Here is the homily I delivered this last Sunday at St. John’s Cathedral – for those morbidly interested in such things. Sometimes the church posts audio on its web page – if so, I’ll update with a link.
O’ Lord, help us to hear your Spirit in our hearts, though our ears listen to human words; give us the humility to obey your word and the strength to perform your will. Amen.
My first real crisis of faith came to a head in the passenger seat of a Saturn SL nearly twelve years ago. My tour of duty in Bible College was nearing its end, and a series of negative experiences had sent me into an existential tail spin. I had long been at odds with the particulars of life as an ultra-conservative Evangelical, but as is often the case; it was an untimely death that had me questioning the basic assumptions of life and faith. Its funny how life’s biggest questions are the easiest to ignore when things are going well, and how those questions fight their way to the surface of our lives when we ignore them for too long.
And, so, as I argued with a friend in the car that evening about such lofty questions as the problem of evil and the weaknesses of Anselm’s ontological argument; I waxed eloquent, building the best case against the existence of God that my burgeoning education could muster. After an extended period of such ranting that close friend, who was sitting in the driver’s side seat, gently corrected me with an unexpected response. It was the very response that Jesus gave to Thomas in this morning’s Gospel reading. My friend, Jeremiah, actually had the audacity to reply to my argument by saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
That response was so unexpected that my rhythm was broken and my ranting stuttered to a stop. I stared at him in stunned silence as the words he spoke sank in, and rage began to boil up in my heart and spill out of my mouth. I was, I thought, building a case against God that even Job would be proud of, and here was Jeremiah suggesting that I was blessed, – blessed! -because I, unlike Thomas the Apostle, had little to no hope of ever experiencing God in such a tangible way.
I wasn’t angry, because the statement was painfully true (though, it was) or because the statement contained some kind of parochial wisdom that flew in the face of my highly sophisticated and philosophically secular doubt (though, it surely did). I was angry, because those words, first spoken by Jesus, carried the same indictment that he directed at the Pharisees earlier in his ministry. In that moment of indignation, I imagine I felt like the Pharisees must have when Jesus told them that it is a wicked and adulterous generation that seeks a sign. I was angry, because like the Pharisees, I sought to apprehend truth on my own terms – to possess it like a piece of personal property, to manipulate it, to make it do my bidding. I wanted to have a relationship with God that was based on my own knowledge, where he made displays of his existence and of his power at my whim for my comfort and for my peace of mind.
While all of us have undoubtedly struggled with the existence of God or the reality of Jesus’ presence in our own lives, I would never suggest that everyone here has doubts for the same reasons that I do. Let’s be honest, though, who here has not fantasized about how much better we would be as Christians, if only Jesus would just show up in the flesh at our bedside some evening? But, of course, just as the issue was never a simple matter of intellectual certainty on my part, the interaction between Thomas and Jesus in the twentieth chapter of John’s Gospel in not simply a matter of establishing empirical evidence for the bodily resurrection. While doubt may plague us, and may at times seem insurmountable, we would be foolish to assume that doubt is not also pervasive in every other area of our lives. We would also be foolish to believe that the real danger of doubt is found in the potential that something or someone does not exist as we believe, rather than in the clear fact that if we submit to belief then we must also act accordingly. If we accept something as truth, as corresponding to reality as it really exists, then we must also be compelled to adjust the way we live in relationship to that reality. My drive home after church this morning will look quite a bit different if I develop a sudden and healthy skepticism for either traffic laws or the laws of physics.
