by Ellen Sims
texts: John 20:19-25, Acts 5:17-42
It takes courage to doubt. It takes courage to believe. Brave was Thomas, who alone among the disciples insisted on evidence of the resurrection. Brave was Gamaliel, the only member of the Temple council who gave the accused disciples the benefit of the doubt, by which he demonstrated faith.
I have preached several sermons on today’s Gospel text because I love doubters like Thomas. I do. And evidently the Church loves him, too, because the Church made him a saint–although some love Thomas in spite of his doubts and some because of them. But this week I’ve noticed for the first time that the other New Testament lection assigned for this second Sunday of Easter presents us with the perfect foil for Thomas: Gamaliel.
Gamaliel the Pharisee had every reason to mistrust the persistently defiant apostles but became an exemplar of faith. Not of the Christian “faith” but of faith. A leader of Sanhedrin, he curbed the temple council’s escalating rage before they could issue a death penalty for the disobedient followers of Jesus. It took courage for that one Pharisee to speak up as their defender and–unintentionally, indirectly–support Christ’s cause. Both of these anti-heroes–Thomas the disciple and Gamaliel the Pharisee–drew upon their courage: one to question and doubt, one to trust and have faith.
I’m not saying that doubting always comes from an honest pursuit of truth and makes the world a better place. With all due respect for my atheist friends, a few have found their way to atheism straight from a childish form of Christianity. They’ve chosen a strawman Christianity to argue against. They’ve assumed a literalist reading of the Bible. They’ve considered only the anti-gay, anti-women, anti-poor, anti-environment, anti-Muslim voices as the spokespersons for Christianity. I can understand why they’ve experienced only that form of mean and naïve Christianity. But I say to them, “That magic god you say you don’t believe in? That violent God? I can’t believe in that God either.” So when I characterize Thomas’ doubt as courageous, I’m not saying that doubting is always the right or brave response.
Doubting can be the product of intellectual laziness and ethical cowardice. This kind of doubt emerges when we give up trying to find meaning in a complicated world, when we’re frustrated by a morally fraught situation and therefore do nothing rather than make a conscious choice about how to deal with it responsibly. To be in doubt and refuse therefore to participate in this messy life does NOT take courage. To leap from recognizing contradictions or flaws in religious teachings and scriptures into a wholesale rejection of all religions, disdain for all religious people, and elimination of all spiritual practices does not seem brave to me.
But that’s not the way Thomas doubted. Thomas was dubious about an event in which he was fully engaged. Thomas was the courageous odd man out in expressing doubt while still holding his doubt tentatively, conditionally. That kind of doubt took courage. And I love that the Gospel writer represented the anticipated situation of future doubting disciples who would not have the chance to see “the mark of the nails in his hands.” So this part of the post-resurrection story invites US to register our doubts while still listening for Jesus to speak words of peace to us. This part of the story urges generations of later Christians to experience the Risen Christ without ever seeing him. Thomas’s doubt both authorizes our doubts and supports our faith. I agree with Tennyson that “there lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.” (“In Memoriam A. H. H.”)
Let’s turn now to a less familiar character whose bravery is expressed in a surprising role. Like Thomas, Gamaliel’s courage becomes evident when he expresses a dissenting perspective.
By the time we meet Gamaliel, the timid apostles who had cowered behind locked doors on the evening after the resurrection, according to John, had remained in Jerusalem another fifty days until receiving the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Then they started preaching and healing in the name of Jesus, angering the authorities in Jerusalem who feared insurrection from all this talk of resurrection.
In the previous chapter of Acts, the narrator commends Peter for speaking “with boldness” (4:31). The writer wants us to appreciate PETER’S courage and that of all the apostles defying the authorities’ injunction against teaching about Jesus. These apostles had already been imprisoned for doing so, and released by angels. Then they bravely resumed their unlawful evangelism. It’s Peter and the other disciples’ courage we’re meant to admire as they are arraigned before the Temple council and questioned and ordered again to stop preaching. But it’s Gamaliel’s bravery I want to note.
Peter, clearly in need of a good lawyer, responds defiantly to the court: “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29b). And the council might have killed them right then and there. But Gamaliel, a lawyer and the leader of the Sanhedron, intervenes with a long, unexpected, and I believe faith-filled speech in this little courtroom drama.
