Embracing Our Doubt
Sermon preached by Dn. James Wilcox on Palm Sunday, April 23, 2023
Epistle: Acts 12:1-11
Gospel: John 20:19-31
As we arrive at our first Sunday following Pascha, we come to the infamous moment between Thomas the Disciple, and Christ himself, as told to us in today’s Gospel lesson. Last Sunday at Agape Vespers we heard the first portion of the Thomas story, and today’s reading picks up where we left off. Last week we heard Thomas express that: “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in His side, I will not believe.” This verse was read aloud for us again today, after which we are given the conclusion to the story.
Now poor Thomas throughout modern history, because of his skepticism, has been given the unfortunate nickname of “Doubting Thomas,” which sadly has given him a somewhat sullied reputation in our modern time. This is to say his expression of doubt in this moment is what has come to define him, despite his having been a rather faithful disciple.
Our former priest in New York City, Father Jim Kordaris once used an illustration of former NFL defensive end Jim Marshall, to highlight the plight of Thomas’ situation. Playing for the Minnesota Vikings one day in late October of ’64, Jim Marshall picked up a fumbled ball from the opposing team, the 49ers, and quickly made a dash for the end zone. After sprinting across the goal line, Marshall abruptly realized he hadn’t scored a touchdown for the Vikings, but had rather, crossed his into the other team’s end zone, and awarded them two unintended points. This blunder earned him the nickname “Wrong-Way Marshall,” and it would be this single play he was remembered for many years afterward despite having a rather decorated career in the NFL.
Of course, we Bostonians aren’t unfamiliar with this type of thing. Poor Bill Buckner was also known for one single blunder in the 1986 World Series despite having an otherwise successful MLB career! This on-field mistake didn’t so much earn him a nickname in this case, but he did get called many other names I can’t repeat here, in addition to a variety of death threats and other forms of violence. (and all over of a stupid game!). Both Jim Marshall and Bill Buckner, in these examples, help to illumine the old adage: "People will always remember the bad things you did and always forget the good that you've done." Thomas the Disciple is no different in this instance. If we look back through his discipleship journey starting in John 11, we see Thomas express his desire to go with Jesus to the region of Bethany where it just so happened that many of the religious leaders were waiting there to stone Him. Here Thomas exclaims to the other disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Thomas may not have known who Jesus truly was at that point, but he was ready to follow Him to the end. Furthermore, our Orthodox tradition teaches that following Christ’s ascension, Thomas went on to found churches in Palestine, Mesopotamia, and Ethiopia. And many of the Christian communities in India today actually trace their entire lineage back to Thomas. But because he expressed the need for a little more evidence in this one instance we heard about in today’s reading, this particular episode has become the one moment for which he’s most often remembered.
Personally speaking, I don’t think we can really fault Thomas for asking for a little proof to what might otherwise be a pretty outlandish claim. And in earnest, I think any of us might have expressed the same measure of skepticism in this moment, and in fact, a few of the disciples actually did. If we recall in Luke 24, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and a few other women rush from the empty tomb to tell the disciples about Christ’s resurrection from the dead. And Luke tells us that “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” (Luke 24:10-11 (NRSV))
Peter, thereafter, rushes off to the tomb to verify the resurrection for himself. A few verses later we find two other disciples are actually walking side-by-side with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and they don’t even recognize Him. They speak with Him all along thinking He is someone else entirely, while still believing Jesus to be dead.
But I would like to offer that asking for proof in situations like these isn’t so much an expression of faithlessness, or doubt, but simply a way to confirm the veracity of a given supposition. In the internet age, we don’t have to very look far to see how prevalent outlandish and false claims can be. Perhaps more startling is how quickly genuine falsehoods can spread. Social media has no shortage of quick fix weight-loss solutions, youth serums, pseudoscientific remedies for flu and cold, evidence that aliens built the pyramids, and definitive proof that the earth is actually flat. And, of course, none of these claims are made by people who are actual scientists in the field, so… a healthy dose of skepticism in the moments like these aren’t all that out of line.
