The Beauty of Doubt
Passage: John 20:19-31
Date: April 23, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Chris Murphy
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Today we have the opportunity to reflect on the resurrection story involving Thomas. You know Thomas. He’s the disciple known for doubting. Poor guy. What a tough reputation to have attributed to your name. After all Thomas only wanted to see the wounds of Jesus like the other disciples did. He just wanted proof of the resurrection, but the doubting stigma has stayed with Thomas.
Growing up in the Christian world, it has been natural for me to identify with the disciples of Jesus. If I am honest, my favorite disciple was never Thomas. Thomas to me represented my experience of the traditional Presbyterian church of my youth. I grew up as the son of a Presbyterian pastor, so I tended to be a bit cynical regarding Presbyterians. Don’t worry, I am more gracious now and appreciative of my roots in the Presbyterian tradition. After all, I am a Presbyterian pastor. But I grew up viewing Presbyterians as filled with doubt. We were the ones who prayed for people’s healing always with the caveat—if it be your will, God. We were the ones who wanted to keep everything orderly and never raised our hands in worship. We wanted control. Many of the adults I saw in Presbyterian churches growing up seemed to be overly intellectual types who struggled with faith. What faith I saw seemed to be rooted in a belief system more than in personal experience. No, Thomas was not my favorite disciple. He seemed a bit too Presbyterian for me.
You might think I would be drawn to Peter. But I did not like Peter either. Peter seemed like too much of a hothead and I also did not like the fact that he denied Jesus three times. Kind of a bad part of his résumé. Yes, Peter did walk on water. That was cool, but after a few steps he sunk into the sea. Not cool.
Who was my favorite disciple? I liked John. John has this close relationship with Jesus. He is so loyal to Jesus that Jesus chooses him to take care of his mom, Mary. John also is a fast runner, since he is likely the disciple that Jesus loves who gets to the tomb first in a foot race with Peter after the resurrection. I wanted to be fast like John. And lastly, John, unlike the other disciples, does not appear to die a martyr’s death. Sure, John is sent into exile to live on the Island of Patmos. That probably was pretty tough, but at least he appeared to live a longer life. For someone who fears suffering and death like I do, John seems to be the best choice for a favorite disciple.
So again, Thomas has not historically been my favorite, but I have to say that I am starting to like Thomas more and more. I like him because he is a bit of a radical. I like his courage. He could easily be called courageous Thomas rather than just doubting Thomas. It is Thomas who earlier in the Gospel of John says that he is ready to go into Jerusalem with Jesus and face death. It is also Thomas who when he does see and touch the wounds of Jesus after the resurrection, proclaims “my Lord and my God.” Thomas is the only disciple in the Gospel that communicates Jesus as the revelation of God in such a direct way. For Thomas to claim Jesus as Lord and God is a political statement that puts Thomas against the Roman leadership of his day. The early Christian church communities that read this gospel story would also have been inspired by Thomas’ statement, since at the time that the Gospel of John was written, the emperor was Domitian. Domitian claimed to be God and put on the Roman money of his day a picture of himself with the engraving “our Lord and our God.” The early followers of Jesus faced persecution from Domitian by refusing to see the emperor as Lord and God. The early followers of Jesus instead joined with Thomas in proclaiming Jesus as Lord and God.
Thomas is a radical and he is ultimately quite brave in his devotion to Jesus. Tradition even has Thomas spreading the Gospel into Syria and eventually into India. Today in India there are churches dedicated to Thomas with relics from his life. We might question the historicity of the holy sites connected to the life of Thomas that exist in India, but there is at least the possibility that the disciple Thomas shared the message of Jesus in India and died a martyr’s death in that place.
Some of you are familiar with Thomas for the “The Gospel of Thomas,” which includes many of the wisdom sayings of Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas is an ancient manuscript that scholars date usually back to around the 2nd century. It was discovered in 1945 and is very popular thanks in part to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. However, it is often viewed critically since it includes Gnostic ideas. Gnosticism is a philosophy that was popular near the time of Jesus but that ultimately was viewed negatively by the majority of the Church because it tended to view the human body and creation as bad and the spirit as good and that one is only saved through a secret knowledge that allows you to ultimately escape from the body. One interesting fact related to the Gospel of Thomas is that some scholars believe the Gnostic influence was added later to the gospel and that the earlier version of this ancient writing is quite old and is actually a helpful document that communicates many of Jesus’ original wisdom sayings.
So I like Thomas for his radical heart, his boldness in proclaiming Jesus as the revelation of God, his role as a missionary, and possibly as one who recorded the wisdom sayings of Jesus. But the thing I like most about Thomas is his honesty about his own doubt.
I originally said I did not like Thomas for his doubting. As a pastor, I make my living being a person of faith, and there is a part of me that does not like to face doubt. You see, pastors often feel like professional Christians and in our pastoral business, being a doubter is not seen as a good thing. Maybe for this reason it is so refreshing for Thomas to doubt. The other day I met with one of my spiritual director colleagues and I explained that it is hard for me to be around people who doubt. To be honest sometimes Northeast Portland creates a sense of spiritual fatigue in me. My friend was bold enough to remind me that we all doubt and that it is okay for me to sit with my doubt and face it. He encouraged me to identify with the doubts of other people and not to hide from them.
