to us is the same. If we, like Thomas, hold open the hope for faith, Jesus will come among us, offer to reveal himself to us, allow us to see and touch him, and give us the blessing of faith. "Have you believed because you have seen me?" Jesus asked. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

The journey from doubt to faith is not one of black and white, start and finish, right or wrong. It is a lifelong journey of struggle, of knowing and not knowing, of believing and questioning. In those moments when our doubts mount up, Thomas allows us to hand them to him so that he can bring them to the risen Jesus on our behalf. We are not rejected because of our struggle. We are welcomed because of our truth and honesty. No matter how large the doubts loom, no matter how hard faith is to hold, leave space in your heart for God and trust that God will receive your hope and grant you faith.

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