The Reverend Margaret Legg
Low Sunday is traditionally when you take a week off from religion and have a lie in, especially if, unlike me, you managed the full gamut of foot washing, Andrew Lloyd Webber and struggling out of bed for the dawn vigil last Sunday, Easter Day. Congratulations on your devotion!
Personally I never doubted we would have a decent size congregation this morning and today’s gospel has become the classic illustration of faith and doubt. Doubting Thomas!
I would speak of doubt this morning and how it can be a good thing, particularly in faith settings, particularly in church. Because faith and doubt are not opposites. Indeed, faith and doubt can nourish each other; doubt can be a journey to a deeper meaning and understanding of faith. Because the opposite of doubt is not faith but certainty: faith is not like an electric light switch – flick it on and you’re certain that it will work.
The positives of doubt were brought home to me when I went to the cinema last weekend. Well, what do you do over Easter when the weather is miserable, you’ve maxed out on roast lamb and chocolate and it’s still pouring with rain? I went to see ‘The Shape of Water’. It’s about a strange beast, quasi-fish and sort-of human, discovered in the rain forests of the Amazon. Brought to Baltimore in the early 1960s and kept in a tank at a government research lab, he is subjected to brutal torture in the name of science and national security.
Topical theme: water; an egg (the hardboiled variety) features prominently and without giving too much away, the ultimate victory of the tortured creature. The victory is possible only because the protagonist, Elisa, doubts the certainty of all those around her that he is no more than a beast, and her doubts lead her to do two things: To challenge the web of rules and responsibilities by which the creature is successfully controlled, the certainty that ‘the asset’ as he’s referred to, is only of scientific use and will ultimately be killed, and to take risks. To put her livelihood, her home, her social standing at risk, in order to gain a deeper understanding of who this creature really is.
Perhaps because it was Easter, it made me think of Jesus, the great challenger of Jewish ritual and legalism, the great risk taker, who would put his head above the parapet and lash out against injustice; think of the cleansing of the temple, speaking to the Samaritan woman...
Without giving away too much, her life is changed dramatically and wonderfully and this all started because she had doubts and looked deeper. Thomas looks deeper too, and as a result sees the risen Christ, and believes. Doubt can nourish faith. It can be a positive. So make friends with your doubts. Talk about them, question each other – What do you think/ I’m not sure when the Vicar says…! Thomas was not backward about coming forward to the other disciples with his uncertainty.
And talk about them, because they can be dangerous. Here’s the health warning: doubts can isolate us.
When we’re unsure, we can see the world as through a window: on one side of the glass, happy, untroubled people; on the other – you. You’re stricken by a private calamity and you don’t know where to turn; you’ve done something wrong and you don’t know how to put it right; you’re sick, but you’re putting on a brave face and no-one knows. Horrible things to face. Doubts about who to turn to, whether to own up, how to get help are bad enough, but how much worse when we face them on our own. Much better to be together in the pit of uncertainty, of doubt. Elisa, in the film, finally had to confide in her two friends, to tell them her doubts. Not easy, as she was mute and her work as a cleaner was not valued. Yet somehow she persuaded them, sceptical as they were, to share her faith that this creature was not a monster, and she enlisted their help.
Thomas is not on his own. We don’t know what it was like for him to be with them, the only one of the disciples doubting Jesus appearance. Was he sad that he had missed out? Was he annoyed because the others were rejoicing and he was the odd one out? But we do know that he was not alone. I hope he talked it through with the others, asked them questions, argued the toss, rather than remaining silent, wrestling alone with his uncertainties. Because it’s alright to doubt, to ask questions, to talk things through. Doubts can take you on a journey to faith’s deeper meaning. That’s the thing about faith: it’s not a certainty that you can prove or demonstrate. It’s not like the two-times table, which I can show on my fingers is a fact. (Well maybe I won’t because I’m not mathematically inclined, but I’m sure you can!)
So let me urge you, here at St John’s, to talk to each other about your doubts, when they surface; to discuss and argue and challenge. That way, we will grow stronger in faith and together build a stronger kingdom for God here in the centre of London.