Doubting Thomas: Is Christianity a system of belief or a way of life?

The Gospel today features a familiar character, Thomas the twin. He’s better known by another name: Doubting Thomas. Before we delve too deeply into Thomas’ story, a word about doubt.

Now, I know this room is full of true believers. After all, it is the Sunday AFTER Easter. And you’re HERE, at Church. We jokingly call this “low Sunday” because the numbers tend to be small, or at least the pews can feel spacious. The crowds from last week are gone. This is a Sunday for the true believers. We’re glad you are here. The Church needs some true believers.

But, whether you’re not quite a true believer, or if someone you love is not quite there, I want to stand with Thomas this morning and say, “doubt is also important.” Madeleine L’Engle, the Episcopalian and author, the one who wrote “A Wrinkle in Time,” was once asked by a little girl if she believed in Jesus without any doubts at all. L’Engle replied, “I believe, with LOTS of doubts.”

Without doubt, can you really have faith? When you know something, without a doubt, you have certainty. I’ve come to believe that certainty and faith are different. Faith asks more of us than certainty. Faith asks us to take the leap. Take the plunge. Faith takes guts. Certainty doesn’t require much. You’re just certain. But I wonder, for faith to be faith, don’t we need some room for doubt, some risk? Like Mary Magdalene last week walking out in the dark, headed to see that empty tomb. Don’t you need to have a little, or a lot, on the line, before you’re exercising faith?

I had the privilege to work a little with an Evangelical pastor named Brian McLaren. Brian has been a big name in the Christian conference circuit in recent years. He’s written some books. He’s hosted several conferences for pastors. At one of these conferences, he had the task of interviewing Peter Senge (Sen-Gee), the MIT professor who is a big leader in “systems theory.” It turns out that sometimes pastors want to learn from business leaders.

Brian laughs when he tells the story of the interview because it was an early video conference, and there was a technical glitch, so he had to just sort of fill time. As he was doing so, he asked Senge what he wanted to say to a room full of pastors. He was just filling time. The great systems thinker reported that he’d recently been in a chain bookstore for a book signing, and he learned that after business and how-to books, the number two best selling section for the store surprised him. Do you have any guess what it was? Senge said that the second highest selling section for the bookstore chain, across America, was books on Buddhism.

So Senge asked Brian and the pastors: “why do you think that is?” Brian said he looked a little dumbfounded. This is all of Christianity’s big issues on display, right? The church is shrinking. People are more interested in Eastern religions than Christianity. Brian didn’t have an answer. So in a stroke of brilliance, like a good teacher, he turned the question around. He said, “Peter, what do you think?”

The academic paused for a moment. Then he said, “I wonder if Buddhism is so attractive because, at least here in the West, Buddhism presents itself as a way of life, while Christianity portrays itself as a system of belief.”

So, is he right? I won’t ask how many of you have books about Buddhism on your shelf. (I have several). I wonder if part of the task for Christianity today, part of our struggle as a denomination, part of our question about the relevance of the faith for today is about exactly what Senge is getting at. Have we turned Christianity into an intellectual set of propositions, a set of boxes we need to check?

There’s a moment in today’s Gospel, just a moment, that gives me hope. This passage comes toward the end of the Gospel, and, as a note to the reader, the Gospeler, who we call John, says this: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” What strikes me about that is not that the signs are given as proof. If anything, I just get frustrated wanting to know “What else was there?” I mean, come on, I’m a completionist. I want to know it all. What else did Jesus do? Were there rabbits in hats?

No, it’s not the signs in that line, but the last bit “through believing you might have life in his name.” For the Gospeler, belief is not an end unto itself. Belief is a not an end, but a means to an end. That end is life. How are we to live this life? More than anything else in the Gospels, I think Jesus is concerned about how the disciples, how his followers, how you and I live out this message.

What if we treated Christianity as a way of life?

Thomas did. Thomas bet on Jesus. He gave up his life and his livelihood. We don’t hear the story of Thomas’ call in the Gospels, but whether he was a fisherman like Peter, James and John, or a tax collector like Matthew, we can presume Thomas gave up his way of living to follow Jesus.

Late in the Gospel, Thomas, sensing the danger ahead as they approach Jerusalem, says to his fellow disciples. “Let us go, that we might die with him.” Thomas has a sense of what is to come. A few chapters later, Jesus has said told them Thomas is right, he will die, and he’ll go to his Father and prepare a place for them. Thomas says in response, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus says to Thomas that famous line, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

Notice what Jesus said first. “I am the way.” Thomas was concerned about this way. Jesus didn’t give him a formula. He didn’t tell him to memorize the Nicene Creed. He didn’t say, “pray this prayer so you can get to heaven.” Jesus says, you know me. Follow me. Follow my way.

If we conceive of Christianity as a way of life, it’s not exactly an easy way. This summer I’ve been asked to serve as one of the spiritual directors for our youth summer camp in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. I’m hoping that a good number of our own kids come along again this year as campers and counselors. Sign up is open! We just picked the theme. The other spiritual director and I decided to talk about Jesus’ sermon on the mount, the famous “Beatitudes.” The theme this summer is: “The Beatitudes: The World Turned Upside Down.” (There’s a reference to the Musical Hamilton in there, the youth and I have a shared obsession right now).

“The World Turned Upside Down.” I think that captures this idea of Christianity. Jesus came to turn the world upside down. “Blessed are the meek.” “Really Jesus?” His contemporaries might have said, “Have you seen the meek, they don’t look so blessed.” “Blessed are the poor.” Jesus way of looking at the world turns the world’s expectations upside down. With the kids this summer, we’re going to be talking a lot about how this way of Jesus makes us a little weird in this world, makes us seem a little different. Because followers of Jesus are practicing a way of life that can change the world.

They often joke that The Episcopal Church is small because we don’t offer a lot of certainty. Most Episcopal preachers don’t tell you who certainly is not going to heaven. We don’t say that God certainly created the world in six days. In this church, we can’t certainly count the days until the second coming. There’s a lot of grey area in The Episcopal Church. They joke that we’d be bigger if we could nail down some of these answers.

That joke probably has a hint of truth to it. On a basic level, it’s nice to have really firm convictions. But I wonder if firm convictions challenge us in ways that help to grow.

What if the church wasn’t a place where you went for loud answers, but where you went to learn to be quiet and meditate in God’s presence? What if the Church wasn’t the place that sent you out to tell all of the heathens in the world the truth about God? What if instead the Church was a community that taught patience, and how to listen to those the world has tried to silence, the way Jesus did?

What if the Church was a place where you could gather to learn to grow vegetables for your hungry neighbors? What if the church was a place where you could hold your deep questions with others who are also struggling with big quandaries? What if the church was a place where we could learn to sing and play music together, and make a joyful noise as we praised God? What if the church made room for those who were struggling to live with addiction? What if we gave up on having the right answers, and instead focused on supporting one another as step by step we learned to live a little more like Jesus?

What would it mean to have the kind of faith that asks you to take risks? Can we, like Thomas, make a bet on Jesus’ way? Can we begin to see Christianity as a way of life, a way that we have to practice, and that we’ll probably never make perfect? Do we have the guts for that kind of faith?

I’ve got to tell you, as nice as it would be to have a church that was full to the brim with people, I’m more interested in learning to walk together this way of Jesus. So come all you doubters. Come all you true believers. Come. Like Thomas, let’s learn to practice this way of Jesus that leads to life.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

2 thoughts on “Doubting Thomas: Is Christianity a system of belief or a way of life?

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