Easter Creates Doubt

The story of doubting Thomas is full of–you guessed it–doubt. The disciples doubt that they are safe and so lock the doors of the home where they have gathered. The disciples doubt that Jesus is alive and among them. The disciples doubt that there is any purpose in their carrying on the Jesus mission. The story continues with Thomas doubting the word of the other disciples and even doubting his own eyes until he can actually touch Jesus.

Doubt is a tricky thing. Doubt can make us cautious. If I told you I could sell you some ocean front property in Saskatchewan I hope you would doubt my word. Hesitancy and caution are forms of doubt which might protect us from making bad choices. Doubt is a good thing. When we bring doubt into our faith, it creates room for questions, for debate and for discussion. I believe that doubt is an essential part of our faith and allows us to struggle with God in our lives. It forces us to ask questions of the scripture and of the theology that has been passed to us. Some of these questions might be put aside as trivial. Some of these questions might lead us into a place of turmoil where we remain for years as we wrestle with whatever the question is. Sometimes our doubt may lead us away from the faith that we have been taught.

One of the things I love about the United Church is the ways in which we are encouraged to question, to doubt and to wrestle with what our faith means for us personally and what it means for the world in which we find ourselves. The question of doubt and its role in the disciples’ lives is central in this story.

Sometime after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples have gathered in a home. They have huddled inside, locked the doors, and pulled the curtains. They have gathered and yet they are afraid to gather. They doubt that they are safe.

Around the time of Jesus’ death, Caesar published an ordinance. We don’t know the exact date of this publication but it has to do with grave robberies and was discovered as an archeological artifact. The translation reads like this:

“Ordinance of Caesar: It is my pleasure that the graves and tombs—whoever has made them as a pious service for ancestors or children or members of their house—that these remain unmolested in perpetuity. But if any person lay information that another either has destroyed them, or has in any other way cast out the bodies which have been buried there, or with malicious deception has transferred them to other places, to the dishonor of those buried there or has removed the headstones or other stones, in such a case I command that a trial be instituted, protecting the pious services of mortals, just as if they were concerned with the gods. For beyond all else it shall be obligatory to honor those who have been buried. Let no one remove them for any reason. If anyone does so, however, it is my will that he shall suffer capital punishment on the charge of tomb robbery.”[1]

The disciples doubt their own safety and their ability to protect themselves. We don’t know exactly what happened to Jesus’ body. Maybe the disciples knew. Maybe they didn’t know. Maybe some of the disciples suspected others of removing the body. They are all potentially in a lot of trouble with the Romans. They might doubt the trustworthiness of the disciples they are now locked in a room with.

Their doubt might lead to panic. You can imagine the disciples being pretty frazzled by this point in the story. The first thing Jesus says to the disciples when he appears in the room with them is, “Peace be with you.” In other words: Don’t panic. Peace be with you is sometimes translated as keep the peace or be quiet. So when Jesus arrives he is giving the disciples some very practical advice. In the midst of fear and doubt don’t panic but pause and be quiet. In the quiet, listen for God. Breathe in the Holy Spirit. It was good advice that Jesus gave to the disciples and good advice for us too.

In those moments when the world seems like it will fall apart around us we can breathe, listen for God and move forward. Jesus doesn’t just tell the disciples to be calm. He sends them back out into the world in the midst of their doubt. They are not allowed to hide because they are uncertain or because they don’t know what will happen next. Jesus expects that this little pause that fills them with the holy spirit will give them the strength and courage they need to continue his mission.

As the disciples try to figure out what happened on that first Easter morning and deal with their own disbelief they might be angry with each other about someone else’s response, something that someone said or did. They can hold onto that anger and hurt but Jesus is asking them to release it. The responsibility for a new way of living and for their response to these events lays with the disciples themselves and their treatment of each other. They cannot fulfil the Jesus mission if they are angry at each other and busy fighting amongst themselves. They must let go of the hurt that the others have caused them. But how do you forgive when you doubt someone else’s behavior, motives or opinions? Jesus is asking them to put some trust in the other disciples. Many of us know how difficult it is to trust people who have let us down in some way. We might doubt their ability to follow through on something or to behave appropriately. Doubt and trust are intimately linked in this story.

And then we come to Thomas. The other disciples had an experience of Jesus and they tried to explain to him what that experience was like. They asked him to trust that they had had an experience which was real. The experience might have been real for them but for Thomas, who had not been there, the experience was just a story—wishful thinking. The story wasn’t his own experience.

In the early church it was common for people to have visions, dreams and experiences that shaped their faith and their understanding of God. Having those types of experiences became the mark a mature faith. As time went on the church became more institutionalized and creeds developed. Faith came to mean affirming statements of faith rather than experiencing faith. Spiritual practices that allowed people to experience God on their own terms were discouraged and so faith became an intellectual practice rather than an experience.

The intellectualization of faith has meant that, in many cases, people who doubt and question no longer feel able to connect to the faith. I firmly believe that scripture and the stories of faith continue to speak to us but only if we are open to doubt. The doubt is the place where we can make meaning out of the stories and where our faith can come alive for us. Belief, only as an affirmation of creed or doctrine, sets walls around our faith and may actually limit our experience of the Holy as we try to fit God into particular images and structures.

Easter allows our faith to be expansive. It widens the realm of possibility. In the midst of a certainty that death is the end of life, Easter creates doubt. In the doubt is where we meet God. Our faith needs permission to doubt, to be cautious, to learn through our own experience. It is in the midst of our doubt that Jesus invites us to experience the risen Christ.

[1]. Bruce Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998) pg 282.

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