Doubt Strengthens Faith, Easter 2(A) – April 23, 2017

RCL] Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

One of the greatest blessings we encounter as Christians is the freedom to admit when we have doubts.  As faithful Christians, we should have the audacity to ask tough questions concerning our faith and traditions.

For some, doubt is synonymous with having a lack of faith, but doubt and faith are two sides of the same coin. They are the Ying and Yang, if you would, of the Christian life.

According to Paul Tillich, doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. Rather than suppress our doubts, we should explore them and allow them to set us on a journey of discovery and a deepening of our beliefs and convictions. In our Gospel reading today, Thomas asked for proof, and we also want proof as well that our faith is not in vain.

Thomas often gets a bad rap for doubting the resurrection of Jesus; however, he was no more doubtful than the other disciples and apostles.

The other disciples didn’t believe that Jesus had risen until he appeared to them, so why should we expect Thomas to be any different?

In fact, we applaud Thomas for his insistence on wanting tangible proof. After all, Thomas was well aware that Jesus wasn’t the first messianic figure on the scene to be crucified by the Roman occupiers. Thomas showed great religious restraint and demonstrated the proper amount of rational doubt.  But when Jesus appeared to him, Thomas proclaimed without reservation, “My Lord, and my God.”

Doubt can be a wonderful tool that propels us into deeper learning, earnest soul searching, and spiritual revelation. Faith based on absolute certainty leads to fanaticism, but faith tempered with doubt is mature and stable.

Many believers struggle with their own doubts brought about by life’s unpredictability and tempestuous nature. We have very real struggles in our lives that generate an uncertainty about where God is to be found in all the turmoil.

Sometimes we look to spiritual giants, the superstars of Christianity, and feel inferior in our own personal walk in comparison. However, the greatest in the Kingdom sometimes deal with the greatest doubt.

Mother Teresa’s diary reveals a saintly person who struggled with a type of doubt that would crush the faint of heart. She wrote to her spiritual confidant, the Rev. Michael Van Der Peet, in 1979, “Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.”

For the last nearly half-century of her life Mother Teresa felt no presence of God whatsoever — neither in her heart or in the Eucharist. That absence seems to have started at almost precisely the time she began tending the poor and dying in Calcutta and— except for a five-week break in 1959 — never abated.

Although perpetually cheery in public, Mother Teresa lived in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain. She bemoans the “dryness,” “darkness,” “loneliness” and “torture” she was undergoing. She compares the experience to hell and at one point says it has driven her to doubt the existence of heaven and even of God.  Nevertheless, she continued to love the least in God’s creation and dedicate her life to Christ to the very end.

Mother Teresa isn’t alone in her struggle with doubt. The Polish-born Jewish-American author Isaac Bashevis Singer states that doubt is part of all religion, that all the religious thinkers were doubters. The art critic Robert Hughes said, “The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.”

Catholic priest Henri Nouwen wrote, “So I am praying while not knowing how to pray. I am resting while feeling restless, at peace while tempted, safe while still anxious, surrounded by a cloud of light while still in darkness, in love while still doubting.”

Despite Fr. Nouwen’s own struggle with doubt, he was able to mentor and encourage countless thousands through his writings, lectures, and sermons. One particular quote from a book of his has been a lifeboat for many who find themselves overcome with the waves of life’s stormy doubts: “Have the courage to trust that you will not fall into an abyss of nothingness, but into the embrace of a God whose love can heal all your wounds.”

Faith is a daily, ongoing exercise. It is a risk. Doubts arise. We struggle with God. And hopefully, faith grounded in the goodness of God triumphs — even when we do not have all the answers and life doesn’t make sense.

Will we believe in a God of love who wants to be near us and has our best interest at heart? Or will we believe in a God who plays games with us, and is ultimately cruel and uncaring? Will we believe in a God who stands beside us in our troubles, or one who is distant and difficult?

The author of Hebrews writes, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Faith is not void of doubt, but requires a daily commitment to developing our spiritual walk despite life’s uncertainties and sometimes cruelties.

Faith doesn’t take away our doubts, but is strengthened by them.  And faith doesn’t deliver us from our problems and heartaches, but gives us the strength to persevere through them and lead others as well as they navigate around the abyss of nothingness.

May his resurrection power be at work in our lives as we learn to allow our doubts to strengthen our faith.

Amen.

Written by The Rev. Timothy G. Warren,  a 26-year retired Air Force veteran with more than 15 years’ experience as an educator in the private and public sector. Fr. Warren is pastor of St. Francis (Independent Old Catholic Church), an emergent outreach ministry that serves at-risk teens and young adults in the High Desert Region of Southern California, and President/Executive Director LifeSkills Development, a nonprofit dedicated to providing assistance to at-risk young adults. Fr. Warren is also a member of the High Desert Interfaith Council.

Download the sermon for Easter 2(A).

