Sermon: Doubting the Resurrection
St. Thomas does not deserve his bad reputation. After all, he is not the only Apostle to doubt the Lord’s Resurrection. St. Matthew tells us that, “the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted” (Matt 28:16-17). Some of the Apostles doubted, then, even while they saw the Resurrected Lord, as if they literally could not believe their eyes! And St. Luke tells us that while the Lord appeared to the Eleven together for the first time, “they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered” (Lk 24:41). Likewise, when the women tell the Apostles the first news of the Resurrection, “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Lk 24:11). St. Peter runs to the tomb, but we hear that “he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home wondering at what had happened” (Lk 24:12).
So St. Thomas is definitely not alone in dealing with doubts. It is easy for us, who have heard about Christ’s Resurrection for our entire lives, to look back on the incredulity of St. Thomas and the other Apostles and wonder why they did not believe, but we need to understand why it was so difficult to believe in the Resurrection.
We know that the Lord had foretold His death and resurrection, but we also know that they never really understood what He was talking about. On their way down from Mt. Tabor following the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John were asking each other what “rising from the dead” could mean (Mk 9:9-10). In order really to understand what is going on when the resurrected Christ appears to His disciples, we need to put aside our own presumptions about what is going on. As Benedict XVI put it, “anyone approaching the Resurrection accounts [believing that] he knows what rising from the dead means will inevitably misunderstand [them] and will then dismiss them as meaningless” (Jesus of Nazareth, Pt. II, p. 243).
The first misconception we could have about Jesus’s Resurrection is that it is like the other resurrections we see in the Scriptures. In the Gospels, we see Christ raising the son of the widow of Nain (Lk 7:11-17), the daughter of Jairus (Mk 5:22-24), and his friend Lazarus (Jn 11:1-44). In the Old Testament, the prophets Elijah and Elisha each raise someone from the dead. But all these people were really resuscitated, not resurrected. They resumed their normal lives and eventually faced a final bodily death. Christ’s Resurrection is different. He is changed; His life is not the same as before. He passes through walls and locked doors and appears in multiple locations nearly simultaneously.
We can see this confusion over the nature of Christ’s Resurrection in the varied accounts in the four Gospels, which often seem to contradict each other. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, the Apostles are instructed to meet the Resurrected Christ in Galilee. In the other Gospels, He appears to them in Jerusalem. From the confusion, lack of certainty, hesitation, and even disbelief, we see that Christ’s Resurrection is a unique event in human history. The Apostles and even the Evangelists writing years later are not sure how to understand it. This, ironically, is a proof that has happened to Him is an extraordinary event beyond the power of human comprehension.
Thus Benedict writes, “Jesus’s Resurrection was about breaking out into an entirely new form of life, into a life that is no longer subject to the law of dying and becoming, but lies beyond it – a life that opens up a new dimension of human existence. … In Jesus’s Resurrection a new possibility of human existence is attained that affects everyone and that opens up a future, a new kind of future, for mankind … He has entered the vast breadth of God himself, and it is from there that he reveals himself to his followers” (p. 244-5).
Just like the Messiah or Savior who suffered and died the horrendous and humiliating death of the Cross was totally unexpected to the Jewish mind of the Apostles, so too was this form of the Resurrection. Jewish faith knew about the resurrection of the dead, but it was only a resurrection at the end of time, and it was connected to the creation of a new heavens and a new earth spoken of in the Book of Revelation. A new world necessitated a new kind of life. But a resurrection to a new life within the context of the old world – that is what makes Christ’s Resurrection so hard to comprehend, and what prompts the doubts of the Apostles.
Here we arrive at what is so extraordinary and so absolutely unique about the Resurrection of Christ. Jesus appears to us as completely new – “an utterly unique [event]” that “[bursts] open the normal boundaries of experience” (Ratzinger, p. 246). Before the old world passes away, a light from the world to come is already shining in our midst. The Resurrection is a mixing in of the life to come – the joy promised to us one day in our heavenly reward – already amidst the limitedness of this earthly life.
We too, like St. Thomas and the rest of the Apostles, can struggle to believe at times in Christ and the power of His Resurrection. We can despair when our faith in Him does not take away the trials, difficulties, and sufferings of this life. When we experience these challenges to our faith, we are like the Apostles who initially did not understand how the absolute newness of the Resurrected Christ could exist alongside a world that is still so obviously fallen.
Doubt and hesitation is not, though, the end of the story. The Resurrection brings new life not only to Christ’s glorified body but to the Apostles themselves. This absolutely new and different event that they encountered transformed them to be joyful witnesses.
This transformation of the Apostles into the bold witnesses that converted the world to Christ is a powerful proof of the real nature of the Resurrection. It was not just an inner, spiritual event, but a historical event with a radically new quality that broke in upon human history. “In its boldness and originality, [the Apostles’ proclamation] draws life from the impact of an event that no one had invented, an event that surpassed all that could be imagined” (Ratzinger p. 275).
Nevertheless, we might still be left asking, “why?” Why does Christ’s Resurrection have to be so mysterious? Why does He have to appear to us amidst the as-yet-imperfect nature of the world around us?
Let us conclude by looking at Benedict’s answer to this question: “Is this not the truly divine way? Not to overwhelm with external power, but to give freedom, to offer and elicit love. And if we really think about it, is it not what seems so small that is truly great? Does not a ray of light issue from Jesus, growing brighter across the centuries, that could not come from any mere man and through which the light of God truly shines into the world? … If we attend to the witnesses with listening hearts and open ourselves to the signs by which the Lord again and again authenticates both them and himself, then we know that he is truly risen. He is alive. Let us entrust ourselves to him, knowing that we are on the right path. With Thomas let us place our hands into Jesus’s pierced side and confess: ‘My Lord and my God!’” (p. 276-7).
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
Sunday in albis deponendis A.D. MMXX
Image: The Incredulity of St. Thomas by Michaelangelo Caravaggio (1602)