Tag Archives: doubt

Intersections: Faith Meets Doubt – Sermon on Matthew 14:22-33

Second in a four-part series: Intersections: Where Faith Meets Life
August 13, 2017

Young adults and teenagers are good at asking some really important questions:

  • “Is God real?
  • Why are churches so messed up?
  • Why are so many Christians hypocrites?
  • Can I trust the Bible?
  • Is it wrong to doubt God?

Denying the power of these questions – or worse, ignoring them – simply feeds into the suspicion that our faith isn’t strong enough to handle doubt. But we don’t have to have all the answers. Admitting that we don’t is actually the first step toward establishing our credibility as faithful disciples.

Brad Griffin, of the Fuller Youth Institute, writes, “It’s not doubt that’s toxic to faith—it’s silence. … It isn’t the goal of mature Christian adulthood to be “answer-people” or to have everything figured out. In fact, the more we lean into faith, the more we realize it is marked at every turn by mystery, unseeing, complexity, and paradox. As most of the biblical witness portrays, these features deepen our awe, wonder, and humility before God; not our certainty, arrogance, or pride.” 

Paul Tillich is often quoted as saying, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” (Systematic Theology, Vol. 2)

Both of these authors challenge a standard assumption many Christians hold; that faith and doubt have to be mutually exclusive. But when we look at scripture, we find that this just isn’t the case. In fact, we often see faith and doubt intersecting to bring people into a deep and trusting relationship with God. Continue reading

Awakening to Faith – Sermon on John 20:19-31 for Easter 2A

April 23, 2017
Watch the video here.

It’s still Easter. Put yourself in the upper room for a moment. Imagine what it was like to have waited there together over the Sabbath, hiding behind locked doors. All your hopes and dreams have been crushed. The One you thought would free you from oppression has been brutally executed. You are afraid.

Then something happens that you can’t quite explain, and you aren’t sure you can believe. Some of the women have gone to the tomb early in the morning, and they come back breathlessly exclaiming that the tomb is empty. He isn’t there. They babble on about seeing angels. Something about “he is risen!” Could it be true?

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. – John 20:19-31

If you compare these two appearances of the risen Christ, they are nearly the same. The door is locked. Jesus suddenly stands in the middle of the room and says, “Peace be with you.” Then he shows his hands and side to prove he is the same Jesus they saw die on the cross, but who now is very much alive. After the disciples respond to this good news, Jesus says a few more words. The stories are almost identical.

But not quite.

For one thing, at the first appearance, Jesus commissions his disciples to go out and share the good news, and he breathes on them as he says, “receive the Holy Spirit.” In Matthew’s gospel, the Great Commission happens moments before Jesus ascends into heaven, and in Luke’s version of the story, the disciples don’t receive the Holy Spirit until Pentecost.

But John never was much for chronology. His story is less concerned with making the dates match up, and more concerned with getting the word out: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.
Believe the Good News!

And keep in mind that for John, believing is always a verb, never the noun “belief.” And believing – or “faithing,” if there were such a word in English – is such an important concept that this verb appears six times in this passage, and 90 more times throughout the rest of John’s gospel.

Believing is more than intellectual agreement. It’s more than understanding or accepting an idea as true. Believing means trusting, or having faith in something. Believing is what John is very eager for us to do. And once we believe that Jesus is the Christ, it is a short leap to receive the Holy Spirit and be sent out to help others see, so they, too, may believe.

If those Jesus sends fail to share their faith effectively, others will remain stuck in their unbelief; their sins will be retained. They won’t experience forgiveness. (20:23) The stakes of this mission are high. And because the stakes are high, Jesus has to make sure each disciple is convinced of the truth. All the disciples must see for themselves that Jesus has been raised from death to new life.

Seeing is believing for John. “Come and see” weaves its way throughout the gospel story. We find it in the first chapter, when Jesus meets the first disciples who have been following John the Baptist, and they ask where he is staying. “Come and see,” he says (John 1:39).

A few verses later, when Philip invites Nathaniel to meet Jesus, Nate asks, “Can any thing good come out of Nazareth?” and Philip says, “Come and see” (1:46). Then the Samaritan woman at the well runs to tell her neighbors, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” (4:29) and when Jesus arrives four days too late in Bethany, he asks Mary and Martha where they’ve buried Lazarus. “Come and see,” they tell him (11:34).