Jesus of the Scars, 2 Easter (A) – 2014

April 27, 2014

Acts 2:14a,22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

We live in an age of scoffing; the people in today’s lessons lived in an age of belief. Of course, Jerusalem was filled with believers; however inadequate, that was the proper way to be for the Jews of the first century. Among them, in that multicultural city, there were many other believers, and gods abounded. But this god, the one who visits the disciples in the locked room, the one to whom they later testify with such eagerness, this was the only god with scars. And that is the huge difference.

It’s the evening of the first day. The disciples are afraid and confused. They are behind closed doors. They have just lived through the most horrific three days of their lives, having lost their best friend and teacher to the most terrible of slow deaths.

But on this day, the first day, they have received startling news. And though they are not sophisticated people, they are Jews who observe the Law, and they have avoided superstition. But one of their friends, the smart and loyal Mary of Magdala, has told them a story that has shaken them. “I have seen the Lord,” she had announced to them early in the morning, and they are not quite sure what to make of it. They are smart enough to know that after that awful death by crucifixion, reserved for the worst of criminals by the Romans, they themselves are suspect and what they say and do from now on will be taken by the enemies of Jesus as an excuse to discount his reality and his message. So they are together, waiting, confused, trying to decide.

And then Jesus comes. Jesus came to them when they needed him the most, and he offered them his peace. It seems that they didn’t immediately recognize him. The last time they had seen this body and this face they were torn, deformed and bleeding, not a pleasing sight for those who loved him. But this body before them is wholeness itself. After his greeting, Jesus shows them his scars. And now they know him. We can only guess at their joy.

What happens next is the beginning of the church as the body of Christ. He breathes on them as he says, Receive holy “breath” or  “spirit.” It is important to note that in Greek the word pneuma means both breath and spirit, and also important to note that in its original use, it does not have the definitive article in front of spirit. In the Greek, the noun comes before the adjective here. It should be read: “Receive breath that is holy.”

Jesus breathes on all of them, the community of them, and to this community he says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” The baptism in Spirit, as John the Baptist had predicted, has arrived.

This is a dramatic story in two parts. One of the remaining 11 apostles is missing, and he will not be left out. We can imagine his friends seeing him after the first Sunday and crying out, “We have seen the Lord!” And we can imagine Thomas saying, “Unless I see and touch the scars in his hands and plunge my own hand in that hole on his side, I will not believe it.” We know Thomas. We are like him. We are creatures who demand proof, the proof of three of our senses, most especially: seeing, touching, hearing. For the dogs that love us, the sense of smell is enough, but we need more, much more in order to recognize, understand and believe. We need to dissect, analyze, compare. And in this age, when we have abandoned mystery, it becomes harder and harder to believe.

The resurrected Christ, ever mindful of those he has chosen and loved, grants Thomas his wish. A week later, they are all together again, Thomas among them, and Jesus appears as before to offer them his peace. He has come for Thomas, and he turns to him immediately. “Bring your finger here and see my hands; bring your hand and plunge it in my side.”

Thomas, without needing to touch, cries out the one declaration of belief that matters: “My Lord and my God.” He is confronted not by the familiar Jesus, but by the Christ of God. He doesn’t need to touch to know. He sees before him his beloved teacher who now bears the scars of human suffering unto eternity. We also, who have not seen, are blessed at this moment: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

The disciples are beginning to comprehend the Incarnation, and they are ready to change the world, even though they don’t know it yet. The energy of God, the Holy Spirit, has been breathed into them. But they do understand that now they are to do the work that Christ has asked them to do: to bear witness to Christ by proclaiming the good news. They lived in a world where belief in a god was a given. Jerusalem, a multicultural city, was filled with Jews from other lands who worshiped the One God, and with pagans worshiping many gods. In that environment, Peter stands up to proclaim a particular incarnate god, crucified and resurrected.

In this season of Easter, we, too, need to be reassured and energized by the presence of Christ. We are surrounded by scoffers. And our ease of communication today makes us aware of the suffering of people we will never see or know. We want to experience the joy of resurrection, not just for ourselves, but for the world.

A century ago, the First World War created unimaginable death and suffering. Poets examined that suffering in their writings, longing to believe in a God who would allow such horrors among people who were supposed to be civilized. One of those poets, a Christian by the name of Edward Shillito, found the only answer that made sense to him:

“He showed them His hands and His side.”

If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow,
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars, we claim Thy grace.

If when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know to-day what wounds are, have no fear,
Show us Thy Scars, we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.

We give thanks for this Jesus of the Scars, the resurrected Christ who has breathed new life into us.

 

— Katerina Whitley is an author and retreat leader. She lives and writes in Louisville, Ky.

Godly peace, 2 Easter (A) – 2011

May 1, 2011

Acts 2:14a,22-32Psalm 161 Peter 1:3-9John 20:19-31

Today’s gospel reading teaches us about fear and doubt on one hand and faith and risk on the other.

