Doubt and Trust

Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, April 3, 2016

John 20:19-31

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

The season of Easter promises an explosion of the senses. We progressed through the diminishing light of Lent as our Lenten Tenebrae candles were gradually extinguished Sunday by Sunday, one by one. Our dark purple Lenten banners have now been replaced with beautiful Easter pastels and white cloths. Last Sunday we heard bells ringing, along with a full choir and brass ensemble. The celebration of communion today reminds us to “taste and see that the Lord is good”.[1] Many here had family Easter feasts last week. Our senses are satiated.

The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus enlivened the senses. As we will hear next Sunday, the disciples caught a whiff of a delicious breakfast of BBQ’d fish and baked bread that Jesus had prepared for them. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus showed the disciples his pierced hands and side. He then breathed on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” When Thomas later joined them, Jesus invited Thomas to touch his wounds. Seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting—even breathing. The risen Christ employed all of the senses to convince the disciples of his resurrection.

It was more difficult for those who didn’t have a first-hand experience of the risen Christ. The stories of the others didn’t convince Thomas. He may also have been a bit put out if he had been the only disciple courageous enough to leave their hiding place to bring back food—only to find that Jesus had paid a visit during his absence. When Thomas returned, he said that unless he could see and touch the risen Christ, he would not believe. We cannot fault Thomas for doubting. I’m sure I would have doubted as well. So where does that leave us who have only stories of the risen Christ? Stories weren’t enough for Thomas. Are they enough for us? Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”[2]

In John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, Owen tries to reason with his friend, John, that we don’t need the 5 senses to know that God exists. Owen refers to a statue of Mary Magdalene that fades into the falling light of dusk. When they could no longer see the statue, Owen asked John,

O: You have no doubt she’s there?

J:  Of course I have no doubt!

O: But you can’t see her—you could be wrong.

J: No, I’m not wrong—she’s there, I know she’s there.

O: You absolutely know she’s there—even though you can’t see her?

J: Yes!!

O: Well, now you know how I feel about God. I can’t see him—but I absolutely know he is there.[3]

There is room to wrestle with our faith in the United Church. We can talk about the various kinds of theologies that have been debated across the centuries. Those of us trained in theology, in this congregation alone, have many differences in what we believe. You can only imagine the variation in theological reflections on my sermons that I am emailed from the clergy alone of this congregation! I consider these different perspectives a strong contribution to a diverse body of Christ. What matters is that we take our beliefs seriously, listen and learn from others across the centuries and develop our own faith statements—this is what we do in our Faith Exploration Group. There is no one correct way of believing. At the same time, there are limits to the faith we proclaim as a Christian church. The story of Jesus is central, as is our belief in a higher power, in a being that is greater than us.

This doesn’t mean that there is no room for doubt. We warmly welcome everyone into our community. Doubts and questions about belief may actually be a sign of health because they indicate that we are seriously engaging the topic of belief. Frederick Buechner, a theologian and Presbyterian minister wrote, “If there was no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.”

A commentator on our gospel lesson suggests that Thomas’ doubting of Jesus was not the problem. It was his doubting of his friends and co-disciples that was the real crisis. He did not believe them. What happens when we doubt the experiences of one another, when we question the motives and the commitment of one another in our community, when we suspect an ulterior agenda behind someone’s suggestions? These types of doubts are usually not a sign of health. They can be community-shattering.[4]

To counteract doubts about one another, communities need to build trust. We gain confidence in leaders and committees with the work entrusted to them. When we work with others in this church, in other volunteer organizations, in our work place or in our families, we need to begin from a place of trust. We are called to affirm the goodness not only of the Lord, but also of one another. We are called to discern the difference between healthy doubt and destructive doubt. It’s helpful to keep in mind that people almost always have good intentions; doubting this will lead us astray.

In A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving writes that doubt is the essence of faith, not faith’s opposite.[5] This is healthy doubt that does not undermine trust. We may not be sure of what we believe, but we can be sure of those in whom we trust. Even if I disagree with someone on particular issues, can I still trust that they speak out of good intentions? Are we able to extend this to God, whom we cannot see, or detect with any of our senses? Even if we don’t sense God’s presence, can we still trust in God’s love?

[1]Psalm 34:8.

[2] John 20:29.

[3] John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany (Vintage Canada Edition, 2009; copyright 1989 John Irving): 458.

[4] Nancy Claire Pittman, “John 20:19-31: Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C, Vol. 2. Ed. by David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009): 401.

[5] A Prayer for Owen Meany, p. 114.