“Forward in Faith”
March 30, 2008 - Second Sunday in Easter
“Hey, it’s snowing!” said someone on Maundy Thursday as we were rearranging chairs for our Good Friday service the next day. “You’re kidding,” said someone else. But my daughter Joanna dashed outside to see for herself the cloud of big, wet flakes drifting out of the sky.
That’s natural exercise of human intelligence. You hear something even slightly incredible and refuse to take it on faith. “You’re kidding.” If you give it any credence at all, you verify it with your own investigation, your own direct experience. Step outside and see with your own eyes and feel with your own face those cold, damp flakes. How much more should that be our attitude when what is proposed for our belief is almost beyond imagining, is utterly out of the ordinary?
When Thomas expressed his famous doubts about the resurrection of Jesus, he was not asking for anything the other disciples had not already experienced. Yes, he sounds obstinate as he declares in verse 25, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and thrust my finger where the nails were, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” That seems as stubborn and as skeptical as you can get. But the others had already had the opportunity for which he asked. Verse 20 tells us that Jesus “showed them his hands and his side.” All Thomas wanted was the same opportunity to see for himself.
We might ask the same. Why don’t we have an opportunity to see for ourselves? Yes, there is that strange blessing Jesus offers us at the end of the text, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Is that the way it is for us? Is Thomas the last one who gets to have any legitimate doubts, the last one who gets an empirical check on the truth of his faith? Are the rest of us just doomed to proceed blindly, never getting any room to question, never getting any confirmation of the things we believe?
In a famous essay written in the nineteenth century, W. K. Clifford argued that in the absence of any direct, empirical confirmation of what we believe, it’s not only mistaken, it is morally wrong to believe. Clifford imagined the case of a shipowner about to send off one of his vessels filled with emigrants. But doubts came to him. He wrote,
He knew that she was old, and not overwell built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him at great expense.
Then Clifford imagines that the shipowner, by sheer force of will, put aside his doubts and ignored his questions. Without any actual investigation of the condition of the ship, he trusted in the fact that the it had always come through before, that God would watch over the immigrants, that the ship builders had integrity and honesty in the work they did. The owner blithely and without guilt watched his ship sail and just as blithely and guiltlessly collected the insurance when it sank in the middle of the ocean. Clifford asks if we would not hold the owner accountable for his naïve belief in the seaworthiness of his ship, when he did not have any actual evidence upon which to base that belief.
After a great deal more discussion, Clifford concludes, “It is wrong in all cases to believe on insufficient evidence.” If he’s right, then we should all be doubting Thomases, and refuse to believe until we ourselves see and touch the actual risen body of Jesus. If Clifford is right, then Jesus’ blessing doesn’t make much sense. If Clifford is right, those who believe without seeing are not blessed, they are guilty, guilty of careless and negligent disregard for evidence.
That’s exactly the sort of charge recent skeptics like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins have made against all kinds of religious belief, not just Christianity. Like Thomas, they insist on evidence. When no evidence is forthcoming, they refuse to believe. And they loudly proclaim that everyone else should be just as skeptical, just as unbelieving as they are. These contemporary atheists might be the spiritual heirs of Thomas, but they are not.
What Thomas and the other disciples quickly realized was that Jesus was absolutely correct in His assumption that many would be blessed by believing without seeing the evidence. For every eyewitness of the Resurrection there are now millions of Christians who have not seen or touched His risen Body for themselves. Instead, they’ve taken the word of those like Thomas who did see. We believe because they told us about it. But that’s not foolish or wrong. It’s how we believe any number of important things.
Dawkins, Dennett, Clifford and company are employing a standard for belief that would be impossible for most of what we think we know. How many of us believe Neil Armstrong walked on the moon? That Abraham Lincoln was assassinated? That our parents or grandparents or great grandparents came here from another country? That a woman named Cleopatra was once queen of Egypt? That Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press? That there are lions in Africa? That there are penguins in Antarctica? We’ve seen none of it with our own eyes. Yet we believe these things and much, much more… because someone told us they were true.
Believing in the Resurrection of Jesus in the way He blessed is not very much different from an awful lot of other believing we do. We accept the testimony of trustworthy people: historians, scientists, parents, teachers and friends. And that’s why it’s such a good thing for us that somebody like Thomas was present. Doubting Thomas is part of our assurance that this whole thing, the whole story of Jesus rising, was not just the wishful thinking of some disappointed Jewish peasants.
Gregory the Great wrote that,
The divine mercy ordained that a doubting disciple should, by feeling in his Master the wounds of the flesh, heal in us the wounds of unbelief. The unbelief of Thomas is more profitable to our faith than the belief of the other disciples.
In other words, God allowed Thomas to be absent on Easter so that he could doubt and then have the truth of the Resurrection verified beyond the shadow of a doubt a week later—all for our sake. Thomas is our reality check, our weather watcher stepping outside to see if its really snowing, our captain looking over the hull to make sure the ship is truly safe. Thomas investigated before he believed so that you and I could hear the story and believe for ourselves.
Thomas’s doubts bless us in another way. Whenever I read this I am reminded that Christian life, that the Church, is not a society of blissful, ignorant credulity where no one ever doubts or questions. This is where Dawkins and Dennett get us so wrong. They imagine that Christians are all willfully stupid people who refuse to question or doubt or to consider whether what they believe is actually true. But Thomas from the very beginning shows that’s not how we are. He had his doubts, and so do you and I.
If there’s anything I’d like you to take away today, it’s that the church is the place to ask questions, the place to express doubts. We can’t possibly be telling the truth about our faith if we claim to believe without doubts. Alfred Lord Tennyson, in his poem In Memoriam, wrote
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.
