Tola’s sermon preached on Apr. 24, 2022

Posted by on Sun, Apr 24, 2022 in Easter, Sermons

The Second Sunday of Easter

Apr. 24, 2022

For those of you who were not here the last time I preached, my name is Tola Marts, and I’m a longtime parishioner here at St. Michael’s. I’m in the Diocesan Lay Preacher Program, and this is the second of three sermons as part of that program.

Today’s gospel telling the story of Doubting Thomas is an invitation to discuss how doubt relates to faith. We’re going to answer that invitation.

Doubt can be a four-letter word for many of us. It can seem to be the opposite of faith, even the enemy of faith. But if we understand what we mean when we use the term “doubt”, we find that doubt has been an inevitable part of Christian life since the first days. And it can offer us a richer and more powerful Christian experience.

Doubt was an impediment in my personal early path to Christ. I grew up in a nonreligious household but as a teenager had chosen to be baptized in the Catholic Church because I decided I believed in God, and if I believed in God I should go to church. But then doubts surfaced about scripture as it was presented through the perspective of my local priest, and I stepped away from God. I wasn’t angry with God, or opposed to God. What I would tell people was “the urge to worship God is just not a music that I hear, and I can’t pretend to dance to a music I don’t hear.”

Until one day I did. A dozen years ago or so, my favorite uncle was having a Trials-of-Job kind of year. I found myself wanting to pray for him. My journey brought me to St. Michael’s, and I found a wonderful faith home and prayer community. Yet I knew I still had many questions.

I spent a lot of time working on those questions with Mother Ann when she was rector here. I chose to wait six months or so before I started to take communion, because it was so important to me to build my faith before sharing in communion. But anxiety about whether I was faithful “enough,” and whether it was OK to have doubts, slowed down my journey to a deeper understanding of Christ.

It doesn’t have to be that way! Let’s look carefully at today’s Gospel for help. First we must reform the reputation of the apostle Thomas. Let’s remember what we know about him from other gospels. He had already proven his deep faith in Christ. When Jesus wanted to go back to Judea to visit the tomb of his friend Lazarus, the other apostles got cold feet. But Thomas said “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (Jn 11:16).

In the face of the death of Jesus and reports of his resurrection, all the apostles were confused and frightened and, yes, doubtful. Luke records that they were skeptical when the women told them of the empty tomb (Lk 22:10-11). Matthew goes further and says that some of them continued to doubt even when Jesus appeared directly before them (Mt 28:17)!

Thomas says “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.” Thomas exemplifies the astronomer Carl Sagan’s famous maxim “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

But how does Jesus react to Thomas’ statement? Here to me is the point of the Gospel: he doesn’t chastise Thomas, or state the dismissive “because I said so.” No, he gently provides Thomas with the evidence he seeks. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”  He gives Thomas exactly what Thomas requested! Then he says “Do not doubt but believe.”

“Do not doubt but believe.”

What to make of that last sentence? Things are not always what they seem to be at first blush. It helps here to look at the original Gospel language in Greek. I phoned a friend. I talked with my Aunt Christina, a student both of the Bible and of Greek, having lived in Greece for many years.

The original Greek word for doubt in the phrase “do not doubt” is the verb “apistia”. This is a combination of the prefix “a”, meaning “without”, plus the word “pistia” which means “faith.” So I don’t hear an admonition against having doubts. I hear Jesus imploring Thomas not to lose his deep and demonstrated faith.

The Bible is actually very comfortable with many other kinds of doubt. “aporeo”, is bewilderment or bafflement. “diakrino” is discussion or debate, “diaporeo” is agitated discussion. And last but not least, “distazo” refers to hesitation or uncertainty.

Note how different they all are. All these forms of doubt show up regularly in the New Testament, both from the apostles and others around Jesus. All these shades of meaning have been hidden under the all-purpose English word “doubt.”

In the Book of Romans, Paul says “welcome those who are weak in faith,” though he does go on to say “but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.” Paul would probably not have been a big fan of Twitter.

So Jesus isn’t saying to not be bewildered or baffled or hesitant or uncertain. Time and again, the Bible shows that these are natural and common reactions to the extraordinary. He’s just saying not to let those reactions prevent the apostles- and by extension us- accepting his message or building faith in God.

Doubt isn’t just something to be endured, it’s a gift we can use to live our faith more fully and authentically.

Here’s an example: let’s say you’re on an airplane, sitting in that annoying middle seat between the lucky person who gets the aisle and the lucky person who gets the window. And you find yourselves talking during the flight. And it gets philosophical. You wind up talking about faith versus knowledge with both of them, and comparing their answers.

First an easy example: do you know for a fact that a bowling ball weighs more than a volleyball? Yup, for sure, no faith needed. You can feel it with the muscles in your arms.

Next up: fidelity. Do you know it’s better to be faithful in marriage, versus leading a dissolute life? Aisle seat person says “yes, I know because the bible says so.” Window seat person says “well, I don’t know it’s better. I can’t prove it. But I see the people around me, and those who have long term marriages seem happier and less lonely than those who don’t.”

And then the biggy: do you know that an eternal life with God awaits us after death? Aisle seat person says “yes, I know because the bible says so.” Window seat person says “I don’t know. I can’t prove it. But the Bible rings true to me, and I feel God’s presence in my life, and so I choose to believe.”

Both of the neighboring passengers have found a route to faith that works for them. I admire the steadfastness and the surety of the aisle seat passenger’s faith. But in my life, the window seat people have helped me more in my journey to Christ.

Faith unfolds gradually for most of us. We don’t hear God calling “Here I am” like he did to Moses from the burning bush (Ex 3:4), or asking us “Why do you persecute me?” as he asked Saul on the road to Damascus (Ac 9:4). It’s a great comfort that even luminaries like Moses and Paul had their moments of doubt like the rest of us. Like with Thomas, these doubts were met not by God’s anger but by God’s love and his plea for them to persevere in faith. Faith they would both very much need later.

Wouldn’t it be so much easier to have faith if God chose to provide us an unambiguous miracle? If he chose to speak directly to us, right here and now? We wouldn’t need faith. It would become like that bowling ball and volley ball question.

But the conscious act of choosing faith in the absence of hard evidence is part of the joy of faith to me. The ability to step beyond what we know, to accept Christ as John sees him in Revelation: “To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.” To have doubt, but still journey forward in a church and with a fellowship that believes “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16).

Being here together in this church, this Sunday morning, is an essential part of that journey. We all feel it. That’s why we’re here.

Whenever serving as worship leader, I always come in during the quiet time a half hour or so before the service and pray. A few weeks ago I was thinking about something worrisome with my kids, and asked for God’s help. I can’t say it was like Moses or Saul, but I know that I was quietly and firmly filled with a message from God. He told me that the thing I was worrying about with my kids was not the problem. I was worrying about the wrong thing. What I really needed to be praying about was a totally different situation with a totally different family member, who was struggling more than I realized.

There’s no question for me that this was God sharing a bit of his infinite wisdom. My strength and faith in Christ increased to a new level on that day. Over years and decades, these collected moments each of us experience- including our doubts- become our faith journey.

Accepting and being comfortable with doubt, and still continuing on the road with Christ anyhow, builds us into the stewards and apostles he commands us to be. This experience gives personal meaning to Jesus’ closing words in today’s Gospel, “Blessed are those who have not yet seen and yet have come to believe.”

Amen.

© 2022 Mr. Tola Marts. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.