Sunday, May 1, 2011

Got Doubts?

John 20: 19-31
A Bold Bluff by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge

Do you remember the card game “I Doubt It?”  It goes like this although I know there are probably many variations on a theme. 

You have four players and a deck of cards are shuffled and dealt.  Someone begins play by facing a card, or up to three cards down and announcing “Aces”.  Everyone else has the option to believe or not believe. The next person in the circle has to play the next denomination, announcing “Two or Twos” depending on how many cards he or she puts down.  Once again everyone else has the option to believe or not believe their fellow player. 

If someone thinks that the player is fibbing he or she can call their bluff and say, “I doubt it!” making the player prove, by turning the card up, that indeed it was true (or not).  The goal of the game is to get rid of all your cards so a fair amount of fibbing happens.  If the fibber is caught fibbing then, well, you guessed it, he has to pick up all the cards that have already been put down.

Calling their bluff.  That’s what Thomas did when he finally made his way over to the upper room join his fellow Jesus followers.  “You say you saw Jesus?  I doubt it!, says Thomas.  Show me your cards!  Unless I see his nail ridden hands I won’t believe.” 

Many people call him doubting Thomas but really, he just wanted to see for himself his Lord and his God.  Jerusalem was already back to the normal hustling, pre-Passover Jerusalem.  People were starting to go back home but the leaders were still out and about looking to hassle some people.    
The Doubt of St. Thomas by He Qi
Let us now hear about Thomas and Jesus from the Gospel of John:

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the people, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."
 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you."When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit.   If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.
 So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."
 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."
Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe."   Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"
 Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

This is the second of Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection.  First he appeared to Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb so early that morning.  She had mistaken him for the gardner until he called her by name, “Mary”.  Then and only then did she recognize Jesus and she runs to tell the disciples of her miraculous interaction with her risen Lord. 

So I’m guessing that the day was one probably infused with uncertainty, fear and anxiousness.  That is often the case after someone that we know and loved has died and we are left to pick up the pieces of our own lives.  The first few days are a blur; we just go through the motions.  How fresh the emptiness and wounds of grief must have been for all of them too.  It had been a mere three days since Jesus had died.  

But this day was different.  Mary had seen Jesus.  Now it was their turn.

The disciples were stunned, I’m sure, when Jesus sought them out in their upper room sanctuary. You see Jesus came to them to calm their fears, relieve their anxieties, and to help their unbelief in what they had been told by Mary.  He came as living proof that death did not have the last word, life did; he showed them his wounds, no better proof than that. 

But Thomas wasn’t there the poor guy.  He just wanted to see for himself what the other disciples had seen, and who can blame him?  His human nature, his rational, reasoned old self arrived on the scene and so he doubted their word.  Don’t we all just need to see for ourselves every now and then?  Haven’t we all asked God for a sign that we can hang our belief on?  Haven’t we all doubted at one time or another?

We often think that having doubts, particularly about our faith and God’s involvement in our lives, is a mark of weakness.  That, somehow we aren’t ‘good Christians’ because we have some serious questions, or that we need some concrete proof that God exists, or that God indeed listens to us.  Not true.  Having the courage to ask these difficult questions, the courage to question the meaning of our lives, the courage to ask for signs to lessen our doubt, the courage to live in and through the messy trenches is an indication of strength.

Most believers have doubts and have struggled mightily with their faith.  Let us not forget Martin Luther who was wracked with self doubt about his own salvation and his ability to fulfill God’s commands upon his life.  And Mother Theresa, her diaries, opened after her death, revealed her struggle with uncertainty and faith, so even this icon of servant hood and blessedness struggled and had doubts.  That’s because doubt is our companion on our journey of faith, not to be ashamed of or hidden.  Doubt serves the purpose of our remarkable ability to stay engaged with God.

We remember Jacob from the Hebrew Bible, Genesis Chapter 32 (22-32).  He engaged with God and was blessed.  Jacob gets up in the middle of the night with his family and crosses the Jabbok River.  He returns and spent the rest of the night alone.  A man comes, some say and angel, and begins to tussle with Jacob.  They wrestled so hard, all night long, that Jacob’s hip was thrown out of joint. 

Jacob Wrestles The Angel by Mel Pekarsky

Then, when daybreak had come, Jacob says to the man, “I will not let you go until you bless me”.  The man asked Jacob his name and then said to Jacob, “You no longer will be called Jacob for you have wrestled with God and with Angels, and you have won.  Now your name will be Israel meaning, one who wrestles with God.”  Human struggle is never easy and you can be certain that struggle with God is not either.  Jacob asked for a blessing and was given one.  Like Jacob we may wrestle all night with our questions and they may not be answered but neither are we overwhelmed by them.  We are blessed.

In her book, ‘Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith’, Anne Lamott says, “…the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.  Certainty is missing the point entirely” she says, “Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”

Our doubts and the ability to live with them are a mark of an active faith and of a God who can, and will actively engage with us through it all.  Got doubts?  Don’t give up.  You’ll see the wounds like Thomas.  Light will return like it did for Jacob.  A different identity will emerge for you and a path will be set before you.  You are blessed.


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