Sermon for 2 Easter Yr C, 18/04/2004
Based on Jn 20:24-29
By Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of the Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
“Doubting, Sceptical Discipleship”
In a Charlie Brown cartoon, Charlie and Lucy are walking home from their last day of school year; when Charlie suddenly bursts out with joyful enthusiasm telling Lucy the good news. “Lucy, I got straight A’s, isn’t that great!”
Lucy turns, looks at him very sceptically and doubtfully, and says: “I don’t believe you Charlie Brown. Unless you show me your report card, I cannot believe you.”
Here was Charlie Brown, who, in most of the cartoons is portrayed and epitomized as the born-loser, the flunky, the guy who never seems to do anything right; but now, finally, in this cartoon he is overjoyed with the results of his final marks. This is too much of a shock to the system for Lucy—she has always know him as the born-loser, the flunky, the guy who never does anything right. She cannot believe that Charlie Brown could get straight A’s. The scepticism, and doubt of Lucy in this cartoon has also, on occasion, been experienced at one time or another in our lives too; just as it was not only experienced by Thomas alone, but by the other disciples too.
Our gospel today is one of the most beautiful passages in the New Testament. In Jesus’ encounter with Thomas, we are given two great truths which are presented in the form of reversals.
The first great truth, put quite simply is: scepticism and doubt lead to believing. Thomas demonstrates this very clearly when he states: “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.” That is one of the most honest statements of scepticism and doubt in the Bible. Many look upon scepticism and doubt as something very negative. For Thomas and many, many others, it is actually something quite positive. Only by expressing his doubts and letting them “all hang out” does Thomas come to believe.
This is also very true of many other biblical characters. For example, Job doubted the way in which God seemed to govern the world. The writer of Ecclesiastes reveals the doubts of a wise and searching person. Jeremiah, in one of his prayers to God said: “Truly, you are like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.” (15:18b)
The poet, Alfred Tennyson once wrote: “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.” Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich (in The Dynamics of Faith) once said that faith and doubt are not opposites but different sides of the same coin. For Tillich, without doubt faith is not genuine. In our contemporary world, there have been atheists whose doubts and scepticism have led them to a strong belief in God.
Our gospel today, in the person of Thomas, speaks to us by telling us it’s quite alright to doubt and be a sceptic. Our God is not so small, or limited or vulnerable as to be destroyed of offended by our doubts and scepticism. Life is a complicated mixture of doubt and faith. We all have our days of doubt and scepticism as well as faith and hope. Thomas challenges each one of us to be honest with God, others and ourselves about our doubts and scepticism. In doing so, we are led to a deeper, more genuine faith in God.
The second great truth in today’s gospel is: those people are blessed who believe in the resurrected Christ without seeing. This is a tough one for us, since we live in a world where seeing is believing, like Lucy in the cartoon. An event takes place in our province, nation or world and we will not believe it until we have seen it on television or computer, read it in the newspapers or heard it on the radio. Many of us are very deeply entrenched as seeing and touching Thomases. The irony of this is that what we see or hear or read in the mass media is not provable by us because we were not eyewitnesses to these events. We rely on the reporting of journalists who are biased and, in actuality, are only able to present incomplete coverage of the events. Our reliance upon the reports of journalists is actually a form of faith on our part. Moreover, it is a faith, which does not see or touch because we are not physically present at the event.
It is very interesting that when the resurrected Jesus did come to Thomas, there is no mention of Thomas touching Jesus, even though he is given the opportunity. It was enough to see him and then believe. Even doubting, sceptical Thomas did not carry out his own conditional terms of coming to believe. Yet, more interesting is Jesus’ comment on believing without seeing. Jesus very quickly reminds Thomas that it is by far more difficult to believe without seeing than it is by seeing.
These words speak to us and our situation today. The blessed ones, according to this gospel passage are not the disciples who witnessed the resurrected Jesus; not those who experience marvellous healings or dramatic conversions and visions; rather, that multitude of people who believe without seeing. Those of us who have plodded along without extraordinary, spiritual experiences. Believing without seeing is difficult and risky; there are little, if any extraordinary experiences upon which to base one’s faith or relieve one of the doubts that occasionally seem too much to handle. But believing with seeing does make one keenly aware of the fact that belief comes from God; it is solely God’s work not ours. As Martin Luther put it: “I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him.” This is only possible through God’s effort and work.
It is thanks to being privileged to hear the proclamation of the Gospel and participate in the sacraments that faith is given, nurtured and strengthened. Today as we celebrate God’s Word and the sacrament of Holy Communion, the risen Lord is right here with us. That’s why we keep coming back over and over again to receive his blessings through these means of grace.
May God continue to grant each of us that wonderful gift of believing without seeing. Amen.