4/28/2019: Doubting, faithfully.

The Incredulity of Thomas; 16th Century manuscript, England.

The First Sunday of Easter is over; the parties are over, the brunch leftovers are eaten, and the guests have all gone home. The question now is: what do we do next?

Of course, it is still the season of Easter – and will be until we celebrate Pentecost in June, and so for now, it is like we are barreling down a highway of white paraments on the altar, and our favorite hymns, and eating all the desserts we forwent in Lent. It would be easiest to just hum along as we went down this Easter highway, soaking up all the sunshine and good news that spring offers a place like Chicago; it would be easiest for me to give a sermon today helps us cruise through Easter.

But then, just like every year, there’s Thomas, the one who didn’t show up for our Easter parties, who slept in during the Easter service. He is like a speed bump on that Easter highway, forcing us to slow down a bit.

We are told that Thomas was absent when Jesus showed up to the male disciples for the first time; we don’t know where he was, but we do know that when he shows back up, he finds the news of Jesus’s appearance impossible – and for good reason! It was impossible news!

Thomas knew that Jesus was arrested. Thomas knew that Jesus was nailed to the cross. Thomas knew that Jesus died there, and he knew that a few of Jesus’s followers snuck out to give his body a fast burial. And Thomas knew that dead men do not appear in your locked room, wishing you peace. Thomas knew a lot of things, and he knew that the resurrection was not possible.

And we know that it was eight days before Jesus appeared to Thomas. What a lonely eight days those must have been, as all of Thomas’s friends and companions held fast to this appearance of Jesus. How lonely it must have felt, as Thomas’s friends discussed among themselves what it meant to see Jesus, once dead, alive once more.

And how familiar it must sound to many of us, to sit in doubt among believers, as Thomas did.

At least, I will speak for myself: sitting in doubt, feeling alone in church, is familiar to me. There have been times in my own faith journey when I have found myself merely going through the motions of faith. I take communion, and I say the Creeds, and I pray, and I sing.

But, in the back of my mind, there is a nagging voice asking me questions I do not want to confront: what does it mean to say that we are eating the body and blood of a man who lived two-thousand years ago? What does it mean when we say, together, the Nicene Creed: We believe that Jesus is “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father”? I don’t even know what means, let alone if I believe it. What is prayer, and does it even do anything?

Thomas, every second Sunday of Easter, forces me – and forces us – to reckon with our doubts.

He stands in the middle of our Easter highway and asks questions we don’t usually hear in church: Do you actually believe any of this? Do you actually believe that Jesus lived? That he performed miracles? That he died? And – do you really believe that Jesus rose from the dead? And what does it even mean to say that you believe these things? What does it mean to have faith?

These aren’t idle questions, or rhetorical questions. I mean it: do you believe it?

Last week, we announced the greatest news of all time: that Jesus Christ still lives! And this week, when all the desserts are eaten and the guests have gone home, we are asked whether or not we believe it.

In our context, in twenty-first century America, to believe something is to intellectually assent to something. We use the phrases “I believe” and “I think” interchangeably. If we say that we believe someone, it means that we’ve listened to their ideas about something or their story, and we’ve reasoned it out, and have come to the conclusion that it is true.

For us, belief is a matter of the mind – a mental process of cognition, reason, ration, ideas, and logical proofs.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am in favor of logic and reason – truly, I am. The advances in science, medicine, mathematics by people who are steeped in the world of ration and logic – these are things which serve God.

But this sort of cognitive process has its problems, at least when it comes to things which are beyond our understanding. Because there are things we cannot understand with logic and reason and ration; there are things beyond the measures of our minds.

I cannot understand the Resurrection, cognitively. It makes no sense to my rational mind.

I cannot write a logical proof that explains the mystery of the Eucharist.

I cannot draw a diagram to demonstrate what happens in baptism.

I admit this to you from the pulpit, and I pray to God that I am not alone in these questions that Thomas and I have.

You know, this doubt probably wouldn’t be a problem for me, for the church, except that we read that Jesus says to his disciples then and now: Do not doubt but believe.

And that makes we wonder, how much belief is enough belief, and how much doubt is too much doubt?

The word “believe” appears in today’s Gospel reading five times, which suggests that the idea of “belief” is central to the message of this text. It makes me worry that my doubts are a problem to be solved, to be fixed. What does that mean for a doubting Thomas like me?

But, as I was preparing for this sermon and studying the text, I came to a conclusion: I think we’ve mistranslated this text – at least, the word that is translated here as “believe.” Rather than believe, I think we should translate this specific Greek word as “trust.”

Trust. As in, Jesus saying to Thomas and to us, “do not doubt – but trust.

That changes things in this passage, doesn’t it?

Unlike belief, to trust someone or something is not cognitive. It means to depend, to hope, to rely on. It means to place our confidence in someone or something. Sometimes, it’s a gut feeling to trust someone; sometimes, it’s a matter of loyalty and love for a person forged over time.

The biggest difference between trust and belief is that, while belief relies on our mental faculties, trust is a matter of the heart.

I may not be able to explain my faith to you, but, I can hope against hope that these truths are true.

I can have confidence in the ways I have seen God move in my life and the lives of others I have known.

I can trust people when they tell me their testimonies of faith, the ways that God has made a way out of no way, the ways that God loved them even when they felt beyond lovable – stories I have heard in this congregation as I have served here this school year.

When I feel as I am merely going through the motions, when I wonder what the creeds mean, when I find the Scriptures unbelievable, and when I fail to grasp how God works, I can still trust that God is showing up, despite the limitations of my mind.

I can still cry out, “My Lord, and my God,” just as Thomas did.

This is why I love Thomas’s story so much: He says he cannot believe, that he cannot understand how a dead man could live. And he is standing in a room with locked doors, just as his mind was closed. But Jesus showed up anyway, not for anything Thomas did or could do, not because anything Thomas believed or didn’t believe, but just because Jesus is trustworthy like that.

So, too, is it in our lives. Even as we stand behind the locked doors of our own minds, unable to grasp the good news we hear, Jesus keeps showing up in unexpected ways through those locked doors, reminding us of who we are and whose we are – and asking us to trust that he will keep showing up, long after we have put the Easter decorations away.

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