“The opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty.” – Paul Tillich
I don’t think there is any other character in the bible that exemplifies our modern 21st century mindset and stance, better than St. Thomas, better known as “Doubting-Thomas.” As much as we may want to deny it or fight it, we all have more than a little of Thomas’ skepticism and demand for proof residing deep within us. It is our heritage. We are a product of our “I don’t believe it until I see it” culture and environment. In short, we are human, and therefore subject to doubt, probably more often than we would care to admit.
In the earliest days of Christianity an “apostle” was first and foremost a person who was an eyewitness of the resurrected Jesus. A few days following the crucifixion candidates were nominated to fill Judas’ absence, and there were two qualifications for the position: 1. that they knew Jesus during his life and were familiar with his mission and 2. that they had seen Jesus after his death and therefore were able to offer firsthand evidence of the Resurrection in their preaching and teaching of the “good news” to others.
As these qualifications suggest, to preach Christianity meant primarily to preach the resurrection. The resurrection is the central theme in every Christian sermon reported in the Acts of the Apostles. It is, in fact, the very essence of the “good news.” Truly the foundation of Christianity lies in a number of people who proclaimed to have seen the risen Christ in the weeks following his death on the cross.
But, come on folks. The resurrection? It’s not an easy thing to believe or understand, especially over two thousand years later with no eyewitnesses still among us. So, where does that leave the doubting Thomas’ of today? How are we to address and combat our wavering belief in this central Christian tenant of our faith?
Well, let consider this. When Jesus was crucified all his disciples were scattered in fear, in fact out of all the followers who accompanied Jesus all thorough out his earthly ministry and sang his praises with raised palms at his entrance into Jerusalem, witnessed the miracles he performed, listened to his powerful teachings – out of all of them only a small handful had the courage to sit at the foot of the cross at Jesus’ time of pain and death (cough…ahem…mostly women I might add).
Our scriptures say that “for fear of the Jews, the disciples bolted themselves into a little upper room” and while they were all holed up, shaking in their shoes, thinking the same fate that Jesus suffered was waiting for them just outside of those locked doors, the risen Christ arrived. But, before Jesus’ visit, we can only imagine the heated discussion that occurred among the apostles that night.
Think of Peter. Here’s a man who had left his job and family to follow this rabbi of ill-repute around for three years and now all the dreams of “the kingdom” – when Jesus would take command and Peter would finally gain the respect of his peers for being among the first to recognize that Jesus was the promised Messiah – all these dreams had been demolished. Jesus had died the disgraceful death of a criminal and Peter was once again a laughing stock – and not only that but his life was in danger! The Jewish authorities believed that Jesus’ followers had stolen his body from the tomb and were intent on finding the culprits so as to squelch any nonsense about Jesus’ rising from the dead. Honestly, what would we do in this situation?
Along with all the other disciples, Peter, was probably contemplating this night the whole miserable scene when he would have to walk back into his village with his tail between his legs, returning to his family and friends with egg on his face only to resume his work as a fisherman, always haunted by his denial of Jesus in his time of need and to be forced to withstand the inevitable jeers that would surely come for years and years about his perceived recklessness in following this crazy preacher – and THIS was the POSITIVE outcome, because in truth it would be amazing if he even escaped alive after all this chaos.
Now, if I were Jesus and were to come and visit this sorry scene I probably would have been a little angry and said something like “Thanks guys…where were you? We shared three years together, breaking bread, sharing stories, becoming friends – you saw the miracles!” I would say incredulously. “But when I’m being sentenced to die you all disappeared and denied that you ever even knew me? Some rock YOU are Peter, more like a great big wimpy sand-pile.”
But instead, in good Jesus style, he does not rebuke them for their betrayal, nor for the fear that scattered them and sent them into their hiding place rather “he came and stood in their midst and said to them ”Peace be with you.” And, with the deepest love sought to reassure them yet again, and said a second time “Peace be with you…MY peace I give to you.”
The situation of the disciples huddled there in the upper room is not so different from our situation today. We haven’t seen Jesus. We have doubts about the resurrection and have been unfaithful to our Christian call numerous times. In many ways we resemble these frightened followers. So, we too need to recognize Jesus in our midst and hear these words. In the face of our doubts and failures, we must receive deep within ourselves the gift that only Jesus can give, HIS peace, which is beyond all human understanding, a free gift to us that Jesus offers us day in and day out. So, the first step is to grab this gift of peace with both hands and claim it as our own.
Jesus’ second gift flows from the first. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” then he breathed on them and said “receive the Holy Spirit.”
And so we are sent by the risen Christ to work in his name. Jesus did not command the whole world to “go to church.” Jesus commanded his church to go to the whole world. He commissions each of us to tend the suffering, be peacemakers, forgive one another endlessly and to work for justice, no matter what our qualifications, gender, ethnicity, or wealth. Our call is to continue his mission of love and compassion until the spirit of Jesus has truly come again in the hearts of all God’s people.
But he doesn’t leave us alone to do this work, but rather he “tools us up” with his Holy Spirit which encourages us to press on, gives us the power to believe in the mystery of God present and active in us even when we are discouraged and afraid. We can not manufacture for ourselves unwavering peace and faith which are necessary to fulfill our calling, we can only give what we have received. And if we haven’t opened ourselves in loving surrender to God and received these gifts of peace and the Spirit then we are surely trying to build a house without a hammer and nails.
The tools of Jesus’ trade are peace and the Holy Spirit and these tools are what transformed the notably cowardice disciples into most courageous and fearless proclaimers of the good news that Jesus was raised from the dead and is still present to us today. Paul Tillich once said “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” All but one of the apostles eagerly left that room and died hideously martyred deaths for what they believed – and frankly, that’s just plain impressive. So, we may not be certain or know exactly what happened behind those locked doors – but we can be sure SOMETHING happened. And this is the mystery of faith – the long continuum of witnesses of which we are a part – our truest heritage – the very heart of our Christian faith that we are commissioned to continue.