Harrowing Of Hell
April 20, 2014


Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn

John 20:1-18

Happy Easter! Welcome to Epiphany.

Today, I’d like to talk about doubt.  I probably shouldn’t, given that this is Easter and we have come to celebrate the certainty that Jesus has been raised from the tomb.  But no doubt, there is some doubt in the minds of a few who sit here today, about the reality of the resurrection.  And that is okay.  I get it.  Resurrection is a pretty crazy concept.  And while I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ more than anything else, I am still not so certain that I would let my belief stand in the way of anyone’s doubt.  In truth, if it weren’t for doubt I wouldn’t hold such deep faith in the resurrection of Jesus in the first place.  I’ll tell you more about that later.

Doubt comes to my mind today, as I consider Mary Magdalene.  I wonder what was running through her head as she went back to tell the disciples what she had experienced.  I am sure some doubt was present. I imagine her thinking:

“Wow! I just saw Jesus… I think?”
“What had I seen?”
“Angels.” “Angels???”
“Could the light have been playing tricks on me?”
“I am certain that was Jesus who called my name… probably?”
“Maybe it was the gardener?”

And if doubts like that were running through Mary Magdalene’s mind, it makes me wonder. Can doubt live alongside resurrection?  Can a person be a follower of Jesus and still have doubt spinning through their mind?

The word doubt itself reminds me of the movie Doubt… a Google search helped me make that connection.   It is about a Catholic school in the Bronx, in the mid-1960s.  A nun, played by Meryl Streep, runs the place. Her name is Sister Aloysius.  Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Father Flynn, a new, young, charismatic priest sent there to help integrate the school.  Flynn ends up being accused of acting indecently with a student.  Sister Aloysius confronts him, and an argument ensues.  Father Flynn yells, “You haven’t the slightest proof of anything,” to which Sister Aloysius screams back, “I have my certainty.”  This scene highlights the crippling nature of certainty; it can tear relationships apart.  It certainly has torn the church from its central role in society.  The certainty held by many churches has hurt many people and has broken many relationships; and for that, on behalf of the church, I’d like to apologize.

I have held some pretty certain views myself along the way.  When I was younger I had some pretty certain political points of view that would draw me into toxic conversations and indeed put at risk some good friendships.   And then there was that time when I was certain that it was the neighbor’s dog who was relieving himself in my yard; and, furthermore, that this behavior was being secretly encouraged.  I had no proof, but I was pretty certain.  Those examples touch the wackiness of certainty in my life, and there is a lot in between.  But this I do know for certain – certainty can do a lot of damage to relationships.

Here is a surprise, at least it was to me.  The person who brought certainty to Christianity was a French philosopher and mathematician. He was the person who coined the term, “I think therefore I am.”  I’m sure you have heard of him, his name is Rene Descartes.  He wrote a book called Meditations of First Philosophy, to prove with certainty the existence of God and the soul.  His strategy was to doubt everything, holding on to this idea that whatever survived the most inscrutable doubt would therefore be certain.

Descartes’ goal was to beat the skeptics of God at their own game. He was going to out doubt them, and thus prove with certainty God and the soul.  So he wrote this book, with the final conclusion being that the only thing we know for certain is: “I think therefore I am.”  This was his defense for the existence of God and the soul. It was based on two common assumptions of that era: first, that thinking was an action of the soul; and second, that the soul belonged to God.  Therefore all knowledge belongs to God, and so “I think therefore I am” proves God’s existence.  Descartes was roundly applauded for his air tight logic in 1641.

A lot has changed since then.  Descartes tactic to use doubt to beat the skeptics, ultimately became fuel for their fire.  Doubt moved from being God’s advocate in 1641 to being God’s antagonist in 1985, at least that was the date that doubt became dominant in my life.  That is when I left for college, and began really exercising my doubt muscles.  I was brought up in the church, but as I got older and became a deep, critical, well trained thinker, I started to doubt Christianity.  I would say things like:

“If religion is so good, why are there so many religious wars?”
“If God is so capable, why is there so much suffering?”
“Why is there cancer?”

Those were the kind of questions I wrestled with. I pursued doubt like Descartes with the intent of finding certainty. Religion was my target.  I was sure it had a point, given how pervasive it was in all cultures, to all people, over all times. There had to be something to religion, but I wasn’t sure what that point was, so it became the object of my doubt.  I studied and I thought.  I took up meditation.  I kept a journal.  Doubt drove me in pursuit of understanding.

And, at the same time, life went on.  I fell in love, changed jobs, moved a couple of times and the next thing I knew I was back in the church.  In an Episcopal church, like the one I had grown up in.  I was back for a number of reasons.  One was to get married.  Another, was I met older men along the way who I respected a lot; who were smart and successful and happily married and still attended church.  I got to know them, and they didn’t seem nuts or shallow or insecure; just the opposite in fact.  There was depth there.  We talked, they listened.  They took my questions seriously without having to answer them… they let me wrestle with doubt.  And what I came to discover is what Desmond Tutu so clearly  articulates in his book God Has A Dream:  “it is not, ‘I think therefore I am’ but rather ‘a person is a person through other people.’”

That is what we find here at the end of the Gospel of John as well.  Mary Magdalene tells the disciples that Jesus is alive.  Then he appears to them in a locked room.  The disciple Thomas, whom we know as doubting Thomas, wasn’t there.  The other disciples tell Thomas about the encounter.  Thomas asks for proof, which is a reasonable thing to do.  But here is the beauty of the story:  we don’t hear the disciple’s response.  We don’t hear their arguments. We don’t hear their certainty.  What we witness is more important:  that they invite Thomas to gather with them in that same room a week later.

Thomas is not excluded because of his doubt; nor is he slandered or argued with. He is invited in. The other disciples have no idea that Jesus is going to show up a week later.  They didn’t invite Thomas to make a point, or convert him to something.  They invite Thomas because he is part of the gang and they love him. They invite Thomas because they know that in the Kingdom of God everyone is included whether they believe in God or not.  God is bigger than our belief.  God is certainly bigger than our certainty.

That was my experience at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland Heights, OH.  My return to the church had little to do with what I believed and everything to do with how I was embraced by that parish.  And along the way, my doubt was transformed into passionate curiosity which led me to study and prayer and practicing the Christian lifestyle and ultimately into a deep faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

That was the logical conclusion that my vigorous doubt rooted out.  That may or may not be your conclusion if you take the deep dive into Christianity, but it was certainly mine.  Doubt was the gift.  Doubt is not a betrayal of God or Jesus or Christianity.  Certainty may be, but not doubt; that is the lesson we learn from Thomas.  Here is one more lesson/insight about doubt.  In moments of greatest doubt, when we doubt the decisions we have made; when we doubt our own goodness, or competence, or motives; even when we doubt God and the meaning of life, the antidote to doubt is not certainty, but community.

Doubt is an invitation.  It is an invitation to a conversation within a community that cares more about the essence of your being than that content of your belief.  At Epiphany your doubt is a blessing.  Your doubt is welcome.  Of that I am certain, as certain as I am about the resurrection of Jesus Christ.