Pilgrimage United Church of Christ, “An Open and Affirming Congregation.” That’s what it says on our sign out front. That’s what it says on our bulletin. That’s what it says on our website. The designation means that we’ve gone through a process of deciding to open our doors to anyone who wants to be part of this community: Folks who are straight. Folks who are gay or transgender. Folks of every race and ethnicity.
Open and Affirming–a great designation. But is it true? Do we really welcome EVERYONE into this community ?
I’m thinking of one group in particular. A group often shunned by churches. A group Sunday School teachers warn against associating with. A group considered the dregs of Christian society. You know who I’m talking about: the doubters, the questioners, the folks who don’t know that they know that they know everything there is to know about faith. Do we welcome into our midst those who doubt, those who struggle with faith? Would we welcome Thomas?
Thomas had been with Jesus for three years. He’d lived with him, ministered with him, learned from him, and had come to believe in him…to the point that he was ready to die with him.
But somehow, when Jesus did die, Thomas’ belief wavered. It’s a familiar story. After a three year ministry, Jesus is killed and buried. Then after three days, he begins appearing to his disciples. In the Gospel of John, the first person Jesus appears to is Mary. Shortly after that, a group of Jesus’ disciples–stunned, afraid–meet together. Jesus appears to them. They believe.
For some reason, Thomas isn’t at that gathering. So when the disciples, these friends of his, see him later they say, “Thomas! We’ve seen Jesus!” And he says, and these are the words he’s known for, why he’s called “Doubting Thomas”–
Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.
The scene cuts immediately to a week later. The disciples are meeting again, and this time Thomas is with them. Jesus appears. And it’s almost as if he heard Thomas’ words from the week before. He knows what it will take for Thomas to believe. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe.” Jesus is willing to do whatever it takes to help Thomas believe.
In the movie The Miracle Worker, teacher Annie Sullivan does whatever it takes to teach deaf and blind child, Helen Keller. By the time Annie meets her, Helen is a wild child. Having no language skills, Helen only communicates by throwing tantrums. Annie sets out to teach Helen language by fingerspelling the names of objects in Helen’s world. If Helen plays with a doll, Annie makes her spell “doll.” If Helen wants a piece of cake, Annie makes her spell “cake.” All through the movie Annie spells Helen’s world to her. And while Helen can mimic the finger movements of her teacher, she doesn’t make the connection between those finger movements and the objects they represent… until the end of the movie.
That’s the scene where Helen, having just thrown an entire pitcher of water on Annie, is marched out to the hand pump by her teacher to refill the pitcher. It’s when Helen feels the water running over her hand that she makes the connection. This wet stuff touching my hand, this stuff is w-a-t-e-r. Water! And in that “Aha!” moment, everything comes together for Helen. She finally gets it. She finally gets that the words her fingers spell correspond to objects in her world. And now her education can begin in earnest. But only because her teacher was willing to do whatever it took to help Helen learn.
Helen Keller needed to learn language to continue growing. Thomas needs belief to continue growing. His teacher also does whatever it takes for Thomas to believe. Jesus offers himself to Thomas. And Thomas believes. “My Lord and my God,” he says.
Beautiful story, isn’t it? An intimate encounter between an unbeliever and Jesus and the unbeliever leaves the encounter believing. It’s what the Gospel is all about. It’s beautiful.
So here’s my question: What are the disciples doing in this story? Why are they there? Isn’t this story about a one-on-one encounter between Thomas and Jesus? The Gospel of John is full of one-on-one encounters with Jesus–Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the man born blind– Why couldn’t this beautiful conversion story be told with only 2 characters, Thomas and Jesus?
I think there’s a reason the disciples are lurking at the edges of this story. I think the author is trying to prepare us for a world without the living or risen Jesus. Here, in the 21st century, we don’t have the luxury Thomas had of seeing or touching Jesus and his wounds. For us, believing doesn’t come from seeing. For us, believing comes from hearing and accepting the witness of others about their encounters with Jesus. And where do we hear those witnesses? We hear them in the Bible. We also hear them in community.
But does a community really have that much influence on how individuals come to believe? Does it really matter what we do with doubters, with unbelievers in our midst?
Hear the story of 10 year old Adah. In the novel Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver tells of the Sunday that Adah questions her Baptist Sunday school teacher’s assumption that Africans were going to hell simply because they hadn’t been preached to by a Baptist. Adah’s community does not bear her questioning well. The adult Adah remembers: “Miss Betty sent me to the corner for the rest of the hour to pray for my own soul while kneeling on grains of uncooked rice.” How did that experience affect Adah’s belief? “When I finally got up with sharp grains embedded in my knees, I found, to my surprise, that I no longer believed in God.”
A community’s reaction to a person’s faith questions can indeed affect how they believe. But must the influence always be negative? Poet and essayist Kathleen Norris’ intense struggle toward and with faith is a prominent theme in her writings. In a chapter titled “Belief, Doubt, and Sacred Ambiguity,” she describes 3 communal responses to her own faith questions.
First, these communities take her doubts and questions seriously…but not too seriously. She writes that she was a bit disappointed with some monks she knew. Thinking her doubts to be “spectacular obstacles” to her faith, the monks saw them simply as the seeds of faith, a sign that her faith was alive and ready to grow, (63, Amazing Grace).
The second thing her communities did was to give her permission to take a break from church every now and then. She writes:
When I first began going to church, I was enormously self-conscious and for a long time could not escape the feeling that I did not belong there. My alienation was such that for weeks at a time, my attempt to worship with others on Sunday mornings would trigger a depression lasting for days. More than once, the pastor suggested that I give it a rest for a while. (63-64)
Taking doubts seriously and giving permission to take a break. That’s sort of what the disciples do with Thomas in this passage. They tell him the good news: They’ve seen Jesus! Then they step back and give Thomas room to express his unbelief. And then they leave him alone. They don’t hound him and say, “Come on, Brother! You’ve got to believe! All it takes is faith!” Or worse: “What’s wrong with you that you can’t believe?” No. They give him space.
The third gift Kathleen Norris’ communities give her at times of struggle is the gift of worship, the gift of meeting regularly to worship God. Of that group of monks mentioned earlier, Norris says: “They seemed to believe that if I just kept coming back to worship, kept coming home, things would eventually fall in place,” (63). It’s kind of like Annie Sullivan said after her first encounter with Helen: “Imitate now, understand later.” Worship now, believe later.
Thomas’ community also gives him this third gift Norris mentions. When the disciples meet a week later, Thomas is with them. Why is that? He didn’t believe; he’d made that very clear. Why was he with them that week if he didn’t believe?
We don’t know for sure, the text doesn’t say. But I think those disciples, Thomas’ community, kept inviting him to their gatherings, despite his unbelief. They kept welcoming Thomas–AND his questions–into their midst. And this we do know. We do know that it was in the midst of that community that Thomas encountered the risen Christ and came to believe. It is in community that we encounter Christ and come to believe. Which means that the phrase that’s on our signs is vitally important to who we are. It is crucial that we live out what we proclaim… because it is in community that we encounter the risen Christ and come to believe.
Jesus was willing to do whatever it took to help Thomas believe. This passage challenges us as a community to ask ourselves if we also are willing to do whatever it takes to help those in our midst believe. Are we willing to take people’s doubts and questions seriously? Are we willing to give people the space they need to wrestle with those doubts? Here’s the really hard question: Are we willing to bring our own questions and doubt to this community?
Are we all together willing to do whatever it takes to help each other believe?
In the name of our God who creates us, redeems us, and sustains us…even in our questioning. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2015, 2003, 1999