We have very limited parking available around our church which poses some special challenges for us, especially on top attendance Sundays, like Easter. We've developed a diligent and committed parking team to help with the problem, and one Easter a few years ago the parking volunteers were out in full force, wearing orange vests and carrying walkie-talkies, trying to make the process of parking seamless. The major challenge for our parking team was going to be helping cars exchange spots between services.
Well, as you might imagine, the spots nearest the sanctuary had been re-filled well before the second service was set to begin, when a parking volunteer noticed one lone car backing out of a really prime spot. He was delighted to see that the next car approaching his turn-in to the lot was driven by an older woman who was coming alone, and he thought, "Well, how wonderful that I will be able to help her get this desirable parking place on Easter." So the parking volunteer began enthusiastically waving her from the street into our lot, as you might direct a plane toward its airport gate. At first, the woman seemed a bit confused about heading into the apparently full lot, so he increased his waving and pointing, so she'd see where he wanted her to go...such a prime spot!
Well, she finally pulled in and parked, and our proud parking volunteer walked to the car to wish her Happy Easter and help her get out. But she rolled down her window, still looking a little confused, and said, "I don't go to this church! I've been a member of the Baptist church down the street for over 60 years!"
Have you ever felt like that? Like you got guided and maneuvered and parked some place you weren't sure you really wanted to be? Maybe you feel you have been parked in a location, or parked in a job, or parked in an idea, that hasn't taken you where you really wanted or needed to go.
Truth is, a lot of us have been taught notions or beliefs and then parked our minds there, when maybe we ought to have kept going and kept searching. For example, haven't most of us parked our minds already around understandings of who Jesus' disciple, Thomas, was that we hear about in the scripture text for today? We know him as Doubting Thomas. Yes, that's what I was taught to call him in my Sunday school days. Thomas doubted Jesus' resurrection and we must not, under any circumstances, be like Doubting Thomas!
But you know, the older I have become and the more I have learned by study and experience, the more I dislike being maneuvered into that parking place and the more I want to revise my opinion of Thomas. In fact, there are three things I want to point out about this old, familiar story of Doubting Thomas today that I hope will keep us from parking our beliefs prematurely about him and his legacy.
The first thing I hope we'll see from Thomas' story is that doubt is not always such a bad thing. In fact, as Dr. Bill Self notes: "...I must admit that there is a place in the Christian life for honest doubt, for doubt is always the prelude to faith."[i]
If you review the lives of the great prophets and saints, from Jeremiah to Mother Teresa, you'll find plenty of evidence of doubt. It's not uncommon at all. It's there, in all the greatest and most faithful lives. And I've actually come to wonder if maybe you can't really possess the fullness of a great and vigorous faith until through doubt, you've examined it, and you've struggled with it, and you've worked for it.
It's been said that Jesus himself was a doubter, from a certain perspective. At least he knew how to employ it creatively for the life of faith. He doubted that anger and violence were ways to resolve differences, so he said, "Forgive one another." He doubted that the long prayers and rigid dietary laws and cleanliness codes of his religious tradition were essential to faith. So he talked about practicing an honest, simple, trusting faith. He doubted that Samaritans were of less inherent worth than others, so he told the parable about the Good Samaritan and the neglectful priest.[ii]
So, yes, maybe the capacity to doubt is the prelude to establishing vital, meaningful faith commitments. Have you had the privilege of struggling with a few faith-shaping doubts of your own? I hope so. I think most of us have...and so we ought to have some sympathy and respect for Thomas.
The biblical story of Thomas is found only in the Gospel of John. And by the time the writer of John's Gospel records this story, it is from a distance of around seventy years after Jesus' death--a time when Jewish and Gentile Christians were experiencing tremendous persecution from the Romans. Certainly, those Christians were doubtful frequently about the wisdom of having adopted this faith. The risks were great, and many of them were tempted to go into hiding for their own self-protection.
Now with that backdrop, we can see why the author of John's Gospel would have felt it particularly meaningful to tell the story of the very first group of Jesus' followers who, after the crucifixion, were also doubtful about their futures and tempted to go into hiding. They were all huddled in the upper room, locked away behind securely closed doors. And there we encounter Thomas. You know the story: he had ventured out from the closed room one day and missed Jesus' appearance among the disciples. And when he returned to the room, he refused to believe what they had to say and their assertions that the risen Christ had been there.
