Sunday, May 1, 2011

Sermon for Easter II

John 20:19-31
(Chapel of St John the Divine, Champaign)                                         

It has become an automatic ritual for me, over a period of decades. I crawl into bed at night, trace the sign of the cross with my thumb on my forehead, and repeat the final prayer from the service of Compline: “The Almighty and merciful Lord—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—bless us and keep us.” Sometimes I’m already half asleep—or still wound up from the anxieties of the day—and barely aware of what I’m doing. Sometimes I’m very aware of what I’m doing, and it’s a source of great comfort, a sort of “divine tuck-in.” There are times, however, when I’m very aware of what I’m doing, and what I’m doing seems—ridiculous. It feels as though I may as well be whistling in the dark, or throwing salt over my shoulder, or something else equally superstitious. I wonder whether everything on which I’ve based my life is simply an illusion.

One of the joys of my early ministry as a priest was the opportunity to help form Christian faith in the lives of children as a chaplain in a parochial day school. Probably the most frequent question that students asked me concerned the origin of God—how did God get started? It was difficult for them to conceive of a Being who has no beginning and no ending. (Actually, it’s difficult for me to conceive of, too, but I’ve had more practice.) But the second most frequent question that I got was, how do we know that it’s all true? How do we really know that there is a God who loves us, who became one of us and died and rose again, and wants to unite us to himself? My standard response was that real people saw Jesus die, and the same real people saw him risen from the dead, and they told other people, and they told others, and they told others, and so forth, and now I’m telling you. I give this answer because it’s the one which, in a more sophisticated form, I give myself  when I ask the same question. There’s simply no other credible explanation for the willingness of the first generation of Christians to sacrifice their homes and livelihoods and, in many cases, to die the painful death of a martyr.

But in the dark of the night, sometimes even this answer falls short—it doesn’t do the trick. And unless I’m badly mistaken, I’m not the only one with late-at night doubts. I’ll bet that most of you have them too. That’s why when we run across a person who appears to have great faith, boundless and enthusiastic confidence, we often find that person and his or her faith irresistibly attractive. Of course, many times we may find it obnoxious, but even in those instances, it’s still vaguely unsettling.  In a way, we’re envious. We devour books and articles and podcasts, we tune in to radio and TV shows and scour the internet, we seek out pastors and spiritual directors, hoping that the strength of someone else’s faith will make ours stronger.

Why do we do these things? We do them because our own faith experience seems second hand, derivative, reflected.  Most of us, I believe, have an inferiority complex about our own faith. For whatever reason, we have been led to think that it is not strong enough, not deep enough, not wide enough, not something enough. We suffer from the same condition that is displayed today by blessed St Thomas—doubting Thomas. Thomas had an inferiority complex about his faith, because he happened to have been out buying groceries or getting his shoes shined or having the oil changed in his car … or whatever he was doing the first time the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples in the upper room. He lacked a first-hand experience of Christ risen from the dead. He had to take somebody else’s word for it. “Thomas, we’ve seen the Lord!—and and you haven’t!”  “You know, God doesn’t want you to be sick, and he’d deliver you from this illness, if only your faith were strong enough.” Or, if you hang out in the right places, you’re likely to hear, “God doesn’t want you to be poor. God wants you to drive a BMW. If you’re poor, you need to get right with God!”

But when we look honestly at our own faith, we so often feel as though it isn’t strong enough. It isn’t deep enough. It isn’t wide enough. Our faith is...inferior. We haven’t had a first-hand, tangible, objectively unmistakable experience of God’s existance, and of his love and concern for us. And this is quite a sorry state to be in. It leads eventually to a sort of spiritual anorexia, where we starve ourselves to death right in the midst of an abundant supply of nourishment. Having faith that we perceive as inferior, we are paralyzed, and unable to partake of the sustenance that is offered us.

Thomas may have felt that same sort of paralysis coming on when he realized that his experience lacked an essential ingredient, that of being an eye-witness to the Lord’s resurrection. But, you know, to Thomas’s great credit, in the end, he didn’t allow his faith-inferiority complex to paralyze him. Perhaps the most significant part of this rich gospel narrative is that when the discpiples gathered once again in that upper room one week after the day of the resurrection, Thomas was still with them! He’d had a whole week in which to allow the inferiority of his faith to undo him, to say to the other apostles, “Guys, it’s been fun, but it’s over, and I’m just gonna ... go fishing.”

But that isn’t what happened. When they got together again, Thomas was there. And it was his inferior faith that enabled him, on that occasion, to have the first-hand experience that he sought. The risen Christ entered the room, showed himself to them all, but especially, and lovingly, to Thomas. And all Thomas could do was bend the knee of his heart and exclaim, “My Lord and my God.” This first-hand experiece confirmed Thomas’s faith, and deepened Thomas’s faith, but it did not create Thomas’s faith. If Thomas had not already had faith, inferior though it might have been, he still would not have believed what he saw. Even touching the resurrected Jesus would not have created faith where none existed already. Thomas’s inferior faith was a pre-condition for his experience of the Risen Christ.

So what I’m saying is that, perhaps “inferior faith” isn’t so inferior after all. If the faith that enabled Thomas to be present in the upper room on that first “Low Sunday” is inferior, then may the Lord grant us an abundant measure of inferior faith! Thomas thought that he needed to see in order to believe, when in truth, it was his belief that enabled him to see. He could have been somewhere else that Sunday, but we wasn’t. There are eight people about to publicly reaffirm the vows and promises of their baptism. All eight could have chosen to be somewhere else this morning, but they’re not; they’re here. I don’t know whether their faith is superior or inferior, but all can take heard from the risen Lord’s commendation of Thomas not for his seeing but for his believing.  Jesus blessed Thomas’s prior state of “inferior” faith when he said, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and have yet believed.”
We may have to wait until the other side of the grave before we have that first-hand experience that Thomas had eight days after the resurrection, the experience which confirms and deepens our original “inferior” faith. For some of us, it may come sooner. But all of us can catch a glimpse, even with our inferior faith, of this great reality in the sacrament of the Eucharist. We come believing, in order that we might see, and we are given something tangible, something we can touch and taste and see, which, in turn, enables us to believe more, which will enable us to see more, which will enable us to believe more  .... and so on, world without end. It is this endless cycle of belief confirmed by experience, and experience leading to stronger belief, that eventually snuffs out those late-at-night doubts and fears, and makes the question—how do we know it’s all true?—seem unimportant.

My friends, seeing may or may not be believing, but believing is most assuredly seeing. Christ is risen. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Yes indeed, Bishop, my reassurance is Galatians 15-20, Jesus' brother and Peter!