When I was twelve years old, I put one foot into the state of Utah and then did the same for Arizona and New Mexico and Colorado. It was on a family vacation trip, and the Four Corners Monument suddenly appeared as we drove through the Navajo Nation. After touching one foot in each state, I stood with both feet in each for about 20 seconds. I have told folk for over forty years that I have been to Utah, though I’ve never really been sure if 20 seconds counts.
Earlier this week, I finally got to see what everyone has been raving about. Leroy and I headed toward Utah on Sunday afternoon and explored Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. We learned about slickrock and we hiked to stone arches and mostly reveled in the beauty of reddish rocks that turn golden at sunset. When I got home, I opened up a book that Sue Hagedorn shared with me the week before in preparation for our Author Sunday. It’s titled “Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert.” The book by Terry Tempest Williams is about the beauty and starkness of the canyons of southern Utah. I was moved by the author’s reflections on life in the red-rock wilderness.
Our Gospel lesson today is pretty familiar to many people. It is the story of a disciple named Thomas who couldn’t bring himself to believe what he was told about Jesus being alive after being dead. Thomas’s words and actions following the resurrection are responsible for the mildly derisive phrase “Doubting Thomas” becoming part of our vocabulary.
I’m not sure where Thomas was on Sunday evening when all of the disciples gathered in a locked room. They came together in fear, seeking safety in numbers in a secure, private home. Maybe Thomas felt safer by himself. Everyone has their own ways of grieving, and maybe he was sitting in the park feeding the pigeons and trying to make sense of everything. No matter the reason, he wasn’t there when the disciples saw Jesus and heard him say “peace be with you.”
It took another full week for circumstances to align so that Thomas could be present with the other disciples when Jesus made a repeat appearance. Jesus spoke the same words of greeting and offered the same gestures that revealed wounds in his hands and side. Thomas’s doubts were instantly replaced with certainty, and Jesus commended him, sort of, for his faith, implying though that it was better to believe without having proof. That statement attributed to Jesus is of course directed to all of us who could never actually touch his hands or side.
Belief and doubt are often portrayed as polar opposites, and much of Christian thought and writing and preaching over the centuries has been aimed at erasing doubt and criticizing those who ask too many questions. Thomas is either a hero for being honest enough to express his doubts, or he is an unfortunate example of those who refuse to have faith without more information.
The words from the Buddha that were read this morning seem pretty relevant. It’s not good enough to unquestioningly accept what others tell you. Personal experience is of significant value when determining what is true. Thomas had heard reports, but he needed to see for himself. The Buddha encouraged followers to make their own discoveries and to identify qualities that will enhance life and therefore be understood as truth for them.
What interested me most this week when reflecting on the gospel text is the little postscript that is tacked on after the story of Thomas. It’s actually a clearly-formed purpose statement for the Gospel of John. It says, “These things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” The story of Thomas, then, isn’t just an inspiring post-resurrection account; it supports a larger purpose. The community that shaped John’s gospel was intent on demonstrating the divine nature of Jesus and creating faith in its readers. The other gospels really aren’t as clear with their purpose. They tell the stories of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection without the explanatory notes that John tends to provide. They highlight the ethical teachings of Jesus and are more prone to focus on his message than his relationship to the divine. That’s an example of how different authors thoughout the library that we call the Bible had different reasons for writing.
In the Utah-extolling book “Red,” Terry Tempest Williams reflects on being asked by a friend why she was compelled to write. She tells about a dream in which she was walking around the streets of Moab, Utah. In the dream, she began to recite her reasons for wrting. She says:
“I write to make peace with the things I cannot control. I write to create red in a world that often appears black and white. I write to discover. I write to uncover. I write to meet my ghosts. I write to begin a dialogue. I write to imagine things differently and in imagining things differently perhaps the world will change. I write against power and for democracy, I write myself out of my nightmares and into my dreams.” She continues on across two pages and then concludes, “I write because it is dangerous, a risk, like love, to form the words, to say the words, to touch the source, to be touched, to reveal how vulnerable we are, how transient we are. I write as though I am whispering in the ear of the one I love.”
“To touch the source” is a risk, just like Thomas touching the hands of his source of truth, Jesus, was a risk.
The author of this particular book is fully committed to the preservation of the desert wilderness that is so filled with beauty. She is passionate about that effort, and her passion comes forth in the form of writing. After worship today we will honor the work of sixteen authors within our congregation. These individuals have written on scientific topics, as well as themes related to spirituality, education, travel, and the depths and varieties of human experience. Some books are written for children, and others are written for adults. All reflect a passion to communicate what the writers have come to believe is important and is worth sharing with others.
I am one who tends to have a lot of sympathy for Thomas the disciple, despite Jesus’ mild rebuke and the general bad rap he’s gotten among Christians. Two very high values for me are honesty and the pursuit of truth. Thomas wasn’t willing to go along with his small crowd just to be accepted by others. He didn’t believe, and he wasn’t afraid to say so. You have to admire that kind of independence and courage. He also appears to really want to find out what is true. A week can be a long time when you are grieving or are living in a dangerous situation. Thomas could have easily disengaged from the other disciples and disappeared. But instead, he remained in relationship with the others despite his doubts and he was in the right place at the right time when Jesus appeared again.
What is it like for you when you find yourself in that space between doubt and belief? Or doubt and downright disbelief? Sometimes people do disengage. In fact, many religious environments more or less demand that people agree wholeheartedly with tenets of belief or else go away. I meet people frequently who once believed in God but found themselves pushed away by other believers when they asked earnest questions. They are now certain that their doubts exclude them from identifying as Christian or from being part of a faith community.
If you define faith as what will get you into a future heaven, then the stakes are pretty high when you start to ask questions that reveal any degree of doubt. Probably the writers of John held that understanding when they clarified the reason for writing: “That you may believe and that by believing you may have life.” It parallels a prior, well-known verse that end with the words “whoever believes will not perish but have everlasting life.” How can we trifle with matters of belief when the consequences are so clear?
I’m grateful for everyone who writes. For the writers of Scripture. For those who create beautiful poetry that lifts my spirit. For those who do important scientific research and release articles. For those who try to explain difficult concepts like death to children in picture books. For theologians like Marcus Borg who open my mind to new ways of understanding the truths contained in the gospels. For writers from other religious traditions who show that God is not only interested in Christians and convince me that this life and any life that follows is our common property.
My own experiences with doubt have brought me to a place of more authentic faith, I think, but have also generated new questions and even new doubts that I will wrestle with. I do so without fear that God will withdraw blessing or punish me for too many questions. It’s true, as Jesus said to Thomas, that our belief is not based entirely on what we can see or touch in a physical sense. And so our faith is always developing and even changing based on our understanding of what we cannot see. May God give us grace to grow in ways that are best for each of us.