Second Sunday in Easter 2016

Gospel: John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.


I think that the disciple Thomas gets a bad rap.  “Doubting Thomas” he is usually labeled.  For some reason, when the risen Jesus made his first appearance, Thomas wasn’t behind the locked doors in the house where the frightened disciples were hiding. He didn’t have the advantage they had of actually seeing the mark of the nails on Jesus’ hands and the remains of the sword wound in Jesus’ side. So he remained skeptical, doubting the reality of the resurrection, until he could actually touch and see for himself.

In Aramaic, Thomas isn’t actually a proper name, but a nickname, meaning “twin.”  In one of the Gnostic Gospels, the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus tells Thomas, “whoever drinks from my mouth will become as I am, and I myself will become that person.” The Biblical scholar, Elaine Pagels, argues that when we encounter the living Jesus, we may recognize in “oneself and Jesus, so to speak, identical twins.” Following this line of thought through today’s gospel reading from John, we may recognize ourselves in Thomas, our twin – unsure of his faith, skeptical and doubting.

Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.  A struggling character, in The Meursault Investigation, a follow up to Albert Camus’ famous novel, The Stranger, declares that “God is a question, not an answer.”  In an article in last week’s New York Times, William Erwin writes, “Dwelling in a state of doubt, uncertainty and openness about the existence of God marks an honest approach to the question.”

Who among us has never questioned their faith?  Who here, present in this room, has never, facing senseless tragedy, death, or discord, asked themselves where God could possibly be when darkness seemed to prevail.  That seems natural to me, maybe even healthy.  I think that questioning our faith, exploring how and why we believe as we do, can deepen our understanding of the nature of God, and perhaps ultimately, strengthen our faith.

Absolute certainty, either about the existence of God, or about God’s non-existence seems far more problematic.  How can we know, with absolute certainty, about something that is essentially unknowable?   Thomas Merton wrote that faith “is a decision, a judgment that is fully and deliberately taken in the light of a truth that cannot be proven — it is not merely the acceptance of a decision that has been made by somebody else.”

The real danger comes when we are convinced that we, and we alone, possess the truth about God and about God works in the world. Dogmatic atheism and fundamentalist religion are two sides of the same coin.  Both are convinced that they have the only acceptable answer, when a serious inquiry into the nature of God presents so many more questions than answers.

Lesley Hazleton, a journalist who calls herself an accidental theologist, has written a biography of Muhammad.  She writes that 1400 years ago, when Muhammad received the revelation of the Koran on a mountain just outside of Mecca, in what is for believers, “the core mystical moment of Islam”, there were no Alleluias, no choirs of angels, no rays of light or crashing thunder, and certainly no foretelling of the role as God’s messenger that Muhammad would ultimately play.  Instead, there was fear and doubt.  At first Muhammad thought he was hallucinating and then, convinced that he must be possessed by a demon, almost hurled himself off a cliff.

Hazelton writes, “So the man who fled down the mountain that night trembled not with joy but with a stark, primordial fear. He was overwhelmed not with conviction, but by doubt. And that panicked disorientation, that sundering of everything familiar, that daunting awareness of something beyond human comprehension, can only be called a terrible awe.”

It was for Hazelton, the realization of Muhammad’s doubts that brought him alive for her, made him real.  When doubt is removed, what’s left isn’t faith, but “heartless conviction”. When a person of any religion is convinced that they possess the “truth”, faith quickly takes the form of self-righteousness and dogmatism.  When we are convinced that we are right, without our convictions being tempered by doubt, we can only conclude that all others are wrong.  We run the risk of being possessed by what Hazelton calls, “the arrogance of fundamentalism.”

Hazelton writes, “We’ve allowed Judaism to be claimed by violently messianic West Bank settlers, Christianity by homophobic hypocrites and misogynistic bigots, Islam by suicide bombers. And we’ve allowed ourselves to be blinded to the fact that no matter whether they claim to be Christians, Jews or Muslims, militant extremists are none of the above. They’re a cult all their own, blood brothers steeped in other people’s blood.”

Muhammad would have been appalled that the faith of his followers had been so twisted and distorted by violent extremists.  As was written in the Koran, the words received by Muhammad, “Anyone who takes a life takes the life of all humanity. Anyone who saves a life, saves the life of all humanity.”

And our Jesus would have been stunned by the arrogance of fundamentalist Christians, who place limits on God’s love, and call for self-serving restrictions on who is included in the kingdom of God.

Faith, real faith, requires the freedom to ask questions and to doubt in order to fully develop and to find depth and meaning that can guide us through a world outside of creeds and verbal professions of faith. Thomas arrived at a lasting faith only after he had the opportunity to voice his doubts and express his fear.

When the risen Jesus first appeared to his disciples, he said to them, “”Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  Jesus breathed on them.  And contained within his breath was the essence of the Holy Spirit.  That breath that emerged from Jesus’ lungs and was breathed in by his disciples is the same breath that moves among us now. (Ask to breathe). In the form of the Holy Spirit, that breath offers us peace as well.  But not just for ourselves, because the Holy Spirit knows no boundaries. Narrow belief cannot contain the love of God.

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