Doubt is not the enemy of faith

Stephen Adam, 28 April 2019

Acts 5: 27–32; John 20: 19–31

Today, the second Sunday of Easter, gives us the chance to catch our breath after the rollercoaster journey we’ve been on through Passiontide and Easter, moving through the darkness and bleakness of Good Friday to the joy of Easter Eve and then the celebration of Easter Day. As we have re-lived these profound events at the heart of our Christian faith, so we have been on a transformational journey, moving from darkness into the most intense, bright light.

And so this morning, in our gospel reading, we have the chance to pause, to reflect on what St John invites us to take from his account of the resurrection, and through the encounter of our risen Lord with Thomas to reflect, too, upon the grounds of our faith.

Earlier in the chapter, John records the first appearance of the risen Jesus: to a woman in a garden, Mary Magdalene. She goes and tells the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’, but evidently they don’t believe or understand her, for a week later they’re still fearful, behind locked doors, scared of what would face them if they ventured out.

And then the risen Jesus appears to them also, transformed, the same Jesus but no longer confined to space or time – he can no more be kept out of a locked room than he can be confined in a sealed tomb. His first words are, ‘Peace be with you.’ At one level this is a perfectly normal Jewish greeting, ‘Shalom’. But here it has a much more profound meaning. Jesus’ first Easter words to his embryonic Church are the concrete fruit of his victory over the grave.

Twice in our gospel passage Jesus shows his wounds to his disciples. They are much more than mere identification marks. They are a painful reminder for the disciples of the wounds that they too carry – the wounds of fear, of desertion, of denial and betrayal. And no less today, Jesus’ wounds speak to us and to the wounds and pain and vulnerabilities which we too so often bear.

And yet those four short words, ‘Peace be with you’, take us to the very centre of the mystery of the resurrection. There is a pledge that at the heart of things is redeeming love; nothing less than the announcement of new creation, the reconciliation of all things in Christ. Out of that barbarous killing on the cross comes forgiveness and peace, of a radically different, transformational character. The wounds are signs of love, and because of those wounds we can find inner peace and healing, and the opportunity to live transformed lives.

At the heart of things is redeeming love; nothing less than the announcement of new creation.

And then John records how Jesus breathed upon them, giving them the Holy Spirit and thereby empowering the disciples for their mission of making Jesus known – commissioning them just as we in the present-day Church are commissioned and sent. This is John’s version of the Pentecost story.

John’s gospel is full of the most sublime artistry, and nowhere is this more apparent than here. Take the word ‘breath’ that he uses. In Greek, the verb is the same as that used in Genesis when we read of how God formed man from the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. We encounter it again in Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones when God commands breath to animate the bones and give new life.

You’ll remember too how in Genesis, after the creation narrative, God rested on the Sabbath day – Friday evening through to Saturday evening. So too our crucified Lord rested that same time in a tomb in the garden.

The language that John uses of Mary encountering the risen Jesus in a garden calls to mind an earlier encounter in a garden, the Garden of Eden; but this is now Eden restored, the second Adam revealing his risen life to the redeemed woman, as Mary Magdalene – the woman with the chaotic lifestyle, who had been possessed by demons – stands for the redeemed Eve.

In the words of Cardinal Newman’s great hymn, ‘Praise to the Holiest in the height’:

O loving wisdom of our God!
When all was sin and shame,
a second Adam to the fight
and to the rescue came.

For John, the resurrection of our Lord is interpreted in cosmic terms as nothing less than the renewal of creation.

And then in our gospel reading we come to Thomas – poor, doubting Thomas who has had such a bad press through the years, forever burdened with the nickname ‘doubting’. It’s really unfair – he should as well be known as ‘courageous Thomas’ when he urges his fellow disciples to also go with Jesus, ‘that we may die with him’ (John 11: 16), or ‘straightforward Thomas’, when he plainly questions Jesus, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ (John 14: 5).

Is Thomas any different from the other disciples, who seemed not to believe Mary’s account and needed to see the risen Jesus before they believed?

Thomas is honest; he wants to see the evidence for himself. There’s a famous painting by Caravaggio which is almost grotesque, shocking in its crude physicality. Jesus is portrayed not as some otherworldly spiritual body, but realistically – a pallid figure with this gaping wound in his side, inviting Thomas’s fingers to explore.

But Thomas has no need for this – there is no halfway house here! He is transformed, and makes the most momentous affirmation in the whole gospel, ‘My Lord and my God!’

In Jesus he has encountered and experienced the Word made flesh, and with that John artfully takes us full circle, back to the words of the prologue to his gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’.

Thomas is known in the gospels as ‘Didymus’, the twin, although we know nothing about his twin or whether he even had one. In a sense it doesn’t matter, perhaps, because he is the twin of each one of us. In Thomas we can recognise our shadow side, our weaknesses – he encapsulates our doubts, our stubbornness, our fears, worries and anxieties.

In Thomas we can recognise our shadow side, our weaknesses – he encapsulates our doubts, our stubbornness, our fears, worries and anxieties.

Thomas invites us to reflect on the nature of our faith. Last Sunday on Easter Day we ended our celebration by singing that rousing hymn, ‘Thine be the glory’; we gladly proclaimed our confident belief, ‘No more we doubt thee, glorious prince of life’, and we meant it.

But if we’re honest, I expect most of us also go through times when we struggle and really have to hang on to our faith amid all the buffetings of life and the pain we see in so much of the world around us – pain at its most searing as while we were here celebrating on Easter Day, Sri Lankan churches were being torn apart and families devastated by terrorist atrocities. Words fall short in the face of such evil which denies our common humanity.

To expound on theologies of evil in the midst of such raw suffering seems misplaced, somehow. We can only acknowledge the grief and perhaps say, ‘Christ wept’. One of the most striking photographs to emerge from the atrocity was of a Roman Catholic church with a large statue of our Lord, bearing his wounds, but also now splattered with fresh blood.

For Christians, cross and resurrection will always go together. The cross without the resurrection is a denial of hope, a denial of God, and as St Paul says, we of all people are most to be pitied because our faith is futile; while the resurrection without the pain of the cross is mere cheap grace.

And so we sometimes struggle, finding our faith challenged. Thomas dares to express for us those meandering doubts that can criss-cross our minds.

I’d like to suggest that faith and doubt can go together. We can never have a full understanding or grasp of God, which is beyond our comprehension, just as we can never enter fully into the mystery of the resurrection.

It was another Thomas – the poet R. S. Thomas – who imbued so many of his poems with this sense of the sheer otherness of God. He is such a ‘fast God’, Thomas declared, always going ahead of us, always just round the corner, so that we just catch tantalising glimpses of him.

I read somewhere the quotation that ‘faith is important not because it provides answers but because it helps us to live with the questions’. It is a reminder that doubt is not the enemy of faith. I’d suggest that noisy, strident certainty is much more dangerous than intelligent questioning. Faith can be deepened when we have to wrestle with ambiguity.

Jesus’ final beatitude can be addressed to us: ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’. Jesus is affirming that the highest form of faith is that based on trust.

The message that we can take from Easter is that we shouldn’t be afraid, that we should have courage, and trust in the risen Lord; that we should open our eyes to the presence of Christ, hear again his words of peace; and let the Wounded Healer touch us in our human condition, with all our brokenness, sin and pain; and allow the breath of the Spirit of life to animate us afresh.

May our prayer this morning be that we might be transformed by the joy of the risen Lord, and that this sense of joy, hope and trust might enfold us, no matter what burdens we carry, for ourselves or for our tragic, hurting world. Amen.