Sunday 28 April 2019: Second Sunday of Easter
Doubt filled with light
Acts 5:27-32; John 20:19-31
By Brett Ward
Parish priest of Holy Trinity, Eltham in the Anglican Diocese of Southwark
Context: Parish mass in a diverse and thoughtful suburban congregation
Aim: to encourage people to be positive about the experience of doubt
If you found yourself in Southwark Cathedral during Lent last year, you’ll know what I’m talking about. There was a huge, dark grey cloud hanging above the high altar at the east end of the cathedral. It was the year’s Lenten art installation and it was both intriguing and provocative.
The installation was called ‘Doubt.’ This great, stormy cloud was suspended mid-air. It’s as if it were holding a vast weight of accumulated droplets of questions, scepticism, uncertainties and fears, all creating one big, fascinating cumulous of doubt.
When all the diocesan priests were in the cathedral for the Chrism Mass that Maundy Thursday morning, the Dean told us how much conversation the cloud had created with visitors. Many had questioned why there should be a piece of art called ‘doubt’ inside a church building. Questions were asked like, ‘But aren’t you dealing with certainty?’ Because the Dean was speaking to a cathedral full of priests, there was much laughter at that suggestion.
To people outside the church, it’s a common impression that Christianity is indeed about certainty. But as people who are used to church life know, that isn’t what mainstream Christianity has to say, and our language emphasises that. We aren’t here proclaiming certainty about the things of God, we’re here proclaiming faith. And faith is not the same thing as certainty.
Each Sunday we proclaim, ‘we believe.’ We don’t say ‘we know,’; we say ‘we believe.’ There’s an important difference between the two. I believe my mother always loved me. I have lots of evidence for that throughout a life during which I experienced her self-giving, self-sacrifice and often great, long-suffering and patient tolerance. But I didn’t know that she loved me in the same way that, if I have one apple in each hand, I know I have two apples.
Faith and facts aren’t the same thing. Faith involves trust, and although we can have confidence, that’s not the same as certainty. It may seem a bit like playing with words, but it isn’t.
I believe Christian faith is true. I’m confident Christian faith is true. In many contexts I’d be happy to say that I’m sure Christian faith is true. But I can’t prove it to you. And at times, all kinds of doubts creep up on me, knock hard on my assumptions, and challenge me to think a bit more deeply.
All that brings us, as you’ll have long realized, to Thomas, sitting behind those locked doors and resolutely refusing to believe. Thomas, whose doubts have labelled his character for 2000 years. Thomas, whose unwillingness to believe his friends has hung like a dark cloud over his name since even before the gospel was penned. Thomas, who in his doubting is much like you and me, and yet who in his doubting is far more open and honest than Christians have often been.
We heard St John’s words that, ‘these [things] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’
The stories of the resurrection, and certainly the story of Thomas and his storm clouds of doubt, are written for our encouragement, and for the building-up of our faith. We’re told of Thomas’s doubt because there’s nothing wrong with doubting. On the contrary, doubt is a sign of a healthy faith. Unless we embrace some kind of fundamentalism or fanaticism certainty will never be ours in this life.
This means that doubt is an indicator that our faith is engaged, questioning, exploring, seeking. That’s not to say our doubts can’t sometimes be rather disturbing or frightening. To begin questioning things we’d long taken for granted or to have some new seed of uncertainty sown in our minds can be hugely disturbing.
But that questioning, that doubting, doesn’t have to mean our faith is withering. We can instead see our disturbance as more like growth pains. And as with teenage growth pains, these are also pains that indicate we’re moving into a greater maturity.
Mature faith is certainly one that looks for confidence. But the life the Gospel promises us through all this is confident, not comfortable, humbly engaged, not arrogantly certain.
Beneath that cloud in our cathedral was written a prayer. It’s a good place to finish.
God of mystery,
when the cloud descends,
when you seem unknown,
when doubts assail me
and darkness surrounds me,
lift the mist, break into the darkness
and let your light shine
in me and through me. Amen.
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