Wednesday, May 4, 2011

O Blessed Doubt of Thomas

The following is yet another lengthy excerpt of an even lengthier sermon - the first I ever wrote, in fact - preached in class at Duke. The sermon was written in response to the suicide of a troubled former student from my campus ministry days; I have included the full text here. May God continue to rest his soul in this season of resurrection.


O Blessed Doubt
John 20:24-29
Duke Divinity School 2007

You know how the story goes. While all the rest of the Apostles are hiding together, Jesus appears to them and breathes into them the Holy Spirit. But Thomas is absent. When they come running in the door to tell him what they have seen, Thomas insists that unless he gets to touch the actual wounds of Jesus, something no one else has yet been allowed to do, he will not believe. A week later, he gathers with the disciples, Jesus appears and tells a disbelieving Thomas to no longer doubt but to believe, reminding us all that “happy are they who have not seen and yet believe.”

I wonder: if Thomas had known how much bad press he would get as “Doubting Thomas,” if he would have just lied and said, “ok, I believe you.” It probably wouldn’t have changed how he felt inside. But it would have saved him a lot of trouble.

But Thomas is authentic in his doubt, and honest about where he is at. And if you think about it, it just doesn’t make sense why Thomas would doubt just for the sake of doubting. This is the same man who, in John 11, insists that the Apostles follow Jesus to mourn Lazarus, though it will mean going to their deaths! This is the same guy who, hungry for the meaning of Jesus’ words, calls him out for being unclear at the Last Supper, yearning for a deeper understanding of his Master’s plans. And while the other Apostles are all together the night they see Jesus, John tells us that they gathered behind locked doors because they were afraid! But the same Thomas who was not afraid to follow Jesus to his death in Jerusalem is not hiding in fear with the others.

Which begs the question: where the heck was Thomas that night?

Rabbi Sager often encourages us to grab the lapels of the Biblical text and shake it until it answers our questions. Why wasn’t Thomas with the others? What was he doing? In Judaism, there is a tradition called Midrash, meaning “interpretation,” which in essence sees the gaping holes in Scriptural narratives as clues for the imagination to follow in order to explore further into a story. In asking tough questions and imaging possible answers, they believed that the struggle would lead them to a deeper intimacy with the God speaking in between the lines of the story. Scripture is full of such holes that God has left in order that we might wrestle with him, and involve ourselves in His story.

There are, of course, many different ways to do midrash on any given story. Here’s my particular take.

I wonder if there is something that the Jews reading this particular story would have noticed that I do not notice. Something we can’t know because unlike John and Peter and Thomas and Jesus, we are not Jews.

Perhaps you have heard of the Jewish practice of sitting shiva as part of the mourning process? On the day after the deceased is buried, the immediate family (ie. his parents, spouse, siblings and children) take on the status of “avelim,” mourners, and gather together at their house. There they sit as low to the ground as they can, sometimes on stools, but very often, on the ground itself, in order to represent how low they have been brought down by the disorientation and the shock of their loss. While they are sitting shiva, the family members abstain from bathing and eating, unless food is brought to them, and also from social gatherings. The word “shiva” means “seven” in Hebrew, and they family will sit for seven days before moving on to the next stage of grief. We see evidence of such a practice in the story of Job, in which he sits on his dung heap and is visited by his friends.

Our story tells us that Thomas did not gather with the other disciples until eight days had passed. This includes the remainder of that same day that he expressed his doubt, and so would have been exactly one week later, on the following Sunday. I do not think that Thomas was just sitting around for a week doubting his Jewish head off. No, I think it is very likely that one possible reason for Thomas’ absence was that he was sitting shiva.

Jesus was buried on a Friday because, as you will recall, the feast of Passover was just beginning. According to Jewish custom, one cannot start sitting shiva until the end of a great festival. That means Thomas would have just been starting his shiva period that very first Easter Sunday!

As I mentioned before, it was usually only customary for the immediate relatives of the deceased to sit shiva. For (if?)Thomas to have undertaken to sit shiva in honor of Jesus shows not only the intense pain and grief he must have been feeling over the loss, but also demonstrates the intimacy he felt with Jesus, a love so strong that he is undertaking a practice only done by a brother, a son, or a father.

