John 20:19 – 31 Living with Both Doubt and Faith

23
Apr

A sermon preached on April 22, 2012, based on John 20:19 – 31.

Late in Thomas Jefferson’s life, after he finished with politics and doing his part to help set up the government of the newly formed nation, he turned his attention to matters of philosophy, morals and religion.   Jefferson was quite impressed with the moral teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, believing that they were at the spark out of which the best of western civilization arose.  But to his mind the rest of the stuff you find in the Gospels was essentially fluff – the stuff of fairy tale.

If you go to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, you can find what is referred to as Jefferson’s Bible.   What Jefferson did was take a copy of the Bible and with a razor in hand, he carefully cut out all the parts he valued from all four Gospels and pasted them into chronological order, leaving out, among other things, all the supernatural stuff.   So Jefferson’s Bible begins with Jesus’ birth without any angels, moving on to his teachings without any miracles.  There’s no divinity and no resurrection.   Taking verses from John’s Gospel, this is how Jefferson ended his Bible:

“Now, in the place where He was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus. And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.”

Jesus — a great man, a great teacher, perhaps the greatest teacher — but he stayed dead the way you expect a person to stay dead.

I was raised in the Methodist Church; from early on in my life my family attended church most Sundays; and I attended Sunday School, where I was taught to believe in Christ.

Early on in high school, however I stopped going to church.  By the time I went off to college, if you had pressed me on what I believed about Christianity, if I had known about Jefferson’s Bible, I would have probably said I pretty much agreed with Jefferson’s take on Christianity.  Jesus was a great teacher with extraordinary moral vision.   But the rest was all pretty suspect.

I had come to this place I think because of two reasons.

First, it is the nature of adolescents to question the authority that has previously gone unquestioned.  Rebelling is a part of growing up, in some sense necessary, and I grew up in a particularly rebellious time in our country’s history.

The second reason I found myself in this place was that the particular church I attended didn’t do much for me.  The worship services bored me, Sunday School seemed at best a time to fool around, and in my brief experience at the Youth Group I got picked on by the older kids.   But beyond all of that, my family and I were in a good deal of pain in those years.  My parents were divorced when I was going into seventh grade, and the people of the church didn’t really seem to respond to that pain in any recognizable way.  I just felt like an odd ball with divorced parents.

And so since the professed beliefs of these people didn’t seem to make them especially more loving that other people, I figured their beliefs didn’t hold water.

It is human nature to try to interpret life in black and white categories — two avoid shades of gray – but rarely is life so simple.  Often this is how people see faith and belief. Either you are a believer or you are not.

But what I think is actually the case is that there is this continuum extending absolute belief to absolute doubt.  At one end you have an atheist who is absolutely convinced there is no God – that the material world is the only reality.  At the other end you have somebody who is absolutely convinced of the reality of God and the risen Christ.

Most of us spend our lives somewhere towards the middle of this continuum, moving in one direction or another at various seasons of our lives.  I’ve come to believe that there are relatively few people who live their lives consistently at either end of the spectrum.

Most self-professed atheists are really agnostics.  You can declare that nothing in your experience has given you reason to believe that there is this other dimension of reality where God reigns, but since this other dimension is by definition one that isn’t perceptible with our ordinary five senses, the fact that you haven’t experienced this other dimension doesn’t prove it doesn’t exist.  (Even Richard Dawkins has recently retreated from his stance of absolute atheism.)

Most of us live in the middle somewhere.   We find our lives expressed in the words of the distraught father in the Gospel of Mark who comes to Jesus in terror because his beloved son is very sick and very well may not recover.   He says to Jesus, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”  Faith and doubt wrestle within him. We may feel pretty confident in our faith in God, but then, as in the case of the father whose son was very sick, things happen that shake our very foundations, and we find doubts we didn’t know existed arising within us.

When I got to college, I took courses in theology in which I recognized that there were people associated with Christianity who were dealing with the big questions of life – the sort that don’t often get addressed, like, what is life all about, anyway? and I recognized a yearning to address these kinds of questions.  I met people of faith who seemed to me to have integrity.  Part of what made them credible to me was that they didn’t pretend that they didn’t have any doubts.   They were honest about the way their faith and their doubt struggled together.  And their doubts seemed to have value:  they pushed them to a deeper faith – one that didn’t settle for pat answers to hard questions.

