I was a track and cross country runner in high school. I was not an elite
athlete, but was solidly competitive in many of the distances I ran. Track and cross
country are strange hybrids. On one hand, track and cross country are individual
sports. A runner competes against other runners, but the primary competition is
oneself, or at least one’s personal best times. A runner is constantly trying to run
faster times than in previous races and while there were often medals or prizes
for placing first, second, or third in races, those honors were secondary to
improving a race time.
At the same time, track and cross country is also a team sport. In cross
country, a low team score indicates success. The first runner to cross gains one
point, the second runner gains two points, and so forth. Conversely, in track, the
highest score indicates team success. First place gained five points, second place
gained four, and so on. Any finisher beyond fifth place did not earn any points.
Keeping points in track in particular never made much sense to me, but I suspect
it was a way to keep the whole team engaged in the success of individual
There are a few truly team races in track, however. One of my favorite
races was the 4 x 400. That’s the race where four persons consecutively run the
same distance – 400 meters or one loop around the track. There is a strategy to
the order in which a team places its strongest or slowest or most competitive
runners. Usually, the runner that can handle the greatest amount of pressure runs
in the last or final leg.
Midway through my junior year of high school, just before track season
began, one of my friends who ran in the 400 came up to me at school with
excitement. A student had transferred to our high school who was a strong track
runner at his former school. One of his best events was the 400. Somehow, my
friend had learned about what the personal best for this student was in the 400,
and spent most of the rest of the school day combining his personal best with our
team’s existing personal best times, and comparing them to the best times from
other schools. I’m not sure what that says about his priorities or the quality of the
classroom education, and mind you, this was all well before smart phones and the
internet, so it was impressive to see the time charts he had created.
Bursting at the seams, my friend eagerly showed our coach what the
addition to our 4 x 400 team could help us do. I’ll never forget the coach’s
response. It’s a response born of experience, having dealt with overly eager
runners in the past. He studied the time chart, smiled, gave it back to my friend,
then reached in his pocket, and took out a stop watch – and yes, those were the
days when stop watches were still used. The coach remarked, ‘I need to see his
time here,’ he said while waving the watch,’ before I get too excited about what
we can do.’
That’s not a surprising response. It’s common for us to want to see
something, to experience it ourselves, before we believe it. Part of that is at the
core of our basic humanity. We are taught that our most effective tool for
learning is our own cognitive reasoning. It’s more difficult for us to learn if others
are doing for us, just as it is difficult for us to learn if we just accept something as
true without testing it ourselves. Seeing is believing. Believing is seeing.
That’s the basic lesson we often take from our gospel story for today.
Seeing is believing. Believing is seeing. This text from the gospel of John takes
place in the immediacy after the women discovered the empty tomb, as well as a
week after the events of the Resurrection of Jesus. The first appearance of Jesus is
a confirmation of the women’s story. The disciples are back in the upper room –
the same place where Jesus had given them his last lesson, the last supper.
Interestingly, they choose to be locked in the upper room, out of fear of
their own religious leaders and the Roman authorities, even though Peter and the
beloved disciple had seen the empty tomb, and Mary Magdalene had already
seen Jesus outside. Were they not only fearful of the authorities, and that the
authorities had taken his body away as additional punishment? Or were they
afraid that Jesus had fulfilled what he had been telling them, and they had no idea
what it meant? Or were they locked in to create greater drama for the story, to
give Jesus a supernatural ability to enter locked rooms without being seen?
That part is unclear, but what is clear is the disciples’ uncertainty about
what was happening and would happen to them. I suspect they were shocked,
terrified and bewildered, experiencing a feeling worse than doubt. Their faith in
Jesus was tested. Perhaps not tested as much as shifted and shaken. They seemed
to understand Jesus in one way – as a teacher or a revolutionary or a prophet –
and when he died the way he did and then when he was resurrected the way he
was, not only did they not understand what happened, but they didn’t know how
to think or feel or believe.
I have previously mentioned that my extended family asked me to officiate
the memorial and committal services for my late Grandmother in February. It was
a powerful and positive experience, with my more theologically conservative side
of the family expressing tremendous gratitude for the thoughtful care I offered in
preparation and the meaningful words I shared during the services.
There was only one small instance where I got some push back, and I found
it interesting. As part of the call to worship, there was a phrase where I wrote,
‘Let us trust that Mary Jane has reunited with the one who has prepared the way.’
Pretty standard stuff, right? Can anyone guess the objectionable word? Trust. The
word my aunts and uncles wanted. Know. Let us know that Mary Jane has
reunited with the one who has prepared the way.
The difference between those two words was fairly inconsequential to me,
so I didn’t object to the change, but I was curious about what the difference
meant. I asked, and never got a clear answer, but the impression I got was that
they needed the certainty of knowing Grandma was with God rather than the
faithfulness of trusting. I’m not dismissing their faith. Faith is very important to
them. But in crisis situations, many of us struggle to let faith be enough.
Enter Thomas. In my mind, Thomas doesn’t embody doubt as much as he
craves certainty. Faith is not enough for him. He wants to know that Jesus is back.
Not to believe or trust, but to know. To really know that he is back. Really back.
Strangely, Thomas was missing for that initial visit by Jesus. We don’t know why.
Again, it may have been for dramatic effect to make the resurrection more real
upon his return, but let’s take this part of the story at face value. Thomas doesn’t
believe what his friends have told him. He doesn’t believe Jesus is resurrected.
At the moment Thomas craves certainty, Jesus appears. He lets Thomas
touch his hands and side. Why? Remember that just a few verses earlier, John the
gospelwriter tells us that Mary Magdelene, who in this gospel was the first to see
and talk with the post-resurrection Jesus, but could not touch him. Jesus
specifically told Mary not to touch him. Thomas could touch Jesus, but not Mary
Magdalene – why? Mary had doubt, but her faith was strong. Thomas had faith,
but he craved certainty. Mary didn’t recognize Jesus initially, but when he
revealed himself, she believed. Both had doubts, but Thomas needed more.
So what does that mean for us? We have doubts, about a great many
things. And we have faith, about a great many things. Doubt and faith are not
opposites, but are complimentary. So often, we dismiss or discount doubts and
questions as the products of an immature faith. Sometimes we simply repeat the
same religious platitudes that we found unsatisfying in our own struggles of faith.
Sometimes in our conviction that we possess some of the answers, we act as
though we have all of the answers. The three least used, but arguably most
important words in our religious vocabulary are, "I don't know."
Patricia Gillespie writes, ‘I once had a Sunday School teacher who told me
that it was wrong to ask questions and have doubts. So I asked yet another
question: “Is God afraid of my questions and doubts?” I came to realize that God’s
not afraid but my teacher sure was.’ Or as author and modern mystic Frederick
Beuchner puts it, ‘Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a
God, if you don't have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep.
Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.’
They keep it awake and moving. Our faith does not grow because we lack
doubts, but because we embrace our doubts and let the questions that emerge
from them guide us to new insights on God and on life. May we be ever open to
the opportunities our doubts provide us to fuel and create a deeper and more
meaningful life of faith. Amen.