The Scars We Proudly Wear
I wanted to begin this morning by talking briefly on the state of the church. In general, I can only speak to the Presbyterian tradition, but I have a feeling these observations ring true for many denominations throughout the world today. The truth is, in many ways, the Church has failed. I’m not talking about this church in particular or any local church for that matter, but the Church, capitol C—Church, as a global, institutional organization has failed. It’s no secret that our numbers are going down and that in the last five years we have seen more people leave the Church than we’ve seen in the last twenty.
When you look at the data, you see lots of different reasons for people leaving--church corruption, misuse of money or power, you see reasons like relevance, or theological disagreement. Finally, and certainly not least, you see people saying “I simply don’t believe what the church stands for anymore.” Now if you felt a slight tinge in your heart or if you feel uncomfortable by this news, you should know that you’re not alone. It can be disheartening to hear that something you hold so dear in your heart is not considered a priority in other people’s lives. It can be frustrating when you feel like you’re trying to bring about some good in the world and others just simply don’t see the value in that work. It can be difficult when you think about the future of Christianity and its relevance in the world today.
As far as my role in all of this, part of that is to inspire hope and life through these sermons…something I’m not doing a very good job of as of yet this morning. But if you stick with me, just for a little bit, we’ll get there, I promise. I’ve mentioned before that I was raised in church all my life but in a radically different tradition than this one. It was in this context of my childhood that I was allowed to ask questions, but only certain questions that lived within the bounds of being appropriate. I wasn’t to question God or God’s actions, I wasn’t to ever question the core tenets of our belief, and I was particularly discouraged to ever express any hints that I sometimes felt doubt. The church of my childhood was very much an echo chamber of the same advice, “If you have questions, open your Bible.”
I remember this time in my life being frustrating because, in my mind, the Bible didn’t answer the questions I had, about the universe, about the laws of physics, it didn’t go into detail about why Christians believed in the Trinity or really much about why evil existed in the world. It was in this time that I didn’t doubt so much about God as I doubted the Church and its interpretation of such things. I struggled to reconcile human’s attempt to interpret God’s will in the world and I became suspicious of any tradition that claimed to know the full and absolute truth about God’s ways.
When I was eventually exposed to other ways to think about Christianity and God, about God’s interaction with the world; when I was encouraged to ask questions, when I was told that it was ok to doubt sometimes, that was what inspired new life within me. And I discovered that sometimes it takes a little more than blind faith to help us along on our journeys.
Thomas from our scripture reading gets a really bad rap on this our second Sunday of the Easter Season. We’ve just read about Jesus’ miraculous appearance to those who had locked themselves away in their houses. Thomas, by no sin of his own, missed the return of Christ, he was simply away at the time. Of course, preachers are quick to chastise poor Thomas. They criticize his lack of faith, “doubting Thomas” they call him, as if we should do everything in our lives to avoid being called a “doubting Thomas”.
We praise faith in our churches, often lifting up this example that faith does not always come from seeing but from trusting in God. But what so many churches have failed to do, is provide a space where doubts and questions and conversation can thrive. It has failed to address the need for creative expression of different ideas. It has been afraid that to re-imagine God and that to listen to how people feel God’s presence in this world, would somehow threaten the foundations of the church. Paul Tillich has a wonderful quote and he says, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith…” he later writes, “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”
If I can be blunt this morning, I don’t read our scripture passage and see Thomas as the doubter, I see him as the one brave enough to seek Christ as he fully was. I see him motivated not so much by doubt, but as the desire to experience God within what he knew to be true. His belief came in seeing the scars on Jesus’ body because for Thomas, that was a vital sign of the Jesus he knew, the man who was his friend and mentor, the man who was tortured and suffered a human death.
I’ve always thought it curious that Jesus chose to appear with his wounds. If his earthly body had gone away and his Spirit was raised, why appear in a form that showcased these scars? Why not appear in a perfect body? Was it so the disciples would recognize him? Was it to make some bold theological statement? Or was it to say that as humans, there is a powerful message that resonates from our scars, our wounds, our imperfection. Whether physical or mental, our scars make us the people we are today…and because we have the ability to love and to feel pain, to have faith but also question, does that not then help us to grow closer to God and build a stronger foundation for our faith?
As a Church, the global Church of Christianity, we must be willing to boldly tell our stories, to be honest and authentic about our faiths, and to create spaces where everyone feels at home, no matter where they are on their faith journey. The Church has failed, but from failure comes growth, from growth comes opportunity, and from
opportunity comes the chance for the Church to spark authentic relationships that are real, that are human, that are often flawed, but do more to inspire the kingdom of God than any blind faith that I know.
Let us inspire today, not by being perfect, but by being human, with our scars and our failures but also our drive to seek the image of God in each and every person. This is what faith was meant to be. This is how the Church can flourish.