Imagine what must have been going through Thomas’ head as he sat there while the other apostles gathered. The dust from the ground rises gently in the twilight, irritating his already teary eyes. Reviewing in his head over and over again: what could I have done to save Him? Could I have done anything? Did I follow Him rightly? I put all my faith in Him, and now He is dead. How will I ever believe in anything again? How CAN I ever believe in anything again? It’s over. It’s done. He said He was the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Now I cannot care about any of these things. And where are the others? Why are they not grieving? Why are they all gathered together when Shiva forbids it? Don’t they care about Jesus at all?

What kinds of things do you think when you are regretting, longing, mourning? What “should haves, if onlys, what ifs, and could haves” run rampant through your brain? What does silence feel like to you? Like a mystery? Like pain? Like nothingness.

And in the midst of this intense pain, tearing through these heavy thoughts, ripping apart the curtain of grief, come the Apostles. One final aspect of Shiva that I have not yet shared is that while it is considered a great kindness to visit a mourner, you are not permitted to speak to him until he speaks to you first. Yet here they come, with no regard for his expression of loss or the mystery of his grief. Here they come to tell him something incredibly absurd.

If someone came to me right now and told me that A-- was alive, if someone came to you after your father’s funeral and told you they had just seen your dad walking around, would you believe them? I would be mad as hell. I would not have been as civil as Thomas was to them.

Those Disciples had good news to share. Very good news! Probably the best news anyone had ever heard. But as enthusiastic as they were, as filled with the Spirit and as well-intentioned as they were, I wonder: how could they have expected Thomas to hear it in the state he was in? They were not speaking to him where he was at. How could anybody be expected to believe if they were in Thomas’ place?

Nobody doubts in a vacuum. The reason I speculate about shiva at all is to try to understand just a little bit more the context of Thomas’ doubt. In this light, I do not see Thomas as defiant and sly. As someone who has sat shiva for many long sleepless nights, who sat Shiva with A-- in that coffee shop week after week, as someone who has mourned the loss of a picture of God that is full of hope and comfort and with that a sense of security and meaning, I see him as someone who, like A--, like you, and like me, is undergoing intense spiritual and emotional pain. He is mourning, grieving, dying. Perhaps we should not call him Doubting Thomas, but Hurting Thomas. Mourning Thomas.

Grief is an unspeakable mystery. An absence. A disappearance. Soundless. Sucking in all words of light, adding them to the darkness of the shadow.

Facing friends who have not only ignored the sacredness of the death of their master, but have also barged into his space uninvited with their new-fangled born-again charismatic words of certainty (we have seen THE LORD), Thomas feels the final nail driven into his soul. Perhaps that is why he fixates on the wounds of Christ when he says, “unless I can touch the wounds on his hand and place my hand inside his side, I WILL NOT BELIEVE.”

These are perhaps the most profound words of protest against the void I have ever encountered. I hear Thomas proclaiming, “you come to me with words about a ghost, a risen Savior, a God making peace signs and blowing wind on you? I am hurting. I doubt your conception of God. I need a God who hurts. Who bleeds. Who is real. Who is human. Show me the God who on the cross proclaimed that he had been forsaken by His Father. Show me the God who was wounded. I need that God. Without Him, there is nothing worth believing.”

Show me the holes. Thomas, too, seeks a midrash, seeks the holes in the story. He wants to wrestle, wants to touch God, demands a blessing of Him; He wants intimacy, and not something fake.

This is not an “unless” with an option attached. This is, “unless I pass this next Church History exam, I WILL NOT graduate. Unless something in this marriage changes, its over. Unless people start paying attention in church, I am out of here.” It is an ultimatum, painfully and brutally clear.

When I worked at the St. Francis Center, a day shelter for the homeless in Denver, I saw this prayer lived out time and time again. I saw men who lost a wife, lost a job, lost control, and have been sitting Shiva ever since. Almost all of them struggle with mental illness far worse than anything I have ever known. Most of them spend all day wallowing in their guilt, mourning their losses, hurting, dying. Most of them get several opportunities a year to move into housing, or to get off the streets. Very few will take the chance. Like Thomas, they put all their money on the dice once, and it failed them. Why bother being let down again? But what they are really saying is this: “you are offering me a house? Will you be my community there? Will you be my friend? Will you make sure I am not alone? If not, then I WONT BELIEVE.” Even when they get housing, they remain without a real home. What they want and need is someone who will enter the struggle with them, who has been there before. Thomas wants the same thing here.