We don’t have to be taught about fear and doubt – not if we have lived a few years and kept our eyes open. Living is bound to cause us to have fear and doubt. Nearly a decade after 9/11, we still fear a new terrorist attack. We worry about a persistent flow of people into our country from the south. We tremble when we remember a congresswoman being shot down at a grocery store in Arizona and the ever-present possibility of global warming or natural disasters, like the earthquake and Tsunami that devastated Japan. We worry about the nagging economic recession that seems to threaten our standard of living. The constant possibility of bad things happening confronts us on almost every news program.

Furthermore, the culture of fear and doubt that pervades modern life is characterized by many radio and television political talk shows that trade on the currency of demonizing one side or other and whipping up fear about them in the hearts of listeners. Does anyone feel safe anymore in this kind of cultural environment?

Sometimes it makes us want to hunker down and hide in what seems like a safe place, doesn’t it? That’s what the disciples were doing in the situation related in today’s gospel. They cowered down in fear behind locked doors, where they had huddled for a week. Their bubble had burst. Enemies of their leader had killed him, and they must have wondered who among them would be next. Even before Jesus was crucified, Peter had been so afraid that he denied – three times – even knowing him. Because one of them, Judas, had betrayed Jesus, they might even have feared one another, wondering who might be the next to betray the others. They were afraid and kept the doors locked, even though the once-crucified and now-resurrected Jesus had been there once already, giving them an initial experience of the reality of the Resurrection.

We, too, know what the disciples were feeling, don’t we? We know about living behind locked doors in a culture of fear. We, too, are frightened disciples. We know about what fear leads to: insecurity, anger, anxiety, physical illness, escapism, emotional paralysis, compulsion, addiction, uncertainty, and doubt. All too often, out of a sense of perceived threat and in self-protection, fear leads us to self-protective and over-reactive behavior. If our fear comes from being harmed or threatened by others, it can lead to the sins of intolerance and prejudice, to reprisals and retribution, returning evil for evil.

Sometimes we despair as we wonder whether we can ever find viable options to such a culture of fear. But such is the Good Friday experience – and Christians know that the Crucifixion experience does not remain death on a cross and loss of hope. Luckily for us, God offers us the Easter experience – the reality created by Jesus, who, by overcoming death, chose the way of risk and faith instead of fear and doubt. That’s the reality he brought to Thomas, and that is the realization that set Thomas free to affirm the life of faith.

Jesus comes to us as he came to Thomas by placing us, too, right smack in the middle of the same Easter experience. Jesus, as God, comes to us as he did to Thomas and the other disciples – comes to us all even before we stop doubting, even before we overcome our fear, even before we know we can unlock the doors of false security. God brings the Easter reality to us in whatever we are doing, but especially when we are afraid and doubtful. As he helped the disciples, God helps us discover what we can be and what we can do – if.

If even when we are not completely free from doubt and uncertainty, we dare to step beyond the locked doors of fear.

If we can find the faith to move ahead, beyond fear and doubt, our Lord assures us that, in his name, we can do and become more than we ever imagined. Because, whenever we cower behind the locked doors of our lives, Jesus is present, as he was for Thomas, gently and patiently breaking through our insecurities and doubts and calling us out into a life of faith.

Wherever we are, Jesus is there to love and empower us. Jesus is there to help us discover that we, too, are an active part of the Resurrection; that we, too, are part of the continuing Easter story; that we, too, are the Body of Christ, risen to the new life of love and peace and grace that has the power to transform fear into faith.

Embracing Jesus as Thomas did, embracing Easter, leads us to see what is on the other side of our locked doors. Embracing Jesus as Thomas did offers us a different view – a different way from that of fear and doubt. It is a way of love and forgiveness and peace and tolerance and respect for others.

Of course, this is very difficult in the midst of a culture of fear. In our humanness, we are bound to resist God’s way of love because it seems so impossible. We are bound to feel like Thomas in his initial reaction. It is hard to believe something we cannot see and that is foreign to us. It is hard to believe what the world discounts and resists. It is hard to believe the power of love and forgiveness and the power of God to overcome fear and bringing good out of evil.

And yet, Easter is what Jesus came to show Thomas – to teach him that God will not let the bad win out in the end. Easter is what Jesus comes to show us – that by faith we too will not let the bad win out at the last. Easter is this: that we can see the possibilities that come from joining Thomas in affirming Jesus as he did, saying, “My Lord and My God.” This assertion of belief will help us understand the power of what Jesus said to all the disciples when he appeared to them: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He gave them, as he gives us, Godly peace so we can move beyond the locked doors of our lives – beyond what shuts us off from community with our brothers and sisters. The risen Christ makes himself known to us and gives us God’s peace, setting us free from our darkest fears. He gives us the keys to unlock the closed-up doors of our lives. And as we unlock them, with God’s peace and love, we are free to begin living with the power of Easter in our hearts.

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of “John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.