Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Benefit of Doubts

As we begin today, I would like to give a bit of background to our story.  So, we’re going to travel back to the beginning of John, chapter 20.  We start out on the first day of the week—this is the Sunday after the crucifixion, the first Easter.  Mary Magdalene has been to the garden tomb and discovered that Jesus’s body is missing.

As you’ll remember from last week’s reading, Mary Magdalene was informed by an angel that Jesus’s body was not missing, but that he had been raised from the dead.  She fled, afraid, and told no one of what the angel said.  Instead, he went to the disciples, specifically Peter and John, and told them that Jesus’s body had been taken.

Peter and John head to the garden tomb themselves, discover it empty, but have no idea what to make of it.

In the meantime, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, revealing himself to her as the resurrected Christ, and she not only believes that what he has said is true, she testifies to the rest of the disciples that she has seen the Lord.

As today’s reading begins,

John 20:19-23

1)      It seems at least another full week has passed, and the disciples seem not to believe Mary Magdalene’s account as they are hiding in a locked room.

2)      Jesus shows up supernaturally and reveals himself to the disciples through a display of his wounds.

3)      The disciples rejoice at seeing Jesus only after he shows his hands and side

4)      Jesus gives the disciples the Holy Spirit, commissioning them, sending them out to forgive the sins of others.

John 20:24-25

5)      Thomas, who was not present at this meeting, learning of Jesus’s appearance, seems to doubt that it ever happened.

John 20:25-29

6)      Another week later, Jesus shows himself again with Thomas present.

7)      Thomas ostensibly touches Jesus’s wounds and believes.

8)      Jesus questions Thomas and indicates those who believe without seeing are blessed.

John 20:30

9)      Conclusion:  Jesus does lots of other stuff not recorded here

This interaction between Jesus and Thomas seems particularly important to me.  Not necessarily the revelation of but rather the actual touching of Christ’s hands and side.  Why is touching wounds so important?

Because it allows us to participate in another’s suffering.

In our participation, we affirm the other’s suffering and in doing so can bring healing.

A discussion can be found in the Talmud—a central text in Judaism containing discussions by Jewish religious authorities/teachers (rabbis) concerning Jewish law, customs, history, ethics,  and philosophy—concerning this issue of wounding:

Rabbi Yehoshua bar Levi met the prophet Elijah who was standing at the entrance of the cave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.  Rabbi Yehoshua asked Elijah, “When will the Messiah come?” 

Elijah answered him, “Go and ask the Messiah yourself.”

Rabbi Yehoshua asked, “Where is he?”

Elijah answered, “At the gate of the city.  He is sitting among the poor, covered with wounds.  The others unbind all of their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again.  But He unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself, ‘Perhaps  I shall be needed:  if so I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.’”

Jesus allows us to see and touch his suffering because it makes it real; suffering humanizes a perfect and holy God, one who is otherwise totally set apart and completely other, and allows us to see and experience Christ in our own suffering, and to bring the healing of Christ to the suffering of others.

Thomas’s touching of Christ’s wounds may not be entirely about doubting the resurrection of Jesus.  It is a very personal, intimate act, placing your hands in the wounds of another person.  It seems none of the disciples believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead prior to his appearance among them—the first of which Thomas was not present to witness.  Though he refused, some might say stubbornly, to believe his fellow disciples story of witnessing the resurrected Christ, in the end Thomas did believe.  In the end, Thomas is the only one of the disciples recorded to have been invited to touch the wounds of God.

Many contrast the response of Thomas to those of the other disciples who had been gathering:  they all believed immediately that Jesus had risen from the grave; only Thomas demanded proof.  This, however, is not accurate.  After all, the other disciples had been told Jesus had been resurrected (both in witnessing the empty tomb and the testimony of Mary Magdalene).  None recognized him, however, as he stood among them, until he showed them his wounds.

It seems to me that contrast between those who believe because they have seen, which would ostensibly include all of Jesus disciples, and those who believe without having seen, is a contrast between the first century followers of Jesus who were witness to him between the time of his resurrection and ascension, and those who have become disciples of Christ (i.e. Christians) in the centuries since.

Though most have no direct experience with the resurrected Christ (the most notable exception being the mystics who have been widely discounted in modern times as mentally ill), we still choose to believe, though we have every reason to doubt.

The Benefits of Doubt

I believe that doubts are a beautiful thing.  I encourage them.  Actively.

1)      Doubts allow us to wrestle with our faith and with God—this is biblical

2)      Doubts allow us to clarify what is important to us in life.

3)      Doubts allow us to touch and be touched in the most human part of ourselves—our wounds.

4)      Doubts allow us to choose faith, and to choose it wisely.

The biblical definition of faith is “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”  When we choose to believe, to hold certainly, to the reality of Jesus’s resurrection in spite of no personal, experiential evidence of such, we are choosing a faith, I believe, that is less likely to be shaken by events that wound us, because we know that if we have already chosen once to believe in impossible things, we can choose to believe again.

In Alice in Wonderland, the classic children’s tale by Lewis Carol, Alice says, “I try to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

We live in a world in which there is no shortage of evidence to the contrary, and still we choose to believe in seemingly impossible things.  Divorce rates are above 50%; people continue to extol the virtues of love.  The disproportionately high number of African Americans in our prison system points to issues of institutionalized racism; people continue to work tirelessly for justice, believing it can be achieved.  In the guise of national security, states have usurped the federal government’s role in dealing with illegal immigration; people of faith continue in various parts of the United States to welcome the alien.

Our society tells us every single day that our primary objective in life is to serve ourselves; as Christians we continue to read a sacred text that commands us to serve and meet the needs of the widow, the orphan, and the poor.  We continue to proclaim the virtues of a group in which no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.  And as a result, there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.  They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried; we continue to proclaim this Easter season and throughout the year the reality of a resurrected savior.  We continue to proclaim ourselves as a resurrection people.

I encourage questions.   I encourage doubts.  Because in wrestling with these things, we are wrestling with God.  We suffer various trials, which inevitably lead to the questions and doubts.  And this is done so that our faith may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

As we go forth today, I hope it is with a willingness to ask tough questions, to wrestle with our doubts, and to commit ourselves to believing impossible things, for I believe doing so will strengthen our own faith, and allow us to minister to the needs of others.

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