Sunday, April 27, 2014

Doubting Mother Theresa ~ John 20:24-29

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to 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.’ 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 27Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ 
In 2007 the world discovered what would be for many in incomprehensible truth about one of the most remarkable Christians of the twentieth century – Mother Theresa. Her letters were published revealing in excruciating detail her own painful doubts over God’s absence. She writes

Since 49 or 50 this terrible sense of loss – this untold darkness – this loneliness – this continual longing for God – which gives me that pain deep down in my heart. – Darkness is such that I really do not see – neither with my mind nor with my reason. – This place of God in my soul is blank – There is no God in me. – When the pain of longing is so great – I just long & long for God – and then it is that I feel – He does not want me. . . Sometimes – I just hear my own heart cry out – “My God” and nothing else comes. – The torture and pain I can’t explain.[1] 
The news wires burned with endless commentators debating the merits and implications of these new revelations. Was Mother Theresa a hypocrite? Was she a true saint? Had she lost her faith? Or, were her struggles to be expected, even typical of many Christians?

What do two saints - Thomas, the apostle, and Mother Theresa - have to teach us about doubt and the Christian life?

               1.      Good Christians doubt and Doubters are welcomed to worship

Thomas is quite an interesting character in the Gospel of John – the only Gospel in which he actually speaks. We hear him speaking on three occasions. He first speaks in 11:16, when Lazarus has just died. The apostles do not wish to go back to Judea, where Jews had attempted to stone Jesus, but Thomas says: "Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Second, he speaks in 14:5 after Jesus has just explained that he is going away to prepare a heavenly home for his followers. Thomas reacts by saying, "Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?" And finally, we meet him here where he expresses his doubts and demands to investigate Jesus wounds before he will believe. His comments and questions clearly mark him as a person of faith.

Now, I often meet people who believe that to be a doubter is to no longer be a Christian. And two popular translations – the NRSV and NIV don’t help matters much by having Jesus say to Thomas, “Do not doubt but believe.” Yet, the Greek is important to follow here literally – Jesus’ actual words are “Do not become unbelieving [apistos] but believing [pistos]. Doubt is the inbetween space between these two points – it is not something on its own but necessarily belongs with faith. Do you know that you are never absolutely sure you’re right when you’re living in faith? That’s why it’s called “faith”!

Yet, due to such poor associations of doubt with unbelief or faithlessness, many find themselves in deep pain thinking that their doubts sever them from the church or their faith. If that’s you this morning then I have good news for you – “Thomas,” John adamantly tells us, was “one of the twelve.” This doubter was hand-picked by Jesus and keeps his job, his title, and his role. And how do the others respond to his doubt? In staff meeting, Don pointed out that they are oddly silent – no pushy arguments, no condemnation, in fact, in vs. 26 it says, all 11 were hanging out together at the time when Jesus showed up to deal with it. So, if you are struggling with doubts – hang out with us! We love you, we need you. I think that one of the reasons the disciples don’t harp on Thomas is that they understood him and we’ve all been there. We’ve all struggled with elements of our faith, wondering if they were really true. 

So doubt is neither fatal nor extraordinary. If fact, the Gospels illustrate it as a normal part of a worshipping community, even by those who are closest to Jesus. Doubters are not skeptics or seekers. They are always insiders – uncertain about a faith to which they are no strangers and to which they have been committed. Jump with me quickly to Matthew 28:16-17, the verses just prior to Jesus’ Great Commission. It says, “The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” So Matthew tells us that Thomas wasn’t alone. I want to tell you  - out there, you who are wrestling and struggling with doubt while we worship, neither are you. You are in good company. You can doubt and be welcomed here. And what does Jesus do? Chastise? Berate them? No, he gives them something to do – the Great Commission. And that leads to my next point.

