Sunday, April 25, 2010

Doubt in the Christian Life: Sermon for Thomas Sunday, April 18, 2010

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

When speaking of the Christian life, people usually set belief and doubt against one another: Belief is the good thing, which all should unquestioningly have, but doubt the evil thing which should always be beaten down whenever it surfaces, without ever giving the mind a chance to examine it at all. Belief is always positive, doubt negative. Belief always builds up the Christian life, while doubt destroys it. But is this really the case, or is it rather that this is a simplistic view of a more complex dynamic. That is, is unquestioning belief always a good thing? Is there a place for healthy doubt and skepticism in the Christian’s journey in theosis?

An answer is provided to us in the event the Church commemorates today, the first Sunday after Pascha. The Gospel reading which we just heard a short while ago told us of two appearances of the Risen Lord to his apostles, the first without St. Thomas present, the second with him there. Now, why Thomas was not there we don’t know – it has been said that it was perhaps by divine oikonomia, heavenly dispensation, that he was not there, that Thomas’s personal reacting to and cooperation with God’s providence in synergeia nudged him to another place precisely so that truth might be revealed and a powerful point made… which it was. What we do know is Thomas’s response to the cry of the other apostles, “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas said that unless he saw Him with his own eyes and felt Him with his own hands, he would not believe it. He was going to be absolutely sure before assenting.

You know, something that is often overlooked and which people do not give much thought to is just why Thomas doubted the way he did, and made the demand for proof that he did. The Gospel passage today doesn’t say anything about that, and in that absence it’s easy to say that he was just being obstinate and to judge him negatively. But it is also quite probable that Thomas was remembering – and heeding – Christ’s own words when, as recorded in Matthew chapter 24, He said, “If anyone says to you, ‘Look! Here is the Christ,’ or, ‘There He is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect – if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time. So if anyone tells you, ‘There He is, out in the desert,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it.” Granted, these words were spoken in response to a question about the end times… but with the events of the previous week and with the disciples huddling behind closed doors for fear of persecution from a howling mob incited by the religious establishment of the time, Thomas can be forgiven for thinking, perhaps, that the end had indeed come.

In any case, there words are a command from the Savior to doubt. Nor are they the only such example found in the New Testament. In the first epistle of St. John the Theologian, chapter 4, we read: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God.” This too, is a command to doubt, one which is probably rooted in the same words of the Lord quoted before, which John would have paid attention to as much as Thomas. And so the question for us is, why must we doubt? What is the purpose of healthy doubt?

These commands to doubt are given us for a reason: our protection. They are meant to insure that we do not give ourselves over to false ideas about God and Christ, about humanity and the world. The goal of the Christian life is theosis, becoming gods by grace. God – capital G – is relational: three persons in the most intimate communion each with the others. We too are called to that intimacy, communion with the Trinity, with our spouses, with our children for those who have them, and with our fellow members of the People of God. But intimate communion can only be such when we know in truth those with who we desire to be in relationship. For us, the doctrines of our faith aren’t mere intellectual propositions to be assented to; they are the data of relationship with God and with each other. They are revelations of the inner beings of the persons of God and of each other, what we know of them and what they know of us. The so-called rules of our faith aren’t legalistic laws binding us but instead the physical and spiritual means of effecting that intimate union in theosis. Knowledge of persons must be real knowledge; if it isn’t, one is not really in communion with that person but with a false image of that person. We must doubt, then, in order to be assured of the truth of what we know of God and of each other.

St. John the Theologian was writing against the Gnostics, who were promoting false ideas about the physical world and Christ’s relationship to it… that is, the created, material world is evil and so Christ could not have a real body, real flesh. The Church, on the other hand, always affirmed the intrinsically good nature of creation and matter, though fallen and in need of salvation and regeneration in Christ. And this truth, that Christ indeed came in the flesh, sanctifying it and everything about it, is also that which is affirmed by Thomas’s confession recounted in today’s Gospel. The Tradition of the Orthodox Church explains that his cry, “My Lord and my God!” is an affirmation of the two natures of Christ, the human and the divine. Because such a confession came from his questioning, the Church in her hymnography calls Thomas’s stand “believing unbelief” – a phrase used, for example, in one of the Vespers stichera for this day.

Brothers and sisters, let us always practice this “believing unbelief” when we are confronted with strange ideas which seem to run contrary to the core of our faith in a loving and merciful God, especially if these ideas have their origin outside the Church even if they are subsequently taken up and championed by leaders in the Christian community – remember, Arius was a clergyman of the Church. We must doubt them at first to discern what we should know and live in order that we all, as whole persons both soul and body, may be saved and deified. Amen.