Thursday, May 26, 2011

Fingers of Faith

John 20:24-29
by Daniel Harrell

In Lewis Carroll’s children’s classic, Through the Looking Glass, the White Queen advises Alice in Wonderland to practice believing six impossible things before breakfast each morning to assist with her disbelief. Every Sunday, Christians would do well to heed her advice. It’s why we sometimes say the Apostle’s Creed. In addition to Jesus rising again from the dead, you also have his being born of the virgin Mary, ascending into heaven, coming again to judge the quick and the dead, the holy spirit, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. That’s eight impossible things right there.

Granted, we might have eliminated Jesus’ coming to judge the quick and the dead as impossible had he returned yesterday like he was supposed to. By now you’ve heard, read or saw posted around the Cities that Jesus was due back on May 21. According to calculations by the folks at, if you take the Bible’s equating of one day to a 1000 years, multiply that by the seven days in Genesis 7 that God gives Noah before sending the flood, extrapolate that God was actually talking about Judgment Day; then subtract 4990 (the year of the Flood BC) from 7000, and then subtract 1 more to account for there being no year zero in the switch from BC to AD, you’re then left with 2011 AD. The math is a little more complicated to get to May 21 at 6PM, but since it didn’t happen, it doesn’t really matter. Though that tornado watch last night was foreboding. (And now that I mention it, I also notice a number of people aren’t here this morning.) I’ll admit to being a little disappointed. Even though I don’t think that the Bible teaches an airborne rapture, that could have been fun. But frankly, I’m more surprised than disappointed. I’m surprised that his latest forecast of the end of the world created the media circus that it did. It’s not that the media believed it would happen. The story was that so many people actually did—this despite Jesus’ insistence that none of us can know the day or hour of his coming.

I wonder what the coverage would have been like had Jesus shown up. In Matthew’s gospel, if you’ll remember back a few Sundays, the risen Jesus appeared to his supposedly faithful disciples only to have some of them doubt it anyway. It was a little embarrassing.
But as I mentioned then, I like that the disciples had their doubts. If the disciples can have post-resurrection doubts with Jesus standing right in front of them, any misgivings I harbor sight unseen are no problem. The truth is that doubt has never been a problem for Jesus. To him, it’s not the amount of faith that matters as much as the direction it’s aimed. If a mustard seed’s worth of faith will move a mountain, then obviously it takes a whole lot less to save your soul. Even weak faith is strong as long as it’s faith in Christ.

Faith and doubt often travel in tandem; though there are exceptions. Among my favorite memories is of a woman named Kelly who proudly declared she could never point to a time in her life when she did not believe in Jesus. She vividly recalled how at age six— already having been a believer for as long as she could remember—she heard the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in her Sunday School class and wondered why that happened. Doing what six-year-olds do when they need to know something, Kelly asked her Momma. She said, “Momma, why did Jesus get baptized?” Her Momma responded that Jesus wanted to show that he was a good Christian. So Kelly said, “Then I want to get baptized too.” So Kelly’s Momma marched her down to see the pastor of their Baptist church and Kelly told her pastor how she wanted to get baptized. Convinced she was ready, the pastor immediately scheduled her for the very next Sunday. They don’t call themselves Baptists for nothing.

Sunday arrived and Kelly proudly waltzed down the aisle to the front of the church. She wore one of those glorious, bleached white baptismal robes and ascended the steps to the mighty water that flowed in the big baptistery that sat at the center of the sanctuary—modeled after the River Jordan itself—with the pastor waiting hip deep. Kelly tiptoed toward the water and down onto the first step. The pastor stretched out his hand. He seemed a long way away to Kelly (it was a big pool and she was only six). The water started to soak into her robe and she thought, “maybe I should try to try to swim for it” (though she could only dog-paddle) By this time the white robe had started to puff up all around her, but then it filled up and turned into a cotton anchor. Kelly slipped and sank like a rock. The pastor quickly yelled out the baptismal words—“Father! Son! Holy Ghost!”—and then snatched her out of the water before she drowned. Kelly came up snorting and sputtering but still believing and still strongly to this day. She told me, “I tried to doubt once. I said to Jesus, ‘Maybe you don’t exist,’ but then I thought, ‘yes you do.’”

That such childlike faith so easily dispels “gloomy clouds of doubt” is a testimony to Jesus’ admonition that we practice faith like children. However we all know that even the brightest sunshine sometimes gives way to ominous weather fronts. There are days when faith moves mountains, yet there are other days when it barely gets you out of bed. Gloomy clouds return. We believe, but we also hesitate and question. We confess, but we also qualify our confessions with provisional asides. We trust, all the while guarding our hearts against disillusionment and unmet expectations. Ours is the plea of that desperate father who needed Jesus to heal his daughter, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” For most of us, faith and doubt travel in tandem.

But not for Thomas. Mislabeled “doubting Thomas,” he is the patron saint of adult-like faith. He demanded evidence. He wanted proof. You’re familiar with the story. Jesus’ frightened and disloyal disciples are huddled in their hideout behind locked doors, John tells us, for fear of the Jews—though I imagine they were a little scared of Jesus too. They’d messed up pretty bad and now Jesus was loose (like he said) and likely ticked off too. Jesus found them despite their locked doors, which only scared them more, only to then predictably pronounce peace rather than dreaded doom upon their disloyalty. What’s weird, however, was that eight days later the disciples were hiding out again. Were they still scared? Or were they just trying to recreate the scene from the previous Sunday night hoping to conjure up another showing for Thomas’ sake? John doesn’t tell us where Thomas was the first time around. But score him points for having the guts to venture outside while the others took cover.

Throughout John’s Gospel, Thomas is never portrayed as the timid sort. Back in chapter 11, Jesus told the Twelve about the death of his friend Lazarus and the pending miracle that awaited them once they traveled to his graveside. The disciples asked, “Are you sure you want to go back there? The last time you went there they tried to stone you!” But Jesus replied, “We’re going so that you might have faith in me.” Recognizing his master’s resolve, Thomas stepped up. He said, “Let’s go too so that we may die with him.” The man was no coward. In chapter 14, Jesus was describing how he had to depart from the earth in order to go and get heaven ready. “You know the way to the place where I am going,” Jesus said. But Thomas answered, “Lord we don’t know where you are going so how can we know the way?” Jesus countered, in what proved a prelude to tonight’s episode, “Thomas, I am the way and the truth and the life.” Thomas wasn’t the only disciple who had no idea what Jesus was talking about; but he was the only one gutsy enough to admit it.

Upon missing Jesus’ resurrection debut, the other disciples were eager to tell Thomas how they had “seen the Lord!” However Thomas was adamant, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” This is how Thomas got his “doubting” reputation. But if the word commonly used for doubt in the New Testament means what it means, namely hesitancy or tentativeness, then Thomas was no doubter. He was an all-or-nothing/no-nonsense kind of guy. He did not hesitate. He was not tentative. He emphatically refused to believe without seeing Jesus for himself.

So Jesus showed up again saying the same things he said when he popped in on Easter (since it obviously needed to be said again if the disciples were ever to get up and get busy being apostles). But then he turned to Thomas and said: “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side.” Jesus serves up Thomas’ own words back at him verbatim. Taking for granted that seeing the risen Jesus for the first time was shocking enough, hearing him repeat your exact words even though he’d been nowhere near when you said them must have done a number on poor Thomas. Maybe this was why there’s no report of him taking Jesus up on his offer to touch. Jesus then said, not “stop doubting,” but literally, “Stop not believing and start believing” as if each required the same amount of effort.

Which they did. For just as emphatically as Thomas had declared his refusal to believe, so now did he emphatically pronounce his faith: “My Lord and my God!” This was no minor leap of faith but an enormous launch from worshiping Jesus as the risen rabbi to venerating him as verily God himself. It’s doubting Thomas who utters the supreme Christological declaration of the entire fourth Gospel. Doubting Thomas makes courageously clear that one may now address Jesus with the same language with which Israel addressed Yahweh.

Unimpressed, it seems, Jesus responded with what reads like a mild rebuke: “You only believe because you have seen.” Yet as up to this point in John’s gospel, what other kind of faith in Jesus had their been? The only one type of true belief that had been possible was a belief in the visible Jesus. It was only after the bodily resurrection and the ascension, where the presence of Jesus becomes one of invisible presence through the Spirit, that a new type of faith emerged. Namely, a faith that believes without seeing. As the author of Hebrews would famously write, “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” “Blessed, Jesus said,” are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

More than wishful thinking, more than hoping for the best; faith is spiritual sight. Its childlike variety is not naïve imagination but confident trust in a trustworthy Savior even though we do not see Him with our eyes. Human experience acknowledges, empirically as well as philosophically, that there is more to reality than what we see. I once spotted a blind woman walking downtown with her guide dog, a Labrador Retriever. Unfortunately, the dog must have been a rookie because it kept aiming the woman into a trash can which was really irritating her. She ordered him to straighten out and I chalked the event up to a quirk in the dog’s training. However a few minutes later as I returned from an errand, I was frantic to see that the guide dog had mistakenly halted the woman in the middle of oncoming traffic. Fortunately the woman—even though she could not see—nevertheless knew the reality. She yanked her dog safely across the street over to the other side.

Faith knows the existence of reality; a truth that resides deep in our souls that often counters everything we would have otherwise have expected. For Jesus to be Lord and God, meant that Christ had staked his claim on the world. But such a claim looked absurd. What sort of Lord would ever die on a cross and then select such a loser-band of misfit nobodies with which to conquer the planet? Yet by faith, Christ’s claim as well as his means of implementing proved completely realistic. The least ended up as the greatest. Within just a couple of generations the Roman Empire itself proved to be no match for the apostolic train. There was more to reality than anybody imagined. And there still is—as long as we’ll have the faith to believe it.

In his most recent book, Why Jesus?, Bishop William Willimon writes, “God’s great rescue operation for a fallen world is Jesus Christ. The great end of that venture is the Kingdom of God, that time and place when God, at last, gets what God wants. Many want a better world, a closer, more heightened sense of God’s nearness and God’s rule, but it is one thing to anticipate such a time and place; it is quite another actually to look at this lowly Jew from Nazareth, the servant, and believe that, in him, the kingdom has come—even now.” “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed;” Jesus cautioned, “do not say ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is already among you.” By which he meant, “I am king—your Lord and your God. With all the impossible things we believe already, it is not so impossible to believe this too.

No comments: