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"The Dark Night of the Soul"

John 20:19-31

John 20:19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

For the last few weeks, we’ve been reading passages from the Gospel of John as a way of training our eyes to find light in the darkness. First we talked about the darkness itself, the chaos and fear that haunt creation; then we talked about the darkness of our understanding as we try to come to terms with that chaos by asking ourselves and each other “why? Why is our world, are our lives, like this?”; and two weeks ago we stared into the deep darkness of death. But as we looked into those darknesses, we also found various ways in which the light shines in the darkness. The Word who takes on flesh is the light shining in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it; Jesus doesn’t so much tell us “Why” but joins us in our struggles; and even in the darkness of the grave, the resurrection flickers like a small flame waiting to catch. These are not fluorescent lights, obvious even to the undiscerning, but they are there. They are lights you can see only when your eyes have adjusted to the darkness, when your pupils have dilated to take in even the subtlest reflections among the shadows. But the light is there, Jesus is there, somehow already teaching our eyes how to see him.

But we don’t see yet. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed. Faith is the trust that the light shines in the darkness, sometimes even before we see it. Faith goes into the darkness and waits for our eyes to adjust, and we don’t always know when that will happen. Faith steps away from what we know into uncertainty, trusting that a yet greater knowledge awaits, but that knowledge hasn’t been attained yet. (O Lord haste the day, when my faith shall be sight…) And so faith isn’t something that’s unchanging and secure (it’s a call to lose our lives, after all); it’s something that grows and adjusts and modulates itself to the light it’s receiving, just like the pupils in your eyes. But that wavering, that adjustment, can be disconcerting.

This is what Thomas learns after the resurrection. We know him as “doubting Thomas” but I’m not really sure that’s fair, or should be meant as criticism. Thomas has faith. He followed Jesus, he recognized him as the light that had come into the world and followed him even to the end. But then he’s crucified, and the vision of Thomas’ faith goes dim. He hears Jesus say “It is finished” and Thomas believes. Thomas has a faith that goes up to the point of the cross and then everything goes dark. He doesn’t believe a resurrection has happened but that’s because he still holds so many other beliefs about the way the world works and how God works in the world. Thomas’ doubt names the discomfort of adjusting to a new reality, or rather the loss of what he thought he knew before a deeper understanding takes hold. His doubt is the disorientation of losing what he once held to be true while he hasn’t yet grabbed on to anything new.

Which can be scary, and sad, as we take account of what doesn’t seem so obvious anymore. But also, sometimes doubt is a sign of growth. When Paul talks about growth in Christian knowledge, he uses the metaphor of a child transitioning from milk to meat. For a child, it’s perfectly healthy to get all or most of their nutrition from milk, but as they get older they need other sources of nutrition. Milk, which once met all of their needs, over time no longer does. If a full grown adult tried to live off milk alone, that person would not only be unhealthy (and bloated), but dissatisfied. In the same way, the Spirit encourages new believers with sweet truths that are easily digested, but as we grow in faith and holiness we have to transition to tougher, meatier forms of knowledge, that maybe aren’t digested so easily. During this transition, many Christians go through what a writer named John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul,” a time of emptiness where the things that once satisfied no longer do, and in that moment we can sit still and despair, or we can keep pressing on, stumble blindly until we find something solid to hold onto. Sometimes, there’s an emptiness, a silence, a dissatisfaction that we experience as we grow in knowledge of God. The great temptation of these moments is nostalgia, to cling to what God’s calling us to leave behind. Maybe “faith” in those moments is not such much a feeling of assurance or certainty, but the will to press on in hope of things unseen.

If that’s the case, then maybe Thomas’ doubt is an unwitting statement of faith. Thomas does not believe his friends, but his unbelief sets him up to receive a different kind of knowledge. Faith is a stance of openness to what God is doing in the world and in our hearts. But our world is so often against God and our hearts are so easily deceived. We mistake the things that point us toward God as little gods in themselves. This happens so often in churches. We start a church or a ministry for the sake of a mission, and then 20 years later that mission has dried up, the Spirit has moved on, there is no real life there, but we cling to the ministry. We cling to a name, we cling to a building, we cling to the habit of church being 11 o’clock on a Sunday. Why? Because we get an idea of God in our heads, of who God is and how God works and over time, we begin to think that God is identical with our idea of God, which is to say our own habits. We got our idea of God from some ministry or mission, and so we think that if we can hang onto what we did together, we are hanging on to God. In that situation, which is properly called idolatry, assurance is actually unbelief, and doubt is closer to faith.

And so sometimes faith requires doubt, not because God is dead but because our idols are. Doubt can be scary and unsettling as we see the structures of our faith, perhaps for some of us even the foundations of our faith, disassembled before our very eyes; but it can also be a vehicle for creativity; it’s a chance to figure out how to proclaim once again that Jesus is our Lord and our God. The dark night can be scary and uncertain, but it can also be exciting and hopeful.

What we call doubt is actually the loss of sight, of spiritual vision, of the imagination to see how God might be at work in a world like this. After the crucifixion, Thomas can’t imagine a resurrection. He can’t see it. How could there be any hope after something like a crucifixion? Thomas doubts the other disciples’ eyes, but this prepares him for what happens next. Doubt is the experience of the darkness as we wait for our eyes to adjust to the light, but the light is here. Jesus arrives and invites Thomas to touch his wounds. We’re not told if Thomas does so or not, but we do know that at that moment he cries out, “My lord and my God.” His eyes adjust to the light in the darkness and doubt and faith merge into one as Thomas turns his eyes upon Jesus, looks full in his wonderful face, and the former things of earth go strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace. Out of doubt, new faith, out of darkness, light, out of crucifixion, resurrection. These are the patterns of discipleship.

And at this moment the narrator steps in and tells us that Jesus did many other signs that aren’t recorded here. The things that are recorded in the Scriptures are simply here so that we’ll have faith, so that we’ll have the courage to wade into the darkness and wait for our eyes to adjust. The Bible was meant to be suggestive, not exhaustive. Which again reminds us that the task of faith is not to languish in what we’ve already come to know, but to press on toward what God is asking of us today and tomorrow. As church, we’re called to read the Scriptures together, confess our sins, feed each other the bread and the cup that are Christ’s body and blood, and share everything we have with the poor. That’s the outline for what a faithful community looks like, but there are a lot of gaps to fill in there. We can fill in those gaps however the Spirit calls, but only that outline is necessary, not our shadings. So as Ephesus travels through our own dark night, maybe we need to look for the light in new arrangements of those callings. If we cling to what was good in its time but is no longer vibrant, if we try to to save our lives, we will die. But if we follow the way of the cross, if we travel into the dark night of uncertainty and trust our eyes will adjust, if we lose our lives for Jesus’ sake, we might just find light, we might find God’s Spirit hovering over the darkness, we might just rise to walk in newness of life. Amen.

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