We are a small Episcopal Church on the banks of the Rappahannock in Port Royal, Virginia. We acknowledge that we gather on the traditional land of the first people of Port Royal, the Nandtaughtacund, and we respect and honor with gratitude the land itself, the legacy of the ancestors, and the life of the Rappahannock Tribe. Our mission statement is to do God’s Will in all that we do.

Three Kinds of Doubt – Salt’s Lectionary Commentary for Easter 2, Year B

3 kinds of doubts on Easter 2

1. Fear that all is lost.
2. Suspicion that death still has dominion, that physical resurrection is impossible, that no one can die and rise again.
3. Mere resurrection isn’t enough, that only a wounded-and-risen savior is the genuine article

Key points

This is the second week of Eastertide (there are seven such weeks, poetically one more than the six weeks of Lent). This week and next are stories of the risen Jesus appearing to his followers, and the following four weeks will explore Jesus’ teachings about faith and intimacy with God.

A recurring theme in the resurrection appearance stories is how, from the very outset, Christian communities struggled to perceive and believe. For starters, the risen Jesus isn’t recognized at first. Mary Magdalene thinks he’s the local gardener, and later in John, the disciples don’t recognize him on the beach (John 20:15; 21:4). Likewise, as we’ll see next week, in Luke, two of Jesus’ followers have an extended conversation with him (and about him!) without realizing who he is (Luke 24:13-27). In this way, both John and Luke go out of their way to suggest that resurrection means something more mysterious than simple resuscitation: Jesus has risen, and at the same time he is somehow different. Part of what’s going on here is early Christian communities wrestling with the fact that great numbers of people didn’t notice Jesus’ return (as they did, for example, in the case of Lazarus’ resurrection (see John 12:9)). And part of it is an exploration of the idea that “resurrection” defies conventional categories. In any case, Jesus is back, but only a few have eyes to see that it’s really him; even his closest followers need help.

Thomas just forthrightly asks for what the others have already received, including the opportunity to inspect Jesus’ wounds. Thomas is no different than the rest of the disciples. On the contrary, he’s a representative icon for their doubts, and for their dependence on “signs and wonders” in order to believe.

“And I call you and commission you toward that deeper faith, that higher understanding. Now I give you the Holy Spirit, and send you out, away from my physical body, into an even deeper, blessed intimacy with me. Even my resurrection, the sign of all signs, isn’t the end of the road for you: with the Spirit’s help, go, climb still higher! There is a more blessed faith beyond signs and wonders: the trust of those who have not seen!

In fact, one way to interpret stories like this one is to emphasize how they narrate the resurrection (literally the “standing again”) not only of Jesus but also of the community of disciples, moving them from inward-focused, locked-up fear to outward-focused, liberated witness. Jesus’ resurrection gives rise to the disciples’ resurrection — and in turn, they are sent out to proclaim, with their lives and words, the good news of new life for the world.

“Doubting Thomas”? More like “Seeing-Is-Believing Thomas” — and Jesus calls him, and all the disciples, to step out beyond a faith that depends too much on “signs and wonders,” to grow beyond a “seeing-is-believing” form of Christian life. The seven signs around which John’s Gospel is organized — and the eighth sign, Jesus’ resurrection — are meant to point beyond themselves toward creation as a whole, toward God’s love for that creation, and toward the ways we are commissioned to declare and enact that love in everything we do.

Why would Jesus teach and encourage the disciples to move beyond “signs and wonders” dependency? The heart of faith, as the author of Hebrews puts it, is “conviction of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1). Signs and wonders have their place, but Jesus wants to lead his followers into a faith that can flourish even when what can be “seen” is sparse or dispiriting. Faith discerns beyond the visible, beyond the surface of things — and so lights a candle in the darkness, sings a song of hope in the valley of the shadow of death, even and especially when “signs and wonders” seem nowhere to be found.

Some may say (or think), “OK, but do I have to believe in Jesus’ physical resurrection from the dead?” Many people struggle with variations on this question, and so this is the perfect week to name, affirm, and explore the role of doubt in the life of faith. Do you have doubts? You’re in good company, both in scripture and in church! Do you believe? You’re in good company, too, though much of scripture warns against letting our believing become too settled, too rote, or too domesticated. As the Swiss theologian Karl Barth has pointed out, miracle stories (and resurrection stories most of all) are designed to astonish — and astonishment, after all, is a blend of belief and disbelief. Accordingly, Christians should neither merely “believe” miracle stories (for that would mean we aren’t truly astonished by them) nor merely “disbelieve” them (ditto). Rather, these stories should leave us continually “taken aback,” helping us call into question our assumptions about what may or may not be “possible” and “impossible,” and thereby inviting us into an open-minded, open-hearted posture of Easter faith, Easter doubt, and Easter joy.