Trusting Doubt

April 08, 2018
John 20:19-31; Act 4:32-37 (5:1-11)

Today is the Sunday after Easter but this great Thomas story begins last Sunday evening. And the story the disciples tell the absent Thomas is pretty incredible. They are hiding, and mourning, and Jesus appears, right there in the middle of their huddled, frightened group – without even opening a door. Give me a break. No wonder Thomas doesn’t believe them. Wouldn’t you want proof?

We don’t know where Thomas was that first Sunday evening. Maybe he was home weeping or maybe he was drowning his sorrows some other way. Or maybe he had to work or take care of his family. Wherever he was, when he hears about the other disciples experience of Jesus’ presence, he does not believe it. He wants, he needs, his own experience of this Risen Christ.

Thomas is not shy about saying what it will take for him to believe. That first Sunday night the disciples got Jesus breathing on them and saying “Peace be with you.” Thomas wants more. He remembers the pain; he wants to see the wounds. The comforting, peaceful greeting is not for him. He is still back at the ugly, violent death. The proof he needs is touching the wounds, putting his hand in the nail holes that his dear Lord suffered.

He thinks about it all week, how this strange appearance could have happened. And the next Sunday he is prepared. Thomas goes to the huddle, where they gather, still afraid – and filled with the expectation that it might happen again. And then there he is – Jesus in their midst. And before Thomas can even demand to see the holes, can demand the sign, Jesus offers himself to Simon, to see and touch the broken places.

This time Thomas believes. Experiencing the wounds for himself, he remembers his own failures, wounds and brokenness and he believes. This is not only his Lord, this is his God. This is the Word made flesh, right there among them, all over again.

I am fond of Thomas and his courage to put his doubt right out there. His doubt is more real than his belief so he just says it. He knows his doubt and he is willing to have it be known. He trusted Jesus and now Jesus trusts Thomas’ doubt enough to show him, enough to let him touch, the wounds.

Some time later the disciples, the original ones as well as some of the many new Jesus followers, find their way toward community life together. Luke, in Acts, gives us a beautiful picture of the believers living together, sharing all things in common. This brief description of a shared economy is one that intentional communities often turn to for inspiration. The choice to follow the Risen Christ means that it is no longer just about me and my own household. In the community of the Risen Christ we live the miracle of the loaves and fishes every day. There is sharing of all things and there is enough.

This early church ideal sounds like a variation on the jubilee system in the Jewish Law, where debts are forgiven, the enslaved are freed and there is redistribution of wealth. At least once every fifty years, everyone has what they need. As inspirational and aspirational as this utopian vision is, historians are pretty sure that it never really happened, in the early church or in Judaism with the jubilee. The mutual assistance fund here at Hyattsville Mennonite is our own small nod in the direction of this Acts vision.

The lectionary pairs these two texts from John and Acts together: Jesus appearing to the disciples in John and community life in Acts. In John we have Thomas who doubts. The lectionary does not give us the doubt in Acts. Ah, but it is there.

Wealthy Barnabas, “the encourager,” sells his land so that he can lay his wealth at the feet of the Apostles; he sets a concrete example of how this new faith is lived out. And then we get a story of doubt. Perhaps you remember Ananias and Sapphira?

Acts 5Now a couple, Ananias and Sapphira, sold a piece of property too, but they conspired to keep part of the proceeds for themselves. Ananias brought the remainder and presented it to the apostles.

Peter said, Ananias, has Satan so possessed you that you lie to the Holy Spirit by secretly withholding part of the proceeds of the property? It belonged to you and Sapphira before you sold it, didnt it? And when you sold it, didnt you still have control of the money? How could you have conceived such a thing in your heart? You have not lied to people. You have lied to God!

When Ananias heard this, he dropped dead on the spot. Great fear came upon all those present. Young people in the crowd came up, wrapped up the body and took it away for burial.

About three hours later, Sapphira entered. She was unaware of what had happened. Peter said to her, Did you sell the property for such-and-such a price?

Yes, she replied, that was the price.

 Peter said to her, Why did you conspire to test the Spirit of our God? Listen! The feet of those who buried your husband are at the door    and they will carry you out as well.

 She immediately dropped dead at his feet. The young people entered and found her dead so they carried her out and buried her next to her husband.

 Great fear overcame the whole church and all who heard about this incident.

This story of doubt has a very different ending than Thomas’. With Thomas, the fear is gone. After Ananias and Sapphira the church is fearful all over again.

Poor Ananias and Sapphira. They might just be selfish. It might also be that they do not know what to do with their doubt. Maybe they doubt this wild idea of sharing all things in common. Or maybe they are doubtful about selling what they have and laying the proceeds at the feet of the apostles. Instead of being honest about their doubts, instead of discussing their hesitations with the leadership, instead of asking for some grace and maybe gradual implementation, they pretend to be all in. And when confronted with their duplicity, they lie about that.

How different from Thomas who acknowledges his doubt.  Thomas doesn’t believe but he is honest in his disbelief. He trusts his doubt and his community enough to put himself in an uncomfortable situation. And as he goes to that room in fear and touches the wounds, he somehow sees the Risen Christ.

Ananias and Sapphira act as if they are on board with the project – sharing resources and giving to the community. But something else is going on. Are they afraid of a community they do not know or trust yet? Or maybe they are okay with most of the people but they don’t find the leadership trustworthy. Maybe if they could admit their doubts, there would be a way to live into a different experience. Maybe there would be a financial grace period with Peter. Maybe they could be mentored by Barnabas. But alas, they lie and their lies are the end of them.

The writer of Ecclesiastes writes so beautifully about “a time for this and a time for that.”  There is another couplet we might add – “there is a time for doubt and a time for faith.” We need an amendment to the poem.

This is a time for doubt and Doubting Thomas is our saint. When Russian bots and alternative facts and lies that get repeated over and over are our daily diet, doubt is a spiritual gift we must discover and exercise.

One of the things that I am learning from the Big Questions class is that when we voice the questions that we wonder about, when we share our doubts, there is strength in that. When we claim that we have no questions, when our statement of faith is “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” we don’t even need God, much less each other. Asking our questions, without hiding our doubts, can develop and strengthen us as individuals and as a community.

Yes, we need doubt in these days when we are not sure what news to trust or which politician to believe or if we should even listen to the religious voices. But we cannot stop at doubt. Ananias and Sapphira stop at doubt, by denying it. They somehow believe that the community needs perfection, needs greatness, so they deny their doubts, and it is their end.

It is not perfection that Thomas seeks in that closed room. Thomas asks for brokenness; it is the wounds that will prove to Thomas that Jesus was with them in the flesh and is with them now as the Risen Christ. It seems a strange contradiction but for Thomas, flawlessness is not what verifies the Christ. It is the not-yet-healed wounds that are convincing. And just as Thomas does not hide his doubt, the Christ does not hide the wounds. The marks are there for all to see and for Thomas to touch. The flaws prove the reality that was – as well as the possibilities of what can be.

We cannot afford to deny our doubts or “settle” for easy answers. Pain and death are real. Duplicity and theft are real. Denying them does not make them go away. Thomas wants to believe, he just needs to see the wounds, needs to touch them. What he needs in order to have faith is almost impossible but he puts it out there, he says what he needs and then he gathers up his courage to find it.

If this is a time for doubt, it is also a time for faith. We need to know the time to admit our doubt and we need to know the time in faith to say “My Lord and My God.”

We need a faith in this time that understands the invitation to see the wounds, that understands that the wounds are painful and a place of potential healing. We need a faith that sees that woundedness does not represent weakness but properly treated can be an opportunity for faith to grow and deepen. We need a faith that believes despite our unbelief, that moves forward despite our fear, that calls on the past, is aware of the wounded present and believes that healing is possible in the future.

We need a faith that is willing to step toward the impossible, even when we doubt and are in pain. Who would have imagined that the cruel death of Trayvon Martin and then his killer’s acquittal could turn into the powerful Black Lives Matter movement?  Who would have imagined that centuries of sexual harassment and sexual assault of women could be turned on its head by the metoo movement? Who could have imagined that scarred teenagers and children would be the ones to organize against gun violence, mobilizing the country to take on the NRA.

As Michelle said last week, death is all around us and yet resurrection is too. We have to have faith, even in the midst of our doubt, to glimpse what seems impossible. We have to have the courage of imagination and faith to reach out and touch the wounds that can be healed, that will be healed.

We have to have faith to dream and imagine, otherwise we will settle, which might be okay for those who live comfortably. But there are people who live with too much violence and trauma and isms and not enough food or water or shelter or safety. As current followers of Jesus we must remember those early followers who tried to share things in common, who sold what they had to share with others, who died trying. We have a long way to go til we get there as a church, locally or world wide. And it is something to look toward, to walk toward, to work toward.

I was at the A.C.T. Now to End Racism rally on Wednesday. (Awaken, Confront, Transform)  At the end of six hours of speeches and music, an impassioned minister stood with his baby grandson in his arms and promised to that little child that in fifty years, he would not have to live with racism.

I try not to be negative but my practical mind has some doubt about this beautiful proclamation. On the other hand, my heart wants to live with faith that something that impossible can come true. I want to keep imagining that if we touch the deadly wounds of racism there can be life, there can be resurrection. I want to work for that vision with faith in the Risen Christ.

When Thomas touches the wounds of Jesus, Jesus says, “”Have you believed because you have seen? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

There is a time for doubt and a time for faith. May we be blessed with the wisdom to know what time it is.