I took his advice seriously and began to sit with my own doubt as a spiritual practice. Everyone’s doubt is a little different. I took some time to reflect on my struggle with theodicy, the struggle with why a loving and all-powerful God allows human suffering to flourish in this world. I also pondered whether God is really good or some mysterious combination of good and evil. I took time to doubt some of the doctrines of the church that I found difficult to hold onto. During my space of doubting, I felt uncomfortable at times, even depressed, but it also felt freeing to admit my doubt to God. In the midst of my doubt, I actually invited Jesus to be my guide. I found it helpful to ask Jesus to help me be honest with him. I realized that Jesus could actually identify with some of my doubts, since he suffered in Gethsemane, experienced torture, and ultimately felt forsaken by God on the cross. Whatever it means that Jesus descended into Hell, it meant to me that Jesus could descend into the most painful parts of my heart. What I learned through this experience and what I am learning about doubt is that it is an essential part of faith. You can only be truly intimate in your relationships if you can be honest. I think Jesus likes our honesty. I feel that doubt is not so much a problem to be solved as an opportunity to be honest, to be authentic before God.
The beauty of doubt is that is can lead us to an authentic quest for the living God. In this space of longing, we are ready to experience God’s grace and love deeply. In doubt, we are open to experience God in her fullness and in her beauty.
Some of you may know of the Christian spirituality writer Rob Bell. Rob Bell is the former and founding pastor of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Rob is a graduate of Fuller Seminary, my alma mater, and like some Fuller grads he has slowly moved from his evangelical faith to something farther left theologically but still Christ-centered. Before Rob transitioned from his church in Mars Hill, he would lead special doubt nights at his evangelical church. He would give permission for all the spiritual seekers to be honest. Some people would share about how hard it was to trust God, since they had experienced significant abuse or other forms of deep pain. What was interesting about Rob’s church is that it thrived by offering people the freedom to doubt and to ask the hard questions of faith.
Here at Westminster, we generally think of ourselves as a more progressive church. The word evangelical causes many of us to cringe. What is true of Westminster is that many of us have relatives or friends who are more conservative and many of us, myself included, grew up in a more evangelical world where we felt pressure to believe certain things about God. I think the quest we are on is to discern what of the Christian faith is most important. We wish to reflect on what from orthodox Christianity is worth holding onto and what it really means to be a follower of Jesus in the 21st century. Maybe we should have a doubt night or a doubt morning, so that we can ask the hardest questions of our faith. I think this type of authenticity might help us experience Jesus more deeply. Reflecting on our doubts might lead us to experience a God that is far more beautiful, loving, and gracious than we could ever imagine.
One of the great Christian leaders of the 20th century was Mother Teresa. The founder of Sisters of Charity, Mother Teresa dedicated her life to caring for the dying in Calcutta, India, and around the world. A few years ago, the letters of Mother Teresa to her spiritual director were published and it became known that she struggled to have faith in God for many years of her ministry. She experienced what some call a dark night of the soul, often serving Christ by working with the poor even when she had little sense of God’s presence in her life.
If Mother Teresa learned to be honest with her doubt, so can we. I would argue that Mother Teresa’s faith actually grew stronger in her life as she showed compassion to the hurting even when she struggled with doubt.
Recently, I watched the movie Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese and based on the novel written by Shusaku Endo. This movie tells the story of the spreading of the Christian faith in Japan in the 17th century and the persecution of Japanese Christians and the Jesuit missionary priests. It is a hard movie to watch because you are invited to feel both the faith and the doubt of the Christians in that time in history. You wonder about the appropriateness of spreading the Gospel in other countries that have other historic religions, but you also see the power of lives changed through knowing Christ. Silence, both as a movie and as a book, raises the question that maybe, just maybe, our doubts, those times when God seems silent, are actually spaces for our faith to grow more deeply.
On a lighter note, my daughter Chiara is working on her own questions of faith lately. Chiara is four years old and like most kids, she is naturally spiritual. Her latest focus is on seeing Jesus for real. All this talk about the resurrection this Easter makes her want Jesus to show up. She wants Jesus to come in physical form right now. The other day my wife, Karen, was at a Bible study at a local church and Chiara was with her. Chiara pointed at a dark hallway in the church and asked my wife, “Is Jesus in the darkness?” Karen responded yes, Jesus sometimes is in the darkness. Chiara then said, “Is Jesus hiding in the darkness?” And my wife responded, yes, sometimes he hides in the darkness.
The good news is that Jesus meets us in our doubts and can guide us in those dark places that make us vulnerable to fear. Like my daughter Chiara, we are invited to ask Jesus to reveal himself to us even when it feels like he is hiding.
Maybe it is okay if Thomas is the disciple for Presbyterians and others who doubt. Maybe it is okay that I am a Presbyterian minister whose faith is shaped at times by my doubts. Maybe God can meet us in our silence, in the dark-night experiences of this world when tragedy and hardship set in and we don’t see the sun. Maybe God is alive and well in Northeast Portland if we have the eyes to see God’s presence in this place. Maybe God is present in the rain or in the person who is homeless and asks you for money. Maybe God is present in the spiritually confused person who wanders into our church. Maybe God is present in you and in me.
