I am a little behind publishing my sermons. Sorry. Here’s a second post for today. ALM
When it was the first day of the week on the third week of Dr. Acton’s stay-at-home order and the doors of all our houses were locked for fear of the novel coronavirus, Governor DeWine came into our living rooms and said, “Peace be with you. Although the CDC has sent me, I am not sending you until at least May 1st and even then, it will only be a gradual transition. If you keep your social distance from others, they will keep their social distance from you. And if you cough on others, they may also cough on you and you may retain COVID-19.”
But the people who thought the novel coronavirus was a government hoax did not believe Governor’s wisdom, and they doubted him. They said “Unless we see masses of people actually dying or you can prove that social distancing is flattening the so-called curve, then we will not believe.”
A week later, when we all were still locked in our houses, Governor DeWine came into our living rooms and said “Peace be with you.” Then he said to those who doubted, “There are not masses of deaths because we have practiced social distancing. And the curve is flattening because we have closed non-essential businesses. Do not doubt, but stay six feet away from each other!”
The doubters answered him: “Our governor and our hero!”
The Governor answered them: “Aw shucks. I’m just doing what the CDC told me to do. Now if only those people in Michigan could also come to believe…”
I’m probably going to be condemned as a heretic when my bishop hears how I misappropriated that text, but I thought we needed a little laugh. And just to be clear, I do NOT believe that Governor DeWine is Jesus.
But still, are we not locked in our houses for fear of the coronavirus? And are there not doubters among us who want proof before they will believe that there IS a coronavirus—proof being seeing for themselves that people are dying in masses? And are we not blessed for believing in the wisdom and recommendations of our leaders even though we have never seen the coronavirus and few of us know anyone who has it? Well, maybe we are not blessed, but we are safer for the believing.
As recent days have shown us, it is often difficult to trust in the witness and wisdom of others when our own experience does not bear it out. After all, Thomas didn’t want anything more than what the other disciples had already received. He wanted to see for himself. He wanted proof. He wanted his own Jesus experience.
Maybe if everyone knew someone who died of the coronavirus, then maybe everyone would believe what we’ve been told, for our experience will have proved the truth of what we’d heard. But of course, such proof in our circumstances would mean the deaths of many people and surely no one would wish for that just to banish their personal doubts.
Yet my comparison still holds some water. All those who doubt the virulence of the coronavirus can point to the fact that there have been less than 500 deaths and less than 10,000 cases in our whole state. Those who believe that COVID-19 is as bad as the CDC says, can point to the staggering statistics in New York or Italy or China as their proof. And yet, for many people, without direct experience of someone with the virus, doubt about the danger is still strong.
I think that much of this so-called doubt is probably less about disbelieving than it is about how this situation has decimated people’s lives. The loss of jobs and income, the stress of staying home, the absence of activities and goods that we have taken for granted is fueling discontent with the stay-at-home and social distancing orders. And the mixed messages from our leaders certainly do not help people feel confident or comforted. And the result is fear, turned into frustration, turned into anger.
Yet at the root of anger one will usually find fear. Fear of losing what is most important to us; fear of where we will be when all this is over; fear of what our lives will be like in the future. I think fear was part of Thomas’ doubt as well.
Let me say first what I say every year—for we always have the story of so-called Doubting Thomas on the Sunday after Easter—Thomas got a bad rap. This so-called “doubter” is the same man who urged his fellow disciples to accompany Jesus to Jerusalem so that they could all die together. That took guts. And Thomas is the first of the disciples who recognized that the resurrection of Jesus was not the same as the raising of Lazarus. No, Thomas was the first one to confess that Jesus was both his Lord and his God. And tradition holds that Thomas spent the rest of his life witnessing to Jesus, going as far as India to do so, where an Indian king had Thomas stabbed to death for refusing to worship an idol. So Thomas may have had his moment of doubt, but he more than compensated for it with the rest of his life.
Yet I maintain that Thomas’ doubt was not so much doubt as it was fear. I think that Thomas may have been afraid to believe that Christ had been raised. Afraid to believe what he had not seen with his own eyes. Think about what he and the others had seen and had been through in the previous week.
They marched into Jerusalem hailed as heroes. Within five days, their master, their Messiah, who they were certain had come to save Israel—within 5 days he was arrested, tried for heresy, tortured, and executed. All Jesus’ friends fled, including we assume Thomas and they went into hiding. They were devastated by their loss, filled with grief, confused as to what the past three years had been all about. They were afraid for their lives—what if the Jews or Romans came after them next? They probably were afraid to leave the city and go home in case they were arrested as they tried to leave.
And then on the 3rd day, the tomb was empty, Mary Magdalene claimed to have seen Jesus alive, and they don’t know what to believe. And then, suddenly there was Jesus standing before them, showing them that he was indeed alive. He gave them a mission and granted them the power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish that mission. Imagine how joyful and relieved they must have felt! Probably still a bit confused, but filled with hope and joy. Jesus was not dead but alive and their lives had purpose once more. It wasn’t the purpose they might have thought, but it was still a holy purpose from God.
And then Thomas came into this joy-filled group and they told him this ridiculous story about Jesus being alive and Thomas refused to believe them because he was afraid. He was afraid to believe, he was afraid his life would have no purpose, and maybe he was afraid that Jesus purposely came when Thomas was gone, leaving him out of everything. So Thomas expressed his fear as doubt, as a demand for proof.
Which Jesus gave him. A week later. Imagine Thomas’ frustration and fear growing as the other disciples continued to talk about their encounter with the risen Lord and Thomas was left out in the cold. And notice when Jesus did appear again, there is no word of chastisement, no blame for Thomas’ fear and doubt. Just an invitation to believe. And Thomas believed. He believed more than almost anyone else. He gave his life to the mission Jesus gave them, to proclaim salvation in Christ’s name.
To return to my analogy, we are in a time of belief and disbelief—at least about the coronavirus. There is little I can say to convince you to change camps. If you believe what our government leaders are saying, you believe and if you doubt, you doubt. I do not have an MD after my name that I might convince you otherwise.
But I do have an MDiv after my name and I can speak to what it means to have doubts regarding faith. And I trust that you know that having doubts is a normal part of faith and that we should never be embarrassed by our doubts. Like Thomas, we should be honest about our doubts. We should not be afraid to ask for our own Jesus experience. We should expect Jesus to come to us as well. And we can do this, knowing that Jesus understands our doubts and our desire for our own spiritual encounter with him. We can trust that Jesus will not chastise or condemn, but will come to us in the ways we need in order to believe.
And our task, in the midst of doubts, is to remain faithful—that is, to continue act faithfully—and to be patient. Jesus will come to us at the right time. After all, Thomas had to wait a whole week, surely an eternity when everyone else was already sure. And Christ will come to us. He comes to us in our prayer, he comes to us in holy communion, he comes to us in one another, he comes to us in our gathering—something I hope will happen for us soon. For I miss seeing the Christ in you and I think you miss seeing the Christ in each other.
Yet we are still the body of Christ in the world, still those called to bear witness, still those who seek to have life in his name. As the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us—doubts and all—to tell the world that through Christ, they—and we—may have life in his name. Amen.