Monday, April 18, 2016

Doubt Not

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was John 20:19-31:

Sports stars often end up with some great nicknames, especially those who are the best of their craft. There is Walter Payton, known as Sweetness, and Wayne Gretzky, the Great One, and Jack Nicholas, the Golden Bear.  But of course the best nicknames come from the sport of baseball.  There is Stan the Man Musial, and Cool Papa Bell, and Double Duty Radcliff. Some nicknames become so famous, like Babe Ruth, Pee Wee Reese and Dizzy Dean that we forget their real first names.  But for every great nickname like Mr. October or Hammerin’ Hank there are also those nicknames that are a little less glorious, a little more likely that people probably wish they would have gone away, like Luke Old Aches and Pains Appling, or Ernie the Schnozz Lombardi, but perhaps the worst belongs to Hugh Mulcahy who was known as Losing Pitcher Mulcahy.  I am sure that if you were to have met Mr. Mulcahy he would not have appreciated you calling him by his nickname and just wished it would all go away.  But just like those nicknames are a little unfair, so too is the nickname that has been forever appended to Thomas, who, for some reason, for 2000 years has been the poster boy for doubt, an idea that is not really fair either to Thomas or to the concept of doubt.

Today we are continuing in our series on the nots of Jesus, the things that Jesus told us we should not be doing.  Last week we looked at Jesus’ statement to fear not, and that Jesus was not really saying that we shouldn’t fear, but that instead we need to overcome our fear, to work through it so that it doesn’t limit us. Today we look at doubt, which has some ties to the idea of fear, and we tackle the idea of doubt by trying to understand the story of Doubting. But I’d like to start with a defense of Thomas, and to do that we need to go back just one verse from where we started today.

Mary Magdalene had gone to the tomb on the first day of the week, the first Easter Sunday, and found the tomb empty, and so she tells Peter and the beloved disciple that the body is missing, and they go, but they don’t understand what is taking place. Then Jesus appears to Mary and tells her to go tell the disciples that he’s back, that’s a paraphrase, and that he is going to ascend to his father, and so she goes to see the disciples to tell them what she has seen. But do they believe Mary? In the synoptic gospels, which are Matthew, Mark and Luke, the answer is clearly no. Now in John she says to the disciples “I have seen the Lord,” and while it doesn’t say they don’t believe her, there is certainly every indication that they don’t believe her because where do we find them on the first night of Easter? They are not hunting eggs or hung over on chocolate, instead they are locked up in a room. Why? Because they are afraid. That, to me, is the key indicator that they did not believe what Mary had told them, because if they had believed that Jesus had risen from the dead, that what Jesus had said and promised would happen would happen, why would they be afraid? Why would they be locked up in some room?

So and imagine this: The disciples are locked in a room and then suddenly there is someone there who did not come through the door, but just suddenly appears. Now if we were told they were afraid of that, I would believe it, but Jesus says “Peace be with you.” But do they react to seeing Jesus there? Do they bow down and worship? Do they say “Hey, Mary was right, why did we doubt her?” No. They don’t do any of those things, so what does Jesus do? He shows them his hands and his side, and once they disciples see this, then they rejoiced.  But poor Thomas was not with them, and this is what happens when you miss church, or even when you miss committee meetings, is that important things do happen, and Thomas doesn’t get the chance to see Jesus.

So the disciples say to Thomas, “We have seen the Lord.” But does Thomas believe them? No. And his response is “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.”  And for that interchange, we label Thomas the doubter. But Pay attention to what is actually happening here.  Mary says to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” but do they believe her? No.  When do they believe? Is it immediately when Jesus suddenly appears in a room that is locked? No. It’s after he shows them the wounds in his hands and on his side that they then rejoice that Jesus has risen from the dead. The set-up for the disciples is exactly the same as it is for Thomas, but why does Thomas get labeled the doubter but not the disciples? Here is the first thing to know about this passage and about doubt: 100% of the disciples were doubters. Every single one of them. It wasn’t just Thomas. Even Mary, and the other women in the other gospels, did not believe what they initially saw or heard.  But at least Thomas’ doubt is honest because he is actually willing to admit it, not try and cover it up, so perhaps instead of calling him doubting Thomas we should call him Honest Thomas.

