Sermon Archives

Sunday, April 3, 2016
RCL Easter 2 (Year C)
The Reverend Areeta Bridgemohan, Curate
The Ants in the Pants of our Faith

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Today’s Gospel passage moves us from the church’s joyful Easter proclamation back into the confusion, grief and turmoil that the disciples experienced in the weeks following Jesus’ death. His loss shook their beliefs to the core and led them to huddle together in hiding, cowering in fear of persecution.

Slowly, rumours began to circulate within the movement, rumours that some among them had seen Him.

But maybe it was just too much for Thomas. Given the events that had taken place, what came naturally were the grief of losing Jesus and the disappointment and anger that what he had committed himself to turned out to be a failure. It was easier to do that than to entertain the possibility that Jesus had been raised, only to be let down again - if it turned out not to be true. Especially when what he was being asked to believe seemed a little crazy.

Thomas’ unbelief doesn’t seem out of place, given his absence at Jesus’ first appearance.

But what is striking about Thomas is his determination to stick to his own experience and his refusal to listen to his friends. There is a note of defiance in the way that he sets out his conditions to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

Belief is a key concern in the Gospel of John. Indeed, the author shares his mission and vision for this Gospel when he writes: “these [signs] 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.” 

The Gospel of John was written during a troubled time for the Jesus movement. It was undergoing a painful separation from the Jewish community to which its members had belonged. John was trying to inspire followers to persevere in their faith and not give up hope or abandon the movement.

The verb ‘pisteuo’, or believe, is used 98 times in the Gospel of John. John only uses the verb, not the noun form of the word, communicating that faith is an active and dynamic process.[1] John’s audience was beginning to question the value of their faith and he wanted to encourage them to hold fast. And in the face of doubt, faith can take some work.

Frederick Buechner puts it this way: “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”[2]

As people of faith, doubt is an experience that we are familiar with. Doubt is an important companion on our faith journey. In times of persecution, it might gain more prominence, as was the case for John’s readers, threatening the survival of the community. But if we are able to journey with and through doubt, it can be a companion that allows us to deepen our faith and we may be surprised to find ourselves on stronger footing than we were on before.

One of the key social concerns of our time is the spread of violent religious fundamentalism. It has been brought to mind most recently with news of the bombings in Brussels, the decision to extradite Abdeslam from Belgium to France, as well as the ongoing war in Syria.

I recently listened to an episode of the NPR show ‘On Being’ titled ‘The Power of Fundamentalism’. In this episode, they interviewed three individuals who previously identified as fundamentalists. Each of them was from a different religious tradition; one of them Muslim, one of them Christian and one of them Jewish. Each has managed to remain deeply religious while redefining their faith beyond the boundaries of extremism.

Each story was unique, but there were also some common threads. For all three men, fundamentalism provided a strong sense of meaning and value. It gave them a solid foundation, stable ground on which to stand, in a world characterized by change and impermanence.

Dr. Richard Mouw, the Christian interviewee, past president of Fuller Theological Seminary, described the attraction of Christian fundamentalism, particularly for parents.

He stated: “In our so-called postmodern culture there's a lot of confusion about questions of truth and value, morality [and] meaning, but there are a lot of folks who just care about how their kids are going to grow up. As I go out into the more conservative, fundamentalist-type churches, I meet so many parents who have gotten into that just because they wanted someplace they could bring their kids where they would get something about a life that has meaning, that has solid values, that promises good things about the future.”[3] 

However, the interviewees also described the flip side of this stability. The cost of this certainty was the discouragement of doubt, part of which involved shutting out the experience of the other. It meant giving up the ability to go beyond a particular worldview.

The Jewish interviewee, Yossi Klein Halevi, proposed a distinction between victim and survivor that marks the boundary between two different kinds of faith. When asked to explain the difference between the survivor and the victim, he said:

“The survivor understands that this is in its very nature a horrible world, a world of unbearable suffering, a world where the soul really doesn't belong. And what the survivor tries to learn from his or her experience is generosity rather than rage. Fundamentalists crave easy answers. The survivor understands that there are no easy answers in this world, and the more you get closer to how God must see this world, the more you're able to take on paradoxes, contradictions, and that forces you into a mode of constant empathy where you force yourself to constantly look at how the world appears to others.”[4]

In the movement from victim to survivor, Halevi describes a movement towards a different sort of world view, a different orientation of the heart, a different faith. It is a movement from easy answers to acceptance of complexity, paradox and contradiction. It is a spacious faith that turns itself outward in generosity and compassion towards others. It is a faith that brings us closer to how God must see this world.

There was limited space for doubt and for others in the extremist communities described by the interviewees. Doubt can be threatening to a community, to a power structure, to relationships, even to our self-understanding.

Our Gospel passage today shows us how doubt can be embraced in a way that is transformative.

Jesus does not reject or dismiss Thomas for his headstrong unbelief. Instead, he invites Thomas to verify the physical reality of his presence. He invites Thomas to encounter the object of his doubt. We aren’t told whether Thomas actually touches Jesus or not, but what we do hear is Thomas’ exclamation and proclamation: “My Lord and my God!”

Thomas goes from unbelief to making the strongest declaration of Jesus’ identity in the Gospel of John. That movement occurs because Jesus engages Thomas’ doubt and by doing so enables the extraordinary insight that Jesus is not only resurrected but is God.

Thomas’ faith journey involved voicing his doubt. And Jesus works through it, transforming it into a deep and powerful faith.

Doubt is threatening because the outcome of the struggle cannot be controlled. On the one hand it might result in the loss of faith, a community, or a particular notion. On the other hand, it might lead to a deepening of one’s faith and relationship with God.

Despite the risk, we have been created with this wondrous gift to question, to seek, and to doubt. And the thing about God’s love is that it is big enough to hold the risk of the outcome; allowing us to recognize and love God of our own free will. Amen.


[1] http://cicministry.org/scholarly/sch007.htm

[2] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC

[3] http://www.onbeing.org/program/the-power-of-fundamentalism/transcript/69...

[4] http://www.onbeing.org/program/the-power-of-fundamentalism/transcript/69...