There are at least two types of doubt abroad in the world today. First, doubt about God may be a rather casual thing: treating the idea of God as insignificant or irrelevant to real life…that is, until we’re in a pinch, or we want something, like Stan’s wife. Then things might change… you know what they say about everybody being a believer in foxholes.
Many in the world today seem quite indifferent to organized religion, doubting its validity. Surveys tell us that religious participation is low, while interest in spirituality is high. Our modern era has been called post-Christian, because church membership is no longer a societal norm. People today don’t come to church because “everybody does it;” they simply don’t come, unless they decide it’s important to them to make time. Through most of the last millennium, the Christian religion, represented by a powerful church, was automatically a part of the lives of the majority of Western people. What a change in the last 50 years!
[Interestingly, St. Dunstan’s pews have been less full this year during Lent, but more full at Easter this year. Maybe the mystical power of Easter – life rising out of death – resonates more than the Sunday by Sunday observance of a penitential season. I don’t know. What do you think? I’m grateful for the Easter crowds, in any case!]
The second kind of doubt involves a very intentional, thoughtful consideration of the existence of God, the veracity of miracles, and the credibility of specific doctrines such as the virgin birth of Jesus or his bodily resurrection. Many practicing Christians express trouble with at least some of these assertions of our faith. Our Episcopal approach allows for this kind of doubt, or wondering. Not all Christian teachings are central to our faith. For instance, we might doubt the bodily resurrection of Jesus, but still believe that Jesus was and is alive again in a spiritual way. For many, that constitutes a powerful belief in the resurrection.
So, doubt can come either out of not really caring much at all…or out of caring very much indeed – enough to wrestle with our faith quite seriously, sometimes in great anguish.
Speaking of anguish, I believe Jesus acknowledged, and indeed authorized, doubt by sharing his own struggles with God in his life. On at least two occasions, Jesus expressed doubt. The first, of course, was in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus foresaw his own death and asked if this cup might pass him by. Here Jesus seems to doubt God’s goodness. We can all identify so well with that plaintive cry. In our own lives, it’s probably not about facing crucifixion. But we might very well pray ourselves, “O Lord, please don’t ask me to face this cancer, this dementia, the loss of my spouse, my child’s mental illness….”
The second time was on the cross itself. As we heard on Palm Sunday, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” As a human being, Jesus felt abandoned by God. He doubted God’s love and care at that moment. Who wouldn’t?
Some would minimize Jesus’ doubt, pointing out that Jesus was speaking to God, and in that sense affirming God’s existence at least. Maybe they have a point. But the anguish and despair are still there. And it may be in those very moments of pain that we feel closest to Jesus, that he is most real to us, not just in our heads, but in our hearts and our guts.
So Thomas has been dubbed “Doubting Thomas” all these years, when really, he just wanted to see Jesus in person, as all the other disciples had done. Jesus didn’t dismiss Thomas’s need at all; in fact, Jesus seems to come back for Sunday dinner a week later, just to meet Thomas and resolve Thomas’s uncertainties. Jesus didn’t condemn Thomas for his doubts.
Now, I can’t erase anyone’s doubts about God or Jesus or Christian faith – not yours, and not my own. And I certainly wouldn’t either diminish their importance or demean anyone who expresses doubt. As one who doubts myself, I’d be hypocrite to do that, and if there’s one thing that really grates on Jesus’ nerves, it’s hypocrites!
If God wanted us to be sure and certain about all these religious matters, God could have made everything abundantly clear. But God doesn’t. God works through nuance, story, metaphor, and paradox. Faith is an ongoing project. If it were just facts, how thin a soup religious would be…how boring and empty. And humans would no longer have our freedom to accept or reject, to buy in or decline. We would be puppets.
So all I can do is invite you to keep coming back, coming back for “Sunday dinner” here, because that’s where the disciples met Jesus, and that’s where Thomas resolved his doubts about the risen Lord. There are a thousand other things you could be doing right now, but this is the best place to meet God.
And God seems quite happy to meet us in whatever we state we find ourselves: full of faith, asking questions, or doubting the whole enterprise! Maybe we come out of habit or determination. For the friendly community in a hostile world. Maybe we only come when we’ve got something we want: we’re in need of a prayer answered, some guidance or clarity.
Whatever brings us here, there’s a welcome from God, and from this congregation. Together, we acknowledge doubts and questions, find faith together, and walk in hope, because God meets us and feeds us here. “Ours is not a caravan of despair.” That image comes from a poem by Rumi, shared with me by Ellie Tupper. Rumi was Muslim, but he captures a spirit of God’s welcome that works for all of us:
[Another great Rumi quote: