Learning from a Fellow Doubter (a sermon from John 20:19-29)

If you are familiar with this story about Thomas, you might remember this as the story of doubting Thomas. In fact, the expression “doubting Thomas” has become something of a cliché. But it’s not really accurate. It is true that most of our English versions use the word “doubt.” Our text reads that Jesus says to Thomas: “Stop doubting and believe.” But what he actually says is, “Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” I would paraphrase it this way: Stop hesitating, stop wavering, stop straddling the fence, be committed. In order to understand the ins and outs of doubt, the positive and negative aspects of doubt, we have to understand what faith is.

There are three components to authentic faith and when you understand these three components, then you will understand why I paraphrase Jesus as saying, “Stop hesitating. Be committed.” What we normally think of when we use the term belief is just one component of what faith is. This involves believing intellectually, giving mental assent to something. Belief is one component of faith. The second component is trust – trust that results in action. If I tell my son, “I know where a big bass lurks and this is how you will have a chance to catch her.” (By the way the bass that rule a water system are always female, male bass are puny little things). Now if I share this with my son, and if he trusts me, he will go to that spot and he will do what I told him to do, if he trusts me. That’s what it means to trust. The third component of faith is faithfulness. The Greek word can be translated either “faith” or “faithfulness.” There is a big debate going among NT scholars about the phrase “faith in Christ” that Paul uses several places in his letters, particularly in connection with his teaching on justification. There’s a growing number of scholars who say that phrase should be translated as the “faithfulness of Christ.” What Paul may have meant was, “We are put right with God through the faithfulness of Jesus” – a significant difference in meaning than saying we are put right by our faith in Jesus. I like to use the word commitment when I talk about faith because commitment is a word that embraces all three of these components – belief, trust, and faithfulness. To have authentic faith we need all three components.

Being a follower of Jesus requires all three components. I must believe that Jesus is someone to follow. I don’t need to believe everything some doctrinal statement says about Jesus. I don’t need to believe any particular theory of the atonement, or how his divinity relates to his humanity. I can believe and do believe certain things about Jesus, but many of these aren’t necessary in order to be a disciple of Jesus. What I need to believe is that the way of Jesus is a way that will lead me to know God and to participate in God’s good will for my life and the world. If I don’t believe that much, I will never follow Jesus. Then, I must trust enough to act. Here is where we usually talk about making a decision to be a disciple. Then, if I have truly trusted in Jesus, I will become faithful to the way of Jesus. So, belief, trust, and faithfulness must all be part of a genuine commitment to discipleship.

Now, what we believe about God, about Jesus, about how God works in our lives – all of that is important, but not in the way that many Christians think. Our beliefs can be healthy or unhealthy. There are droves of people walking away from the church today because they don’t buy in to the beliefs they are told they have to believe about God, or Jesus, or the Bible in order to be a Christian. For example, If you tell them that God tortures people in hell, and then you tell them that God is love, they say, “No way, you can’t have it both ways. I can’t believe that.” Then, if you tell them they have to believe that in order to be a Christian or a member of your church, their response is likely to be, “Then, I won’t be a Christian.” And many of these people who refuse to believe what they are told they have to believe are people working for social justice, they are standing with the dreamers, some are trying to take care of our planet, they oppose the exploitation of the earth’s resources. I have a lot in common with these folks. In fact, I suspect some of us here today have more in common with these folks than some Christians who think we don’t need to care about such things, and who think that these things are not part of the gospel.
So then, what we believe determines (or at the very least impacts) what we trust in and are faithful to. A person can believe in the values of equality, fairness, love of neighbor, compassion, humility, honesty, social justice, and the common good without actually attaching these values to the person of Jesus of Nazareth. There are people who believe in, trust in, and are faithful to these values who are members of other religious traditions or not affiliated with any religious tradition. And yet, because they are committed to these values, they reflect more of the way of Jesus than many Christians who do not embody these values. I personally, and hopefully most of you as well, attach these values to the person and life of Jesus of Nazareth, so that living out these values is part and parcel to our discipleship to Christ. Jesus was killed for living out these values and for speaking truth to power. And when God raised up Jesus, God validated and vindicated Jesus as the incarnation of these values. And that gives us hope that in time all these values that are nothing less than aspects of God’s love will prevail. Our Easter faith fuels and ignites this hope.

