The Problem of Going AWOL in a Crisis
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, May 3, 2020
Reading: John 20:19-30
It was the darkest days of 1940, when Winston Churchill had to make grave decisions about the war and the state of his country. He was beset at every turn with problems, challenges, and uncertainties. Recently, like many of you, I’ve had the opportunity to watch movies I normally wouldn’t have an opportunity to watch. I saw, The Darkest Hour, a wonderful movie that shows Churchill agonizing over his decisions.
It is interesting that eighty years ago to this very day, the invasion of Belgium began. It was a time when Americans were uncertain about supporting the British. People were asking Churchill to appease Hitler and Mussolini and he was not getting support from the monarch and felt very much alone. When he was sitting in a bunker, Clementine, his wife, came to him, and said: “You are strong because you are imperfect. You are wise because you have doubts.”
A former professor of mine, at the Atlantic School of Theology, once warned those who were going into ministry: “Easter will bring out both the strongest faith and the strongest doubts in people” and over the years, pastorally I have found that to be true; a strong sense of faith comes in the affirmation that Christ is risen. But still there are people who have doubts and uncertainties. They are almost two sides of the same coin.
Many of us find ourselves in positions of doubt now. We are doubtful about ourselves, and we have self-doubts, particularly if our we are unsure about what’s going to transpire with our jobs. We are unsure, and we have our doubts whether we can trust the markets going forward, and what that will be able to do for us, particularly those in retirement. There are doubts, I think, about God’s providence, when so many people seem to be suffering on so many levels; and I think there are those who have their doubts about the resurrection and what it means in a world that is continually dominated by bad news, or by news that, at the very best, seems uncertain. We are a little bit like Winston Churchill in his bunker, but I think the worlds of Clementine are quite telling for us, that we are wise when we have our doubts.
There is no character in the Bible that personifies that with greater clarity or passion than Thomas. In today’s reading we have this incredible encounter. The great John Marsh, the New Testament professor at Mansfield College, Oxford, now deceased unfortunately, said that this was, in many ways, the crown of John’s Gospel, the high point. Some have argued, and I think rightly so, that in the Gospel of John there are many signs of Jesus’ Messiahship, many signs of His lordship, beginning with the wedding at Cana, but ending with Jesus’ encounter with Thomas. Thomas, in many ways, represents all of us. The encounter he had with Jesus goes right to the heart of doubt and the heights of faith.
But why? Why is Thomas an example in a time such as this? First, he acknowledged what he did not know. Thomas had a bad name – the slur, “Doubting Thomas” has carried with it a lot of persecution in the annals of history. It is unfortunate because in many ways, Thomas, as we see in the gospels, was a very faithful disciple. In John 11:16, when Jesus is talking to the disciples about his impending demise, it was Thomas who says, “I am willing to die with you.” Thomas was faithful. Also, many of the things that Thomas expected, came true. He understood that Jesus was going to die. He was ready for the persecution and we’re told that he was there at the crucifixion itself. So, Thomas had not in any way left Jesus alone, he was there. His life, in fact, his discipleship had been a faithful one. But when Jesus died Thomas went into isolation. We don’t know where he went, we don’t know what he did, but clearly, Thomas decided to be on his own and he did not have fellowship with the other disciples.
In many ways it was like Winston Churchill in that bunker; he suffered alone. And when you suffer alone, you can lose perspective. When you suffer alone, you can start to dream of things, or think of things that may not be the most healthy. We hear nothing from Thomas after the crucifixion, until the encounter with Jesus. Thomas was a solitary figure, and I think many of us can identify with him at the moment. We have witnessed the suffering of others; we’ve seen what’s going on in nursing homes, we see statistics on our screen, we hear stories in Nova Scotia. We hear of the suffering of people in Alberta. After a while, when you are isolated and alone, these things can overwhelm you, and I think honestly, Thomas was just overwhelmed.
On Easter Sunday, I said that I miss you, and I was of course talking about missing the faithful, missing the worshipful, missing those who are around us. I know that I miss other things in my life. I miss my friends, I miss going out and having lunch and coffee with my colleagues and with my buddies. I miss family members – my great-niece, how I’d love to give her a hug and play with her right now, but I can't. I miss, and I'm going to miss the fraternity that I have with both Formula One and with Indy people. They are people that I miss on one level. But there is another level that’s different, and that is the level of missing the faithful, missing the community, missing the body of Christ.
I think Thomas missed that. And because he missed it, he went into a really deep doubt, almost a despair, because the last thing he really thought about was the crucifixion of Jesus. In all of this, he had his disbelief. It welled up within him during his time of isolation but finally he does meet with the disciples, and regain a connection with them, and they tell him, “Thomas, you’ve missed the show, you've missed things. Jesus was here, he revealed himself. He was here, present with us as a risen body. We recognised him, we heard him. But Thomas was defiant. He’d been in isolation, he had his doubts, and he said, “Unless I can put my fingers where the nails were in his hands – the last thing he’d seen at the crucifixion – or the place the sword went into his side I will not believe.”
