Year A, Easter 2 April 23, 2017 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!
Happy Easter everyone! We are one week into the Fifty Days of Easter. At Forty Days is the Ascension of our Lord, the commemoration of His rising on the clouds in glory to the right hand of God, and on the 50th day is the Feast of the Pentecost, (pente– five, fifty), our memory of the Holy Spirit entering the world in a very particular way and imbuing the church with her love and light. We have fifty days to bask in the light of the resurrection, to imagine and remember the presence of Jesus in that space between His death and His return to the heart of God.
We are getting started on a really high note. This was the best Holy Week into Easter that I have ever experienced. The worship team here at Resurrection really outdid themselves. The physical space, the table was set perfectly. (Well, besides the Paschal candle, but we figured that out, mostly gracefully). The readings were clear. The altar was attended to with the requisite solemnity. The music… the music was just stunning, it carried us all the way through. And most importantly, you all were here. Your energy carried us through: somber when somber is what it needed to be; joyous when joy was what was called for. And all of those children… Have you ever seen such a thing? 17 little ones in the nursery! That must have violated some code. Another thirty in here and up in the choristers. It’s the church happening right before our eyes. Thank you one and all for what you brought and laid before the foot of God last week. A religious cycle like the one we just passed through, the opportunity to participate in, to practice, to have an actual religious experience, because that was possible to have had last week, a lot of us did have one… that’s the kind of thing that can make a believer out of someone.
Our gospel today is about the apostle St. Thomas the Twin, or more popularly, Doubting Thomas. Now Thomas, he gets a bad wrap. He was not alone in having his doubts, he was just the one who expressed it individually. Mary Magadalene didn’t know what was going on as she wept, peering into the empty tomb. She didn’t recognize Jesus when He appeared. The whole group of the apostles, they had abandoned Jesus when He was arrested in the Garden, and even after Mary had told them that she had seen Jesus, they huddled in fear behind locked doors. Even a week after they had seen Him, they hid behind locked doors. But there is Thomas. He was away when Jesus first appeared and he did not believe them. “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.”
Believing… That can really seem the heart of the Christian project, to be a believer. “A Bible Believing Church.” You see signs like that in front of some churches. I could agree to that, that believing is the heart, or at least the starting point for being Christian, but to a large extent, that would really depend on what you mean by “believe.”
I get more complaints, questions, I hear more doubts about the word “believe” than any other part of the Christian thing. What does it mean when we say “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…”? I hear more discomfort with the Creeds, and having to say “I believe” than I do about the word sin, or salvation, or the whole process of saying “God of all mercy, we confess that we have sinned against you…” No, believing, that is harder for a lot of us, it relies on faith, on things that can’t be “proven” as can be in a lot of other aspects of our experience. Belief, religious belief is a matter of faith, of acceptance of the empirically unprovable. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Jesus doesn’t call you blessed if the path you are on is an easy one!
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, writes beautifully and convincingly about this matter of believing, in particular in how we contemplate our faith in the Nicene and Apostles Creeds. We’ve talked about this before. “We believe in one God… We believe in one Lord… We believe in the Holy Spirit…” How does the Archbishop frame that? He talks of it in terms of trust, of faith, as in having the full faith and confidence, the full trust and confidence in God. I trust in God. I have faith that God is these things. Or as our Buddhist brothers and sisters say of the Buddha, the Dhammha and the Sangha, I take refuge in God. In the ever loving arms of God I will find my rest. That’s faith. That’s believing.
What did Thomas believe (or not believe)? When the disciples told him that Jesus had appeared, what did Thomas hold out for until proven? That Jesus was risen? I suppose. That the prophesy was true, that it was happening as Jesus had said it would? That is possible. That his friends weren’t the knuckleheads they sometimes appeared to be? Entirely likely. But the heart of what Thomas confessed (that is the technical term for expressing belief), what Thomas believed was that Jesus was indeed “My Lord and my God!” It is the most definitive confession in the whole of the New Testament, Thomas’ confession that Jesus Christ was God.
Belief, in its every day usage, is a product of the mind. It is assent to a truth, a factual kind of truth. Or it is assent to an opinion. “I believe that x is right or y is wrong.” It is based on the same category of experience as empirical knowledge. It is cognitive. Faith, however, has very little to do with thinking or brain power. Faith is about feeling, knowing in beyond words kinds of ways. Faith is the product of the spirit.
The author Rea Nolan Martin writes, “The mind interferes in the process of faith more than it contributes to it. To have faith in the worst of times will no doubt require us to silence, or at least quiet, the mind. Faith is what happens when our beliefs run aground. The spirit can be buoyed by our beliefs, but can also be brought down by them when they prove inadequate, as they most certainly will at some point in the journey. Even the beliefs humans have held most closely have come and gone over the course of a lifetime or a millennium. Think of Galileo.”
I struggle on the frontier between belief and faith. These are pre-modern stories being read by post-modern people. Trying to make ourselves “believe” things that we can’t honestly believe is dissonant for many of us. Maybe more dissonant than it should be; our opinions are precious to many of us in the educated classes, precious unto idolatrous sometimes, but we do know the world in different ways than our ancestors did and that makes belief and faith hard to parse out sometimes.
For me, the piece of the puzzle that allowed me to finally and fully embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ was discovering Marcus Borg’s post-critical naiveté, a concept best summed up in the statement, “I don’t know if it happened this way, but I know this story is true.” And I’ll tell you, as I let faith take the lead, as I became most concerned with the nature of God, my experience of God and my relationship with God, as I let my spirit be my guide more than my frontal cortex, as my prayer took the lead over my education, I have found that not only has my faith increased in depth and quality, but my beliefs have as well. I have found that the parts of the story that I had trouble believing, cognitively assenting to, like walking on the water, like feeding the 5000, like touching the holes on Jesus’ risen body, don’t trouble me so much. More and more, in fact, I feel like the father of the boy with a spirit in St Mark’s gospel. Remember him? The disciples could not cast out the spirit, but Jesus does. Then the father responds, “I believe, help my unbelief.” My faith is strong. My beliefs are catching up. You don’t need to believe the whole story in order to have faith in it. How I wish someone had told me that a very long time ago.
Well, it is getting to be that time. By two o’clock today, my family and I will be on our way. This sabbatical will last three and a half months. With the generous support of the Eli Lily Foundation’s Clergy Renewal Program, we head out for a few of weeks vacation in Eastern Oregon, hence the boots. We’ll relax in hot springs and on horse back, before coming back to the ranch in Jasper where I’ll spend half my time with the family on home-school and farm projects and half my time in a campsite up in the hills, on retreat, praying a lot and working on a writing project, a novel or thereabouts. Hopefully it will be better than the last one. I am incredibly grateful to all of you for the chance to have this time away. Thank you. I promise I will make good use of the time and will come back renewed and refreshed as we continue to make the road by walking it.
It think it will be good for you all, too. I’m a bit much, sometimes. You all could use a break, a breather. Mo. Anne is going to do great. She knows what she is doing and she trusts you: trust her. Sandi and Patty and the whole vestry and staff… they know what they are doing, too. It will be good for our leadership to stretch to take on responsibilities that usually lay on me. Please, over these next months, if you are asked to help, to chip in, to volunteer, please do. Your fellow congregants are taking on a lot and they will need you help. Thank you for giving it.
I will be gone in body, but not in spirit. You all will be constantly in my prayers. Please hold me and my family in yours. God bless you. AMEN.