               2.      When you doubt, Jesus says, “put your finger here.” – vs. 27

Caravaggio’s image of Thomas’ encounter with the resurrected Jesus is an interesting one. It’s an intimate sort of investigation that can leave one feeling a bit queasy. Notice how Jesus holds his arm and intentionally guides him, maybe even forces him, to explore the wound. 
With respect to doubt, Jesus rarely appears to engage with logical arguments but rather offers us to touch his wounds. I believe that Jesus and the Gospel writer are exposing us here to a deep theological truth if not a literal one. The wounds’ of Jesus represent “suffering love and service to us in obedience to God” - the physical experience and expression of God’s love. If you think about it – Jesus could have demonstrated who he was by any number of arguments, miracles, etc. but Thomas was right – the only credible evidence would have been his wounds, his suffering love. And you don’t have to live very long to face that reality – where the true test of love is found not in words or a romantic embrace but in an unwavering commitment despite circumstances of pain and difficulty. 
A very beloved professor at Westmont College, Dr. Bob Wennberg, a philosopher who passed away a few years ago, wrote a book about doubt called Faith At the Edge: A Book for Doubters. I am indebted to him for what follows. In his book, Bob beautifully argues that the best response to doubt and a sense of God’s absence is often not some extended philosophical discussion but for the doubter to reach out to others in their need, and doing so consciously in the name of Christ. In our woundedness, he argues, our doubt can be healed best when we tend to other’s wounds.

The famous Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor once corresponded with a college student who had expressed to her his struggle with doubt. She told the student how the poet/physician Robert Bridges, an agnostic struggling with deep doubts, wrote to his friends Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poet/Jesuit priest, expressed his struggles and deep pain about understanding God’s absence. Manley responded with a two-word reply, “Give alms.” Manley was saying that God is to be experienced in Charity (in the sense of love for the divine image in human beings). Flannery writes, “Don’t get so entangled with intellectual difficulties that you fail to look for God in this way.” 1 John tells us that “God is love.” And if God is love, then God simply cannot fit solely into intellectual categories. To touch the wounds of Jesus is to recognize that love requires its own evidence, its own reasons, its own logic of service and commitment. And that “inner logic” brings me to my last point.
          3.      “Blessed” – What Mother Theresa can teach us about doubt and God’s absence
Doubt such as what Mother Theresa writes about can feel all the more painful, even cruel when we here Jesus say, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Mother Theresa describes her doubt as inability “to see” God but she doesn’t sound “blessed.”
A critical step for Mother Theresa like many mature Christians before her, was her eventual understanding that her struggle with God’s absence was not due to her own fault but was actually God’s doing. Why? What is the point? Is there a compelling theological explanation for our doubts with God and God’s apparent absence in our lives? I think there is and believe that Mother Theresa can help us understand it.
The first thing that Mother Theresa did is important for all of us when we struggle with doubt. She sought help. She did not try to shoulder the burden alone but talked to trusted spiritual advisors to help her make sense of own experience. She worked with a spiritual director, the Jesuit theologian, Father Joseph Neuner, who helped frame her own experience within a broader perspective. And it helped. She recognized that doing doubt alone was a recipe for disaster. Like Thomas, she shared her doubt with others and discovered that she was not alone. Second, she discovered that the darkness of doubt with its pain and suffering rendered her more kind hearted, more able to empathize with the needy and forsaken – those who also felt they had been abandoned by God. Third, when she began to recognize a transformation in herself. She learned to embrace doubt and a sense of God’s absence as a strength and even source of joy. She said, 

“For the first time in 11 years  - I have come to love the darkness – For I believe now that it is a part, a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth . . . Today really I felt a deep joy . . . More than ever I surrender myself to Him. Yes – more than ever I will be at his disposal.”

Let me be clear – doubt can be excruciatingly painful and Mother Theresa did not believe that doubt itself was life-giving but she did believe that God is. And in God’s economy – nothing is wasted and God can make even doubt a blessing. Doubt, in God’s hands, can help grow your faith, help you believe, help you to go the distance in your spiritual journey. 

And that brings us back to Thomas. Thomas Didymus – “the twin”. But whose twin? I’ve come to believe that he’s my twin and your twin. Church tradition tells us that Thomas took the gospel message all the way to India. If that’s true, then the quintessential doubter does something quite extraordinary. Of all the apostles, Thomas, travels the farthest distance to share the gospel, walks more miles (literally) for the sake of love.

Song: Doubting Thomas is a modern lament for the doubter by Nickel Creek (not a Christian group), if you doubt let it give you words to weep, words of comfort, words of hope. If you don’t doubt, let it give you words to pray and remind you of the struggle of many. Wherever you are, may you hear it and find your welcome in the wounds of Jesus amongst the church. 

You can hear the song with lyrics at this link:

[1] Cited in Wennberg, Faith at the Edge: A Book for Doubters (emphasis mine)

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