There is no response to Thomas recorded in the text. Just an echoing, eight-day silence. No one tries to convince him otherwise. The matter is settled.

What must be going through the disciples’minds? What did they talk about after they leave? “That idiot Thomas, why is he always going the extra mile?” “Thomas, if only he would just accept the truth and believe! It’s so simple! After all, I’ve been born again!” Or, as my newfound Southern friends might say, “that Thomas, BLESS HIS HEART, sure needs a lot of prayer right now.” “He shouldn’t need to have proof! He has OUR TESTIMONY. He should be able to believe.”

But perhaps there were one or two apostles who remained with Thomas, who sat there with him, in the silence. On the dirty ground with him, risking discovery by the powers that be, chancing derision from the others, for the sake of accompanying Thomas on his journey of grief. Risking the pain they might themselves feel, the tears they might themselves cry, the doubts and questions they might have to ask themselves. Who did not say, “he SHOULD be better,” but said, “this is where he IS, let’s meet him there.” Who simply sat, and waited, and hurt, and prayed, and listened.

Perhaps it was simply their presence, their support, their “being with,” that gave Thomas the hope to come to dinner the next Sunday night, even in spite of his rage. Perhaps we are simply called, as disciples, to “be with,” and not just “preach to.”

How would you get Thomas back to that room again?

There he sits next Sunday, back with the apostles. They are singing and praying and laughing and rejoicing. He is moping, tired, weak, hungry. He hears their words and to him they are empty. He wants to be happy and to sing with them; he wants to be rejoined to his community, to have things be the old way. But he sits still, while life happens all around him.

And then, beyond belief, beyond doubt, beyond hope. Thomas cannot believe it. Jesus appears. He walks right through the locked door and the solid walls and all of the questions and the tears and the pain and the rest of it and stands before them, and looking Thomas right in the eye, he offers the most beautiful of all words, “peace be with you.”

Thomas’ heart stops. Peace. Could there really be peace after all this? Is it real? Is it really you my love? Dare I believe?

But before he can start to sink down into the depths again, Jesus walks towards him. Thomas can hear the sound his feet make on the floor, the way the boards creek under his weight. He can see the softness in the smile and the faint outlines left by the thorns that once pierced his forehead.

And then, without ever having said a word, Jesus reads his heart, and speaks to it. He says the words we all know, but Thomas hears in them, “My beloved child, put your finger here. Reach out your hand. Touch me. Be inside me. Know me. I am really here. I really suffered for you. I really understand. I doubted too. I hurt too. I died too.” Thomas reaches out, and places his hand inside of Jesus. He feels a lover’s love, a burning desire, an intense shame...why had I not believed all along…how could I have…is it really Him…I am inside of Him…

And just as Jesus told the blind man to “be opened,” so to Thomas he says, “be not faithless, but believe.” Some have seen it as a rebuke. But I am sure no one needed to rebuke Thomas. Combined with that lover’s ecstasy was an intense shame. Thomas knows he has been human, all too human. But Jesus’ words “believe” are words not of rebuke alone, but of healing, words that restore wholeness, that say, “be free of the emptiness and the doubt and the abyss. Be free of grief. Be full of grace and faith. Remember by words, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.””

Jesus Christ does not first criticize or lecture Thomas. He reaches out to him, meets him where he is at. To the wounded, he appears wounded. To the broken, he appears broken. He reaches out to Thomas not because of what he has done, not to prove Thomas wrong, but in spite of his inability to believe in Jesus, Jesus believes in Thomas so much that he accommodates himself to him. Not because Thomas is deserving. But because Thomas is mourning, and those who mourn are blessed.

And then Thomas speaks words never spoken before by any man in the history of humankind. He recognizes before him His Wounded King. He realizes that Jesus reigns in Heaven as well as on earth, and that He is more than just a man. He sees something he can believe in, because it is something that has believed in him, that has loved him first, that has gone through what he has gone through; he sees a Lord who reigns over the universe, who sits at the right hand of the Father not in perfect majesty, but as a lamb who was slain. He sees that God has holes in his hands; that God hurts too.

And so he proclaims, “My Lord and my God.”

“Oh blessed doubt of Thomas,” proclaimed St. Gregory of Nyssa, “for by his doubt we have gained more for our faith than the faith of all the other apostles combined.”

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