April 8, 2018
First Sunday after Easter
(Acts 4:32 – 35; John 20:19-31)
“Hey Dad, what if I jumped out of the car while it was moving? What would happen?”
“Hey Mom, what if I stuck my tongue in the socket?”
“What if I only drank root beer floats for meals?”
Sometimes we might think kids sometimes ask the most off the wall questions. But are they really that off the wall?
What if the Moon Didn’t Exist? But that’s not a kid’s question, it’s an astronomy book.
University of Maine science professor Neil Comins stumbled onto a teaching device from considering, or perhaps enduring, his son’s numerous “what-if” questions. He was convinced that science educators were stuck in a rut: always looking at their world from the same tired perspectives. He began to ask how “what-if” questions could become the catalyst for scientific discovery in his classroom. The result was Solon, and a number of other speculative what-if worlds.
Solon is a planet exactly like Earth but without the moon. Solon would have smaller ocean tides since the moon accounts for most high and low tides. No more tide pools of starfish and sea anemone for curious children to gaze into on coastal vacations.
The moon also affects the speed at which Earth rotates, so Solon would be a planet of 8-hour days instead of 24-hour days. That means we would all be three times as old and sleep one-third as many hours each night. The upside is that a workday would be from One to Four instead of Nine to Five.
Solon would be a world of regular 100 mph winds and horrifically more destructive tornadoes and hurricanes. We could forget about living or playing in any outdoor environments and we’d be reduced to pre-historic cave-dwelling for survival.
But truth be told according to Comins’ moonless model, Solon would not be a planet that could support any complex life forms. So overall, the moon seems to be working well for us and perhaps God was onto something when he spoke its existence into the Genesis void.
But beyond scientific education, “what- if” speculation is also the driving force of pop-culture curiosity. What if Jesus actually fathered a child? (Da Vinci Code) What if aliens invade Earth (E.T., Alien, War of the Worlds).
Consider the “what ifs” that make up our escapist adult thought patterns. What if I married the wrong person? What if I never went back to that horrible job? What if I never became a parent to these children? What if I hit the lottery?
In fact, one of the only places that “what if” isn’t a normal part of processing and engagement is the church: “What if God didn’t exist?” We shouldn’t ask that question here!
We’ve not always handled our outside inquisitors, our faith-teetering skeptics and our wearied doubters with gracious elegance and honest engagement.
So what if Jesus stayed in the ground after Easter?
That wasn’t just a “what if” for the disciples. That was their soul-shattered reality. Jesus was indeed God in the flesh raised from the dead, but for the first three days after the tomb they had no way of knowing. They found themselves suddenly living in a moonless Earth, of sorts.
We have to stop and put ourselves into their experience. These were confused faith-misfits who appeared to be totally wrong about the King of the new kingdom. Their rabbi was dead, and now they feared what could happen to them. They gave up careers and family to follow Him. Imagine all the haunting “what-if” questions they thought of, based on what they had seen and heard for the last three years.
To summarize their world in one word, it would be “doubt.” So how does God engage his skeptics or those whose faith is lacking?
Jesus meets with them behind closed doors. But in that room, what did the 10 disciples experience? Their world-ending fear was turned back into the joy they had hoped in. Their secluded gathering is turned into a powerful commissioning. Their despair was turned into the tangible presence of the eternal Lord and the empowering Holy Spirit.
In short, they had a religious experience.
But only 10 of them had that experience. One of the 12 may have never believed in the Christ and killed himself. Another of the 12, Thomas, was still an outsider to the Christ the 10 had experienced. He was still locked in the tomb of doubts. He was dwelling in his pre-historic cave.
What was the experience of Thomas? Was he so distraught that he just needed to be alone? Was he bitter and hardened because all he had learned of Jesus seemed a lie? Was he confused because he had to redefine all the supernatural as merely psychological phenomena? The text doesn’t tell us, but this is what our Thomases today tell us.
Their prayers seem to bounce off of the ceiling. They don’t know how to relate to an invisible God. Life is hard so God hardly seems loving. They are beset with disbelief as they watch hypocritical church leaders ensconced in scandal. Pain is a problem, dinosaurs have evolved, and the supernatural is unnatural.
So when the 10 report on what they had just experienced, Thomas felt skepticism and doubt — Thomas had not had the same religious experiences that the other 10 did. Their experience seemed foreign. Well-intentioned but not well evidenced.
Thomas is tactile and needed tangible proof, and he’s merely expressing sentiments that countless pilgrims after him will echo. Jesus appeared to Paul, why doesn’t he appear to me? God spoke audibly to Moses, so why don’t I get a burning bush? God gave Gideon a wet fleece, so why won’t he tell me his will for my life?