When Thomas becomes convinced that he had indeed “seen” Jesus alive, that God had raised Jesus, he says to Jesus, “My Lord and my God.” Now, what is really important for us to understand is that this glorious proclamation from Thomas is not a statement about the metaphysical nature of Jesus. This is not a propositional or doctrinal confession with regard to the divinity and the humanity of Jesus. This is a statement of commitment, and as such it is a statement of faith. In the Roman world of the first Christians both “Lord” and “God” were titles attributed to the Roman emperor. The emperor was known as “God manifest.” In that world, only Caesar was Lord. These early followers dared to protest and say: Caesar is not Lord. Neither Caesar, nor anyone or anything else is Lord. Jesus is Lord. So, to him and all that he stood for I am committed. My allegiance is to the way of Jesus and the values he embodied.” That’s what these early Christians meant when they said, “Jesus is Lord” or as hear in John’s Gospel, “Jesus is my God.” They were saying, “We are committed to all that Jesus stood for and died for.”

So, how does doubt play into this? How is it that doubt can be a good thing? I can share from my own journey.  I was taught a particular version of Christian faith and then told that I should never doubt or question what I was taught. That to doubt or question would not lead to a good place. I would fall down that “slippery slope” into the abyss of God’s disfavor. So, for a long time I didn’t question what I was taught, and I tried to stifle and suppress all doubts. But, at some point in my life, I realized that there was no guarantee that what I was taught was indeed the truth. Now please understand. I didn’t question the sincerity or the motives of those who taught me. They had good intentions. They believed they were teaching me the truth. They taught me what they had been taught. But, at some point my sense of what was true started to call into question some of my beliefs, and that led to doubt. It may have been around the time our second child was born. That experience may have been the experience that opened a crack in my defensive ego. It takes what it takes, right? Maybe, that was it, but I can’t say for sure.

Now, what I discovered is that doubt doesn’t have to be a negative thing at all. There were beliefs I held that I needed to question and doubt. That little bit of openness allowed me to hear and read and listen to others without a presupposed and predetermined mind-set of proving them wrong. I needed to doubt my belief in a vindictive, punitive God. I needed to doubt a system of faith that put me ahead of and made me superior to others, just because I believed “the right things.” I needed to doubt my belief that everyone had to be a Christian in order to be saved from their sins and to know God. I needed to doubt my very limited and narrow understanding of the gospel. I needed to doubt these things, in order to come to a more healthy, inclusive, transformative faith. The key to all of this was a willingness to hear, listen, and be provoked by others, without thinking I had to critique and correct them.  

In the movie, Bridge to Terabithia, ten-year-old Jess Aarons has his sense of what is true and real questioned and turned upside down by a free-spirited ten-year-old girl named Leslie Burke. In the woods adjoining their homes, an old dilapidated tree house becomes an invitation into the enchanted kingdom of Terabithia.

One Friday, when they’ve been rained out and cannot enter their magical world, Jess complains about Saturday’s chores and church on Sunday. Leslie asks Jess if she can come to church with him. Jess feels certain Leslie will hate it, but he takes her along. On the ride home with Jess and his little sister, May Belle, in the back of the truck a conversation develops. Leslie, who had never been to church before says, “That whole Jesus thing is really interesting isn’t it? . . . It’s really kind of a beautiful story.” May Belle interjects, “It ain’t beautiful. It’s scary! Nailing holes right through somebody’s hand.”