In fact, we find some form of the word “see” more than twenty times throughout John’s gospel, and ‘seeing’ means everything from physical sight to full understanding[1].

But Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to his friends. Thomas did not see Jesus. The disciples tell him later, just as Mary told them last week, “We have seen the Lord.” Thomas is skeptical, just as they had been, only moments before Jesus showed up.

So, a week later, Jesus goes through the whole appearing routine again, only this time, it’s for Thomas’ benefit. While the other disciples simply rejoiced when they recognized the risen Savior, Thomas offers a confession that is profound and personal: “MY Lord and MY God,” he cries out. Not just “the” Lord. Not just “Son of the Living God,” but MY Lord and MY God. In an instant, he moves from skepticism to trust. Thomas “sees.” All the disciples see.

Because Jesus keeps showing up. He repeatedly appears to those who need some visual proof he has risen. He doesn’t judge or criticize, he just keeps showing up unexpectedly until they get it. He offers shalom three times, twice in the first visit and then again, just for Tom.

“Peace be with you,” Jesus says. Shalom. The disciples were afraid, but this time, when Jesus appears, he doesn’t give the “Stop being afraid, fear not” greeting that we have come to expect when a messenger from God shows up. Instead, he offers peace. Over and over again.

But notice that this risen Christ also offers some astounding evidence to prove he is who they can barely believe he is. Instead of showing them himself in flawless resurrected glory, he holds out his hands, and shows them his side. He offers his wounds, symbols of his own vulnerable humanity, as proof of his identity.

This is the same Christ who breathes Holy Spirit on a room full of people mere hours after walking out of a tomb. And here he is, not once but twice, offering peace from wounded hands that have felt the ultimate pain and suffering a human can experience. But pain, grief, and wounds are not signs of weakness. Rachael Keefe [2] writes,

We have fooled ourselves into thinking that perfection is to be prized and that we should keep other things quiet. This mindset is causing us harm. If the risen Christ identified himself by his wounds, then why do we go to such extremes to hide our own?

We are enamored with perfection in western culture. We must look perfect, act perfect, be perfect. We shy away from any displays of imperfection. … How many people are afraid to be honest about their own struggles for fear of judgment? For fear of being seen as weak or in need?

Funny how we have done this to one another when we worship a God who conquered death, but saw no reason to remove the marks of human frailty. The … marks of sin and death were clearly still visible, reminding us of our true nature. We are fragile and finite. We can bruise, bend, and break in countless ways for reasons sometimes beyond our understanding. Many things can wound us deeply. Why deny that? Why hide it?”

Keefe goes on to consider what it might look like in our worship if we offered each other our wounds, our pain, our vulnerability as frail human beings when we “pass the peace.” This might give “Peace be with you,” a new and profound meaning. It could help us recognize that we, as the church, embody a Christ who is both wounded and whole, just as we are. “Peace be with you” then becomes a reminder of healing and hope, not just a casual “Glad to see you” greeting.

“If the Son of God, the risen Christ, can use his wounds as proof of his life, experience, and identity, shouldn’t we be doing the same thing? Here I am. Here are my wounds. Touch them if you need to. I am God’s beloved. Peace be with you.” (Rachael Keefe)

This brings us to the purpose statement for John’s entire Gospel:

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.”

The disciples who had lived and walked with Jesus, the ones who had watched him die and be buried, they all needed some visible sign that he was really alive again. Jesus gave it to them, as often as they needed to see it, so that they might believe. But we should not feel left out, just because we weren’t in that room on Easter night.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus says to Thomas. That’s us. We are the ones for whom John wrote his book, so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing, we may have life in his name.

Thomas gets a bum rap, I think, when we call him “Doubting Thomas.” After all, his confession of Jesus as Lord and God is the strongest statement of faith we can find in the gospels. Thomas is the one who told the others, “if he’s determined to go to Bethany, where his life has already been threatened, we might as well go die with him, too.”

This kind of faith, this kind of believing, includes a healthy dose of doubt. Frederick Buechner, put it this way: “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. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”[3]

Doubt is one of God’s most effective tools for building faith. It is only when we ask the hard questions that God can provide us with answers to deepen our relationship with him. This is how God gives us tools to share our faith with others when life throws hard questions at them.

And maybe this is the reason John gives us the story of Thomas a week after the resurrection. To remind us that it is healthy to doubt, so that our believing, our “faithing” keeps awake and moving. And it is also healthy to recognize our risen Lord – not because of his white raiment or the halo artists paint around his head – but because of his deep wounds, still evident and fresh a week after he has conquered death once and for all.

Like Thomas, may you see those wounds and know that Christ sees yours.
Like Thomas, may you own your doubts, so that your faith may grow.
Like Thomas, may you bow before Jesus and say with assurance, “My Lord, and my God.” And through the very act of believing, amid your doubts, revealing your wounds, may you have life in his name.

[1] Richard Dietrich, Feasting on the Word,Year A Vol. 2, 397.
[2] Rachael Keefe: https://rachaelkeefe.wordpress.com/2017/04/20/blood-sweat-and-tears/
[3] http://www.frederickbuechner.com/quote-of-the-day/2016/10/26/doubt

Magnify – Sermon on Matthew 11:2-11 and Luke 1:47-55

In the traditional church calendar, the third Sunday of Advent is called “Gaudete” Sunday. Gaudete is Latin for “Rejoice!” and it is the first word of this Sunday’s customary opening sentence, or introit, taken from Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” We light a rose-colored candle, to contrast with the purple or blue candles used on the other three Sundays of Advent. In many churches, Advent is still considered a penitential season, much like the season of Lent, and there was even a time when fasting during Advent was quite common. Gaudete Sunday was a break from that fast, a time to rejoice in the nearness of Christmas, less than two weeks away.

One of the features of Gaudete Sunday is the use of Mary’s song from the first chapter of Luke in place of a Psalm. We used the beginning of it earlier, as our call to worship. Here’s the whole song:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” – Luke 1:47-55

Mary’s song echoes the song Hannah sang when she brought her son, Samuel, to the temple and dedicated him to the Lord. You may remember that Hannah had been childless, and had begged God to give her a son. When Samuel was born to her, Hannah kept her promise to God, and gave him over to the priest Eli, to serve in the temple. Samuel became the last of the judges, and it was Samuel who anointed Israel’s first king, Saul. Later, Samuel also anointed Israel’s greatest king, David.

When Mary learned that she was to become the mother of Emmanuel, God With Us, she went to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who, much like Hannah, had become pregnant after many years of childlessness. Mary imitated Hannah’s song, while Elizabeth reflected Hannah’s story. Mary and Elizabeth may have been related to one another by blood, but they were both related to Hannah in spirit. When Hannah sang, she prophesied that Israel would one day have a King. Mary’s baby would become King of Kings, and Elizabeth’s baby would be the prophet who introduced that King to the world.

Fast forward about thirty years. Just last week, we heard Elizabeth’s son, John, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'(Matthew 3:2-3”)

In today’s lesson, John is in prison, and Mary’s son, Jesus, has established his own ministry of preaching and performing miracles. But John wonders if the Kingdom he foretold is really as near as he thought it was. John isn’t sure that Jesus is THE King, because he isn’t bringing down the judgment that John expected Messiah to bring. Hear the Word of the Lord, from Matthew 11:2-11:

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

A lot has happened since John ate locusts and honey out in the wilderness. Now, John has found himself in prison. In the first century, prison was not a final destination, but a place where one remained until trial, waiting to be acquitted or condemned. This waiting could be a cause of great anxiety, and John’s circumstances may have contributed to his doubt. After all, if Jesus really was going to inaugurate a new Kingdom, wouldn’t getting his friends out of jail be a high priority? What was he waiting for? Wasn’t it about time for Jesus to overthrow King Herod’s corrupt government, and then get Israel out from under the oppressive rule of Caesar? This wasn’t panning out the way John had hoped it would. Jesus wasn’t measuring up to John’s expectations for a Messiah King.

Perhaps we can take courage in John’s disappointment. After all, if the greatest prophet who ever lived can wonder whether or not Jesus is the real deal, maybe our doubts and disappointment are a little more understandable. As we frantically try to get ready for Christmas, we may find that fear and doubt come creeping in. If we’re just scraping by, how can we afford to buy presents for those we love? When we get sick, or we lose people we love, when stress rises and hope fades, how can we pretend to be cheerful? How can we sing “Joy to the World” when our personal worlds are crumbling around us? Where is God when we really need him? Maybe we can understand John, as he paces around his prison cell, wondering if he made a mistake. When will the Kingdom finally show up? Could he have been wrong about Jesus? There’s only one way to find out, and since he can’t go himself, he sends his disciples.