He wanted evidence. He wanted proof. He had lived in isolation and he had missed it. But what he had missed witnessing something amazing. He had missed the divine commissioning to the disciples. He had missed the community of Christ with his disciples. He had gone AWOL, to use that phrase, and he missed all the glorious and the wonderful things that made up the life of that encounter between Jesus and the disciples. Thomas’ doubt, Thomas isolation had caused him to miss out on the big event. Thomas didn’t know that Christ was raised from the dead, and he wouldn’t believe. But something changed. Another thing about Thomas is that when he did have an encounter, his faith was all the stronger for it.
You know me and my love of poetry. I was sitting back reading my favourite poets, and you all know, I think by now, if you've listened to me for any length of time, how I love Alfred, Lord Tennyson and that I was given three volumes, leather-bound and gold-edged of Browning, Byron and Tennyson, like, the holy trinity of poems and poets. I love those books. I went back into In Memoriam in the 96th stanza, and there are these wonderful words by Tennyson, and Tennyson, as you know, was a Christian. He wrote about that in whose memoriam it was placed:
Perplexed in faith, but pure in deeds,
At last he beat his music out.
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.
He fought his doubts and gathered strength,
He would not make his judgment blind,
He faced the spectres of the mind
And laid them: thus he came at length
To find a stronger faith his own.
Wow. There is more faith in honest doubt. There is a sense that you can come to a stronger faith, having gone through your doubts. That’s what happened to Thomas. Jesus comes to Thomas on his own. He recognises that of the disciples, Thomas wasn’t there. He must have had a great affection for Thomas. If he had it for Peter, surely he’d have it for Thomas. Peter had denied him three times. Judas Iscariot had betrayed him, but Thomas had stayed with him to the end and Jesus honours that. Even though he would have heard that Thomas had doubts about his risen presence, Jesus treated him with respect and love. He shows him his hands, and he shows him his side, and invites him to come and see and touch.
Then he says, “How much better it is, though, Thomas, for those who believe but have not seen. How much better even for those who are going to follow in your footsteps, than in fact it is for someone like you.” Thomas, having been treated with respect, having had this encounter by Jesus, who came to him – not Thomas coming to Jesus – says these immortal words, the words that characterise the New Testament’s power: “My Lord and my God!”
Thomas gets to say the crowning thing in the Gospel of John.
You see, my friends, there is a great distinction between having, as Thomas did, an honest doubt, and having disbelief. Sometimes we confuse the two; we think that when we have our doubts, we disbelieve. Sometimes though, people wash over their disbelief and their rejection of the faith, as if that doesn’t matter, and it does matter. Disbelief is different.
I read an incredible sermon that came from a famous preacher, Henry Drummond, in Massachusetts in 1887 – I'm really digging deep here now, right? He’s in Northfield, Massachusetts, a place I know, and he made this observation:
Christ never failed to distinguish between doubt and unbelief. Doubt is can’t believe, unbelief is won’t believe. Doubt is honesty, unbelief is obstinacy. Doubt is looking for light, unbelief is content with darkness. Loving darkness rather than light, that is what Christ attacked, and attacked unsparingly.
For the intellectual questioning of Thomas and Phillip and Nicodemus, and many others who came to him to have their great problems solved, he was respectful and generous and tolerant. How did he meet their doubts? The church, as I have said, says, “brand him.” Christ says, “teach him.” He destroyed by fulfilling. When Thomas came to him and denied his very resurrection, and stood before him, waiting for the scathing words and the lashing for his unbelief, they never came. They never came because Christ gave him the facts. He gave Himself.”
That kind of openness of faith is what we need to have in our current situation. An openness to Christ’s presence, an openness to the power of Christ’s love. Don’t misunderstand me, we’re living in isolation at the moment, and as wonderful as I hope you find these services are to you, and hopefully it’s bringing you some real sense of joy and peace, it’s not the same as being together. It’s not the same as having fellowship and the bond of the Spirit. I sometimes fear in post-COVID that we will have what I would call an “ersatz church” or an “ersatz fellowship”, a Koinonia, when in fact we really need each other. Just as Thomas needed the disciples, he was realised and recognised by Jesus personally, but he’d missed out, because he had missed things communally.
We still need fellowship – don’t misunderstand me – we still need the contact with one another and the ministry to each other. But Christ can also still come to us, and come to you, just as he did to Thomas, if you will open yourself to him.
I had a beautiful conversation with Nupur James, Director of Children and Youth Ministries, who is from Hyderabad, India. I said, “You know, the amazing thing is that Thomas is often recognised as the saint who brought the Gospel of Jesus Christ to India.” There are many stories of Thomas that are legendary, but Thomas, the man who said, “My Lord and my God,” was the one who, in many ways, brought Christianity to India. There are shrines to him, there are churches named after him. People do pilgrimages to those churches in honour of him. In Velankani and other places, there is this sense that Thomas made a difference.
Thomas makes a difference in our lives too. Thomas speaks to us. We might have our doubts, we might have our fears, but when we have those, we are at our strongest, because in the midst of it all, Christ Jesus comes, and we declare with our whole life, from a strong place, “My Lord and my God!” Amen.