Sunday, April 23, 2017
A Meditation on John 20:19-31
And so here we are again, the Sunday after Easter. And you know, that’s not quite accurate; because in the Christian tradition, in our tradition, we’re just getting started. Easter’s not just a day, not just a Sunday, but a whole season. Seven weeks, seven Sundays, a whole season to revel in the mystery of the resurrection, and the love and the life of the Risen Christ. This year: from the middle of April through the beginning of June. The wisdom we’ve inherited from all those who’ve gone before: is the conviction that Easter’s not a day, but a practice; it’s not a meme (if you will), but a sustained lifestyle. How are we going to live our lives in a way that reflects the love and the life of the Risen Christ? That’s the big question, the seasonal question. How are we going to shine with the light of this resurrected lord?
So it’s remarkable, I think, and theologically important, that every year, on this Sunday after Easter, the lectionary insists that we think a little and pray a little around the doubt that inevitably accompanies faith and hope and Easter living. Here we are again, a week removed from a thrilling Easter Sunday—the energy of a full house and the wonderful buzzing of children in every corner of the church and the music, the music, the music. And how grateful we all were, this year of all years, for a heart-pumping, blood-pulsing, love-lifting reminder of Jesus’ resurrection, of God’s love, of grace undefeated by the powers of darkness. It was stunning. And a week later, we’re talking about doubt. Thomas’ doubt in the story, but yours and mine and ours too. Because inevitably, faith and doubt go hand in hand, they walk side by side. And the tradition recognizes that, allows for it: more than allows for it, kind of insists on it. Faith and doubt walk side by side in the hearts and the lives of Christians. It’s been that way from the beginning. It’s always going to be that way with us.
You know how it is.
I believe in his resurrection. I believe in the energy, in the love I feel in my church. But I go home at night, I scan the headlines every morning, I see the wars in Syria and Afghanistan and the famine and starvation in Africa. And I doubt that God’s got all this under control. I doubt that Jesus’ resurrection changes those realities that need most to be changed. I believe and I doubt.
You know how it is.
I believe in his rising from the grave. I do. And I believe in God’s lifting him from death and despair, and lifting his friends from their unimaginable grief. I believe. But I turn out the lights at night, I close my eyes at night, and I wonder why I feel so cut off from the land of the living. I wonder why I feel so lost, so isolated, so unimportant in a world created by such Love and such a Loving God. I doubt that God’s grace can really heal what’s broken in me, what’s broken in my family, what’s broken in my soul. I believe and I doubt.
This strange little story about Thomas and Jesus, and all the others in the locked room: it’s a reminder to us that faith and doubt dance together in the Christian heart. OK, sometimes faith and doubt wrestle and slug it out in the Christian heart. If that’s you, if that’s your experience, you’re in the right place. The tradition acknowledges and honors your struggle. We believe and we doubt. Right here, right now, in this holy season of Easter practice, this holy season of Easter celebration. We believe and we doubt.
I flew back to New England this week, for just a few days, to visit my mother there. And on Friday’s long flight back to San Francisco, I sat next to a lovely couple who were flying in see family of their own here in California. Now I have to be honest that I’m not a confident, happy flyer. If you want to see the anxious, doubt-filled side of Dave Grishaw-Jones, just take a trip with me sometime. I mean I look at those huge, beastly machines…and I have no idea how the pilot’s going to get mine off the ground. Let alone 30,000 feet in the air and 3000 miles to the other coast. And you know those little altitude drops, those moments when it feels like the plane’s in free fall, just moments? I’m just sure that some engineer missed a calculation, some mechanic missed a bolt. And my plane’s not going to make it. My hands get sweaty, my heart beats hard. I can even get anxious for the flight attendants—watching them try to steer their big drink carts down those skinny aisles! Are they gonna make it?! I believe in the importance of air travel—and the true gift of visiting my mother—but I doubt in the process, the science, the technology behind it all.
So on Friday, I’m sitting next to a lovely New Jersey couple, heading to San Francisco to see their grandkids. And the plane’s taxiing out to the runway for takeoff. And the woman to my right kicks up a little conversation. Starts out great. Turns out she graduated from UCSC in the early days of the campus here. Great. We talk about High Street and funky Santa Cruz and the redwoods. And a little bit about students these days. She talks about being a native Californian living on the East Coast and I share a little about being a native New Englander living out here. And it’s good, the kind of banter that keeps me on an even keel when I’m flying.
But then, then that almost inevitable moment, when she says to me, “So what is it that you do in Santa Cruz?”
And to be honest, you never know what kind of a response you’re going to get, but I just have this hunch that this might be strange exchange. Religion can do odd things to people in public places. But I can’t think of a good lie—so I say, “I’m a pastor, right there on High Street.” And when the word pastor doesn’t do much for her, doesn’t register, I add: “In a church.”
And I can see that she’s doing her best. She’s going to try to be polite. She’s working out something to say that won’t offend me. So she says, “Oh, it’s always a good thing to sit next to a man of God on a long flight.” Like I’m going to be any help at all on this trip. If there’s an altitude bump. If there’s turbulence over Kansas City. Like my palms aren’t already a sweaty mess.
As I thought about this brief conversation over the Rockies and then over the High Sierra, I realized that her reaction is typical of so many these days, and reflects a fairly devastating view of religion in general and Christianity in particular. That view (from the outside, usually) is that we are men of God, or women of God, who are rock-solid in our faith, who have no doubts about God’s providence and protection, who can summon God’s miraculous powers against the unsettling and inconvenient realities of modern life. “Oh, it’s always a good thing to sit next to a man of God on a long flight.” She was joking, right? She assumed I commanded all this spiritual power and confidence—or she assumed that I thought I did—but she also assumed I couldn’t possibly understand the doubts and insecurities and ambivalence of ordinary folks. I really should have held up my sweaty palms, or shaken her hand. She would have quickly realized that this ‘man of God’ has an existential crisis every time he flies! I wasn’t going to be much help to her when we hit that thunderstorm over Memphis.
To be a Christian, to be a disciple, to walk with Jesus…is not to have all the answers about all the mysteries in the universe. And it’s certainly not to live brashly and confidently when the world around us seems unhinged and spinning out control. To walk with Jesus is instead to trust love even when we experience doubt. It is instead to dare to love and to serve and even to talk to strangers—when we don’t have all the answers and when we don’t know how it’s all going to turn out and when we can’t possibly control the turbulence or the thunderstorms ahead. To be a Christian, to live an Easter faith, is to let doubt be doubt, and to let doubt and faith go hand and hand, step for step.
In the story this morning, Thomas is also called the Twin. And scholars through the years have wondered about this little detail, this little biographical nugget in John’s story. One that I like suggests that Thomas’s doubt is the twin for Jesus’ faith. It may be a little simplistic, but I think of it as a metaphor, a metaphor as the whole story is a metaphor.
Here we are again, this Second Sunday of Easter, and we’re going all-in with Jesus. We’re celebrating his resurrection, and the bright sunshine of God’s love, and the HOLY YES of the Universe to life and evolution and possibility and justice and peace. We’re celebrating Easter—because Easter’s a promise, a practice and a way of life. We’re going all-in.
And that Celebration Spirit has a twin, in every one of us. That Resurrection Spirit has a twin, in every one of us. That HOLY YES lives side by side, arm in arm, step for step with an I’M NOT SO SURE! Thomas is the twin. Doubt is the twin. Uncertainly is the twin. Bewilderment is the twin. To live on this side of Easter is to believe in Jesus, to celebrate Jesus, to revel in his resurrection. And to doubt all of it. Our HOLY YES lives side by side with an I’M NOT SO SURE!
So spend some time with Jesus this Easter season. Spend a lot of time with Jesus. Read the stories. Serve him in the shelters. Protest with him in the streets. Spend a lot of time with Jesus. But don’t be afraid of Thomas, either. Spend some time with Thomas too. Question everything. Cry out when you feel like crying out at the absurdity of things. Ask God to answer for the insanity of war and famine and hatred in the world. Don’t be afraid of Thomas.
Because our calling—yours and mine—doesn’t mean faking it. And it doesn’t mean working superpowers against the world’s turbulence and thunder. Our calling means loving, even and especially in the midst of that turbulence. Our calling means serving and bearing witness and loving in seasons of doubt and in seasons of deep trust and belief. We believe and we doubt. And we are God’s. We believe and we doubt. And we are God’s.