Even though the other disciples doubted, they were not strong enough to admit it, probably because they thought they were the only ones. They believed, wrongly, that everyone else was “strong” in their faith, and they were the only ones who had these issues or concerns.  We do the same thing. We think everyone else must have it together, but I can say that the doubts that most of us have are the doubts that all of us have, but by trying to keep them a secret we not only hurt ourselves, but we hurt each other in being able to share this walk of faith together, of being able to carry one another’s burdens, and also in being able to help one another.  That when someone expresses a doubt or concern, someone else who has been right there can say “I had exactly the same feelings once” and then share their experience, strength and hope.

100% of the disciples doubted.  So if you have doubts, you are in good company, and just like with fear, I don’t really believe that Jesus is saying here that doubt is a sin. That’s how we often think of it, and certainly how we hear of it especially in the church, that if we are not 100% certain of everything that we are supposed to be believe, or think we’re supposed to believe, or that others think we are supposed to believe then something is wrong with our faith. That if you have any doubt, that you don’t therefore have any faith, and that means you’re in trouble, because the opposite of faith is doubt right?

But notice what Jesus does and says to Thomas.  The first thing is that it takes a week for Thomas to sort of sit in his unknowing before Jesus comes to him. Which means that we have to remember that sometimes in our search for answers we too have to sit in ambiguity. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, because when we understand and can appreciate ambiguity, the better we are at dealing not only with doubt but more importantly with how we deal with faith.

Second, while Jesus’ response to Thomas is sometimes seen as rebuking him, I don’t think that’s the case. When Jesus appears to them the second time, Jesus’ greeting is exactly the same as the first time he appears to the disciples when Thomas is not there, and then he specifically calls to Thomas.  I think that’s a key piece of this story.  And he basically says to him, do what you need to do, or what you said was necessary to believe, and then he says the title of this message, “Do not doubt.”  But notice what Thomas doesn’t do. He never actually touches Jesus, which is what he had said would be necessary for him to believe, that is his doubt was not really as bad as others thought it was, and not what he thought it was either, and then comes Thomas’ pronouncement about Jesus. This is really the highpoint of John’s gospel.  Jesus has been understood to be the messiah right from the start of John’s gospel, but this is the proclamation that he is more than just the expected Messiah, but that Jesus is actually God made flesh, “My Lord and my God.”

What Thomas’ doubt shows us is that while doubt can lead away from faith, if that’s what is being sought, but more often doubt leads not just to faith but that it leads to an even deeper faith, and that is because I don’t think the opposite of faith is doubt.  Last week I quoted from Max Lucado who said that fear comes from a perceived loss of control, and as a result to overcome that fear we then seek to regain control, so that safety and control becomes our goals and our god.  I believe the same is true for doubt, as Richard Rohr says that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but that the opposite of faith is control. When we seek assurance and complete knowledge, we are seeking to have more control, or total control over things, and that doesn’t leave space for faith.  That’s really what Thomas is trying to do here as well.  He is setting the limits and standards by which he will judge everything, and really he’s also trying to limit and control God.

While there are lots of different ways that doubts can come up, whether something is true or not, whether it’s worthwhile to believe something of not, whether we can believe because it seems so incredible, for me my doubts are often doubts about control and control of God. So, for example, I begin thinking about the immensity of our galaxy, with its 100 billion planets, and then think about the estimated 100 billion galaxies beyond ours and I wonder if God could actually be responsible for all of that.  But does that question say anything about God, or does it say everything about me? That I believe that my God is not big enough for that. My doubt does not show God’s limits, it shows my limits.

The same thing is happening with Thomas. He doesn’t believe in the resurrection because in his ideas such a thing isn’t possible, he doesn’t believe that God is big or powerful enough to do such a thing.  When people tell me they don’t believe in God, I will sometimes ask them to tell me about the God they don’t believe in because more than likely I don’t believe in that God either.  So when we are in the midst of doubt, do an examination and ask yourself what is at the heart of your doubt, and what assumptions you are making, and then ask if your doubt is about you or about God.  We often need to let God go free to be God, and doubt is a way to do that.