Then Jess chimes in, ‘May Belle’s right. It’s because were all vile sinners that God made Jesus die.” Leslie questions that part of the story. She asks, “You really think that’s true?” “It’s in the Bible,” responds Jess. Leslie, in a puzzled and questioning tone says, “You have to believe it, but you hate it.” Then she says, “I don’t have to believe it, and I think it’s beautiful.” May Belle jumps in, “You gotta believe the Bible, Leslie.” “Why?” asks Leslie. “Cause if you don’t believe in the Bible, God’ll damn you to hell when you die.”

Leslie is taken aback by such a dreadful image of God. She asks May Belle for her source. May Belle can’t come up with chapter and verse, so she turns to Jess, who can’t quote the Scripture either, but knows that it is somewhere in the Bible. “Well,” Leslie says, “I don’t think so. I seriously do not think God goes around damning people to hell. He’s too busy running all this.” With that Leslie raises her arms to include the sky and the trees and the wind and everything over the beautiful landscape through which they were driving.

Think about this. In this interchange Leslie calls into question three sacred beliefs that Jess and May Belle thought they had to believe. She doubted three things they thought they could not doubt. Three things that made church something to be dreaded and God to be feared. One, Leslie doubted that just because it’s in the Bible one has to believe it. Two, she doubted that God made Jesus die. And three, she doubted that God would punish people by sending them to hell. And in doubting these things she was free to “see” the whole Jesus thing with different eyes that made it in her words “beautiful.” Jess and May Belle didn’t see it as something “beautiful” at all, but she saw it as something beautiful  

This is my journey. I went from being like Jess and May Belle to being like Leslie when I started listening to other people, who, like Leslie, saw the whole Jesus thing with different eyes. When I was able to hear and listen to people like Marcus Borg and Richard Rohr talk about the story of Jesus from a different perspective, they and others gave me a whole new way of seeing, so that the good news really began to feel and look like good news. The gospel became something quite beautiful. Not something I had to believe in order to go to heaven and escape hell, but something that inspired me to want to become like this beautiful Jesus I was seeing again as for the first time. And that sisters and brothers, is what, as your pastor, I am doing my very best to try to help you see – just how beautiful this “whole Jesus thing” really is.  

One reason it’s important to believe in a beautiful Jesus (there are other reasons too, but one reason) is because God needs people like Jesus in the world. God needs image bearers. God needs people who will mirror this beautiful Jesus.

When Jesus appears to the disciples in this story he appears with greetings of peace, and then he issues a call, a charge, a commission that would send them out on a new mission. He says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And then he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In one sense they already had the Spirit. God was with them and in them. Here the point is made that the Holy Spirit is equivalent to the Spirit of Christ. What this says to us is that the same Holy Spirit that empowered Jesus in his teaching and healing and liberating work, the same Spirit that led Jesus to embrace and embody the values of mercy, compassion, grace, restorative justice, and unconditional love, is the very same Spirit who empowers us to reflect in our lives the same values, attitudes, and self-less service we see in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. In the language of Paul we are called to be the body of Christ in the world. We are called to bear witness to a beautiful Jesus by doing the best we can to live out the values and relationships and ideals that made Jesus beautiful.

Now, certainly doubt can be a negative force if it leads us to be cynical and indifferent and isolated. But doubt is not something we need to fear or avoid. It can be an instrument that leads us into a whole new way of seeing. A major theme throughout John’s Gospel relates to our capacity to see with new eyes.

Our Gospel story today ends with the concession that we are not all going to see Jesus in the same way. We may not see Jesus in the same way Thomas and the other disciples saw Jesus. And that’s okay. We can still be blessed, if our vision of Jesus inspires us to love like Jesus. Remember what Jesus said to his disciples: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you all believe the right things.” Wrong. What did he say? “If you have love for one another.” Doubt can be a good thing if it leads us to envision a beautiful Jesus who inspires us to love the way God so loves the world.

Our good and gracious God, I pray that more of us will not be afraid to question and doubt, but to allow our questions and doubts to lead us to a better place, where we serve you, not out of fear or mere obligation, but because we are inspired by the beautiful vision and life of the one we confess as Lord.  In his name I pray. Amen


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