We read that when Jesus did return to visit the disciples it was a week later. What was that week like for Thomas? Again, we can only conjecture, but maybe he was feeling the same things many who doubt in our churches feel — alienation from friends, not just alienation from what they believed. Those in doubt need community, but tend to avoid it. It’s like people who get laid off and no longer easily pal around at happy hour with those still gainfully employed by the company. It’s like alcoholics who, rightly, cut distance from the old party crowd. After all, their community holds dearly to things they are questioning and wrestling with.
As Jesus returns to engage his last doubting disciple, he appears as dramatically as he did when he met with the 10. He offers the same ironic words “Peace be with you” to Thomas who is miles away from peace at that point. And further understanding what Thomas needs, while Thomas stands there thinking this is some kind of cruel joke, He provides tactile evidence of himself as living and risen.
As we encounter those who doubt, we remember that God knows their needs more than we do. Maybe He is testing and strengthening them through their exploration. Maybe they need to lay down their idol god or their ideal god in favor of the Real God. In any case, God knows best what they need and God is working their doubt, like all things, for their good (Romans 8:28). Therefore, there is no better way to partner with people in their doubt than to pray that in His kindness God would address their deepest needs and make known the ways He is shaping them through their questioning.
But go back and notice what Jesus doesn’t do in the face of one doubting him. Punish. Ignore. Shame. Patronize. Marginalize. He doesn’t do any of that and never will.
Unfortunately, we Christians often eat our own when it comes to doubts. When people question God, we act more like Job’s friends than Jesus’ friends. We tend to toss our apologetics or trite “let go and let God” fideisms at people. We celebrate those who are “put together” and don’t question God instead of those who are honestly engaging him. We accidentally create sterile operating rooms of faith where questions are disease that must be avoided like contamination.
But God reaches out to those of questioning faith.
Remember the storm story in Matthew’s gospel? (8:23-27). A storm comes up quickly on the lake, and the little boat in which the disciples and Jesus are sailing suddenly is swamped by a mini-tsunami. Jesus is sleeping; the disciples are not. So they awaken Jesus, and Jesus says, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?”
You wish Jesus hadn’t said that. That he could’ve been more gracious, that he didn’t have to be tough as well as tender. No one likes to get rousted out of a nice nap. Maybe he got up on the wrong side of the boat or something.
But he said it. However, notice what Jesus didn’t say.
He didn’t say, “Hey, you people of little faith, come back to me sometime when your faith is strong, when you really believe, and then I might try to help you out.” Then, Jesus grabs his pillow and pounds it into a good sleeping shape, and goes back to his nap.
He didn’t say that.
Instead, after reminding them that they had room to grow in their faith journey, he immediately came to their rescue. He “rebuked the winds.”
Jesus rebukes the winds, we don’t. We can’t make having faith a good work. Thomas doesn’t “achieve” a coming to faith. Faith is something the risen Christ brings to Thomas.
Jesus gave Thomas the help he needed even when he was in a “what-if?” mode. Even though Thomas was wondering “What if Jesus is still in the tomb?” Jesus still was willing to meet him in the vortex where faith and doubt intersect.
Today many stand in the legacy of Thomas, who in the words of fellow doubter Philip Yancey, are reaching for the Invisible God: “How do you sustain a relationship with God, a being so different from any other, imperceptible by the five senses?”
But as was the case with Thomas, when the Way, the Truth and the Life engages the doubter, Christian reality prevails. “My Lord and my God” he cried.
Can we embrace, dignify, and journey with those inside and outside of the church who have doubts of the risen Christ? If so we will strengthen the blessed that Jesus spoke of: “those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Let us pray.
That all persons who are plagued with doubt or weak faith, that they will seek out the Lord God and ask that He show Himself to them in a way that will erase their doubt in the same way as it did with St. Thomas. We pray to the Lord.
That, on this Divine Mercy Sunday, also known as Low Sunday, the Church will rededicate herself to living and proclaiming Christ’s mercy in all things and all lives. We pray to the Lord.
That leaders of governments will work to ensure that all people can live in full and unrestricted freedom. We pray to the Lord.
That the life of every human person, from conception to natural death, will be enshrined and protected in our laws. We pray to the Lord.
For the grace this week to face the trials and difficulties of life with the confidence and certainty that come from the Resurrection. We pray to the Lord.
That all peoples of the world, and especially our government leaders, will work toward more peace and an end to violence and bloodshed. We pray to the Lord.
Loving Father, the Resurrection of Your Son gives us a new birth to a living hope. In our times of doubt, confusion, or ignorance, may we seek to be filled with the truth and the light of the Risen Christ; never being afraid to approach You in prayer and to invoke Your name during these types of difficult times. We ask that this Easter season be filled with joy and in that joy that each and every one will come to know Christ as their Lord and Savior and experience His nondiscriminatory mercy. We ask all these things Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA