Acts 4:32-35+Psalm 133+1 John 1:1-2:2+John 20:19-31
Ten years after Mother Teresa of Calcutta/Kolkata died in 1997, a volume of her letters was published which shocked those who knew anything about this woman who had devoted her life to serving the most marginalized and vulnerable citizens of one of India’s poorest cities for half a century. In these letters, written over a period of 66 years, Teresa pours out her sorrow over God’s absence from her life, of her doubts and fears about God’s very existence. “I look and do not see, listen and do not hear,” she wrote in one letter. In another, she sounds on the verge of despair
My God, I have no faith. I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd my heart, afraid to uncover them because of the blasphemy. If there be God, please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. I am told God loves me, and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great, nothing touches my soul.
Somehow in the long history of Christian piety, we have learned or been taught or internalized the notion that to doubt is to sin. So-called “Doubting” Thomas about whom we read today, is seen as less faithful, less trusting, less worthy. To call him “doubting” is to insult him.
Doubt is not a sin. It never has been. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. That would be certainty, and I’m not sure I’ve ever known anyone who was so certain of all of this that there was no room for doubt. Doubt is as much a part of faith as that blessed assurance that washes over us from time to time when we know God is present.
The story of Thomas, then, is really our story. The other disciples are in hiding, in that same Upper Room where they had last seen their friend, where he had washed their feet and encouraged them to love one another. They are hiding in fear. Our text says they were afraid of “the Jews,” but what that means is not that those “other people” were after them. No, it means that the same authorities who handed Jesus over to Pilate might be on the lookout for those followers of Jesus who may not have gotten the message. Continuing to challenge the religious leadership by claiming that the messiah had come would be to risk your life. And so they hid.
But not Thomas. I’ve always been curious about that. Where was he? Was he unafraid? Back in the 11th chapter of John, when Jesus learns that Lazarus has died and he plans to go to Judea to be with him, the other disciples urge him not to go. They know he is in danger that close to Jerusalem. But Thomas? Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (11:16). At the Last Supper, Jesus is speaking cryptically as John often has him do, talking about going away and that the disciples would come there, too, because they know the way. The others seem to take that at face value, but not Thomas. “What are you talking about, Jesus? We don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way” (14:5, paraphrase)?
Our reading today takes place on the evening of the resurrection. Mary Magdalene had come to the remaining eleven to tell them about meeting the risen Jesus in the garden. They might have been as afraid of that news as they were of the temple leaders. But Thomas? Maybe he was out and about, trying to figure out what people were saying or doing. Maybe he didn’t want to be stuck in that room with the others cowering in fear. Maybe he wanted to see how far the story had spread, what the news on the street might be.
The following week, when Jesus comes again while Thomas is there, do you hear judgment in his voice? I don’t. He issues an invitation – touch me, place your hand on my wounds. Do this on behalf of all of those who will not have a chance to do this. All of those like us who worship here week after week, unable to touch Jesus. Unable even to touch one another. Do not doubt, but believe. Believe for all of those who will struggle with faith, who can’t feel God’s presence, who have a dark night of the soul that lasts for decades.
On the first day of Holy Week, the Gallup organization released its latest polling data on religion which indicates that, for the first time since polling began, church membership fell below 50% of the population in the U.S. There is some evidence that people have not given up on God, but they gave given up on Church. The number who identify as “spiritual but not religious” continues to climb. Many churches have scrambled to adapt to this new reality, making themselves into what they seem to believe people want, mirroring that “spiritual” vibe but without the complications of organization structure and markers of membership. A recent essay addressed this trend:
A church which parades as Spiritual but not Religious ignores the offer of transformation. ‘The problem with the consumerist mentality is that it sticks with the desires you’ve got,’ (former Archbishop of Canterbury) Rowan Williams tells me. So the danger is you miss the possibility of being changed by what you find. ‘The church can go along with the market mentality and make people feel it’s meeting their needs. Or it can say, “Something utterly extraordinary has taken hold of us. Come and see”.’
Something utterly extraordinary compelled Mother Teresa to do the work she did with the outcasts in the slums for decades. Something compelled Thomas to ask for more, to ask to see and to touch. Something compels us to continue to gather here even when we can’t be physically present.
We don’t have to understand it. We don’t have to believe every bit of it all the time, because none of us does. But something has got ahold of us that is greater than anything we could ask or imagine. This is what the resurrection is about. It isn’t about us and what we want. It’s about God and God’s deepest desires for us. God doesn’t ask for us not to doubt or to wonder or to feel disconnected from God. What God does ask is that we keep showing up, doing the work we’ve been given to do, loving one another as we have been loved. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll begin to see the face of Jesus in each other, the wounds of Jesus in the broken and sorrowful, the joy of Jesus in the laughter of our littlest saints.
I pray that none of us feels the detachment from God about which Mother Teresa wrote. But even if we do, we still are not alone. We know that Christ is risen for each one of us. We can’t earn that. We can’t lose that. It is ours to have and ours to share with the world.
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!