Doubt can also cause us to admit that we don’t know it all, to be able to say that God is ultimately a mystery, and that faith is ultimately a mystery. That’s what assuredness doesn’t really understand, there are people who are more sure about everything than I am about anything. To me that is not a good or a healthy faith.  Instead we need to understand that our conceptions and knowledge of God grow and change over time, and hopefully our faith is getting stronger and deeper over time, and so we should easily be able to say, to paraphrase Aristotle, “The more I know about God, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”  That is not the end of faith, or the destruction of faith, to me, that is the very beginning of faith and our search to know and to love God.

Knowing that we don’t know it all can also keep us from what has been called the tyranny of self-righteousness, but which I think might be better seen as the sin of self-righteousness. I believe it is a sin because it leads first to broken relationships with God and with others, and it leads to that because self-righteousness says to the world “I am right and you are wrong.”  And as I’ve said before because we are right then God is obviously on our side too, because otherwise God would be wrong and that leads us to do things that we might not do if we were to ask ourselves about our beliefs “what if I’m wrong?”

Rev. Peter Gomes said that “a surplus of virtue is more dangerous than a surplus of vice. Because,” Gomes said, “a surplus of virtue is not subject to the constraints of conscience.” Another way of saying this is that moral certitude causes more evil than just about anything else because there is nothing to check moral certitude, unless we say to ourselves, “what if I am wrong?”  I have to ask myself that all the time because I believe that I will be questioned by God about how I have led you and what I’ve taught you, and so as I think about things, most especially about my own beliefs, I do ask myself “what if I’m wrong,” which leads me to think more about my faith and most importantly leads me to a position of humility, and humility is also a good place to be and how to approach the world.  Actually, it’s my degree from Harvard, the finest university in the world, which taught me humility.  Did you see what I did there?

Now can doubt be destructive of faith? Of course it can, but it is entirely dependent upon what we are seeking to get out of our doubt, what we are using it for, and most importantly what we are bringing to the situation. If we are searching for certainty, then we are nearly always going to be disappointed, and even worse, certainty is easily broken, but not easily put back together.  But certainty is not what faith is about.  As we talked about last week, faith involves stepping beyond what we can prove, about taking a leap of faith and knowing we are never going to have entirely satisfactory answers, and yet we still have to believe, and be comfortable in the ambiguity, which is what Jesus says to conclude the passage. After Thomas’ proclamation of faith, Jesus says to him “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  That statement is not really to Thomas, but to us, because unless some of you have had a religious experience that you have not shared with me in which you have encountered the risen Christ, and then we are called to believe without having seen.  And what Thomas shows us is that Christ was already present even before he believed. Jesus was not dependent upon Thomas’ belief in order to be present for him.

Just like with Jesus’ injunction to fear not, it’s not about not being afraid, but instead moving forward through that fear to take the risks and do the things that God has called us to do.  So to, it’s not really about not doubting, because I think that can lead to even more problems, but instead to see how the doubts can be used to deepen our faith and further and expand our understandings of God and what is possible with and in God.

Do doubt and faith go together? The answer is yes.  You can be a Christian and doubt at the same time.  You can be faithful and not know everything.  Doubting is a part of being human, and I believe that doubts can help to strengthen our faith, and even help us from moving from mere belief in God, to living in and with God.  But we have to be honest with ourselves about our doubt, and why we are doubting and what it means, and we have to be honest with God.  That’s what Thomas does; at the very least he is honest in asking to see what everyone else has seen.

God cannot find us where we want to be, or where we want our faith to be, but can only be with us and encounter us where we are.  So be honest with yourself and be honest with God, and here might be the most important things to remember from this story about Thomas, and that is that it is not a story of rebuke or reprimand, but instead it is a story about hope and presence, that hope is possible and that Jesus is present. If even we don’t think he is there, even if we don’t think it’s even possible for him to be there, that Christ is present for us, because Easter is not about the fact that the tomb was empty or that the burial clothes were nicely folded, but it’s about the power and presence of the risen Christ and blessed are those who have not seen, but still believe, and still know that Christ is present for each and every one of us. I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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