Harrowing Of Hell
April 15, 2012

Coming to Believe, Without Seeing

Speaker: Charissa Jones

I remember coming to Epiphany Parish for the first time three years ago on the Sunday after Easter; the Sunday where everyone, correctly, predicts a dramatic drop in attendance from the week before. It’s not the day most people enter a new church and consider whether they want to become an Episcopalian.

I had taken a break from attending church. I had grown cynical about Christianity, skeptical of the way people spoke about their spiritual lives, and weary from feeling out of place. I’d spent the better part of the previous year in depression watching numbly from my pew as people raised their hands in joyful praise of God. I left my church, shopped for a new church, and then gave up.

A few months passed and I discovered the joys of sleeping in, eating pancakes, and not having to think about what to wear on a Sunday. But it was also a little lonely and at times I wondered, “Have I lost my faith?” I faced the loneliness of being without a spiritual community, but I also faced the loneliness that can come with the question, “What if God isn’t here after all?” That question not only made me feel alone, it made me feel dangerous, and made it difficult for me to imagine ever feeling comfortable in a church again.

That Easter I was on vacation with my sister and we went to a small Episcopal church in Laguna Beach. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the service since I went reluctantly. I felt surprisingly comfortable there and I decided that upon my return to Seattle I would visit an Episcopal church and give it a try. That’s how I ended up at Epiphany on what we call Low Sunday.

The sermon was about doubt. I remember Doyt saying that it isn’t doubt that is the enemy of faith, but certainty. Doubt, he said, is a vital part of a life of faith. Since I had wrestled with deep doubt for the better part of a year, and since my doubt had felt dangerous to me, I began to cry from the relief that came from receiving permission to doubt.

Shortly after the sermon I heard what has become a familiar refrain, “Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, you have a place at Epiphany.” Which meant my doubt was neither a danger to myself, nor a danger to this community. Doubt still in place, I came another week, and then another and within a very short period of time I experienced the resurrection of my belief in God. Indeed, I could not escape the overwhelming flood of joy and love that came my way as I stepped into life at this church. The woman, who just a few months earlier couldn’t bear attending a worship service, rose from her tomb and texted her sisters proclaiming “I can’t believe it. I love church!” In this way, I experienced a sort of resurrection of my own, and experienced the resurrection of Jesus more completely.

Today’s gospel features Thomas, who in his time was called Thomas the Twin but now is more frequently referred to as Doubting Thomas. Thomas is in fact a sort of stand-in for the Modern Man, the contemporary reader of scripture who, informed by science and reason, looks up from a passage of scripture and says, “Really? A burning bush, a virgin birth, a resurrection? Really?”

Thomas was skeptical of the story he had been told. It felt too unbelievable, it didn’t square with science. And perhaps Thomas also felt a little as though he had been left out. The return of Jesus to the disciples happened in his absence. Did he feel like an outsider as he listened to those around him testifying to a deep, spiritual encounter? Many of us have had that feeling when listening to others talk about their experiences of God. Finding ourselves weary from life and in circumstances that make hope and joy difficult, we sometimes listen to others’ faith and excitement and it sounds too fantastical.

Thomas was in mourning and it is difficult to move from mourning to joy, from ruined hope to increased faith. So Thomas said that he would not believe unless he could see and touch the marks of the nails in the hands and side of Jesus.

A week later Jesus gives him that gift, allowing him to see and to believe. Thomas got the chance to experience what the others had. His own faith was resurrected.

Just a week before, gathered together behind locked doors, in a climate of fear and grief, the disciples suddenly saw the risen Jesus in their midst. And Jesus said, “Peace be with you.” He showed them his hands and his side and then repeated his initial words, “Peace be with you.” The God of Peace showed up in the midst of a people marked by fear – people who had witnessed his gruesome death, and whose hopes in their Messiah had died that day.

The Gospel of Luke records that when Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women who had been to the tomb told the disciples and apostles that Jesus had risen from the dead the news did not go over well. Luke writes, “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” The longer ending of Mark states that Mary Magdalene, “went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.”

Thomas was not the only one who had a hard time believing in the resurrection.

But that night Jesus came to these grieving, fearful people. He let them see and touch him and gradually take in the reality of the resurrection for themselves. Luke writes of this moment, “He showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” At which point it seems they fed him some fish and decided he was really alive after all.

I wonder about the women, the women who had seen Jesus and believed – the women who reported the good news only to be accused of telling idle tales. Were they there with the disciples when Jesus appeared, or had they returned to their homes joyful but exasperated? The longer version of Mark states that Jesus “upbraided [the eleven disciples] for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.”

Belief, it seems, does not come easily – whether you are required to believe a story told by jubilant women fresh from an empty tomb, or a story told by a group of disciples, or whether the very person stands before you. Resurrection flies in the face of what we believe to be possible. It defies scientific reason; it defies our sense that all hope is lost. Belief does not come easily and so I am always moved by Jesus words to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

That’s us. We don’t have a bush that suddenly burst into flame and speaks to us with the voice of God. We don’t have angels coming into our homes and telling us that God is about to use us in a mighty way. And we must believe in the incarnation and resurrection without the advantages of touching, seeing, or hearing Jesus’ voice out loud. We do not have the experience of walking along the road with him, laughing with him, fishing with him, or sharing a meal with him. Or, we have those experiences, but not in the kind of way that can be verified by a scientific observer.

Many of us, without physical proof, have come to believe in the resurrection. We celebrate it with great joy on Easter Sunday and throughout the Easter season. And we come each Sunday to the table, where we take in the body and blood of Jesus and take comfort and strength from a physical reminder of a spiritual reality.

Some of us have made peace with the resurrection of Jesus but wrestle with the promise that our own stories will involve resurrection. We accept the overcoming of death by Jesus, but we doubt that we will ever overcome some of the grim circumstances we face.

It is hard to believe that we will ever feel normal again as we watch someone we love face suffering and death. It is hard to believe that we will ever truly rest in the kind of love where we are both fully known and fully loved. Hard to believe that the pain of the addiction recovery process will ever lead to a greater sense of wholeness than we’ve ever known. Hard to believe that old habits that have plagued you will ever change. Hard to believe that the relational conflict that kept you up all night could lead to transformation in both partners.

Blessed are we who do not see, yet come to believe- who wrestle with doubt but experience along the way the power of resurrection to appear even within our own lives.

Where do you long to experience resurrection?

Will you open yourself to the blessing that is found in believing, even when you cannot see?

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