Cautiously Optimistic, April 8, 2018, St. Paul’s, Vancouver
Acts 4:32-35; Ps. 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Many years ago I had an enlightening experience—at a job interview. I was at a time in my life where I was looking for a new direction, a change. I was in a job that I wasn’t happy at and applied for a position which had just been created. It sounded right up my alley and I thought I would be good at it so I was happy to be interviewed; this was a chance at a new job and a new, more-fulfilling life.
Well, the interview didn’t go so well. This was a new position that had only just been created, remember. I was disappointed when I didn’t get the job, but was more intrigued by what I was told after the interview.
The interviewer said “thank you very much” for my interview. “You’ve helped us realize,” she said, “that we’re not really quite sure what we’re looking for in this position. But we’re sure you’re not it.”
Well, if that’s not an ego-killer, I’m not sure what is!
I’ve reflected on that experience often since it happened. I suppose that I could have been crushed by that response.
Realistically, however, I think many of us approach unknown situations in much the same way: we’re not really sure of what it is we expect, but we have a sense of what we’re hoping for—we expect something that we can’t really explain—but we’ll know it when we see it.
Think of all of the times in your life when you’ve entered into an unfamiliar circumstance: starting a new job; meeting a friend you haven’t seen in forever; being introduced to the close friends or family of a partner; beginning life in a new city.
How do we engage with those circumstances? Do we have an idea in our head of how things will turn out?
Most of the time, I think the approach that I follow is cautious optimism. I’m not exactly sure what will happen, but I’m hopeful that it will be a good experience, especially in the absence of evidence to the contrary. If one is to be realistic, and I think being realistic is a useful demeanour, then we do need to consider the circumstances.
For example, when I hear the first reading that we had, from the book of Acts, sometimes my optimism gets the better of my caution. In the past I made plans to set up a Christian commune (not very detailed plans, mind you) for a group of Christians to live together in harmony with all goods shared and where no one has any need. “Why do I need to own a hammer,” I thought, “when one hammer is plenty to be shared with a group of people?” In my younger days, my ideal of a Christian utopia didn’t gain many supporters—their realism overpowered my idealism. “How could we share vehicles?” “What about privacy?” “What happens when families in your commune start having children?”
It turns out that I’m not the next David Koresh. And this is a good thing. Perhaps if I were more charismatic…
But the people who discouraged my commune idea had learned some valuable lessons from history. They were not unbounded idealists. As I have aged (“matured”, really), my idealism has also waned.
Now, when I encounter a new situation, I like to think that I’m no longer unrealistically idealistic, but the slightly more tolerable “cautiously optimistic”. I have no guarantees about the outcome, but I have a feeling that things will work out, somehow.
It doesn’t take much, though, to divide “cautious optimism” from “skepticism.” And that line, I think, is all about perspective. It’s the classic “half-empty/half-full” debate. And when it comes to matters of faith in the church, that debate takes on a much more serious tone.
Have a look at our convenient example: Thomas. Is that his name? Is that how you know him? Do you know him as “Didymus”? Perhaps you think of him as “the twin,” someone very closely resembling either Jesus or another of the disciples in appearance. Do you think of him as the stalwart disciple who fearlessly said to his fellow disciples “let us also go [with Jesus], that we may die with him”?
If you’re like me, you’ve grown up thinking of him as “Doubting Thomas,” or Thomas “The Doubter”.
But is it fair that we characterize him this way? He missed Jesus’ appearance to all of the disciples in the locked room. Maybe he was out spreading the good news because he wasn’t afraid of the authorities like the rest of the disciples! When the rest of the disciples told him that they had seen the Lord, we are told that he reacted quite strongly: “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.”
Does this make him a doubter, now and for all time? Did he think his friends were lying? Or was he simply reserving judgement?
Have you seen the movie Black Panther? Me neither. I’ve heard lots of good things about it. I’d really like to see it. I’ve been told that it smashes stereotypes and is blazing a new trail for tackling racial issues in traditionally racist Hollywood.
So, do I believe all the hype? Do I believe many of my good friends who have raved about how good this movie is?
It’s not that I don’t believe them, it’s just that I’m reserving judgement. I’m looking forward to seeing it myself, and I am cautiously optimistic about what I will discover.
Does that make me a “doubter”? “Disbelieving James”?
I think, to give Thomas credit, we should really have another look at the text.
When Jesus does reappear to the disciples (and this time Thomas is with them), what does Jesus say? He says “do not doubt, but believe.” If he is Thomas “the doubter”, then Jesus is chastising him. But look at Thomas’ reaction: it’s immediate! He says “my Lord and My God,”—we don’t even know if he actually checked the holes in Jesus’ hands and side! And this strong attestation to Jesus’ identity—one of the strongest anywhere in the Bible—comes from “doubting” Thomas!
When Jesus says “do not doubt, but believe,” we don’t have the narration alongside it. This is one of those instances where we are reading the script to a play without getting the director’s notations. Did the gospel writer leave out the phrase “Jesus said, angrily”? Did he forget to indicate how disappointed Jesus was with Thomas? We don’t know. The only thing that we do know is that Thomas said that he needed to see Jesus for himself—and Jesus showed up!
The other thing that Jesus said was “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This is another one we think we understand. Jesus didn’t click his tongue at Thomas and say “you only believed because you saw me. Better people than you didn’t see me and believed anyway.” Really, all of the disciples that saw Jesus the first time saw him the first time! Their faith wasn’t any stronger—they just happened to be in the room when he appeared!
If we think Thomas is in trouble with Jesus for his lack of faith, then we worry that we are not allowed to doubt! We think that it is our good Christian responsibility to believe, sight unseen—and if we don’t, or if we can’t, then we too will disappoint Jesus like we think Thomas did.
It’s okay to be cautiously optimistic. Really, I don’t think there is a whole lot of difference between cautious optimism and faith. The classic scriptural definition of faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). Do I believe in miraculous healings? I haven’t seen any, firsthand, but I’m cautiously optimistic that they exist—or could exist. Will I go to heaven when I die? I have no way of knowing for certain, but I’m cautiously optimistic that the God I believe in is trustworthy and merciful.
Is that faith?
Maybe not quite. But it’s moving in that general direction. And it’s a desire for confirmation like Thomas expressed.
And we can’t forget that Jesus responded to Thomas’ desire for confirmation—not with anger or disappointment—but primarily with answering his request. Jesus showed himself to Thomas—the wounds on his hands and his side. That was the confirmation Thomas needed.
Many of us have asked God to show up—and God has done it. Many of us have had moments of doubt, perhaps even not-so-optimistic doubt—and God has shown up.
Because if God is real—if Jesus really did rise from the dead—if there is a Holy Spirit that we can all receive that lives in us, then that reality is bigger than our questions and stronger than our doubts. God is not so delicate that God will cease to exist if enough people deny God’s existence. God is not Tinkerbell that if we all say “I believe in you!” loudly enough, God will rematerialize from obscurity. If God is real, our belief is secondary. And our doubts are not a threat.
And if we maintain that cautious optimism and expect Jesus to show up—we’d better be prepared to deal with the consequences. Blind faith is fragile and easily shaken. A faith that is rooted in doubts and questions that have been tested and tried is deep and strong. And remember, even our faith is a gift from God.
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”