Second Sunday in Easter
April 7, 2013
It happens just about every day. We, or someone we love, goes through a trial or an affliction almost too terrible to bear. A job is lost; a marriage breaks apart; there’s a car accident; a bad diagnosis; a death… We watch loved ones endure weeks and months of suffering; we read the newspaper and hear about unspeakably more suffering; and the question is asked: “Where is God in all this?
It’s a fair question.
And so we turn to the church and we ask our priest, “What, exactly, are we supposed to believe? Who could possibly be led to believe there’s God in any of this? What risen Jesus? What are you talking about?”
And so the questions emerge. Doubting Thomas has his day.
We might as well call this the Feast Day of St. Thomas – because it’s on this day, every year – the Sunday after Easter Sunday – when we hear the story of this skeptical apostle who needs proof of the resurrection before he will believe.
St. Thomas has gotten a bum rap through the centuries but his question is neither petulant nor arrogant; it is a plea for simple evidence. Thomas is ahead of his time – he’s an empiricist. He believes in things that can be seen and observed and tested. He wants proof. In that respect he’s no different than the rest of us – except in one very important respect. Unlike the rest of us, Thomas actually gets the proof he’s looking for. The risen Christ actually does appear to him and answers all his questions.
Lucky for him.
“Blessed are those who believe, and have NOT seen.” That line was written for us – the rest of us, still waiting in that upper room, sometimes left there, it feels, all alone, with our doubts.
And all we want to know is this: what, dear God, do you want us to believe? What set of beliefs will make this cancer go away? Give me something to believe in that will spare my child. Just tell me what to believe that will make this pain go away, and I’ll do it. I’ll believe.
We’re like the father of the epileptic boy in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 9). His son is having a grand mal seizure as Jesus approaches; he cries out to Jesus, “If you are able to do anything, help us!” Jesus is insulted. What do you mean, “If?” he says. “All things can be done for the one who believes." And the father is desperate and frightened and cries out, "I believe; help my unbelief!"
I hear it over the phone, and I hear it in hospital rooms and in my office: Just tell me what to believe that will make this burden easier to bear. And make it true.
The ancient doctrines of the church say that belief is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It’s not something you can reason yourself toward; it’s something that comes to you through prayer and the leap of faith. Which, for some of us, might not be good news. Some of us would quite naturally prefer reason, which has proven very reliable over the years and has things like rules and logic on its side, as opposed to some invisible and mysterious force that’s widely known to be rather fickle at times, blowing where it will and so-forth.
I know of many good people who have earnestly prayed for belief and have never received it. The central character in Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Home, is like that. Jack spends his life surrounded by good, happily believing Christians, and the whole time he feels like an outsider – the only guy at the party who doesn’t work in the same office. He would like to believe – in fact, his life is a huge disaster and he knows that belief would help him – but he just can’t bring himself to believe all the old stories, and he can’t figure out what it could possibly mean to say you believe in something you actually don’t.
And then there are people like my dad, who, like many Episcopalians, loves church but has always thought belief in things like the Nicene Creed was more or less optional, and who wasn’t about to renounce his scientific mind in favor of a 4th century universe. So when it’s time to say the Nicene Creed, he stands with everyone else, with great respect, but won’t say a thing.
Belief is not easy – especially in our day and age. It is hard to know what is required and what, if any, form of belief is even possible.
Those among us who are in no mind for confusion on this score may not be comforted by the hundreds of scholarly books and theological papers about all this; but still I would encourage anyone with an interest to explore the book Beyond Belief by Elaine Pagels. Her book is an examination of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas - a gospel which, like the Gospel of Judas, never made it into the Bible, and which, indeed, was declared heretical in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, when all copies were rounded up and burned. It is only because a few monks at Nag Hammadi hid their heretical library in big clay jars and sealed them up and stored them in a cave, where they were discovered in 1945, that we have these texts at all.
This is a good thing, I think – to have access to these important early gospels – but it is also yet another source of confusion. Now that we’ve got these Gnostic gospels back, it’s even more difficult to figure out what we’re supposed to believe.
It’s exactly this spiritual confusion that the church fathers were hoping to avoid. I mean, I’m not defending them, necessarily, but when we are howling with grief and looking for a faith that will get us through the night, the last thing we want is confusion. But then again, by trying to protect us from confusion, maybe the church Fathers underestimated our capacity for faith in the midst of doubt.
The problem that developed with the rise of Gnosticism in the early church was that all these communities sprang up, each of them claiming to have this special knowledge of God, but none of them agreeing with each other; each of these communities completely convinced that they had the truth unlike anyone else; and that all the other communities were in error and were children of the devil; and none of them having anything to point to for their authority except for some gospels that they wrote themselves in the name of various figures in the original gospel stories… and their own direct revelations, which were very compelling but also rather idiocyncratic.
And so Christianity reached this breaking point – either it would splinter into endlessly varied little spiritual communities that could agree on nothing; or it would come together around a common set of beliefs and survive as a single religion.
Anyway, all of this is very interesting but doesn’t necessarily help us get to our main point. Because the fundamental issue of belief will never go away with the wave of any theologian’s wand: how can I believe in God, when I’ve just been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer? How can I believe in God after reading about the refugees in Syria? How can I believe in God when suicide bombers kill in the name of God?
None of those questions will ever be resolved by theologians; because the more important question is not what to believe, but whether to believe. These questions can only be resolved deeply, within your heart, in the place within you that only you and God can find; in that room that only you and God have the key to; in that place of your deepest and most intimate secrets and longings.
I think you know the room I’m talking about. It’s the place you go to at night, just before you drop off to sleep; it’s the place you go to when your feelings are hurt; it’s the place you got to when you’re most lonely; it’s the place you go to when you’re afraid you will die; or when you’re not sure there’s a good reason to live.
That’s the place we go to, in prayer. It’s not a place where reason dominates the discussion. It’s a place where the soul has a voice – but the voice of the soul is not always the sound of a voice; the soul might sound more like a song; or like a magnetic force; or like a quiet yearning. And sometimes, when we go to that place, and we can quiet our own thoughts down to a low hum, it might sound like the sound of someone listening.
Prayer begins there – in that still, quiet room, where we realize we are not alone. The presence we feel there might not be saying anything, but we sense its presence.
It’s like the upper room where the disciples were all meeting. At first there’s a lot of commotion and noise; there are opinions flying around, everyone’s talking; there’s a lot of fear and anxiety in the air.
But then we give it time; the room quiets down. The fear dissipates. The many voices grow quiet. And we find ourselves asking our one question; we find ourselves getting down to the truth of it all. And then we grow quieter still; and we realize: someone is listening. There is a presence in the room. It’s as if Jesus has just walked through the wall.
That’s when all of our questions, which up to that point seemed perfectly reasonable and very important, go flying out the room. Because here he is. And in the face of his presence, we fall to our knees, and we have nothing to say but “My God!”
And that’s the place where prayer really begins. That’s the place where “I want I want I want” gives way to the deeper heart of prayer, which is basically expressed in the first few words of any prayer in this prayer book: “Oh. My. God!”
That’s the place where worship really begins. And that’s the place where belief really begins. That’s the only place where things like the Nicene Creed make any real sense.
None of us are alone. Jesus has been with us, all along, in that room. Listening. Waiting. Silently guiding us in ways we never knew.
He is here, even now, speaking words of peace and love. He is holding out his hands; he is saying, “Touch me and see: I am risen.”