St. David’s, Pepperell
Katherine Hancock Ragsdale
You have, no doubt, noticed or learned, by now, that the Church operates on a three-year cycle for our Eucharistic readings. Each year in that three-year cycle we hear a different Gospeler’s version of the Passion on Palm Sunday, and of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. But, oddly enough, each year, on this second Sunday of Easter, we hear the same reading from John; the same account of Thomas’ first encounter with the Risen Lord.
That, all by itself, should be enough to catch our attention; to signal to us that there’s something going on here that the Church considers very important. And if that doesn’t suffice to make us take notice there’s the fact that a figure of speech has developed from this story. It is this story that gives us the phrase “doubting Thomas.” Thomas said, in effect, “I don’t believe he can have, or has, risen from the dead and I won’t believe it unless and until I see it for myself.” And for that he has picked up the epithet of “doubting” and a reputation for a lack of faith.
I think Thomas got a bum rap. Let’s think about what else we know about this guy. This is the same guy, who spoke up in the Gospel reading from the week before Palm Sunday. Jesus has received word of the death of Lazarus and he makes plans to return to Jerusalem to deal with that. The disciples ask him if he’s lost his mind. “Rabbi,” they say, “we were just there and they were threatening to stone you. Why would you go back there?” But Jesus is adamant; he’s going back. Thomas says, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.” Not, “Hey, he’s Jesus, he knows what he’s doing. It’ll be fine.” No Pollyanna confidence, just a deep commitment to the rabbi he followed. “If he is set on doing this thing that will surely get him killed then let us not abandon him. Let us go and die at his side.”
And why didn’t Thomas see get the opportunity to see for himself at the same time as the other disciples? And let’s be fair and remember that the thing Thomas asked for, a chance to see for himself, was exactly what the other disciples had already had. Jesus came to them while they were hiding in fear behind locked doors. Thomas, like the women but alone among the men, had, apparently, found the courage to leave the hiding place. He was out when Jesus first appeared. Upon seeing for himself he immediately proclaimed his belief and his allegiance.
So, this raises the question – what is most indicative of faith, what we say, what we believe even, or what we do? I am reminded of the parable Jesus told of the father with two sons who said to them one morning – over a hearty breakfast, I’m sure. I’m having visions of Ben Cartright and the boys. “Sons,” he said, “there’s a lot of work to be done today. I have a field that needs tending.” And, says Jesus, one of the sons said, “Certainly, Father. Whatever you say.” But he never showed up at the field. The other son said, “Sorry, Father, but I have other plans and no interest in the field, anyway.” Yet this son did go to the field and worked hard there all day. Which son, Jesus asked his disciples, did the will of his father? Which son was faithful?
You see, faithfulness is not about having no questions. It’s not about having no doubts. It’s not even about always being willing to do what we’re called to do. Faithfulness is about doing it in spite of our questions, our doubts, and our unwillingness.
And this is a good thing. For doubts are ubiquitous and it would be a pity if having them made us faithless. There are, I suppose, some people whose faith is so strong and pure and deep that they never question, never doubt. For the most part people like that scare me – too often their lack of doubts extends to how the rest of us ought to live out our own faith. But there are, perhaps, some who have this deep, unshakable, un-agitatable faith in their own hearts and lives. And more power to them. But most of us, I think, have doubts and questions from time to time. Fortunately, we are in good company and have good role models. Abraham and Moses, the Psalmists, Mary, the Samaritan woman, Peter, Thomas – even Jesus himself who prayed, “Must this happen? Can this cup pass me by?”
Faith is not about having no doubts. Faith is about living out our commitments even in the face of doubt. It’s about fulfilling our Baptismal covenant even when it seems fruitless and unwise. In that covenant we promise to be regular in our attendance at “worship, in the prayers and community and breaking of the bread.” It is not unfaithful to find sometimes that the worship doesn’t speak to us or that we cannot find God here. Faithfulness simply requires that we keep the promise, trusting, even when we can’t feel it or see how it could be true, that the community our presence helps to build is for us, too, and will feed us, too.
We promise, in our Baptismal covenant to “work for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being.” Our faithfulness is found in our commitment to doing that even when the world’s cutthroat version of success seems more attractive. In fact, during those times, most of the time, I hope, when we see clearly that nothing of value can be bought at another’s expense, that mere things will never satisfy us, that only in our connections to one another and to our God can we ever hope to find peace or joy – in the times when we can see that, it takes no great faith to respond accordingly, to follow the laws and directions of God that we can see will lead us to our greatest joy. It’s precisely in those other times, the times when we can’t see it, the time when the world’s temptations are so tantalizing and promise so much, and we can’t see through the deception – it’s in those times that our faithfulness is tested and called forth.
Thomas, I think, is a very model of faithfulness. When he saw nothing but death and disaster before them, he still stood firm in his commitment to his teacher and set forth to die by his side. When, for all he knew, his fears had been fulfilled and all hope lay entombed, he was still out in the streets. Thomas, a man of questions and doubts, was faithful to his commitments, and to his friends to the end.
I want to share with you something written by an old friend and colleague of mine, the now Bishop of Maine, Chilton Knudsen. In a homily at the funeral of a deacon from that diocese, Chilton said:
Janet’s love affair with God was all-consuming, ecstatic, intimate and real.
Like all genuine love affairs, it had stormy moments, feisty pushings and pullings, seasons of disillusionment, and the fullest, most absolute fidelity of which we flawed humans are capable, responding to the total fidelity of God.
Janet taught us that passionate God-lovers are not sweetly pious people driven by the need to keep everyone happy, to compulsively smooth every ruffled feather…God-lovers are not always nice, but they are real.
Faithfulness is about being real – honest about our doubts and tenacious about our commitments. May we have the strength and commitment, the faithfulness, of Thomas.