Flannery O’Connor writes, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief’… is the most natural and most human and most agonizing prayer in the gospels, and I think it is the foundation prayer of faith.”
The Feast of St. Thomas transfers to Sunday, July 3rd, and readings transfer accordingly or either we stick with the readings appointed for this Sunday in Ordinary time. At Zion we’re going with the Feast of St. Thomas. And we do so precisely because of the opening quote from Flannery. It’s faithful to take a look at belief and unbelief.
Humanity has great skill in turning religion into the most painstakingly excruciating process of self-absorbed personal micromanagement. Unrealistic standards and denial of doubt is commonplace among what I term religion-done-wrong. We almost act as if doubt is the antithesis of faith. And we create oppressive systems to compel belief, presumably to save some poor soul from hell, but I suspect more honestly to keep us secure from having to actually embrace our own faith struggle.
In point of fact–aren’t our doubts really the seeds of our faith? Aren’t they the fertile soil of imagination, creativity, and synthesis? Isn’t it through our unbelief that faith is born?
Consider Thomas in John 14:1-7:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (NRSV)
Texts such as this have led Thomas to be labeled, most unfairly, “The Doubter.” In this account Jesus seeks to say farewell to his disciples. No one speaks up when faced with remarks such as, “… you know the way to the place where I am going,” no one save for Thomas. He is the one who courageously says to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” He asks the one question that anyone with good sense should ask! He doesn’t seem to care if he comes off lost, clueless, or gets revealed as the one who mentally checked out while Jesus was talking. He’s the one that poses the question which ultimately is the question that often gnaws at us, “How can we know the way?” Isn’t this our question, too, especially when life seems tough and we believe that everything we love or seek to create seems rapidly hell-bound on greased skids?
Time and time again we’ll see Thomas ask our questions. In another scene Thomas will be absent when Jesus physically appears to his disciples after his resurrection. Thomas will be absent from the crowd. So he does not believe the others when they swear that they’ve seen Jesus. But I ask—who in their right mind would believe them? Thomas and the others have seen the 1st century Imperial Roman electric chair alternative, the cross, take the life of Jesus in one graphic, horrid day. Yet the disciples are huddled behind closed doors, all save one—Thomas. Where was he? Is it possible that he was carrying on with the business of the kingdom while the others were huddled in shock? Is it possible that he was still loving others as Jesus had done even though Jesus was dead? Certainly it is. The text doesn’t say so, but it is at least possible. And in any case, when he does return to the others and they swear that Jesus was living and present, it should not shock us that he doesn’t buy it. He needs Jesus to help his unbelief. And he lays out the parameters for what will create belief in him. And Jesus honors that request. Thomas requires a personal encounter with his Lord. And so do I. And so do you. We need to be encountered by his resurrection power.
In the past three weeks we’ve seen a bombing in Turkey, the Brexit, a shooting in Orlando, and the Syrian immigration issue continuing to simmer. Where is the risen Jesus in any of it?
In the numbed eyes of the man who entered my office yesterday shell-shocked from the death of his only child, is the image of the risen Jesus reflected?
When the fourth call of the morning comes from the creditor seeking the money now 90 days past due, where is the risen Jesus?
Accounts and ancient data about Jesus contained in an old book are not enough are they? Secondhand and third-hand stories from others are not enough are they? Don’t we need to be encountered by Jesus in our own life, our own circumstance, within the range of our own level of perception?
Isn’t this what we require to enable us to believe in the risen Jesus?
And here’s where Thomas comes on our scene. Thomas asks our faithfully tough questions.
He speaks his doubts. And what he speaks is prayer. He asks for what he needs to experience to believe in the resurrected Jesus. He prays his needs. Do you? Do you actually ask God to provide what you need in order to be encountered by your risen Lord?
Further, do you consider that you’ve already died and that the Lord already has created resurrection in you? What experience has killed you? Maybe not ceased your breathing, stopped your heart, or ended your brain function, but in all other respects killed you. What were those experiences?
Didn’t these land you low in the grave so to speak? Didn’t these leave you wondering if you could or would ever rise from so low a place?
When I look over my 46 year-long life some of my dying places are these:
1974 we moved from my hometown and from my great grandparents and grandparents.
1974 my great grandpa died.
1976 our house burned down.
1977 an extramarital affair ended my parents marriage.
1978 the marriage collapsed and we lost our home to foreclosure.
That is a lot of death in a very small space. I was eight years old in 1978. How did I make it?
I made it because resurrection was taking place in me. Steps forward happened because the resurrected Jesus was working life back into me.
Haven’t you wounds, too? Like Jesus haven’t you scars? And aren’t you alive right now—that’s the resurrected Jesus at work in you. Let’s call it what it is–a miracle!
Somewhere over the years I encountered a phrase that I’ve found to be relatively true, “faith is a series of doubts vanquished by love.” Isn’t it great to have Thomas asking the questions that we ourselves ask? Isn’t it great that his questions take us to the answer? And, even greater still, don’t his questions take us to Jesus? And regardless of our quality of belief, Jesus loves us and that love does vanquish doubt.