A couple warnings about doubt. Those of us who have experienced great loss or grief know that it is helpful to not isolate or be left alone when you are suffering deeply. In our pain, we need each other. Doubt can be a crushing reality when we lack community. The beauty of the Church is that we can face our questions and struggles together and look to one another and to Jesus for love, compassion, and hope.
Another concern is that sometimes in our effort to explore our questions, we can worship our doubts—they can become so central to our focus that we lose sight of the power and beauty of faith. Doubt should not be a source of pride or something that turns us against people who don’t share our questions. Doubt is not the destination. It is instead the part of the journey of faith that leads us to humility and to be open to a power greater than ourselves.
I want to remind you that the story of Thomas does not end with doubt. Doubt is the invitation for Thomas to be real with Jesus and to ask Jesus to show up. Jesus comes to Thomas and encourages him to believe and stop doubting. He shows Thomas his hands where the nails went in and his side. Thomas believes in the resurrection. Jesus also goes on to say that blessed are those who believe in him even without visual proof. I think that this is a word for us, since we were not present with the disciples after Jesus rose from the dead. We are invited to trust the experience of Thomas, Peter, John, Mary Magdalene, and the other disciples. We are invited to trust in the resurrection of Jesus even when we did not see it.
I don’t know what season of life each of us is in. Some of us may feel like we are on a mountain top. God may seem incredibly alive to us. Our faith has never been stronger. Others of us may feel lost in doubt and questions with no tangible awareness of God. Some of us are not sure there is a God to pray to in the first place. I think Jesus wants us to bring our faith and doubt before him in this Easter season and to honestly seek God’s love. There is no shame in our doubt. It makes sense in this world of pain to have questions and yet Jesus wants us to cry out for help. Jesus ultimately wishes to enter the beauty of our doubt and reveal himself as God, as friend, as Savior, as teacher, as the source of light and life. We all are on the same journey. We all have the same questions. We all are human and in need of God to show up.
As we invite Jesus to become real in our lives, we enter a humble posture. I think Jesus is hungry for a church that is open to be real and to receive the gift of faith. I think Jesus wants to fill us with a resurrection power, a profound compassion for the vulnerable, a deep trust in God in the midst of tragedy. Jesus wishes to empower us to care for the refugee, the immigrant, and those who find themselves without a home. We are to support Black Lives Matter and work for racial justice. We are to improve the quality of our police force and support peacemaking efforts throughout our nation and world. We are to be cautious in our military efforts and wise in our diplomacy. We are to work for the inclusion of everyone and to have a special heart for the LGBTQ community and for people of all religions and those who don’t identify with a particular faith. The resurrection power of Jesus is for the purpose of Love and Justice. We can be people of the resurrection who act as beacons of light and hope in Portland and our broader world where we struggle with our doubts.
I sense the Holy Spirit is alive and active here at Westminster Presbyterian Church. The beauty of this place is that you can come as you are and not be judged for what you believe or don’t believe. I have sensed that grace from you. In the beginning of this message, I talked about my struggle with the traditional Presbyterian church of my youth. In many ways Westminster is helping me to embrace my Presbyterian roots. I am loving liturgical worship like never before thanks to the richness of worship here. I have served in some type of ministry for more than 25 years. I was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament for the Presbyterian Church USA in 2008, and the first many years of my ordained ministry involved working as a campus pastor for Presbyterian students at Fuller Seminary. I preached in local churches and led liturgy from time to time, but mostly I led an informal chapel service for seminary students that included praise and worship music. Think Christian rock band. This is my first opportunity to wear a robe every Sunday and to serve as a traditional pastor. I never thought I would enjoy wearing a robe, but I do, and I love participating in the weekly theater that is our reformed liturgy. My favorite part is reading the prayer of confession, since that is an opportunity to be real and honest as a community as we confess our sin and need for God.
Although I love our formal liturgy, I am also thankful for the flexibility to explore creative ways of worship through our Connections gatherings once a month when I get to be more informal and wear jeans. I am so grateful to hang out with the youth of our church who are asking such great questions and who are brave enough to show up at church even when most of their friends do not care about it. I look forward to this summer with the youth when our faith will come alive as we build community and serve in South Carolina through the youth mission trip.
This year it has also been a joy for me to meet many young adults or those in their twenties, thirties, and forties from our church through our Pub Conversations at the Oregon Public House restaurant. We are sharing our stories and building deep friendships.
Our youth and young adults are on a journey. It is a journey where faith and doubt are woven together into a beautiful experience. It is a journey of grace and love and community with fellow pilgrims who are not perfect, but who are good and courageous, kind of like Thomas.
Here at Westminster, we all are on a journey together. We are a community of the young and the old and those in between. We have a lot of people here who defy age and those like my children who are growing up way too quickly. In this Easter season, let us commit to journey together and to follow the risen Christ. We might be surprised at the beauty of our doubt and the power and love of our God. To God Be the Glory. AMEN.