As is fitting and proper during the season of Easter, we again have readings this Sunday that all deal with belief, doubt, and unbelief.
You might think I am being redundant with those last two. Aren’t doubt and unbelief the same thing? I would argue that the answer is “No.” And that’s because we often get too squishy with our language. First, unbelief is a refusal to open ourselves to the possibility that something can be true. Unbelief is what Peter is addressing in our reading from Acts today. Unbelief can be as inflexible as bone, but it can also be a reasonable response to something that is just “too good to be true.”
Doubt is a way-station between belief and unbelief—doubt is an acknowledgement that certainty may not be attained, and yet a willingness to wrestle with the unknown. Doubt is an openness to conversation, a doorway into relationship between what we know and what we may not trust yet trust.
Finally, “faith” and “knowledge” are not the same thing at all, and although they can be complementary, they certainly aren’t opposed to each other. One of the things that I love about the Episcopal Church, and that drew me to it when I was twelve, is that here we can have our faith and our scientific knowledge, too, unlike some of the churches which I attended as a child. In a religious context, faith is trusting in something even if we may not have knowledge of it. Faith is often married to the future, looking forward to what seems ephemeral, or even impossible. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews explains.
Yet the path we take to get to faith is rarely straightforward. Most of us do not stay in any one position in our spiritual lives, but often swing like a pendulum from faith, to doubt, to unbelief, and back again. Jesus’s patience with the disciples reminds us of how normal that is.
Singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman beautifully describes what faith is like in the first verse of her song “Every December Sky:”
Every December sky
Must lose its faith in leaves
And dream of the spring inside the trees.
How heavy the empty heart,
How light the heart that's full.
Sometimes I have to trust what I can't know;
Sometimes I have to trust what I can’t know.
Now, I am no fan of winter, but there’s some deep wisdom there. The dead leaves have to be released, and when they are, the bare branches are then revealed, reaching for the sky with a naked longing that is all too often obscured under the cloud of green they wear for half the year. By December, even the bell-shaped leaves of the blackjack oak that have rattled overhead for months in the forests around here begin to get ready to give way so that the new buds can push their way through. By April, we STILL have faith that spring will come-- come on, Spring!-- even as we shiver-- AGAIN!-- today. It's gotta come, right?
Those leaves have to give way, in faith that there WILL be spring stirring inside those trees, stirring even in December, so that the forest can shine out with new life and growth again. The trees unfurl their leaves in faith of the warming spring, and they shed their leaves in faith even in winter’s grip.
The sap will rise in the pines, and the buds will break out on redbud, hickory, and oak, revealing what seems foolish to be instead a thread of the deep wisdom that binds creation together. Autumn is not an ending, but is instead an act of faith—spring is its fruition, a slow turning fueled by hope and approaching joy.
Having to trust what we can’t know is a challenge. That’s the problem the disciples faced as they had their first encounters with the risen Christ. They are clinging to the dead leaves of heartbreak, disbelief, and fear, because they think they have been left bereft, and those leaves are all they have left. It is there that the risen Christ appears among them, reassuring them and preparing them for the next phase in their ministry.
The gospel passages of these last two weeks especially are held in complementry tension with each other. Both gospels have Jesus appear to the fearful disciples on the evening of Easter Sunday. Both gospels have Jesus addressing the fear of the disciples with an offering of Christ’s peace. This week’s version from Luke omits Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit on them (Luke has that happen on Pentecost in the Book of Acts). Instead of Thomas doubting, we get a flat statement that, even after seeing the wounds of Jesus’s crucifixion, all the disciples are filled with wonder—and unbelief. They are so caught up in the events of the previous few days that they cannot accept at first what is happening to them right now in the present. And if the apostles themselves have problems moving to faith, what a comfort that is to us, living 2000 years and a half of the world away!
Jesus’s first words here in Luke this Sunday, just as we saw in the gospel of John last Sunday, is to bless them with peace. Just like in John’s gospel, this is in response to their fear, which Jesus understands. He then commands those present to look at him- to truly see him, and to know that he is real. Of course, the first tendency is to think that they are looking at a ghost. Yet Jesus eating and drinking is meant to underscore that this is a living, breathing Christ that they encounter—ghosts have no need for food or drink. This also directly addresses the doubts of those who attempted to understand Jesus as never being fully human—an argument that has divided Christians throughout the history of the Church.