But when it comes to matters of faith, the Orthodox Church — and Christianity in general — aren’t immune to unsubstantiated claims. Because these claims are made in the name of God we tend to let them go unquestioned. We’re afraid to show a little healthy skepticism because we feel we’d be questioning God, or perhaps doubting a miracle, and we fear being on the wrong side of that for what it might reveal to us about our own faith. During the lockdown I heard many unsubstantiated claims about the coronavirus and what it can, or cannot do, to any of the faithful seeking to gather together for divine services. “If you’re in a church,” one online personality said, “you can’t get sick.” Another YouTube commenter insisted that “The Eucharist was his vaccine.” At the very least, we should always remember that the image of the church given to us by our tradition is as a hospital for the spiritually ill, not the physically afflicted. And the Eucharist, furthermore is our spiritual medicine. And while miracles can, and do happen, what we receive from the chalice is not a magic potion promising physical immortality.
It’s good for us to remember that a healthy expression of skepticism does not make you a faithless individual who doubts the work of God. It means you are using the brain God gave you, to not only understand God more faithfully, but to know better what God is not! God is not a being who demands we reject accepted science in exchange for fundamentalist conjectures. Science, by contrast, can actually show us more about the ordered details of the cosmos than any one religious text can supply us today. Likewise, the writings of the Holy Fathers and Mothers of our Church can reveal to us how to plumb the depths of the human heart, and in a far deeper manner than any one cardiologist could have ever dreamed. Remember, we don’t need to be afraid of things that are true. Things that are true simply ARE. And whatever IS true therefore cannot be found to be heretical.
But I’d like to share different example about how we should be directing our energies in a world filled with outlandish claims, and as a way of sorting out supernatural phenomena from genuine miracles. A dear friend of mine who was once a monk relayed a story from inside his former monastery. Apparently a group of them became a bit obsessed with the idea of levitation during prayer. One of them claimed to have seen a fellow monk floating in his cell. This soon became an obsession among the other novices and caused a bit of a commotion to the daily order of things. Wisely, the Abbot soon stepped in and said, “Brothers! Listen up! I’m the one who hears all of your confessions here. No one in this monastery is levitating. Go back to your chores.” Focus a little less on the claims of others, and focus a little more on yourself and your own salvation! I think this was the right message.
This is when someone like the Apostle Thomas can serve as a wonderful example for us. When someone comes to preach a message, make a claim, or tell a godly tale in the name of Christ, we should — like Thomas — always demand to see the marks of Christ on that person who claims to be speaking in God’s name, before we give ear to what it is they are preaching. To do so is to carry with you a good and healthy measure of skepticism. And of those preachers claiming to be from God we can, and should always ask, how does this person treat other human beings? Is he talking down to, or belittling others? Does this person bear the mark of one touched by resurrection? Or is he simply asking for money? Are they preaching a message out of fear? And are they trying to rile up your passions, because of their own fear of other people?
When Thomas said I will not believe until see the mark of the nails, and until place my hand in his side, he was simply doing what was properly Orthodox in the purest sense… he wanted to ensure that it was truly the risen Christ before him, and not some impostor claiming to be so. Only then would he bow down in worship. Remember that not too long before His passion Christ issued a warning to his disciples saying: “Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ!’ and they will lead many astray . . . if anyone says to you, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘There he is!’—do not believe it.” Perhaps this was on Thomas’ mind when he first heard rumors of the resurrection. His asking to see proof is a way of ensuring that Christ HAS truly risen. And notice what happens when Thomas finally comes face-to-face with Him. He does not ask to see the print of the nails, as he said. But Jesus acquiesces, nevertheless, and says “Thomas, put your finger here.” But what does Thomas do instead? He simply bows, and says, “My Lord and My God!” The truly risen Christ stood before him, and no further proof was needed. So where does that leave us, today? Blessed are we who have not seen as Thomas has seen, and yet still believe. CHRIST IS RISEN!