Usually when people think or speak about Thomas they see him as weak in some way, that if he really wanted to believe, he would have had some faith in what the others were telling him. Maybe he was one of those “thinking” types whose intellectual comprehension was getting in the way of what he knew to be true on a deeper level. On the one hand, Thomas had certainly heard the testimony of his closest friends about Jesus’ resurrection because all of them were talking about it nonstop—and if he couldn’t trust them, who could he trust?? So, why then does Thomas hesitate? Why do we ourselves hesitate?
The human heart is a funny thing: there is no reasoning with it, there’s no appealing to logic or common sense. You can’t argue someone into opening their heart and embracing faith in something they cannot see. The Catholic Church has, over the centuries since the death of St. Thomas Aquinas– a different Thomas to be sure, one who apparently never had a doubt in his life—the Church has prided itself on having developed cogent arguments for belief in the Roman Church, some of them quite clever assuming—and here’s the catch—assuming you accept some foundational beliefs beforehand. I don’t have any hard evidence to back up my own opinion here, but I suspect that when you argue someone into believing something, chances are what you argue them into isn’t going to sustain them through life’s trials.
Certainly, we can look at the moral teachings of Jesus and even eliminate the “God stuff”, and for some people that is enough. But believing in principles or ethics is not the same as believing in a God whose abundance surrounds and enfolds us. Acceptance of principles isn’t something very useful when our health declines or when we encounter tragedy or loss. This past week has seen new levels of violence, flooding, and another mining disaster. Theoretical constructs and intellectual propositions mean nothing in those contexts, only a deep trust in God.
Faith in God—as opposed to faith in human institutions or faith in denominational church structures—is never misplaced or foolish. And while it is instructive for us to look at the way previous generations have expressed their faith in Jesus and in God, we are not bound to accept uncritically everything they believed. We can keep the essence of the faith we have inherited without following slavishly in their footsteps, afraid to ask for clarification, or fearful of coming to our own interpretation of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. For all that, for all the new found faith we discover and embrace with our whole being, there will still be times when we question God or ask why certain situations have to be this way instead of another way. And that’s okay.
Historically the Church has blamed people for asking questions, no doubt fearful that if the wrong question were asked, the entire 2,000 year history of Christianity would be shown to be somehow false. These ministers, priests and nuns made the mistake of thinking that intellectual inquiry was somehow dangerous to the continuation of the denomination they had dedicated themselves to preserving. And they were correct in harboring that fear because many of them came from a stance of fundamental idolatry, and had elevated their particular denomination to the level of God himself. Their primary goal in teaching Christianity was in obtaining lifelong loyalty to a particular theology or ecclesial understanding or institutional dynamic rather than fundamental loyalty and openness to God. When we dared to ask the difficult questions, the ones that might expose a flaw in their system, we were told simply to ignore our questions and continue living as if we didn’t have them. The problem then becomes, how does one follow Jesus wholeheartedly when one’s head is swimming with questions we can’t ask or even admit we have?!
I was standing in the hallway talking with a teacher friend, and a third teacher approached. Rather than walk around my friend Becky—which would have been logical—she instead decided to “sneak” through the 18 inch space between my backside and the wall. The oncoming teacher is not petite, mind you, and weighs perhaps 250 pounds. I was standing with my back to the wall, when all of a sudden, I felt inundated with flesh as the oncoming teacher squeezed through that impossibly narrow space, never saying excuse me. I felt like I had suddenly gotten to know her in a very physical way; I felt awkward and frankly shocked that she had not chosen to simply go around us!
To place this story in the hermeneutic of the story of doubting Thomas, we all tend to crowd our hearts with burdens and stresses and a lot of other stuff that takes up so much space, it’s hard for Christ to even get our attention. So sometimes, in the middle of our doubting and preoccupation with self, Christ is like a large, fleshy woman trying to squeeze past us, with little regard for decorum or propriety, perfectly willing to violate all we cling to as sacred.
This is how we live our lives sometimes: feet firmly planted in our own little space, comfortable with where we are. We place our faith in what we know to be true, in what someone else has told us. We rely on ourselves, and then along comes an encounter with Big Jesus and we’re knocked out of our stupor, we’re suddenly off balance. And we realize that God needed to move us off that spot, to get us to grow, to encourage us to mature a bit more, to make us appreciate the fact that grace is what sustains us, not our own cleverness, much less our own comfortable understandings, our self-serving politics or limited viewpoints.
This past week, Andrew and I made a couple hospital calls together, praying, anointing, bringing communion to some people who were seriously ill. When illness strikes, we turn to the wisdom and intellectual knowledge of the medical professionals, but that isn’t enough. It’s sometimes easier to trust in the powers we can see, the doctors and nurses, the hospital environment, and harder to trust in the power and abundance of God when those things seem so far away. Like Thomas, we know we should probably just release our doubts and believe, but there are moments when we hesitate, when we lack the strength of heart to take even one more step forward.
That is why our faith is not an act of the will, but a gift of grace. It doesn’t make anything easier, it doesn’t pave a highway through the desert for us. It does not mean that we are now immune to doubt or that we won’t experience periods of anger or frustration. Surrendering to the grace of faith simply allows us to make space in our heart so the presence of Christ can enter in.
It’s when we can put everything else to the side momentarily and simply allow God’s presence to manifest itself within us that we encounter the meaning of Christ’s resurrection. Thomas, the one who doubted, was willing to surrender his doubt and allow the Risen Christ to change his heart. He became stronger in faith for having faced his doubts because doubt is a part of faith. It’s as natural a part of faith as falling down is to learning to ride a bike. So when the times of doubt come around, Thomas tells us not to withdraw into our own little corner of darkness, but to simply surrender as best we can and God will do the rest. Jesus himself, in his darkest hours, showed us how to surrender, and he also showed us that God will glorify those who follow in his path. That is the raison d’etre of this community, the reason we exist, to support one another on this journey we share, fill in the gaps during challenging times, to celebrate together during times of joy so that we may once again manifest the reality of that early Church we read about in Acts a few minutes ago: “The congregation of those who believe is of one heart and soul. . . and with great power we are giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace is upon us all.”