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.

Thomas, Romero, and the Importance of Doubt

Today’s Gospel tells the story of Thomas Didymus, Thomas the Twin, but we call him by another name…”Doubting Thomas.” Thomas didn’t find belief in the resurrection easy. What does it mean to believe in the resurrection? Belief is the crux of this story. “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe, says Jesus.” And the Gospel writer tells us, “these things are written that you may believe.” What does it mean to believe in the resurrection?

Now, I know this room is true believers. After all, it is the Sunday AFTER Easter. And you’re HERE, at Church…again. We jokingly call this “low Sunday.” The crowds from last week are gone. That’s okay. We’re glad you are here. The Church needs some true believers. But, if you’re not quite a true believer, if someone you love is not quite there, I want to stand with Thomas and say, doubt is also important. Madeleine L’Engle, the Episcopalian and author “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.” You see, I think we all need doubt. Faith without doubt is certainty, and certainty isn’t faith.

I’m not certain about much in our tradition. I have to be honest. I think we are a culture that is used to the scientific method and to hard facts. We like to be certain. We like definite answers. Faith isn’t certainty. Faith is trickier. Faith is less about our heads, and more about our guts. Faith needs doubt, because faith is a balancing act. We walk the tightrope holding a big balancing pole. On one end of the pole is blessed assurance, and on the other is doubt. If we have too much of either, we fall of the rope, but you need some doubt, and some assurance to make the balance of faith work. So, if you have doubts about the resurrection, you’re in good company. I have my doubts too. For me, faith in the resurrection has become less intellectual and more visceral in recent years.

I want to tell you a story resurrection. This story is also a story of pilgrimage. The week before Holy Week 2010 I was in El Salvador. I walked with fellow seminarians and some college students through the hot dusty streets of the Salvadoran capital. We were marching to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Romero was chosen as archbishop among El Salvador’s bishops in 1977 at a time of great conflict for the church. Rome thought he was a quiet bookworm who wouldn’t make trouble.

Soon after Romero became archbishop, a close friend was killed. Rutilio Grande was a Jesuit priest who was ministering with poor farmers, campesinos, seeking freedom from poverty. When Grande was killed, Romero was outraged. He began demanding that the military and the government “cease the repression!” Romero preached on the radio, and stood with the poor. He challenged the status quo, especially the violence used to supress free speech. Just three years after being named archbishop, Romero was assassinated.

Romero understood he was risking his life for his beliefs. Because he had faith in Christ’s resurrection, the archbishop believed death wasn’t the end of the story. That didn’t mean he wasn’t scared. The threats had been coming for months. Romero lived on the grounds of a cancer hospital run by a group of nuns. He had turned down the traditional archbishop’s residence and moved into the sacristy behind their chapel. The nuns wanted the bishop to live somewhere a little more fitting, so they built him a little three room house, and asked the cancer patients to bring him to his new home. The sisters knew Romero wouldn’t refuse a gift from the patients.

You can still visit his little house, it is a shrine now to Romero. The house sits under a mango tree at the hospital, and sometimes at night, ripe mangos fall on the roof. When this happened, the nuns often found the archbishop sleeping back in the sacristy, scared that the mangos might bombs thrown onto his roof. Romero was scared. He had doubts. But Romero also had faith. Before he died Romero said famously, “If they kill me, I will resurrect in the Salvadoran people.” He had doubts, but he also had faith.

As the sun set that March 24th, our group processed with a crowd of thousands that made its way through the streets of San Salvador. We were headed to the Cathedral where Romero is buried. As we walked, we passed countless fried chicken places, pizza huts, and relief organization headquarters. El Salvador still struggles with poverty, and an imbalance of wealth. Groups of activists for the poor joined with the religious pilgrims, seminarians, monks and nuns, all walking together. On signs carried by the marchers, and on their t-shirts, one slogan stood out more than the others: Romero Vive! Romero lives.

Later that week, still in El Salvador, I heard a story from a Jesuit theologian about the Easter after Romero died. The scholar priest told of preaching in a congregation that Easter Sunday in 1980. He asked his congregation same question I began with this morning, “What does it mean to believe in the resurrection?” A tiny Salvadoran woman stood up. She said that she had always believed in the resurrection, because she was a Christian. People told her she HAD to believe in the resurrection, so she said, “okay.” Lately though, she said she felt she began to know what resurrection means.