As a simple demonstration of my point, you don’t have to go far in the Gospels to find disbelief. Indeed, the Gospel narratives are riddled with religious folk, simple folk, military folk, educated folk, well every kind of folk really who just cannot seem to understand what Jesus is up to. In the light of the overwhelming disbelief that was pointed in Jesus’ direction, I have often felt rather sorry for the Apostle Thomas and his nom de guerre, that dubious title of “doubter,” that wicked schoolyard taunt that “one of these things is not like the other.” When, in fact, he fit right in with the other Apostles in dismissing the report that Jesus had risen from the dead. I am sure the other Apostles are merely biding their time before it catches on that they all dismissed the women who first returned with the report that the tomb was empty and Jesus was raised from the dead long before Thomas had a chance to shine as the savant of skepticism. Of course, if we had a nickel for every time a man foolishly dismissed the report of a woman…
Clearly faith and belief are an issue in as much as they allude to our trusting God. And to the degree that faith and belief are concerned with the resurrection, they are essential. The Apostle Paul ties the effectiveness of the atonement and our justification to the resurrection, proclaiming that if Christ has not been raised from the dead, then we above all others are to be pitied. We see in this morning’s Lesson from 1 Peter that the Apostle Peter ties our participation in a “living hope” to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Last Sunday Bishop Vono identified our participation in the events of holy week and Paschal celebrations as a necessary “tune-up” to our faith. We can also see, then, that the Apostle John intends his Gospel to confront readers with the fact that God has initiated the process of reconciling creation back to himself through the work of the incarnate Word– but it is up to us to walk in the light, to shun the darkness, to embrace the reality of the resurrection. Faith, especially pertaining to the resurrection, is less about convincing yourself intellectually that a person might come back to life from death, and more about being resolute in your conviction that life lived in light of the resurrection looks much different than life outside of that reality.
Bishop N.T. Wright points out that for John’s Gospel the resurrection especially matters, because “John is a theologian of creation at heart. The Logos, the Word, who was always to be the point of convergence at which the creator and creation came together, is now, in the resurrection, the point at which the creator and the new creation are likewise one.” The living hope of which the Apostle Peter speaks is the reality that we are adopted into the family of God, because Jesus has been raised from the dead. Because Jesus is alive, we can be sons and daughters of the almighty. We see in Jesus’ appearances to his disciples after the resurrection not only a substantiation of his claims to be the Son of God, but also what must have been an initially startling realization on the part of his followers that they would now have to live into the reality of their citizenship in the Kingdom of God.
This brings me back to my story about my crisis of faith many years ago, and the wry question that Jesus leaves hanging thick in the air as he squares off with Thomas. Jesus asks Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” What is, perhaps, most telling about this interaction is the fact that even though Jesus immediately follows this question with his own confession that not all of his followers will have the opportunity to “see and believe” as Thomas does, he asks in response to Thomas’ pronouncement of him as “my Lord and my God.” This is significant, according to Wright, because Thomas has now become the spokesperson for the disciples in identifying what John has been compelling his readers to identify all along; “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing there is life in his name.” Certainly, there have been many biblical scholars that have written long lists of what different political, religious and socio-economic sects within Judaism expected to see when the Messiah returned. However, it wasn’t until Thomas’ proclamation that someone saw who the Messiah was in reality. Thomas saw God in human flesh, albeit a new kind of flesh recently returned from death, with his own human eyes. Where others had looked upon the same person and saw something completely different, Thomas now acknowledged the reality that Jesus and the Word were one and the same.
We may not have the opportunity to see Jesus in the flesh with our human eyes. My friend’s use of Jesus’ declaration that those who see with only the eyes of faith are blessed was undoubtedly an indication of how God speaks to us through each other. You see, though my initial reaction was one of anger, I was able eventually to recognize that my anger came from being exposed to the light. I didn’t have trouble believing that God exists or trouble believing the Gospel’s account of who Jesus is. I was having trouble believing in a God that existed as a construct within my mind. Faith in Christ through the resurrection is a matter of learning how to live in response to that reality, how to experience that living hope. Any attempt to filter that reality or to remake God in the flesh in our own image will necessarily produce a belief system that is riddled with doubt – one that cannot withstand scrutiny. And, so, it is my hope that we all determine in our own hearts to acknowledge the reality of who Jesus is and to submit our lives to the task of living in response to the reality of his resurrection.