by Rev. Scott Summerville

..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!”….4_w220_h337_s1_PL15_PCffffff

John 20:19-31

Do you know how many senses a human being normally has? You think it’s five? You sure about that? Close your eyes. Touch your nose. By what sense were you able to locate your nose? It was not by hearing, smelling, touching, seeing, or tasting. If you were able to find your nose, you did it by proprioception. Proprioception is the capacity we have to locate our body or parts of our body in space or in relation to other parts of our body. We have other senses too: exteroperception and interoperception. Perhaps we have more senses waiting to be identified. But this is not a biology lesson, so let’s just say that there are all sorts of ways that we connect to our world, make sense of our world, and figure out what things mean.

The gospel today is about a man named Thomas. Thomas is known as a doubter – “Doubting Thomas.” But it would be more fair to say that Thomas was the empiricist. Thomas’ philosophy was: unless I can experience something myself, unless I can see it for myself and touch it, I won’t believe it’s real. Thomas is the patron saint of all those people who are tired of being hoodwinked, sold a bill of good, or made to believe in something on somebody else’s say-so. They have decided that from now on they are going to trust their own senses or at least their own common sense.

When Thomas was told that Jesus has risen from the dead and had appeared to the other disciples, his response was, “Show me.”It is good to be skeptical. It is good to test and question things. But the problem for us human beings is that the most important questions we face cannot be answered by our senses in the usual way.

How do I know that this person is the right person to be my mate?
How do I know that you love me?
How will I get through this challenge in my life?
What is the right direction for my life?
What can I believe in?

I cannot answer these questions with my eyes, my ears or my tongue. They lie in the inner intangible realm of meaning and faith.

We have a son named Thomas. He has always been inquisitive. He was a theologian at an early age.When he was a little squirt four or five years old he asked one day, “Mommy, why did God make mosquitoes?” He pondered a little while and then answered his own question. “I think I know why, because God is a little bit good and little bit bad.” In his innocent child’s mind he was already addressing the challenging question in philosophy, the problem of good and evil, and the most profound issue in theology: the problem of God and evil.

Our daughter was also a religious thinker. When she was five or six years old she announced one day, “I do love Jesus, I do love Jesus, and those voices in my head that say I don’t; they’re not right!”

When Jesus said that we must become as little children if we are to enter the kingdom of God, did he mean that we must become simple minded, innocent minded, unquestioning believers, or did he mean that we must become freely curious, truly inquisitive, free to challenge and explore the way a child does?

Thomas, in the Gospel story, will not believe that the crucified Christ is alive unless he sees him and touches his wounds. There is deep theological meaning here. I spoke of it in my Easter message. Jesus is recognized by his wounds. Jesus lived as a poor man, a poor “marginalized Jew” as one scholar has put it; he identified his life with the powerless and the poor, and died cruelly at the hands of the powerful. To touch Jesus, to encounter Jesus, is to be willing to touch the wounds of humanity. “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.”

Here is a twenty dollar question for you:

Are people honest with one another in church?
In church do we encounter one another authentically, or not?
The answer to that question is not a simple one.

Several years ago Mary Ellen I thought that it would be a positive and healthy thing to have open up a conversation about human sexuality. We did some planning and set up a program of presentations and discussions under the title of “sacred sexuality.”
Nobody came. We concluded that talking honestly authentically about sexuality is not something that people were ready to do, at least no with the clergy in the room! I say that without judgment. It is extremely important for healthy church life that people are free to decide when and where they want to talk about the most sensitive dimensions of life.

I observe as a pastor that as people in the church come to know one another better, as they rub elbows with each other in the coffee hour, or in choir practice, or on the retreat, or in Bible study, or the UMW meeting, or working together in the food bank, or just meeting to do the business of the church, gradually people become more authentic with one another.

One of the areas that people gradually become more authentic about is their faith and their doubt. Faith and doubt are not opposites; they are the dual aspects of the human struggle for meaning and understanding. It is fascinating how the gospel stories of the resurrection describe this interplay of faith and doubt.

There are the women who bring back the news from the tomb that Christ is risen, but the apostles do not believe them.

Today there is Thomas who will not believe the others when they tell him Christ is risen and has appeared among them.

There is the conclusion of the gospel of Matthew where the apostles are with Jesus on a mountain in Galilee:

Matthew 28

[16] Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.
[17] And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted.
[18] And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
[19] Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
[20] teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

What a startling thing for the gospel to acknowledge so explicitly that there were those even among Jesus inner circle of closest followers who were not convinced of the Easter message.

Faith without doubt is fragile.
Faith without doubt is dangerous.
How well we are learning that message from the religious terrorists of our time, and from the religious intolerance of our time. Beware of the one who has no doubts.

What does it mean to live with Faith? What does it mean to wrestle with doubt and faith? Let me make that a little more specific, what does it mean to you to live with Faith? What does it mean to you to wrestle with doubt and faith? It would be a good thing; it would be a healthy thing for sisters and brothers in congregation to be willing to share with one another their answers to those questions.

