I’ve always resisted the notion that we must seek evidence to prove our faith. Case in point. A number of years ago, I was in a conversation with a man who could absolutely prove to me that the earth was only six-thousand years old. His evidence was a YouTube video set somewhere in the desert of the Southwest. Now, the main argument presented in this video was found in the beautiful, layered rock formations that populated this wilderness. The host, very passionately and with all the confidence in the world, pointed to these layers and said, “Look! If you count these layers, there’s six-thousand of them, one for every year, proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that the earth is six-thousand years old. And if that wasn’t convincing enough, he also pointed out that one of the layers had little shells in it right at the point in his history when Noah’s Ark would have been floating around. Well, the next time I spoke to the man he was eager to see if the video had convinced me. But instead of an affirmation, I simply asked him one question. “Did the host of the video own a shovel,” I asked? “Why?” was the response. “Well,” I said, “those giant rocks don’t sit on the top of the ground. If he were to begin digging, I’m sure he’d find the other 4.5 billion years.
Like I said before, this concept of having to prove one’s faith seems a little strange to me. I mean, isn’t the very definition of faith, “believing without seeing?” But we also have to acknowledge that this type of thinking, this seeking “an empirical faith,” is prevalent in the wider Church today. The word empirical, according to Merriam-Webster, means, “originating in or based on observation or experience.”[i] In other words, an empirical faith is a faith that requires proof. But at the end of the day, all these efforts at establishing a faith based on some “objective proof”[ii] fall short of producing a complete or a well-rounded faith.
Which brings us to our gospel text for today. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side,” Thomas said, “I won’t believe.” These infamous words earned Thomas the eternal nickname of doubting Thomas. But over the course of many years of study and sermon preparation, I’ve come to believe that the nickname “doubting Thomas” is a misnomer. I think to simply lift-up Thomas as a “doubter” and by extension, “faithless” doesn’t do justice to this passage. John was very clear all throughout his gospel account that Thomas was a faithful disciple. So, I would contend that Thomas wasn’t faithless, but rather he had a misplaced faith. Let me explain. Thomas was grieving the loss of the one he considered Messiah. He had dedicated his life to following Jesus. And now, Jesus was dead. So, it’s understandable that in his fear and confusion, Thomas needed something tactile, something as real as a dead body, before he could open himself up to the possibility of disappointment again. He needed to see for himself before he could believe. In a very real way, Thomas expressed the same kind of empirical faith that’s common in the Church today.
But the bottom line here is that Jesus’ approach to faith was not one that endorsed seeing the evidence in order to prove it for oneself. In fact, he said “blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believed”[iii] This is consistent with what we know of Jesus elsewhere. The multitudes kept coming to him and asking him for some kind of miraculous sign in order that they might believe that he was who he claimed to be. But Jesus refused. I think he knew that a faith that depends on some kind of proof or verification constantly has to be re-proven and re-verified. Those who look for evidence are always looking for evidence, and never really take the leap that faith entails.[iv]
But, we do have to be careful here. While an empirical approach to faith is an incomplete faith, so is an unexamined faith. You’ve all heard this one before, but it really gets to core of an examined faith.
A flood was on its way, forcing everyone to evacuate. The police rowed up to the home of a very pious woman in town and said, “Ma’am, you have to leave this house! People are dying out here!” The woman replied, “No, I’m not leaving. I have faith that God will save me.” And the water continued to rise. So, the woman went to the second story of her house. Another boat came by, and the captain yelled, “Ma’am, you have to get on this boat or you’re going to drown!” but the woman again replied, “No, I have faith, God will save me.” And the water continued to rise. This time she went to the top of the roof, where a helicopter came and hovered overhead. The pilot called-out on his loudspeaker, “Please climb aboard, ma’am. You are going to drown!” But yet again, the woman replied, “God is going to save me!” Well, the water continued to rise and soon she died. She did, however, go to heaven, and once she got there she wondered if she might ask God a question. “Go ahead,” said God. “I have always been faithful,” said the woman, “I’ve prayed, I consistently read my Bible, I’ve always tried to love You and my neighbor, I went to church every Sunday, God, why didn’t you save me?” “Well,” said God, “I’m stumped by that one too, I mean, I sent two boats and a helicopter!”
My friends, in the end, faith isn’t something you can quantify or verify in a test tube, any more than love or hope or mercy or compassion. But at the same time, faith isn’t blind. Having faith doesn’t mean there are never signs or reminders or evidence of God’s presence. God is around and within us all the time. My proof? I don’t have any. But what I do have is a faith based on my own experience of God in the world; my perception of that experience anyway. This is called revelation. I believe that God is revealed to us through our experience of tradition, our own Christian tradition and that of other faiths; God can be seen in our relationships with other people through love and compassion, justice and peace; and finally, God is revealed to us through nature in the beauty and interconnectedness of all creation.
And I think this is the crux of what John was driving at in this text when he put the story of Thomas’ questioning side by side with Pentecost. Yes, Pentecost. We call this text “John’s Pentecost” because this narrative is about the coming of the Spirit in John’s account. But notice something here. There are no violent winds or flaming tongues, instead, Jesus simply said, “‘Peace be with you,’ and then he breathed on the disciples, including Thomas, and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
My friends, I cannot prove to you that the very Breath of the Spirit of God is within you, but I know it to be true. There’s finally something intrinsic about faith. Something deep within our very being, calling us, challenging us, loving us. And that something, my faith tells me, is God.
So, my prayer for all of us, as this Easter Season continues, is that we will all find ourselves connecting on an ever-deepening level, with this intrinsic, more complete, understanding of faith.
May it be so. Amen.
[ii] Søren Kierkegaard observes that in matters of faith, “for every proof there is some disproof.” See Charles E. Moore, ed., Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, 256
[iii] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 226, where he points out that even those who had seen had to make the transition to believing without seeing
[iv] Alan Brehm. Leaping into the Everlasting Arms. (www.thewakingdreamer.blogspot.com) 2012