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Today marks the beginning of Eastertide in the church, though I’m quite sure that many of us have never heard of it. The Christian Church is, of course, not a single piece of fabric, but rather a quilt, and the various parts don’t even agree, much less practice or organize their faith lives the same way. It’s quite possible to grow up as a Christian in one “flavor” of Christianity and have very little in common with the tradition of another Christian. Our attempts to embrace the Church calendar, with all it’s holidays and seasons, is an attempt to connect us to a larger tradition, a longer tradition, to embrace the ways that the church has done things while we work into the ways it needs to change in this new millennium. I happen to think that such work is crucial, for just like in the days after Easter, I believe us to be in another time of renewal and transformation, another reformation, if you will. Some of this transformation happens by our intentional effort, but much of it happens, as it did to the disciples, as we react to the possibilities God places in front of us.
Over the next few weeks of Eastertide, as we visit the stories of the followers of Jesus post-resurrection, I will be preaching on the long road ahead of us as “the Church of Jesus Christ.” It’s a chance to talk about our church, and where we fit in this process – a chance to set forth what we value and why. And it starts here, with a story about a visit from Jesus after a visit from Jesus was…well, let’s say unlikely.
Our journey through Eastertide starts with doubt…and it starts with despair.
Think of the anniversaries we acknowledge in this month alone – both the beginning and the end of the Civil War, the assassination of President Lincoln, the discovery and liberation of the first concentration camp during World War II, the murder of Dr. King, the launch of Apollo 13, the LA riots following the acquittal of four officers in the Rodney King incident, Columbine, the bombing of the Murrah Building, the Good Friday peace accords that finally ended the relentless violence in Northern Ireland. And that’s just a few, all of them wrapped up in the story of life, death and resurrection that we cover in the spring…every spring, for this story never seems anything but poignant. We know the feelings that accompany such events, the feelings of helplessness and despair that can so easily overwhelm us. The feelings that come from the moments that our illusion of control is wrested from us, whether because of tragedy, or mistakes, or the orchestrated ways that we, as human beings, can be so inhuman to one another.
These days we add to that mix a general feeling of anxiety and grief, in the face of a sharp shift in direction from the government, in a period of increased violence and threat of violence, a time in which the doomsday clock, the symbolic clock which represents the likelihood of a human-caused global catastrophe, ticks closer to midnight. More attacks, more crisis, more economic and social turmoil, lots more fear and all of us are able to own up to thinking this is not how it’s supposed to be.
Is it any wonder that we have doubt? These are the times we question lots of our assumptions about things like how democracy works, or if it even does? Or if we really do have any sense of a common good rather than an impending arrival of class warfare and oligarchy? Or if it’s time to do “duck and cover” drills in school again and to sweep the cobwebs from all those old fallout shelters? These are the times when we, like Thomas in this story, doubt, even things we have previously upheld with faithful resolve.
Thomas is responding to a crisis, too. He and his fellow disciples are reeling from a world torn apart, a dream shattered, a reality in front of them that was not supposed to happen. And the arrival of Jesus doesn’t really set things right for everyone. Thomas needs a little more, for his hope is dead, more dead even than the body of his rabbi that he saw taken down from the cross and buried. We too have hope that we can see, and hope that we can’t. And whether it’s a crowd of people marching in the streets about the same things that disturb you or the hope that cooler heads might prevail and reason could…might…may possibly.. still win the day, there is hope seen, and hope unseen.
Often hope comes to us in very small doses. Teachers have to hold onto that one kid that seems to be able to pull herself out of the mire that her classmates seem stuck in…while therapists work with patients they know will never get well, but might get a little better…and politicians – yes even politicians – try that bill one more time even though they know their colleagues don’t understand how much it will help. But more often than not, our hope is theoretical. It is something that seems like it would be a good thing, though kind of a pipe dream. When you are in the middle of a raging river, you don’t need the promise of a raft, you need something you can hang on to, something you can reach out for and use to stay afloat as the water rages around you.
In the thick of their sorrow and despair, Jesus was suddenly hope again for the disciples. He was present, he was with them again in some way that they could not explain. He was real, but not real. He spoke to them, but he also materialized out of nowhere. He was hope incarnate, but not quite incarnate. What did it mean to have him here again? Were things going back to the way they were? Or was this something totally new? And now, would it mean that they could no longer deny him? I mean, was this still just theory or did it mean that there were no more excuses any longer and they’d have to follow him?
Like Thomas, sometimes we need a little more than phantom hope, or the possibility that we’re wrong about what seems so certain. After all, it’s a trust fall were doing – dropping backwards, against the flow of what our culture tells us to do and following Jesus with his “love your neighbor and your enemy”, “turn the other cheek”, “judge not” craziness. Is he really back there to catch us if we drop ourselves into that radicalness?
The 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard said that our fears, our anxieties, and our insecurities lay the groundwork for sin, for our “missing the mark” of wholeness, because it is from these things that we are led to make our values absolute, identifying ourselves as “right” and everyone and everything else as “wrong,” in an attempt to satiate those very same fears, anxieties, and insecurities. It’s no trust fall at all, but a surrender to the very things that keep us from trusting in the first place. And this is, faro too often, what religion sells us – a certainty that really doesn’t resolve our fear, it just masks it, like a painkiller to numb us out.
When Jesus says to his disciples, particularly Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”, he is trying to counter this very same set of fears and anxieties. Now the translation doesn’t help us, because the Greek word pistis is defined as “believe”, but Jesus isn’t asking us to accept things about him, doctrine or dogma that states things about Jesus. No, that word is better translated as “faith” or “trust”, or better yet “faithing” because it is an active verb. Jesus is telling Thomas, and all of us through the words of John, you have certainty, but it is better to have trust. Trust is what makes you truly whole, for you can’t ever be certain about everything. Trust – faithing – is what lets you take the fall backwards into the way that Jesus would have us live, a way that is so counter-intuitive sometimes as to seem foolish, maybe even a little dangerous. He’s not teaching us that there is no fear, but that we can’t let fear stop us from life. We can’t let it stop us from asking why or seeking to know the truth which, as Gloria Steinham once said, “…will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”
For this church, being faithful means asking questions. It means being willing to say, “Why?” It means engaging with the same spirit given us in the Psalms and the book of Job, the letters of Paul and the cry of Jesus from the cross – the constant struggle with and search for God. For, I trust, God is far more than we can imagine, and far beyond our ability to comprehend. Our commitment when we are baptized or when we join a church is not to always believe the same things, but to always look…to search for the good and the beautiful, to seek God and God’s goodness…and God’s peace, which really does pass all our understanding, meaning we don;t get it by understanding.
Like those disciples in that upper room, when hope walks in the room, we have to wonder how it got there, and perhaps even use our hands to touch it’s side and see if it’s real. For we know from experience that we don’t find hope in our anger, nor do we find it in our apathy. We find it by touching the wounds, by asking the hard questions and listening to the often harder answers…all the while seeking the presence of God that is surely there ready to say – peace be with you. This is the belief, the pistis, the faithing, the trust fall that makes hope something tangible. The great irony is that it cannot be found by being certain, it only comes when we have holy doubt…it only comes when we doubt that we can’t move forward, when we doubt that we can’t stop climate change or war or cancer or injustice. We’ll never take the trust fall until we doubt that the way that we’ve always done things is no longer working and we decide to help usher in a new age, to play midwife to a new birth, or, as some might say, a resurrection.
So bring your fears and questions and your doubts. We more than welcome them…we depend on them.