Passages such as the ones we have heard the last two weeks help underscore the humanity of Jesus, risen and fully alive, breathing and enfleshed, hungry and thirsty. “Have you anything here to eat?” he asks—apparently in their joy they have forgotten how to be good hosts. Perhaps they did not believe that Jesus really was alive, even though they have seen the wounds. We are reminded that, even in their joy, they were “disbelieving” and “still wondering.” Asking to be fed emphasizes that Jesus is real flesh, fully one of us.
We also are called to see the risen Christ in our midst, especially when he is where we least expect him. He is there in every person asking us for something to eat or drink. He is there in every person who asks us for shelter, or for refuge.
He is there, in every person, asking us to really see him and to welcome him.
Jesus then “opened their minds” to the full understanding of how he was the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets—the same claim Peter was making in our first reading from Acts. To be fair, given Jesus’s penchant for teaching using parables, especially obscure ones, he doesn’t seem that frustrated to be having to explain everything plainly now. They have all, after all, been through a terrible ordeal. And the resurrection IS an incredible thing to believe. Those of us living two millennia later can take comfort in the fact that those who knew Jesus best during his earthly ministry had to overcome a huge amount of doubt themselves. And that reminds us of our calling.
We who are disciples— lay and ordained, doubting as we all are at one time or another—are tasked with carrying that witness out into the world. In last week’s passage from John 20, that was made explicit when Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit upon them, which for us recalls our baptism.
We live in a world in which cynicism, faithlessness, and self-centeredness have been raised to art forms. We tell ourselves that this is the way of the world. We tell ourselves that “looking out for Number One” protects us and makes us stronger. But as Christians, we are repeatedly reminded that these kinds of things are dead leaves that prevent us from the dream of God for our lives. Placing our faith in those dead leaves prevents us from making room in our hearts for the welling up of the love of Christ within us, that leads to true peace, contentment, and joy. Like those disciples, we are called to witness to how we have encountered the risen Christ in our midst, or in our hearts.
We are called not just to witness, but to LIVE Resurrection, right now. As an act of faith, and an act of being.
Jesus—risen, living, one of us—calls us to rededicate ourselves to a Resurrection Faith-- a faith that responds to God’s grace by seeking to living out the love of Christ into the world. A faith that drops the mask of cynicism that we often adopt to protect our fragile, broken hearts. One that calls us instead to open ourselves up to the joy of life that rises like dawn from the deepest darkness that we allow to settle over our souls.
We worship a living Savior—one who endured all-- all for the sake of love, as our epistle reminds us, love that makes us God’s children too. That love leads us to resurrect our faith in ourselves, and in others, to be more perfect, more loving, more compassionate.
A Resurrection Faith is one that calls us not to just love God out of fear of the terrible punishment we think we deserve for our manifold sins, but calls us to love God through living out the Great Commandment: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your strength, and all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself."
A Resurrection Faith calls us to the work of building up rather than tearing down. A Resurrection Faith raises us all from the dead, and calls us to be alive in each moment and in each other. A Resurrection Faith calls us to be, not just profess.
A Resurrection Faith that calls us to lose our faith in the dead leaves of fear to which we cling, so that we stretch toward the light of Christ, knowing that the spring of faith is inside us, waiting to rise.
1 John 3:1-7
(1) Beth Nielsen Chapman, "Every December Sky," from her album Deeper Still, 2002.
(1) Duccio di Buoninsegna, Appearance While the Apostles are at Table, 1308-1311.
(2) Leslie Scoopmire, "December Sky/ Bare Branches, Rising Birds," December, 2011.
(3) Blackjack oak leaves.
(4) Leslie Scoopmire, "Budding joy," May, 2013.
(5) Leslie Scoopmire, "Asleep in a La Rambla Doorway, Barcelona," Barcelona, May, 2016.
(6) A copy of "Homeless Christ," a scultpture by Timothy P. Schmalz, located outside Catholic Charities in Washington DC.
Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Rolla, at the 8:00 and 10:00 am services, April 15, 2018.