And why was he doubtful? Now this is critical to the story and leads us to the second point I want us to see, which is this: Thomas is doubtful and says he will not believe until he can see and touch for himself. Or in other words, Thomas wants proof in the form of empirical verification. But what's wrong with that? Wouldn't you want proof? In our scientific age we have all been trained to verify through sensory experience, empirical evidence. Thomas actually stands as a pivotal figure in the Christian story precisely because while all the disciples before him did get to see and touch and hear Jesus directly, the millions of us who come after Thomas don't have that opportunity. So you see, a new phase, or new stage of church life and faith begins with this story of Thomas. Thomas stands at a transition point.
Yet notice how Jesus responds to Thomas' demand for proof. He doesn't rebuke him for wanting it. Indeed, Jesus gives him what he needs for faith--he lets him see and touch. But then Jesus goes on to say for the benefit of all of us who will follow Thomas and hear of this story, "Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe." That line is intended for us, of course, we who cannot see, cannot verify, cannot amass proof, and yet are invited to the blessings of faith in Jesus Christ, nonetheless.
Perhaps we need to ask ourselves, what do we need to believe? How is it possible for us to believe, if we don't get what the disciples and ultimately even Thomas got? You might ask yourself, what is the basis of your belief? Have you had some experience, some insight, read something, heard something, seen something? What? How can you believe, especially when maybe like Thomas, you've already been disappointed or disillusioned, and the last thing you want to do is foolishly believe in another impossibility? Is belief in something you cannot fully verify just wishful thinking? Is it just grasping at straws?
I love the story Father Henri Nouwen shared about an experience that helped him with that question. Nouwen was a fan of the Flying Rodleighs, who were German trapeze artists. Nouwen, a Catholic priest, says that he greatly admired these acrobats and they befriended him and even let him practice with them on the trapeze.
Once, Nouwen recalls, he asked the leader of the troop about flying through the air. He said, "As a flyer, I must have complete trust in my catcher. The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher. He has to be there for me with split-second precision and grab me out of the air...I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me...The worst thing the flyer can do is to try to catch the catcher. A flyer must fly, and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms that his catcher will be there for him."[iii]
Don't we live like the flyer on the trapeze? We are spinning and swirling through life, unable to see where we are headed. We can't see or touch or prove the existence of a catcher who won't let us fall. But nevertheless, we must learn to reach out our hands and believe that we will be safely caught and held. Blessed are those who cannot see, yet who have come to believe, because sometimes reaching out in faith, unseeingly, but trustingly, is really the only way open to us.
True, we may not get the empirical proof we'd like--the kind Thomas demanded. But really, we don't have that kind of proof for any of the things that are most important to us, do we? How can we conclusively prove love or friendship or hope? We can't. But we know they exist. We feel them. And day by day, and even moment by moment, we need to hold out our hands and just trust we'll receive them.
And that leads me to the third and final point I hope we'll see in this story of Thomas. It's about the imperative of staying near to our friends in faith. Thomas had lost his trust, you see. He couldn't reach out in faithful confidence to anyone. Did you notice that Thomas missed seeing Jesus in the first place because he had left the room where all the disciples gathered...he had left the others? But he was granted all he needed for belief when he came back and stood among his fellow disciples.
I'm coming to think that the most important part of what this Gospel story is teaching us is that we will find the assurance we need for belief most readily in the fellowship of others. And if we are to brand Thomas as having been faithless, then his faithlessness did not lie only in doubting Jesus' resurrection. His faithlessness also lay in his unwillingness to stay with his friends and trust and believe with them and in them. And that's always a problem.