The Apostle Thomas shows us that we actually demonstrate our faith by being honest about our doubts. We are not credulous fools. We are thoughtful, hopeful, truthful people who happen to share in the best news the world has ever heard. And part of our honesty is to admit that it is so good sometimes even we have trouble believing it.
Jesus appeared to Thomas on the Sunday after Easter and so we are reading this text today. It’s appropriate. On Easter, with the sanctuary packed and the music beautiful and shouts of “Christ is risen!” so confident, it’s relatively easy to believe. But a week later, at the end of spring break, with empty seats around us, the doubts come creeping in. They do for me. Is this real? Is it true what I’ve staked my life on? Might I have been better off learning some more science or writing computer programs? Maybe I could have been more prosperous and better off if I had just chucked this whole faith thing when I grew up. And then I worry because I have those feelings, that I ask those questions.
Yet Thomas reminds me that doubts are part of the story, from the beginning. The doubts are a sign that something which really matters is at stake. Do you think Thomas would have been so vehement about wanting to see for himself if the question were about what color robe Peter was wearing that Sunday or what they had for breakfast that day? He would have taken their word for those facts without hesitation. He doubts because it’s so important. George Herbert, the poet, said “He that knows nothing doubts nothing.” If you have no doubt at all, your faith might not amount to much.
I have some doubts now and then because I know so well how much it all matters. If “Christ is risen!” is more than just whistling in the dark, then it makes a huge difference. I worry about believing it, because if it’s true, our faith changes everything. Believing in what I haven’t seen puts a whole new perspective on what I do see. In fact, believing in the risen Lord Jesus Christ means that things I haven’t seen yet are more important than the things I do see now.
We believe, as Thomas came to believe, that Christ indeed is risen, that He really walked and talked and ate with His disciples, showing them the nail prints in His hands and the hole in His side. Those wounds on the living Jesus are history. What I’m about to tell you now is merely legend, but it’s gets at the truth in a different way. It gets at how blessed and wonderful it is, as Jesus said, for us who haven’t seen, but still believe.
The legend is that the Apostle Thomas eventually became the first Christian missionary to India. It’s may be pure fantasy, but it’s true that Christians in southern India name themselves after St. Thomas and believe that he evangelized their people in 52 A.D. Their liturgy is rooted in Syriac, a version of Aramaic, and clearly goes back long before Portuguese Christian explorers ever landed there.
One fabulous story about Thomas in India is that he was brought before an Indian king named Gundaphorus. The king asked Thomas what his trade was and he replied that he was a carpenter, a builder.
So Gundaphorus commissioned Thomas and sent him to a certain city to build him a palace. He gave him a great sum of money for the work. Thomas gave it all away to the poor. The king kept sending more provisions and money and Thomas kept giving it all to the poor. After awhile the king sent a messenger asking about the palace. Thomas sent back a message saying it was nearly complete, except for the roof. So the king had gold and silver to Thomas to be used for the roof. Thomas gave thanks to God and gave the gold and silver to the poor.
Finally the king came to visit the city where Thomas was and demanded to see his palace. Thomas said that it was completed, but that Gundaphorus would not be able to see it now, but only when he died. The king threw Thomas in prison to wait until he would be flayed alive.
Meanwhile, the king’s brother Gad died. The royal family made preparations to mourn him, but as they were putting the burial clothes on Gad he suddenly revived. The king ran to see his brother and the first thing Gad did was to ask him for a favor. The king was so happy that he said he would give his brother anything. Gad said, “Brother, sell me your palace in heaven.” Gundaphorus asked how he could possibly have a palace in heaven.
Gad told how while he was dead the angels had taken him to heaven and showed him many palaces. He had been taken by one particularly beautiful one and asked to live there. But the angels told him he could not live in it because that one belonged to his brother. So Gad asked if he could return in order to purchase the palace from his brother, and the angels had sent him back to this world.
Gundaphorus told Gad that it was not within his power to sell his palace in heaven, but that he could help Gad build one like it. So they set Thomas free and gave him money and treasure to build another heavenly palace in the same fashion, giving it all to the poor. In the end, both brothers became Christians.
Like I said, that’s just a pretty story, but in its own way it is also the truth. Believing in what we cannot see absolutely changes how we live in this world we can see. Trusting in the true story of the Jesus we can’t see now, we help those we can see, and store up treasure and build homes for ourselves in a kingdom we haven’t seen yet. That’s how faith works. As Hebrews 11:1 says, it “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” We believe the trustworthy testimony of the apostles and it becomes, as it did in the story of Gundaphorus, the evidence of all that we hope to see.
It’s in that kind of faith that some of us will go out Tuesday night to Food for Lane County, giving to the poor and building palaces we can’t see in heaven. It’s moving forward in such faith that all those gift bags for street people were packed on Palm Sunday—trusting that Christ will bless us with unseen eternal gifts. Looking ahead in faith, the Sages began a children’s clothes closet in Jesus’ name, expecting that one day our Lord would clothe us all in the finest white robes. What we don’t see makes all the difference in the way we do see the world and the people around us.
Yes, like Thomas before the Sunday after Easter we can’t see Jesus with our eyes. And, like Thomas, that causes us doubts and questions. But those doubts and questions do have answers, and those doubts and questions confirm that it all really matters. Faith in the risen Lord matters, because when we believe, it changes everything. It changes us, and through us it changes the world. And that can be seen wherever Christians are believing and faithful. The hungry get fed, the homeless find shelter, and the hopeless are encouraged. That’s what can be seen. And someday we will see Jesus Himself, and so will all those we have loved and helped and told about Jesus because we believed. May you and I go forward in that faith.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj