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Doubt, A Passionate Exercise

Good morning everybody, once again. If you’re just joining us you can access the bulletin below this video but you’re also welcome to just listen. And once more: I hope everyone is healthy and well. Deacon Susie and I have all of you in our prayers, and please, please reach out to us if you have anyone in your life who is struggling or unwell right now.

Today is the 2nd Sunday of Easter, but it has several other names by which it’s informally known. One comes from the Eastern Church, where today is sometimes called Holy Humor Sunday. That’s based on an old text by one of the early Church Fathers (or theologians) who said that Easter was God’s way of playing a trick on the devil. And so on Holy Humor Sunday the custom is for the priest to tell jokes in place of the sermon.

You’ll be relieved to know I will not be doing that.

Another name by which today is informally known comes from the Roman Catholic tradition: Divine Mercy Sunday. This to me is very strange. But evidently a mystic named St. Faustina had a series of visions in the early 20th century showing her that if people showed up to church the Sunday after Easter they would receive enough mercy (and I’m not making this up) to skip right over limbo and go straight to paradise when they died. Which sounds like a shameless ploy to get people to come to church on this day.

Bringing us to the next name for the second Sunday of Easter: Low Sunday, for the low attendance we typically see today.

And then finally, there’s a name for today that gets used a lot in the Episcopal Church: Doubting Thomas Sunday. Our Gospel reading from John is always the same, every year, and it features Thomas, the disciple who needed to see Jesus for himself in order to believe.

Thomas was a disciple of some renown in the years after the resurrection. Deacon Susie has preached to us in the past about his legendary journey to India, where you can still find today “Thomas Christians” as they’re sometimes called. In our Bible study Wednesday we got to talking about a Gospel attributed to the followers of Thomas. It’s called the Gospel of Thomas. It was found in 1945, in a cave in Egypt where it had been preserved for almost two thousand years. It was translated and published and gave us an incredible amount of insight into early Christianity.

Our four Gospels (Matthew Mark Luke and John) tell stories, parables, teachings, and miracles, and they’re set in Galilee and Judea. The Gospel of Thomas is more like a book of aphorisms, told by Jesus, aphorisms like:

“If you do not come to know yourselves, then you exist in poverty, and you are poverty.”

“Love your brother like your life! Protect him like the apple of your eye!”

“If two make peace with one another in one and the same house, (then) they will say to the mountain: ‘Move away,’ and it will move away.”

And finally one of my favorites, very Zen-like: “Become passers by.”

There is a theory in Christian scholarship that the writer of John’s Gospel was at odds with the writer (or writers) of Thomas’ Gospel. These two had different and competing ideas of who Jesus was, and we know who won: John’s Gospel has been published in every Bible for 1,700 years. Thomas’ Gospel was buried in a cave.

This theory, that the two were in competition with each other, might explain why Thomas doesn’t come off so great in John’s Gospel. He sounds almost like a child in our reading for today: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.“

And then the real dig at Thomas, John’s conclusion to the story: “blessed are those who [unlike Thomas!] have not seen, and yet believe.”

“Yesterday’s heresy is today’s dogma.” I don’t remember who said that, but if Thomas, through much of Christian history, was frowned upon, he is, today, one of the most relatable and even admired of the disciples. Doubt deepens our faith. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to let ourselves call comfortable assumptions into question.  

For many years at my parish upstate, I would give myself a needed break after Easter and read the preface to the play Doubt by John Patrick Shanley. The play is great, but the preface is worth the whole book. It’s been years since I’ve looked back at this, but it still sends chills down my spine, it is so good.

Here’s some of what he wrote:

“Let me ask you. Have you ever held a position in an argument past the point of comfort? Have you ever defended a way of life you were on the verge of exhausting? Have you ever given service to a creed you no longer utterly believed? Have you ever told a girl you loved her and felt the faint nausea of eroding conviction? I have. That’s an interesting moment. For a playwright, it’s the beginning of an idea.[…]

“What is doubt? Each of us is like a planet. There’s a crust, which seems eternal. We are confident about who we are. If you ask, we can readily describe our current state. I know the answers to so many questions, as do you. What was your father like? Do you believe in God? Who’s your best friend? What do you want? Your answers are your current topography, seemingly permanent, but deceptively so. Because under that face of easy response, there is another you. And this wordless being moves just as the instant moves; it presses upward without explanation, fluid and wordless, until the resisting consciousness has no choice but to give way.

It is doubt (so often experienced initially as weakness) that changes things. When a man feels unsteady, when he falters, when hard-won knowledge evaporates before his eyes, he’s on the verge of growth… There is an uneasy time when belief has begun to slip, but hypocrisy has yet to take hold. It is the most dangerous, important, and ongoing experience of life.The beginning of Change is the moment of Doubt. Doubt requires more courage than conviction does… [Doubt] is a passionate exercise.”

All you Thomas Christians out there, and I suspect many of us are, today is your day. If Easter Day seems too full of certainty and conviction, the Second Sunday of Easter reminds us that behind every meaningful thing we believe, lies a welter of confusion and doubt. And that’s as it should be. Doubt is the “passionate exercise” that makes our faith stronger, more solid… more worth the effort.

Happy Doubting Thomas Sunday, and may God’s peace be with you all. Amen.