I promised a sermon on doubt to follow up on last Sunday’s sermon. But I must first remind you that I do not have a direct line to God. I am not privileged to information that is unavailable to you. While I make a conscious effort to be open to the Holy Spirit every time I write or deliver a sermon, we may all find out someday that I had some things or even all things wrong. I remind you of this because, for some people, the subject of doubt is very troubling. Some of us grew up in churches that questioned our faith if we expressed doubt. Some of us grew up in churches that led us to believe that the preacher had a direct line to God and that everything he said was truth. Preachers are people who spend more time than the average person studying the Bible and reading theology books but they do not have any special source of information that is not also available to you.
There are some things that come with being a minister that I expected. People apologize if they cuss around you. People ask you to say the blessing before meals. People talk to you about angel and other holy experiences. People ask for your advice on all sorts of things: faith, parenting, marriage, etc. And there are two things that I had not thought about before. One is that people from more fundamentalist backgrounds question the theology of the Disciples church calling into question our Biblical interpretation. Some question whether or not we read the Bible as “The Word of God” – without error and completely factual. People who identify themselves as atheists also question how we interpret the Bible. But they are on the opposite extreme and believe we give too much credence to the Bible as “The Word of God” and wonder how we could possibly believe it.
To one group our theology, the way we question the Bible, and the way we worship is suspect and maybe even heretical. To the other group, our understanding of God through Christ and the Holy Spirit is suspect because we believe it. It is an interesting place to stand – being criticized by everyone.
Easter is the foundation of Christianity – it is the most important event – it is the reason Christianity came to be – but it is hard to swallow. For some more fundamentalist Christians, resurrection is a fact that must be accepted, not questioned and if you do not believe it, you are not a Christian. For atheists, it is ridiculous, could never have happened and should never be believed. This is why I LOVE the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). We are encouraged to question and wonder – we start questioning while children are young in the Children Worship and Wonder program in which children hear a Bible story, as it is being acted out with props, and then they are encouraged to wonder about that story through questions. The wondering promotes deeper thinking in the children allowing each story to become personal. John-Mark was kind enough to take me to the Berry Conference on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The conference celebrated Wendell Berry’s book The Unsettling of America and asked how we might go about “resettling” America now. One of the speakers, Wes Jackson, offered that if we ask a question that can be answered, we need to ask another question. That is especially true when we are talking about God. If we ask a question about God that can be answered, we need to ask another question.
There are 7 Sundays in Easter and then we will celebrate Pentecost – the coming of the Holy Spirit. But in our Scripture today, the risen Christ is already sharing the Spirit with the Disciples. You probably remember in Genesis One where the Spirit of God goes out and hovers over the waters at the beginning of creation. The word translated as Spirit in some of our Bibles can also be translated as Wind or Breath. Breath is my favorite translation because it conjures up the image of God blowing God’s spirit as breath that feels like wind. For me it signifies that all of life is imbued with God’s breath/spirit and that every time we feel the wind – it is that same breath spirit that came from God to begin the creation of the world. Every time we breathe – it is God’s holy breath we inhale. Breathing…
The evening of the resurrection, Jesus appeared to the Disciples and he breathed on them the Holy Spirit. In the C.S. Lewis’ book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, many characters were turned to stone by the witch. Aslan, the Lion, approached each stone and breathed on it causing a ripple of gold to move through the statue bringing it to life again. The Lion’s breath brought new life – a rebirth if you will. Breathing…
There is a Buddhist meditation practice that Christians are adopting called tonglen. To practice tonglen the prayer breathes in the stress and pain of the people and the world and breathes out the peace and love of Christ. It softens the tension in a room. It is claiming the power of the Holy Spirit first shared by God to begin creation and then by Christ to the Disciples. It is claiming power that is already present and calling it into action: breathing in the pain– transforming it with Holy Breath/Spirit and then breathing out peace and love and light. Breathing…
Jesus breathed on the Disciples — well all but Thomas. Thomas was not with them. Once Thomas did arrive, the disciples told him the exciting news. But he did not believe them. —A person cannot die on a cross on Friday and then be alive on Sunday. Death is permanent. Thomas was not like the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, who believed even when he did not understand. Thomas did not believe. —
But Thomas resides in all of us. He was not going to believe just because others said they saw Christ. I do not know any Christian who has not doubted. And I think it is in doubting that we grow in faith. One of my favorite Scripture passages is Mark 9.24.
Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.’ Jesus said, Bring him to me.’ And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it threw the boy into convulsions, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’
This father wanted to believe, he wanted to believe that his son had a chance at new life – but he had been sick since childhood and the disciples could not heal him. His heart wanted to believe in Jesus but his brain – taking into account all that had happened thus far knew that it was not possible. “Help my unbelief,” he said – help my unbelief.
Thomas doubted and Jesus came to help his unbelief. And Thomas is the FIRST to recognize who Jesus really is, the first to recognize Christ! —“My Lord and my God.” Mary and the other Disciples had not understood — Jesus is God. Maybe Thomas’ doubting – his struggle with what was happening, deepened his faith allowing him to recognize God in Christ.
And then Christ blesses all of us, Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
Believe means to have confidence in the truth without absolute proof. Confidence in the truth is believing. The truth is what the disciple whom Jesus loved believed in and what Thomas lacked.
When my children were young, I joined a group for mothers at my church. Martha was the leader, she was a mother and grandmother and she took me and many other young mothers under her faith wing. She had a necklace that she wore around her neck that had a small glass pendant with a mustard seed inside. She wore to remind her that she only had to have faith the size of a mustard seed. Throughout her faith life she questioned everything. She doubted it all – the virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, and even the existence of God. But by the time she was in her seventies, she believed it all. She believed it not because she was sure they all happened but because she had confidence in the truth they all stood for. She did not understand; she did not have scientific proof but that did not matter. She came to realize that whether or not any particular thing happened makes no difference. What matters is how it points us to God. A mustard seed of faith is all she needed.
What matters is the meaning, the truth and how does it point me to God? When my atheist cousin sends me emails trying to argue things in the Bible – I say – it does not matter – if it truly, factually happened or if it did not – it matters not. What matters is the truth – the deeper meaning. What does it say about God?
Christ did not chastise Thomas or the father in Mark in their doubting. He met them and helped their unbelief. Christ will also come and meet us – he will meet us through people and experiences in our lives. Christ will come to us. But when he comes, he will speak to our hearts not our head. He did not give Thomas explanations, he did not reason with the father and he will not give us facts and figures. Those things are matters of the head – the brain. Christ is in the soul business – he works in our hearts.
Some people struggle with whether or not things scientifically can be proven – if they are “real,” or valid. People spend time and energy trying to argue that there is no God that Christ could NOT have been resurrected and they miss the point – they miss the whole point! I was in Joseph Beth this past week and saw two new books arguing that there is no God. These were thick books full of all the “scientific” reasons that there cannot be a God. I have not read these books but I have looked at others. They use science to try to disprove things that are not scientific. They look at Scripture as if it were a science based book and try to disprove it and they miss the point.
Anytime Christ comes to us he will not give a logically argued response to our doubts. He will not give dismiss all our doubt. But what he offers is peace that passes all understanding and love that is stronger even than violent death. What we will gain is a deeper faith and a meaningful life. Jesus the Christ cannot be understood through questions that have answers. If there is an answer to the question – it is not the right question.
At the beginning of creation, the Spirit Breath of God hovered over the waters. When the first human was formed from the dust of the ground, God breathed the breath of life into the human’s nostrils. Jesus breathed on the Disciples giving them the Holy Spirit. He breathed on their questioning and unbelief. He breathed on their fear. He breathed on their uncertainty and anxiety. Jesus breathed peace and love and faith the size of a mustard seed.
In all the wondering and questions and doubting our faith will deepen and we will not be caught up in points that do not matter. We will spend our time looking for meaning, looking for God. And when we encounter the risen Christ in this world, we will say, “My Lord and My God.”