Beginning in verse 35, he addresses the rest of the court with a measured, calming tone: “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men.” And then he recalls two previous situations. A rabble rouser named Theudas, “claiming to be somebody,” once led about 400 insurrectionists—but he was killed and his followers disappeared. Then there was Judas (not the betrayer of Jesus, another Judas) who also had a following, and when he was killed, his followers also scattered. (Based on what Gamaliel says next, it seems that the Jerusalem authorities did not order the deaths of these leaders.) Gamaliel concludes with this counsel: Leave these Jesus preachers alone. If God’s not on their side, they will fail. “But if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in which case you’d be on the wrong side if you tried to do so” (Acts 5:39). This reasonable argument wins the disciples’ release—after they’ve given a good flogging. And we are left to wonder—will Peter and the others indeed show evidence that God is on their side? That’s what the readers of Acts look for as the book unfolds: evidence that God is on the side of this pitiful but persistent group of Jesus followers. The book itself invites the reader into the suspense of its plot: to hold onto faith that the people of the Way will not fail.
At least one scholar interprets Gamaliel’s words cynically,* but I read him at face value here and see his role as brave and his strategy as faith-filled. Gamaliel the lawyer makes a rational, dispassionate argument that, to quote from Matthew’s Gospel, “by their fruits you will know them” (7:16). A leader of the religious establishment, Gamaliel suggests it is at least possible that God might be on the side of this disruptive new sect. It takes faith to see a new iteration of one’s religion and at least consider that, though it seems to threaten the status quo into which you’re entrenched, it may have validity. It takes faith for a small group to begin gathering as a new expression of Christ’s church, as we’re trying to do. It takes faith to give a passionate new movement a hearing and support, not to instantly label a Black Lives Matters movement, to name a contemporary example, as destructive. Gamaliel is a voice of peace in this moment, a voice of reason, a voice for giving a movement a chance before moving against.
Yes, a wait-and-see approach to social events risks passivity, might result in waiting too late to take a stand. But this part of the story of the early church concludes with an emphasis of the early Christians’ persistence: “And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah” (Acts 5:42). What follows in the book of Acts will ultimately attest to God’s support for the disciples as their numbers increase, as their influence reaches to other parts of the world in the missionary movement of Paul.
In this Easter season, we have the chance to consider our response to resurrection hope: will we doubt or will we have faith?
In the story about Thomas’s doubts, the Gospel writer clearly wants us to hear Jesus commending the disciples who believed without seeing the nail prints in his hands, wants future disciples to have faith without forensic evidence. Nevertheless, Thomas is there for us, too. Thomas is there to show us that faith is hard. We can come to faith even through our questions and doubts.
Similarly, the Lucan writer of Acts crafts the story we’ve read today to make Peter and the persistent Jesus-preaching apostles as the courageous heroes of the story. Nevertheless, Gamaliel shows courage, too, and offers a saving word, a word of faith and trust, from an unlikely ally. Faith comes unexpectedly.
Would you characterize yourself as a believer or a doubter? Can you be both?
I hope so. I’m a person of faith and a person of doubt. I doubt many traditional Christian teachings. Sometimes I doubt them in sort of an unresolved way. About other things I’ve just outright rejected what I had been taught as a child. On Good Friday you heard me say, once again, that I reject a penal/substitutionary/sacrificial version of atonement theology. I cannot believe in a God who would require a blood sacrifice in order to forgive even one single sin. I also—and here’s what I really hate to confess to you—am too often an implicit, pragmatic doubter. That is, I act as if I lack faith each time my life suggests I don’t really trust in God’s loving care. I’m unfaithful, for instance, when I give in to anger and reveal, in doing so, that I really don’t trust in Jesus’s way of peace. I’m without faith when I’m not generous in sharing of my personal resources with those in need –which exposes my lack of faith in God’s care and provisions. I do not “walk by faith” (II Cor. 5:7) when I worry about others’ opinions of me and let my ego stand in the way of living my life full throttle and thus betray Jesus’s selfless Way.
I don’t know about you, but most of the time it’s not so much what I believe but rather how I behave that exposes my lack of faith.
I pray for the courage of Thomas to ask the hard questions and the bravery of Gamaliel in order to live my life trusting in God’s goodness and humanity’s capacity for peace and compassion. If we all could, like Gamaliel, believe the best in one another, I think we could call each other to our higher selves.
I hope that I doubt in times when doubting is the brave thing to do—and trust when faith is the brave way to live. Most of all, I hope that faith and doubt are working together in my life, guarding me against despair while moving me beyond naivety.
Let me close by reminding you that Christian faith is a disposition toward trust, not a set of doctrinal beliefs. Our faith is grounded in the story of Jesus and the love of God, but our trust is not in specific theological arguments. Look back at the beginning of the story from Acts. The story says that angels had released the apostles from prison with this instruction: “Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life” or as one translation puts it, “Tell the people all the words of life” (Acts 5:20). What a vocation for us! Christian evangelism is just that simple and just that impossible: telling people all the words of life.
What life-giving words can you share?
PRAYER: May we have the courage to know and share “all the words of life.” Amen.
* Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Acts of the Apostles, SP 5 (Collegeville, MN: Litugical, 1992) 99-103.