Doubt and bearing witness: a homily for the second Sunday of Easter

Explaining St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, St. Thomas Aquinas says that in heaven there will be no faith. We will not need faith when we experience the beatific vision. We need faith now because we live in a world of uncertainties.

Palazzo Venezia, Rome (collection)

We live with doubts. Sometimes these doubts are justified. We doubt our political and church leadership when those in power are not honest, when they use words to hide the truth instead of expressing it. We doubt our abilities when we recognize the same tendency in our own hearts or when, despite our sincerity, our strength is insufficient and we fail. When the world changes unexpectedly, we doubt the future.

Why does Thomas doubt? From one point of view, uncertainty seems justifiable. Believing that a man has come back from the dead is not easy. But it would not have been the first time that Thomas witnessed such an event. He was present at the resurrection of Lazarus. And it seems unlikely that the other disciples had fabricated this story only to deceive him–it is hardly clear what motive they would have had to make up such a lie.

It is true that Thomas speaks of evidence, of what he can see and what he can touch, but his doubt is not really based on a lack of empirical evidence. He does not express the need for more study before coming to a conclusion. He expresses the refusal to believe, the decision not to believe: “I will not believe.”

We can understand why. He was hurt. Thomas had believed. When Jesus was about to return to Judea to find Lazarus’ family, it was Thomas who said, “Let us also go and die with him!” Thomas had believed, and he was disappointed. It is impossible for us to truly understand the depth of his disillusionment, the trauma of the crucifixion, but we can understand the desire not to be hurt again. We can understand Thomas’ fear. We can understand believing and being wounded. We can understand the defense mechanisms–skepticism and cynicism–we might use to protect ourselves from a second blow. We also know how to hide our fears beneath a scientific facade.

In our contemporary culture I have noticed a certain tendency to praise and valorize doubt, but this is a mistake. Doubt should not to be confused with intellectual humility, nor with a noble dissatisfaction with partial truths, with superficial slogans. It should not be confused with the thirst for deeper truth that has motivated great scientists, theologians, and artists throughout history. Doubt is defensive; it comes from the fear of being criticized. Doubt paralyzes us. The thirst for truth seeks more precision; doubt seeks protection in the smoke of platitudes.

Thomas is the focus of attention in this passage, and rightly so. We feel the pathos of his inner struggle. But we shouldn’t ignore the other disciples. For we are at the point in the New Testament where the disciples begin to change. They begin to live with the power of the Risen One. They remain men, but they are not as foolish and untrustworthy as before. In the passages from the Acts of the Apostles that we read in this Easter season, the disciples perform the same wonders that Jesus had worked in the Gospel.

And in this passage, their behavior seems commendable. They give their testimony, but seem to have patience with Thomas. Despite his doubts, they keep inviting him to be present with them so that he can meet the Lord when he comes back the second time. They give their testimony even when his initial reaction is aggressive unbelief.

This is the testimony of faith. It is a gift, a grace that comes from meeting Jesus. From faith comes testimony, as Thomas confesses when he meets Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” This faith, this testimony, is what Jesus wants. In these words we see the resurrection–not physical but spiritual–of Thomas. The most destructive effect of doubt is that it makes bearing witness impossible. “Jesus is maybe resurrected, but maybe not. If you don’t believe it, that’s okay too, just be a good person–in the end, who knows!” is not the testimony a lost and suffering world needs. The purpose of Christian witness is not to avoid a guilty verdict.

It is not, will not be, and never has been easy to bear witness to Christ in a world of uncertainty, especially when we know the jury will be skeptical. But from Thomas’ doubts we can find help for our faith. We have disappointments too, and wounds and fears and failures. But these do not prevent the Lord from manifesting himself. For the testimony we must give is not a testimony of how good we are. The testimony the world needs, the testimony the world has always needed and always will need is that, despite our doubts, despite our mistakes, despite our sins, despite our weaknesses and failures, Jesus Christ is risen. We have seen the Lord. It is Jesus, my Lord and my God.

Readings: Acts 2:42-47; 1 Pt 1:3-9; Jn 10:19-31

(original Italian)

April 19, 2020

Chapel of San Roberto Bellarmino, Rome

Author: Anthony Lusvardi, SJ

Anthony R. Lusvardi, S.J., teaches sacramental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He writes on a variety of theological, cultural, and literary topics.

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