Rev. King Duncan once told the story of a 97-year-old woman who, looking back, said she had learned the most important lesson of her life when only a child. She and a group of friends had decided one afternoon to climb Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Before they were able to descend, a late afternoon fog rolled in and enveloped them all in its thick, obscuring whiteness. They couldn't see the way ahead, and so they agreed they would move down the mountain very slowly, inch by inch. And they agreed they would all hold hands and they would not, under any circumstances, let go of each other. Remembering the event years later, the woman said of this experience: "Sometimes all I could see was the hand ahead of me and the one behind me. Sometimes my arms ached so badly I thought I would cry out loud, but that is how we made it at last. We found our way home by holding on to one another."[iv]
What a metaphor for the significance of maintaining durable and trusting relationships with other searching and faithful people. Of course we'll still undergo the challenges of those girls on the mountainside. Sometimes we'll get lost. Sometimes we'll be strained to stay together, strained by our differences, though we share a faith. Sometimes we'll be unwilling or unable to trust what the others are telling us or to credit their insights into the way ahead. But if we can hang together, we can cover some pretty rough terrain, safely and securely.
You know, I find myself today honored to be a part the church universal that keeps trying to hang together. And I am equally proud to be a part of my own church family. So often I have witnessed someone reach out, take a hand, grab hold of somebody in danger of being lost or alone or falling. I've watched as church members sat beside grieving families at funerals just to offer a touch of comfort. I've seen Christ's people bring flowers to hospitalized church members or communion to shut-ins. I've seen them build houses for Habitat for Humanity and mentor youth and tutor children.
I've watched them open their hearts and their wallets to the victims of several hurricanes, a tsunami, and an earthquake--and never begrudge the money spent on behalf of others. And I have watched the diligence of Christ's people in staying close to one another for good in a thousand other ways besides, across the years--trusting that all that effort and irritation and expense and risk were worth it.
And what's the payoff? It's that being in one another's company, doing the work of faith together is where we all encounter the healing, loving, breathing spirit of Christ. Thomas learned that when he came back to the upper room and encountered the risen Christ with the others.
So, Thomas the proof-seeker doesn't deserve to be parked in the dismal and unredeemable category of "Doubter," I don't think. Because do you know what happens after the scene we read about today? Do you know what Thomas does next? He gets up out of that locked room where he and the others found the proof they needed of Christ's spirit alive and well, and he went out to serve in that spirit, tradition tells us, until his death--fearlessly and with utter conviction!
Actually Thomas has become something of a hero to me because of that. He had the tenacity to seek until he found and the courage to live the rest of life fully trusting in the glory and grace of God which he glimpsed that day.
What a gift that kind of faithful courage can be. Bishop William Willimon tells of once visiting a man with only a couple of days left to live. He asked the man whether he was fearful. To Willimon's surprise the man replied, "Fear? No! I'm not fearful because of my faith in Jesus." The man continued, explaining, "I look back over my life, all the mistakes I've made, all the times I've turned away from Jesus, gone my own way, strayed and gotten lost. And time and time again, he found a way to get to me, looked for me when I wasn't looking for him. I don't think he will let something like my dying defeat his love for me."[v]
What could get in the way of God's love for you? Closed doors? Doubts? Demands? No, of course not. Illness, hardships, failings, mistakes? No, nothing can separate you from God's love!
The challenge, then, is just to trust in that and live in light of that, even when we cannot always see it or feel it. Maybe in remembrance of blustering Thomas, we all just ought to widen our standards of proof, to encompass the truth of all the wondrous ways God's love already has, and is, and will come to us...until we can say with joyful conviction: All I have seen teaches me to trust God for all I have not yet seen. Let's not get ourselves steered into any other, smaller conclusion. Let's not settle for parking our minds and our beliefs anywhere else than in the assurance of God's eternal, unconquerable love for us! Amen.
[i] Dr. William Self, "Doubt: The Prelude to Faith," Day1, April 15, 2007, Second Sunday of Easter.
[ii] Rev. Dr. David A. Van Dyke, "The Good News About Doubt ," House of Hope Presbyterian Church, Saint Paul, Minnesota, April 11, 2010, Second Sunday of Easter.
[iii] Robert A. Jonas, "Henry Nouwen: Spirituality and Practice," Orbis Books, 1998, found at: http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/books/excerpts.php?id=17109
[iv] King Duncan, "The Dachshund Dilemma", Luke 4:14-30, ESermons.
[v] William H. Willimon, "The Best of William H. Willimon: Acting Up in Jesus' Name," Abingdon Press, 2012.