If you had been alive that first week after Jesus was crucified, would you have been one of the believers or one of the skeptics? If you had been a follower of Jesus, would you have believed the stories you were hearing, or would you have needed to see with your own eyes? If you had been one of the ten disciples to whom Jesus appeared on that first night, would you wonder if what you thought you experienced was true? Are there other Biblical stories and claims that do not make sense to your 21st century mind?
It might be helpful to remember that there are a number of mythic stories in the Bible that were understood by their first hearers, and those who listened to them for centuries later, as stories that were never meant to be factual, but were intended to convey something true about the human experience of God, or about what it means to be human. Some of those stories attempt to answer big, existential questions, like where did we come from? Or why do bad things happen to good people? It wasn’t until the Enlightenment that we began to read the Bible literally. Some miraculous stories have always had more power for people of faith, and it’s some of those stories that drive skeptics away from the faith. I think a healthy skepticism is a good thing. It means that we are using our God-given ability to think and to reason. I can’t imagine that the Creator of the vastness and wonder of space, and the extraordinary diversity of just the part of the world that we can see, and the complexity of the structures that we are still discovering too small for the human eye—I can’t imagine that God would want us to leap blindly to some belief that doesn’t make sense to the incredible minds that we are given.
So my rule of thumb is: if some part of scripture or the tradition doesn’t make sense to me after applying the tools of careful reading, the wisdom of my peers, my own experience, and thoughtful reasoning, I think of it as the bones that are left after I eat a piece of chicken. The bones are still chicken, but they are not nourishing or helpful to me. Sometimes I will find that something that has not made sense becomes crystal clear when the tradition is discarded and I read through a new lens. But that’s a topic for another day. Today, I want to affirm any healthy skepticism you have had about claims of the Christian faith. I am grateful to John’s gospel for preserving this story of healthy skepticism and doubt. Good for Thomas! He’s the kind of guy who would proclaim that the emperor has no clothes—to mix parables. And we need clear-eyed skeptics to keep our faith and church real and relevant.
So here’s the bottom line for me. I don’t need to believe in anything that scripture or the faith claims about Jesus. To be a follower of Jesus, I just need to believe that what he said was true and trust that it will work in my life. For example, I don’t need to believe in the virgin birth to follow Jesus. I do need to believe what Jesus said about loving my neighbor as much as I love myself, meaning I believe your child needs as good an education as mine does, and I will support public education. I don’t have to believe that Jesus could turn water into wine, but I do believe that the plain, ordinary gifts that I offer can become beautiful, healing, joy-filled, and celebratory through the power of love. I might not be able to wrap my brain around whatever happened in the resurrection, but I can be so committed to loving God and my neighbor and to the cause of justice, that I am willing to pour out my life every day even to the point of risking my life.
The amazing part of today’s reading, that gives me hope when I doubt, is Jesus’ willingness to show Thomas what he showed the other disciples. That’s the generosity of God’s love showing. But for some of us, that still may be in the realm of the unbelievable. So I am grateful for every demonstration of the possibility of new life that I encounter. It may be as ordinary as new leaves on the trees or tulips bursting out of the cold dark earth. When I have failed in some way, big or small, I am grateful for the reality of butterflies (that decompose in their cocoons and emerge a different animal) and sunrises (after long dark nights) and the new life that springs up through volcanic ash. I am grateful for any sign of new life, no matter how odd it may be. So let me tell you a true story. When our son was in high school, his girlfriend’s mother worked in a veterinarian’s office. A couple brought their dog, Turkey, to the vet to have it put to sleep because it dug in their yard. The vet didn’t have the heart to put down a beautiful dog for such a petty reason. And the dog was beautiful! The vet had extra kennel space and decided to try to find the dog a new home. In the meantime, the vet had a hole in his schedule and decided to clean the dog’s teeth. During the procedure, under anesthesia, the dog died. The vet did everything he could to save Turkey. He did CPR and gave him mouth to snout resuscitation, but nothing worked. Sadly, the vet and his assistant zipped the dog into a burial bag. Just as they were putting the bag into the freezer, the dog woke up! Amazed, the vet kept the dog several days to check for brain damage, and finally released him to the home his assistant found—our home. We just couldn’t call such a beautiful dog Turkey. Duke, the wonder dog, lived with us for many years and was our beloved friend. If he were here today, he would quietly sit next to you and put his beautiful head in your lap.
As skeptical as I sometimes am, and that’s a good thing, it is also good for me to encounter realities that are a mystery to me and to simply hold that mystery as a sign of God’s presence and love. As we sing our closing hymn, let it be about believing what does make sense to you and holding a space to be surprised by the mystery.