Many people have in childhood a simple innocent faith. Others may have some intense experience of God or experience of conversion in adolescence or in adulthood. For a time this fresh innocent faith can be the most powerful thing in your life. Then over time you observe the world, you experience pain and you share people’s pains, you try to figure out the world and make sense of things, and the more you think, the harder it is to make sense of things, and the more you share people’s pain, you begin to ponder why there is so much pain. Inevitably that innocent vibrant faith will be shaken.

That moment of shaking, that moment of uncertainty and confusion, is a critical moment in the journey of the spirit. Many people simply stop there. They lose their childhood or newfound faith, or they simply get confused and overwhelmed by life,
and they stop the spiritual quest. They turn to coin collecting, overworking, golf, managing their money, or just coping with life; they leave the spiritual quest behind.

There is a journalist and writer, Brad Gooch, who has specialized in trying to understand religious experience. He is the author of the book, “God Talk, Travels in Spiritual America.” In preparation for writing this book he lived in a variety of religious communities. He spent time with gurus. He lived in Christian monasteries, both men’s and women’s. He has immersed himself in Islam in New York. He hung out for a while with Jerry Falwell. He even involved himself with a cult, the Urantia Foundation, that claims to have received the key to higher knowledge from extraterrestrial beings who visited the earth in 1911. He went all over the country in his attempt to understand the various ways human being explore and experience the sacred.

0_w225_h340_s1_PR15_PCffffffOne person he got to know is Sister Columba, abbess of Our Lady of Mississippi monastery. This formidable woman founded a religious community, led the community for many years, and guided many people on their spiritual journeys. One of the people who had received spiritual guidance from Mother Columba said that being with mother Columba, “You‘re confronted with your weakness, your lying, your BS… by absolute rigorous honesty… She was and still is a source of wisdom, and intimacy and vulnerability, and fondness and remembrance.”

When Brad Cooch got to know this older nun, this lifetime religious leader and spiritual guide, he was surprised at what he found. He observed that the older monks and nuns he met in the Trappist orders were not especially pious. He quotes Sister Columba talking about the experience of leaving secular life and entering a monetary:

“…in a life like this,” she says, “… you’re pretty much on your own. A life of prayer can be pretty dismal. You just go and sit. And the next day you go and sit. It isn’t that all these lights are flashing. It’s not a lot of fun. And you have to be faithful to that. What happens is that your life deepens, and it gets turned upside down, too. All the things I believed in so heartily when I first came about saving all these souls, and doing penance and making my way to heaven. Well, that gets all turned upside down…. If you go on with your childhood faith, it’s not really faith. It has to be challenged. I think you get to the point where you say, “I don’t know.” And I can’t know. And nobody can know. I guess belief keeps me here. I guess I believe in love, whatever that is. That whatever this being. . . you can’t even call God “being,” you don’t know what to call it . . . but love is the force, and everything we see and experience is an expression of this love. Behind you, behind me, behind who we are as a people is the love that called us forth. It’s that love that’s going to receive us back. But how it’s going to be, I just can’t imagine.”

I was struck by her statement that as you move forward on the religious path, your life deepens and gets turned upside down. Here is a woman who is as religious as a person can get in a formal official sense. She’s been praying and guiding people spiritually for decades in a very traditional and strict religious order, but in the end her theology, her faith as it translates into words, becomes bare and simple and very humble: “I guess I believe in love, whatever that is. That whatever this being… you can’t even call God “being,” you don’t know what to call it … but love is the force, and everything we see and experience is an expression of this love. Behind you, behind me, behind who we are as a people is the love that called us forth. It’s that love that’s going to receive us back. But how it’s going to be, I just can’t imagine.”

In the long run the human mind will ask its questions. To banish doubts as to kill the mind; the soul cannot be free while the mind is in a box.

6_w250_h111_s1_PR15_PCffffffThere was a time in Jesus travels with his disciples that they came to him frustrated with their ministry. There were not accomplishing what they thought they should. He responded by telling them that if they take the faith they have, even if it be a speck the size of a mustard seed, they will be able to say to a mountain, “Move to yonder place,” and it will move and nothing will be impossible for them.

Each of has a grain or two of faith. Each of us has a way we find meaning in our life experience, in the scripture, in worship, in fellowship and ministry together. We each have a different kind of faith. Some of us at home in traditional formulations of faith, while others are probing and exploring. Some of us are mainly focused on what faith has to do with life in this world right now, and some of us are leaning toward the world beyond this world.

When we are part of a community, we bring our way of faith, our certainties and uncertainties, our way of praying,our way of conceiving of the holy. Whatever we may be individually, we become something larger when we gather together our various grains of faith, so it is important that we find occasions to talk with one another about the grain of faith that each of us has. It is good to move beyond our our reticence, our shyness about talking about the things that matter deeply to us; you share some part of your faith with me, and you take something from mine; together we are mutually strengthened in love and faith; we are mutually encouraged. Together we are more than we can be apart.