St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Room for Doubt”
Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ's Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. "I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "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."
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
I believe in God the Father, maker of Heaven and Earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord...
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, the Forgiveness of Sins, the Resurrection of the Body, and the Life Everlasting.
That being said, I have my doubts. Some times. Some days. And if we are honest, there are times and places when we all do. Those little whispers that sneak in, “You don’t really believe…” and then fill in that blank. I find great comfort in the fact that when we say the Nicene Creed today, we say “We believe” for those moments when I have struggles with a line or two. Thank goodness we do not have line item vetos on the creed, because somewhere along the way we might not have anything left.
Someone asked me directly a few weeks ago if I had doubts. Being truthful I had to admit that at times I do. Hebrews tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen…” (11:1). Faith may be the assurance, and sometimes even that assurance needs assurance.
Even one of the greatest people of faith according to Jesus, John the Baptizer, had his doubts. Before he was executed, he sent word to Jesus through his followers inquiring of his cousin Jesus if in fact he, Jesus, was the long-awaited Messiah. John had declared it at the baptism of Jesus, but in his final days some doubts crept in. Jesus did not say yes, and Jesus did not say no. Rather he echoed the prophecies of Isaiah (chs. 35 & 61), but in the present tense instead of the future tense. (Matthew 11, and also Luke 7)
2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Jesus did not rebuke his cousin John, and I remind you, he does not rebuke Thomas. They are real; they are honest in their doubts. That is how Jesus would have us be.
Doubting is not a sin. It is a part of belief, and that is not a threat. When we are young, we are told what to believe. And often we do. But then we see evidence that contradicts what we are told, and we doubt the veracity of said claim, whatever it was. Then we wrestle with ourselves. Weighing the pros, and the cons. And at some point we have a decision to make. Will I accept it or not. It could be big or small. And after that inner wrestling match we claim it, accept it in a nuanced form, or let it go. One reason teenage years are often bothersome for parents is that the youth are trying on everything that the parents have put in their mental closet to see if it fits them. They often come back to where they were in the beginning, but they are seeing if this is something they want to wear for the foreseeable future. This self-differentiation is so important, so necessary, so much a part of belief. Doubt is tucked into the process of making a belief, especially one of faith, one’s own.
Faith is extra-sensical, beyond our five senses. One of my favorite writers expresses his faith and doubt so well. Frederich Buechner famously penned,
“If there’s no room for doubt, then there’s no room for me.”
And also, “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep.”
In all our hearts and in our church, there is room for doubt. One of the titles of the British monarch that is still used to this day is Defender of the Faith. And I have always thought, if you have to defend a faith it is a pretty weak faith. In an interview, Buechner also said this: “They want me to come out and say, ‘Look, it’s all true.’ And of course I do believe it’s true with ninety-eight percent of myself, but I want to be true to the experience of truth, which always includes the possibility that maybe you’re just kidding yourself.” (Buechner Quotes from this article)
We all have our moments, our dark nights of the soul (St. John of the Cross), even with long established ideas and beliefs. Those times when we just aren’t feeling it. Or thinking it. Or believing it. And even then, God does not love us any less. There is nothing you could do or say that would lessen God’s absolute love of you. (That is what Grace is.)
When we see Thomas a week after the incident that gave him the adjective “Doubting” stuck forever to his name, when he sees Jesus, his response is nowhere near Doubt.
Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."And according to Church tradition he traveled farther and to a culture the most drastically different than any of the other apostles to die a martyr’s death that we have no room for doubt about his faith.
In fact, letting someone sit in their ponderings and questions is not necessarily a bad thing. Those inquiries may be the very path they need. I told this story on a Wednesday morning, so for a few of you this may be a repeat.
Once I was serving in Germany as Youth and Young Adult Minister at International Baptist Church in Hamburg, West Germany. One of the members of our Singles group was a pain. She wrestled and argued about everything. She really had me on my toes all the time because of her opposition. Now being as young as I was I did not see where she was coming from, and was troubled by her. In the 9 months I worked there (while I was in the middle of college) it was hard work and I did not see much to show for my time. I did the youth group and outings. I did Bible Studies. After the Singles Bible Study at the Church on Wednesdays or Thursdays, whenever it was, the burglar alarm came on at 9:30 and we started at 8 pm but often people wandered in late. So we met at the church, and then moved the meeting to the pub across the street so that we could just hang out. I brought along a little game called Schweinerei, which is call Pass the Pigs in America. You roll two little pigs like dice. It is silly and fun. And because they are pigs, it doesn’t look like you are gambling. Put a pin in that, it becomes important.
However, several years later, on my way to Israel for a seminary trip, we had an overnight layover in Switzerland and we stayed at the Baptist Seminary in Rüschlikon, Switzerland. And, lo and behold, the pernicious young woman from my group was in her second year there. God had called her, and little did I realize the impact I had on her. She said, though, that my work was what gave her no excuses. She said, if someone like me, who could have fun and play Schweinerei in a pub could be a Christian, she had no excuses. It took the doubts she had in herself and in Christ’s story away. Praise God! Her doubts and questions brought her to the Bible study, and me being me had an effect on her and the rest of her life. God can work through anybody, even me. Even in our ridiculous idiosyncrasies. And now she has been a pastor for almost 25 years. Thanks be to God.
When you have doubts, worries, questions be honest with them. They are not a source of shame, nor are they a pride. They just are. Too often we have shushed those worries, and people have seen it as all or nothing. And that causes them to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We all grow, change, and evolve. Taking on Christlikeness is a lifelong journey. And if you are still breathing, God’s not done we you yet. Don’t ever be done with God.
God plays the long game. God is like the father in the Prodigal Son parable. Watching. Waiting. No matter how far you’ve strayed, you are always welcome home. That is what I hear behind the beautiful assurance from today’s reading from the Revelation to John.
"I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.God was there before you. God is with you now, whether you are feeling it or not. And God will be there long after we throw off this mortal coil. Our faith stems directly from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And if you remember, Jacob was the one who wrestled with God and was given a new name. Israel. The one who strives, or wrestles, with God. If it is okay for Jacob/Israel, and it is okay with Thomas, it is okay for you, too. Have your questions. Have your doubts. But have faith, too, just like God does in you. Amen