A critical faith

Philocrites : Liberal Religion : Sermons 1.20.03

Adapted from a sermon delivered to the First Parish in Concord, April 19, 1998, for the 1998 Harvard Divinity School Billings Prize preaching competition.

One of the twelve, Thomas, . . . was not with the rest when Jesus came. So the disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." He said, "Unless I see the mark of the nails on his hands, unless I put my finger into the place where the nails were, and my hand into his side, I will not believe it."

— John 20: 24-25 (New English Bible)

Let us consider the story of Doubting Thomas. Where was he, that Sunday night? Had he not heard what the story says the other disciples had heard, these rumors about an empty tomb? Why wasn't he with his friends to share their grief in those first days after the crucifixion? Surely he was terrified. Where was he hiding? How did he bear the thought of the horrible things that had just happened? What would you have done?

Off by himself, Thomas hears from his friends that they have seen the one thing that would change everything, the one truly unbelievable thing. "We have seen the Lord," they say. And Thomas, like any reasonable person who knows how the world works, like anyone who has seen hundreds of Jews crucified by the Romans, like anyone who knows that the dead stay in their graves, Thomas says, "I will not believe it. I will not believe it unless I can touch him."

Thomas is certainly not indifferent when it comes to religious questions. He is one of the inner circle, the Twelve, the small group of Jews who have followed Jesus and listened to him and tried to live the life he showed them. Thomas took this stuff seriously. He has dedicated his life to a worthwhile cause, he is trying to walk the talk. He has given his heart to something — no, to someone, and that one has been brutally murdered, lynched, hung on a tree. Thomas is devastated. How could he not be?

He is on the losing side of history. The Roman Empire, with its armies, with its law, with its culture, its worldly sophistication, with its vicious governor Pontius Pilate, has executed — and not by lethal injection, mind you, not by anything as civilized as Florida's electric chair, but by nails and thorns and hours of unbearable slow asphyxiation on a cross — Rome has executed another Jewish holy man, hoping that his followers will shut up, give up, go away, retreat in despair.

Thomas should learn his lesson and vanish, for the cruel and the powerful — the ones who ask cynically, "What is truth?" — they have taken away his hope. The people who insist that the poor deserve their poverty; that women have their place; that immigrants cannot be equals; that race determines place in society; that gays and lesbians must stay hidden; all of these people who cannot believe in a world more fair than this one, they laugh at poor Thomas, who wanted to greet the kingdom of God with his hands. He must be a fool, for the world is as it always has been and always will be, violent and divided and mad, and he is deluded to follow anyone who points out a better way for us to live.

And yet, the hope of these devastated people does not die. Somehow, the followers of Jesus do not simply vanish. Instead, they tell stories of their resurrected teacher who has appeared to them in a new form, has given them important work to do, has breathed on them the holy spirit which will live with them and among them. They continue to tell the stories of his life, they share the teachings that he taught, they live expectantly for the fulfillment of his vision. Jesus died, that we know; but in the lives of those he inspired, Christ is risen, and in the end, it is Jesus who outlives the Roman Empire, and that much we know, too.

Why tell the story of Thomas, and why I am telling it to you? Have you ever had a dream crushed? Have you ever worked for something that failed? Have you ever despaired in the midst of suffering? Have you ever doubted what you had taken to be true? Have you ever lost a friend? The story may say "happy are they who never saw and yet have found faith," but I think everybody knows what it's like to be Thomas.

When people first began hearing and reading the Gospel According to John, it was at least seventy years after Jesus died. Who in the story would have seemed most like those people? Who represents their situation, as people who are drawn to the truth and power of the story of Jesus, but who were not even born when the central events of the Christian story happened? Who represents them? Thomas, of course. Doubting Thomas.

Thomas wasn't there, either. Thomas had to hear the story from others that first Sunday, and he would not believe them. But then, a week later, at their next Sunday gathering, when the doors were once again locked and no one else could get in, Thomas — who has not gone away a cynic but is once again with the others in spite of not knowing — Thomas finds himself in the presence of his Lord, and is invited to touch, to feel, to see, and to know the great mystery of his faith. Why does the Gospel of John tell the story this way? Why on a Sunday? Why a week later? Why not Tuesday? Why in the community of believers? Why tell the story this way? Because Thomas — Doubting Thomas, Thomas who does not see with perfect faith — Thomas is the early Christians, the people who met each week, who wanted to experience the fact of the resurrection in their lives, but knew they had only each other to go on.

I relate to Thomas, and what I have to say today is for those of you who recognize a bit of Thomas in yourselves. Thomas is a patron saint for those of us who are trying to live a critical faith. He is not satisfied with other people's accounts: he wants to know by experience. He wants his religion to be his own. He wants to touch the truth for himself, and until then, maybe even in spite of himself, he says he will not believe. In this way Thomas approached religion critically. But Thomas was not an unbeliever. He did not decide that the others were deluded, that Pilate was right, that he had been wrong all along, that all this talk about the kingdom of God was just so much magical language for lesser minds. Thomas's critical instinct did not destroy his concern for the life that might be, but isn't yet, in the world. Thomas's religion is a critical faith.

As ever, Christians are tempted by two false options. On the one hand, there is faith without doubt, a kind of faith so impatient with Thomas that it would cast him out for asking impossible questions. On the other hand, there is criticism without faith — complexification upon complexification — the charm of the world seducing us away from the rather difficult love of God. Thomas presents a better way. Thomas lives a critical faith. Thomas knows what it is to lose, to suffer, to find his hopes devastated — but he also knows what he really wants. He doesn't deny his doubts, or his faith. Do you hear this? This Easter story says that there is room for each of us, with our questions and with our proclamations. A critical faith has a fundamental place in religion. Doubting Thomas, my friends, — the follower who really could not take things on blind faith — Thomas is the one who touches the resurrection.

Return to Sermons
Philocrites | Copyright © 1998 by Christopher L. Walton | clwalton at post.harvard.edu