Seth Patterson April 26, 2020
Scripture: John 20:24–29
Good morning. It is so very good to be with you all today.
Today was supposed to be Confirmation Sunday. The eleven 8th graders who have been meeting weekly since September were to be acknowledged and celebrated today, and it is a loss for all of us that we cannot experience this sign of renewal. Instead we hope to confirm these excellent young people in October. But for the time being I want to name and thank Alexander, Annika, Ben, Chloe, Lexi, Lydia, Maks, Nathan, Stuart, Theo and Venna for their inquisitiveness, their fortitude, their creativity and their hopefulness. I like you all very much. Also, I have never seen a group of people eat a package of cookies with more speed and zeal than you all! I am proud of you and am looking forward to celebrating with you in-person soon. Until then, I am glad to still see you on Zoom on Wednesdays!
Our reading today comes from the very end of the Book of John, the one generally called the story of Doubting Thomas. It bears noting that this story only appears in John and has no real analog in the synoptic Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke.
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 Jesus.” 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 now 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.” [A more direct translation from the Greek is: “Do not be unbelieving but believing.”] 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.”
This is a wonderful passage to be wrestling with on this sort-of-Confirmation Sunday. Doubt and questions of belief and unbelief run strong in these Confirmation classes. I ask each of the 8th graders to conclude our year together with a short paper entitled, What I Believe Now. This attempt to articulate what it is exactly that you believe right now is extraordinarily difficult. Have you ever tried it? Have you ever tried to condense into a page your core and foundational beliefs? It is not easy, yet it can be life-giving.
Part of our process at Plymouth is that each of our Confirmation students is given a mentor. Eleven adults from their late 20s to early 70s have been joining the 8th graders this year. These mentors were also asked to write their own What I Believe Now statements. I asked them to do this for a few reasons: to give an example to the 8th graders of what this paper might look like, to demonstrate that adults do not all believe the same things and, possibly most importantly, to acknowledge that it should not only be our 8th graders who do this kind of exercise! This kind of wondering and questioning is part of the human experience regardless of age. We are constantly reevaluating what it is that we believe, what matters more to us than anything else. And it seems that this moment in history, this COVID-19 time, asks us to face ourselves in new and intriguing ways. We may be reevaluating our beliefs now more than most times in our lives.
In very early March these mentors each read aloud their What I Believe Now statements. If articulating your beliefs isn’t hard enough, reading them aloud is even riskier, and doing so in front of eleven 8th graders takes real bravery! Doubt and uncertainty, unbelief and belief, questions and answers filled these statements. Here are seven excerpts to share the deeply thoughtful and vulnerable questions, doubts and wonderings that were presented:
- I believe doubt is crucial. Doubt keeps me humble. What troubles me about religion is certainty. I cannot stand it when people are so certain that they know what God wants. So doubt is my default compass. I prefer to be skeptical. This does not mean I do not believe in God. It simply means my doubt allows me to explore my belief with humility.
- As I got older, I held on to that confusion, but, rather than shut it out and placing judgment on it, I embraced it. My faith began to develop through my questions.
- I love the mystery and that I don’t have to have all of the answers!
- Even if the Jesus of the Bible didn’t exist, I think the very idea of Jesus is a good one. In these days when people are homeless, are sick in body or mind, are fleeing violence in their home countries, are suffering the effects of climate change or are the victims of racism, I need to be Jesus-like in standing up for them.
- I don’t know whether Jesus was human, divine or both, and that mystery doesn’t bother me.
- This was the beginning of what has been a lifelong process of actually trying to build my own set of beliefs rather than just adopt the default.
- If you ask me what I believe now, the glib answer would be “As little as possible.”
These intelligent, faithful, wise, thoughtful and generous adults were able to articulate the same kinds of doubts and questions of belief that I also hear in the voices of the 8th graders. It is likely that all of us can resonate with something there.
This same kind of unbelief/belief can be found in the opening of poet Christian Wiman’s wonderful book My Bright Abyss.
My God my bright abyss
into which all my longing will not go
once more I come to the edge of all I know
and believing nothing believe in this:
The poem abruptly stops. Wiman, who is a professor at Yale Divinity, goes on to say, “And there the poem ends. Or fails, rather, for in the several years since I first wrote that stanza I have been trying to feel my way—to will my way—into its ending. . . . As if it weren’t hard enough to articulate one’s belief, I seem to have wanted to distill it into a single stanza. . . . I have wanted some image to open for me, to both solidify my wavering faith and ramify beyond it, to say more than I can say.”
These questions, these wonderings, these doubts, the spaces between belief and unbelief are powerful. They are uniquely human. The only way to form a belief of one’s own is to stand, at least momentarily, in disbelief. If we never question, if we never doubt, if we never wonder, then the beliefs are not ours; they are someone else’s. If someone tells me about Jesus, about the Bible, and says “believe this” and I take it without question, then I am holding someone else’s belief. It is not until I interrogate it and question it and doubt it that I can integrate these things into myself. I must question the thing or idea before I can make meaning out of it.
That is why Jesus doubted as well. We name this story Doubting Thomas, but it can just as easily be called Doubting Jesus. In the same way that Thomas, having missed out on the first experience with the resurrected Jesus, holds unbelief with his belief, Jesus also doubts that the disciples will be able to move forward with his message of God’s love without him having to provide proof. That may be why this story has him show up again to catch this last disciple. Jesus had doubts and questions about the disciples’ ability to go on without these explicit signs.
And just as Thomas demanded some amount of proof for his doubts, it seems so does Jesus. He asks that we continue to follow his teachings without that immediate proof. How do we then prove back to a doubting Jesus that we are following? I wonder if it is with our actions, by the ways that we live: by living our lives following the greatest commandment to love God and to love the other and to love ourselves; by standing up for those who are named as blessed: the poor, the grieving, the marginalized, the peacemakers, the merciful, the compassionate and the justice-seekers. Belief is not perfection or piety, and belief is beyond words—it is what we do and how we interact with the world with love.
So, if we try to show Doubting Jesus that we are following with our lives and actions, then how do we do so with love? By asking questions. By having doubts. By holding our closely held beliefs out in front of us and asking, “Why?” Do we do this thing because it simply serves our wants or because it serves the world that Jesus is asking us to create? Do we act this way out of the commandment to love ourselves or to love the other or to love God, or do we do it because it is comfortable or convenient or habitual? Are our actions an attempt to follow what we understand of God, or are we making a god out of money, power, objects, other people or ourselves? Why do we do what we do? Whom are we following?
These questions are imperative and difficult, but if we never ask them, if we never doubt, then how do we become the people that we are asked to be? If we never interrogate ourselves, then how do we even know what it is we believe?
In this time when many of us are confronted with a new version of our world, when many of us are confronted with ourselves in new ways, what if we ask these questions? What if you wrote your own What I Believe Now statement? Name what you believe right now and why—not what you think you should believe, or what you think someone in a pulpit thinks you should believe. If you would like help or need an example or want to share yours, I would love to be your non-judgmental conversation partner. What would it look like if we followed these 8th graders’ lead and asked ourselves these questions? What benefits could come to this community (and to our many communities) if we had some practice in articulating whatever it is we believe and why? What goodness could come out of a practice of doubt and questions and holding unbelief and belief in tension? May we figure it out together.
Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 3.