She went on: when Archbishop Romero died, she felt very sad. He had been her voice, her hope, she said. She felt that she had an advocate in Romero. So she was devastated. But in the few weeks since his death, she felt something new. She felt that Romero was alive again, that he was giving her power. She felt that she could stand up for herself. She could claim her own voice, instead of relying on him to speak for her. The woman said that she knew what the apostles must have felt like, as they came to believe in the resurrection. They took up the work of Jesus, and he was with them to give them power.

I began this sermon with a question, and my writing teachers said you should never ask a question without providing an answer. What does faith in the resurrection mean? I’m not sure I have a complete answer. When I’m asked about faith, I often return to that story about Madeleine L’engle, who said, “I believe with lots of doubts.” Madeleine “I believe with lots of doubts, and I base my life on that belief.” I’m not sure any of us will ever know the full answer, but, like Thomas, I can tell you what I have seen.

With Thomas, we can point to what we see. I see faith in the resurrection when an old Salvadoran woman raises her hand during a sermon. I see faith in the resurrection looks when public servants head to work each day to educate our kids and keep our streets safe. I see faith in the resurrecion when I walk with young people protesting in the streets, claiming their voices. I see faith in the resurrection looks when I join a bunch of true believers who show up for church on the Sunday AFTER Easter. Embrace the doubts. Keep the faith. Keep looking for the signs of resurrection. Just like Thomas, you’ll see them. Amen.

To Believe or not to Believe?

A buddy of mine at seminary and I have been having semi regular bouts of walking and theologizing.  We’ve been discussing belief a lot around here.  Often this takes a very negative, if comical form.  Someone calls someone else a “heretic” because they express doubt about the perpetual virginity of Mary, say, or wonder about the physical resurrection.  Theological debate then begins around what constitutes true Christian faith.  Do you have to believe in the virgin birth, or the physical resurrection?  Is faith the denial of science for the sake of the miraculous?  Does that take us all the way to denying evolution?

In the midst of all of this I keep returning to questions of epistemology, the study of knowledge.  Where does knowledge come from?  What is true?  What is belief?

I think we’ve come to associate belief and truth with a scientific process of proving hypothesis in this period of human history.  We tend to think that knowledge comes from gathering observable data and testing patterns in that data.  Something is true if we can observe and measure it.  For most of human history this wasn’t the way of thought.  Applying the scientific method to stories in the Bible leads us to wonder if a cold front pushed back the Red Sea or if Lazarus was comatose.  We tend to hypothesize about the miraculous.

I think this involves importing a modern view of scientific truth onto a set of stories that weren’t meant to be tested as “data.”  For earlier people, truth was narrative.  People understood that story, poetic meaning, commitment embodied truth.  We were defined through relationship.  Truth wasn’t found by testing data, but by finding resonance in poetry, art, story.

Understanding this definition of truth is important as we approach Christian belief.  I’m not sure the creeds were set up to say “all the physical evidence to the contrary, I believe…”  Believing in the Incarnation may have less to do with wondering how exactly it was that Mary came to be pregnant, and more to do with understanding that God sees humans as worthwhile enough to share life with.  Whatever is scientifically probable, the deep truth being affirmed is that God loves us enough to dwell among us.  However it is that Jesus is resurrected, the deep truth is that he overcame all barriers, even death, to show his redemptive and liberating love to the world.

God is in very nature improbable.

So what does believing in the resurrection look like?  Is it a thought process denying the truth of science, or does it mean we hope against hope for new birth in the lives of the suffering around us?  What does faith in the incarnation look like?  Does it mean we assert that Mary was forever a virgin in our minds, or does it mean that we stand up to the powers of the world that tell us we are worthless because we trust in the God who chose us as neighbors?

If we hold on to tightly to our beliefs, they become blunt instruments useful for bludgeoning and not much else.  If we are able to hold them gently, we might just be surprised that resurrection, incarnation, and miracles, are not stories of old but living truths available in our world.  Faith becomes playful rather than painful.

What do you believe?  How do you believe?

Playful faith...Seminarians dressed up to watch a VTS soccer game.

Playful faith...Seminarians dressed up to watch a VTS soccer game.