Finding God in the Furnace of Doubt

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This was a sermon delivered on April 23rd at St. Andrew’s Church in Rome, GA.  The Scripture was Easter 2A from the Gospel of St. John. 

 

Dostoevsky once wrote, ‘It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.

Our Gospel today tells the story of Thomas.  Poor, poor Thomas.  Doubting Thomas as we always have heard him.  Not Denying Peter or Power-Seeking Sons of Zebedee?  No, Thomas is forever known as the one with little faith, the one that just had to see.  And I think Thomas gets a bad rap. Thomas is really the patron saint of us all.  For doubt is not the opposite of faith, but the catalyst used to find Christ’s fiery love within the questioning.

I think it’s interesting that our lectionary places this story right after the glorious celebration of Easter.  I think we take for granted the pain and turmoil that the disciples were going through at this time.  They had just witnessed the death of the man they thought was going to free Palestine from the Roman occupation.  They thought he was going to restore the Jewish people as rightful rulers of their land and that the apostasy that had occurred in the Temple would be avenged. Jesus was just another failed revolutionary whose plot was foiled.

We enter the story on the Sunday evening, all the Disciples (well, except for one) were gathered in a house with the doors locked, for fear.  Fear of those who had crucified their leader.  Fear of death also.  He then showed him his hands & side and pronounced Peace to them.

So here they are, scared, frightened, no idea what to do, forgetting all that Jesus had taught them over the last 3 years, and the doors are locked.  They were huddled.  They didn’t want to risk anything.  Right before this in the day, Mary Magdalene had announced to them that Jesus was alive.  But it appears, even for them, that they couldn’t accept the word that was brought to them.  They, too, had to see to believe.  And so, out of nowhere it seems, Jesus appears in their midst, telling them, ‘Peace be with you.’  Peace, not worry, not fear, peace.  And then he does something amazing.  He breathes on them.

Why is this breathing important?  It’s both a sign that he was truly alive.  The dead don’t breathe. Ghosts or spirits don’t breathe.  He really is alive.  He really has something coming into his lungs.  And then he tells them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit (or in Hebrew, The Ruach Ha-Kodesh/ The breathe of God)…’

He is creating something new in this moment.  Remember what John calls Jesus in the first chapter– The Word (the Word that created the Universe, the creative Word of God) has become flesh and dwelled among us.  John, perhaps the most mystical of the Gospel writers, is showing us that Jesus was creating something new in this moment.  He was giving the disciples or apostles a new mission.  

In the ordination prayers for Priests in the Anglican Church, these sames words are given to each priest. Jesus was giving his mission, which is the putting together of the world back to rights or the Tikkun Olam (repair of the world), to the Disciples which is the stand-in for the Church.  Jesus was giving grace or power to the Disciples not to lord over others but to help in that repair or renewing.  No longer do you have to go to the Temple to be forgiven, take my forgiveness out of this central location and into the world.  God’s love and grace was being extended to the entire world.

Where was Thomas when Jesus first appeared? John doesn’t tell us. My own guess was that he was out and about getting on with his life. Why do I think that? Because Thomas was a realist. Let’s not forget: in chapter 11, it’s Thomas who recognizes that for Jesus to return to Judea is to face the threat of death, and it’s Thomas who urges the other disciples to go with Jesus. So while we don’t know where Thomas was when Jesus first appeared, we do know where he wasn’t — locked in the upper room for fear of the religious authorities.

The other disciples tell Thomas they have seen Jesus and what does he do?  Does the say, OK!  That’s cool!  No, Thomas, like many of us, says he needs physical proof– to actually touch the wounds of Jesus.  See, we give Thomas a bad rap here, but let’s not forget that the other disciples actually got to see Jesus.  Maybe our expectations of Thomas are expectations we put on ourselves– why can’t you just believe more?  Why do you need to see the wounds?  Or to quote Darth Vader, ‘Your lack of faith is disturbing.’

I grew up in a tradition where you didn’t doubt.  If you doubted, you didn’t have faith and that meant that you weren’t living right with God.  Thomas was used as a negative example.  Don’t be a Thomas.  Doubting Thomas was a curse, a way of saying that your faith was ‘not mature’ enough.  The problem for me, however, was that I couldn’t just take what was told me for face value.  I was, and still am, a questioner.  My kids are the same way, which is in and of itself, both endearing and, well, tiring.  But still, doubt & questioning is better than indifference, for at least in doubt, we are curious enough to try to find the answer.

Thomas wasn’t indifferent to if Jesus was risen or not.  He cared, he cared so much, he needed to touch the wounds, the places of pain within Christ, to know that He was who he said He was.  So a week later, again on a Sunday, Jesus appear among them again, and Thomas is with them this time around.  And what’s the first thing he does to Thomas?  Scold him for his lack of faith?  No, he offers his wounds to Thomas to touch.  That’s love.  

Love isn’t just a feeling, Love is an action.  Love is Christ letting Thomas touch his wounds, his scars, to feel what Love really feels like.  Thomas had probably spent that week before within a furnace of doubt and pain.  Why couldn’t he just believe?  Why couldn’t he make himself not feel the way he does?  And Jesus, letting that go, offers Himself to Thomas, offers his pain to Thomas.  And out of that moment, Thomas proclaims– MY LORD AND MY GOD!  Thomas’ confession of Christ’s divinity is found in touching the wounds and scars.

There is a story of St. Martin of Tours. The fourth-century monastic bishop received an apparition. It seemed as if Christ, arrayed in regal attire, was appearing to him. Martin heard, “Acknowledge, Martin, who it is that you behold. I am Christ; and being just about to descend to earth, I wished first to manifest myself to thee.” But Martin kept silence. Then he heard again, “Martin, why do you hesitate to believe, when you see? I am Christ.” Finally, Martin knew what was really happening, and he replied, “The Lord Jesus did not predict that he would come clothed in purple, and with a glittering crown upon his head. I will not believe that Christ has come, unless he appears with that appearance and form in which he suffered, and openly displaying the marks of his wounds upon the cross.” At that, the devil was exposed and vanished like smoke, leaving a terrible stench. As the more famous story earlier from his life reports, Martin, while still a catechumen, had clothed the naked Christ. Martin came to know Christ through a bodily way marked by humility. What we find in this lesser known later story is Martin’s firm conviction that Christ always has wounds. If he doesn’t, that’s not Christ. It’s the devil.

Now, if the cross of Christ has this effect upon his glorified body, what does this say about our humanity? Most certainly, we affirm that Christ’s humanity is our humanity. The reason for the Word to be made flesh, suffer, die, and rise was to have our humanity experience the transformation into the glory that he had with the Father before the world began. You could say that Christ’s glorious wounds are our wounds. He took our humanity to himself in the Incarnation. It is our humanity that suffered, died, rose, and ascended to the right hand of the Father. Christ’s humanity is completely ours.

For us today, what does that mean in our witness to the Gospel and to the world?  When we are baptized, we are placed into the body of Christ.  Through his incarnation, as St. Athanasius says, ‘God became man so that man might become god.’  This is a participation, not a change in nature, within God.  We are not destined to become ‘gods’ and rule our own planets, as some other religions state.  No, we are to find ourselves so filled with grace and mercy and love and holiness and peace that we are moving closer into the fullness of God and showing that to the world.  And when we identify with God, we are going to have wounds and scars also.  Jesus was ‘wounded for our transgressions…and by his wounds we are healed.’  Becoming like Jesus, participating with God, working towards sanctification, means that we are going to have scars to show to the world.  For we are the body of Christ, and like Christ showed Thomas, we have scars and wounds.

So we are to open our wounds to those around us, allowing them to probe them, in order to show them Jesus. And we, therefore, in meditating upon our own participation in the fullness of Christ’s paschal mystery, we can catch a glimpse at how our struggles in grace are not in vain. Our conformity to Christ’s cross now will allow us to share the victory of the risen Lord, marked forever by the scars of the redemption he won for us. By thinking this way, heaven becomes even more real for us who know, all too painfully, the reality of the battle we are fighting upon this earth.

As we are invited with the apostle, Thomas, to probe in faith Christ’s wounds, we can come to believe that the glorious wounds are not only Christ’s, but ours as well.  Let us not forget that in spite of his initial doubt, Thomas, by legend, went to India and preached the Gospel in the East.  He was martyred in 72 AD some 39 years after crucifixion and resurrection all for the cause and love of Christ.   And like Thomas, while our alleluia may come from the furnace of doubt, we can proclaim, ‘My lord and My God’ till our dying breath.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

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