Jesus tells those disciples, “Go tell John what you are seeing and what you are hearing. The Greek tense used here indicates continuous action, not a one-time event. Look at the evidence that is right in front of you, Jesus says. That work is continuing all around you. There’s an old adage that says, “When your work speaks for itself, don’t interrupt.” Jesus must have heard that saying, because instead of going into a long defense of his kingship, Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah and says, “Look around. The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” In John’s Gospel, we read that Jesus says, “the very works that I am doing bear witness about me that the Father has sent me” (John 5:36). In other words, this is the kingdom. No matter what you were expecting, this is what it looks like.

The problem isn’t with the kingdom, it’s with our view of it. John’s disciples were looking for the wrong thing. We fall into that trap, too. We don’t see the kingdom at work around us, because we are looking for the wrong thing. We may be looking for more people attending church, or larger offerings, or better publicity in the community. And we miss seeing the healing, the resurrection, the good news happening right under our noses.

John was expecting military power and swift judgment, but Jesus came offering forgiveness.

Others were anticipating a king in a palace, wearing soft clothes, but Jesus came to die on a cross, wearing only a crown of thorns.

We may be looking for a quick solution to all our problems, but Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him.

“And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” Jesus says. Blessed is anyone who is not scandalized by me, might be another way to put it. If John was offended by the way things were turning out, Jesus wanted him to know that this was the way God intended his kingdom to come. Jesus wasn’t trying to ignore John or belittle his work. Jesus knew that John was in a very dangerous situation, and he also knew that his own ministry had depended on John’s “preparing the way” before him. Instead of downplaying John’s importance, Jesus lifts him up to the crowd as the greatest person who has ever lived, up to now. And yet, …

John was great, but the least in the kingdom of heaven will be greater than John. How can John be both the greatest person ever born, while the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John? The answer lies in John’s unique place in human history. John’s ministry marks both the end of the old order, and the beginning of the new. He is the bridge between the kingdoms of earth and the Kingdom of Heaven.

John is the climax of the old order. Biblical scholar Donald Hagner writes, “He is the one in whom the OT expectation has finally been distilled into one, final, definitive arrow pointing to the presence of the Messiah. Thus from a human point of view no one greater than John has ever been born.”[1] John lies at the turning point of history. This is the point where promise becomes fact, where prophecies become reality. Nothing can ever be the same again. This is the beginning of a new era. This is where grace takes over, and the kingdom of God breaks into our world in the person of Jesus Christ. John is the pivot point between the old and the new, between the prophecy and its fulfillment, between what was, and what is now.

John himself says of Jesus, “he must increase, while I must decrease” (John 3:30). John knows that his job description has changed. No longer is he the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Now, John must exchange his prophetic stance with that of a disciple, whose only job is to magnify the Lord. Instead of preparing the way for Messiah, John must learn to follow him. John is no longer the messenger, the one who goes before Christ, announcing the way of the Lord. John must become a disciple if he is to participate in the kingdom that has come, is coming, and will come in Jesus Christ. Theologian Karl Barth says that “true discipleship [is] simply to point to all that God has done for us in Christ.”[2]

John the Baptist asks, Who is Jesus? Jesus asks the crowds, Who is John?
But the real question we must face is this: Who am I, then?

It’s a question every Christian asks at some point. In John the Baptist, we find an answer: to be a disciple is no longer to look backward or forward or even deep into our own hearts, but rather to look only at Christ. In pointing to him alone, our identity finally becomes clear. It isn’t who we are, but whose we are that matters.

Once we grasp this truth, that we belong to God as followers of Jesus Christ, we have a job to do. Like Mary, our job is to magnify the Lord, showing Jesus to others so they can see God better. That’s our mission here: pointing people to Jesus, so they can experience the same grace we have experienced, choosing to follow Jesus as we follow Jesus.

Here we are on the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, preparing to welcome the Savior on Christmas Day. As we make our hearts ready, our joy may be mixed with disappointment. Like John, we may be wondering where God is in the midst of all the trouble that swirls around us, trouble that seems to be magnified by the pressures that go with making a holiday merry and bright. Yet, Mary calls us to remember that God has done mighty things, and is continuing that amazing work right under our noses, right now, right here. Rejoice! Again I say it: Rejoice! The Kingdom of God is at hand!


[1] Donald Hagner, Word Biblical Commentary (Vol. 33a): Matthew 1-13, 305-306.

[2] As quoted by John P. Burgess, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, 72.