I arrived at college closer to the unbeliever end of the continuum, but as I began to consciously ask these questions with the people of faith I admired, I found myself gradually moving towards the belief end of the continuum – a process I’ve been consciously engaged in ever since.

I had a close friend though who arrived at college with me as a fundamentalist Christian.   Now it is the nature of fundamentalism that either you believe or you don’t, and that you’re not allowed to doubt or seriously question anything.  The Bible is to be taken as the inerrant word of God, and if you question anything within it you are, in essence, questioning everything within it.

But college is a place where critical thinking is encouraged, and so pretty soon my friend was entertaining doubts, and once the cracks started to show up in his beliefs, it wasn’t long before the whole thing came tumbling down.  Having accepted the fundamentalist terms for viewing Christianity, he ended up rejecting the whole thing, ending up closer to the unbeliever end of the continuum.

Which is one of the reasons I think fundamentalism is a dangerous thing.

In general, I think that what Thomas Jefferson was up to is legitimate.  We aren’t obliged to accept everything that is written in the Bible.   The Bible is full of contradictions as well as the stuff of mere human culture getting passed off as God’s will.   If we aren’t going to stick our brains in the sand like an ostrich, we will find ourselves in an ongoing quest to sort out what is part of the essence of Christianity, and which stuff we can reject because it isn’t of the essence.

Where I came to part ways with Thomas Jefferson was his rejection of everything supernatural.   Strange things do occur that don’t make sense in a strictly “natural” understanding of reality, and such things often happened in the course of Jesus’ ministry.

And, the resurrection is a part of the essence of Christianity.  Exactly what took place at the resurrection, and how it was that Jesus could appear to his disciples after his resurrection – well, there is plenty of room for discussion and disagreement.  But Christianity declares that something very real happened there – something that overcomes the fear of death — the usual way human beings see death as final.

All of this is by way of setting up the story Bob read for us from John’s Gospel.

So we have this disciple named Thomas, who is often referred to as “doubting Thomas”, with some degree of disdain.  But his doubts are real, and the guy really loved Jesus.  He has been traumatized by his beloved master’s torture and death.

And what is often overlooked is the fact that the other ten disciples also wrestled with big load of doubt even after Mary Magdalene told them that she had seen Jesus alive again. We find them huddled in fear behind locked doors in that upper room.  They weren’t really any different from Thomas.

And in relationship to Thomas, Jesus doesn’t take the attitude of, “Well, hey, you won’t believe what the others told you about my resurrection?  Then I’ll punish you by not appearing to you.”  No, there is integrity to Thomas’ doubts, and Jesus respects that.  In the end, Jesus provides what Thomas needs in order to believe.

The first thing I want to briefly take note of us in this story is that the ten disciples who did believe Jesus had been raised didn’t reject Thomas because he wouldn’t believe the way they did.   They loved him.  They carried him in his doubts.  You don’t see the kind of rigidity that sometimes characterizes churches wherein if you question the dogma, you’re shown the door.  It’s something I take pride regarding our congregation in that we view the circle of Jesus’ love as big enough that it can include people who are very up front about their doubts and questions.  Faith is nurtured in the company of those who have worked through some of their doubts, as I found to be the case in college.

But to understand why the Gospel writer John gives so much attention to this story about Thomas, you need to pay attention to the words Jesus says after Thomas finally professes his faith, “My Lord and my God.”

“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

There is this distinction being made between those who believe because they have seen, as opposed to those who never got a chance to see, but nonetheless found their way to some kind of belief.

John wrote his Gospel near the end of the first century, which means that for the vast majority of those for whom he wrote, they never had a chance to see Jesus in the flesh.  Most of them were born after he died, so the stories they heard came second or third-hand.  A child who was six years old on that first Easter Morning would have been close to seventy by the time John wrote his gospel, and in those days most people didn’t live that long..

Here’s how Barbara Brown Taylor puts it:

“John’s problem, which is a continuing problem for the church, was how to encourage people in the faith when Jesus was no longer around to be seen or touched.  The story of Thomas gave him a way to do that.  By detailing that reluctant disciple’s doubt, John took the words right out of our mouths and put them in Thomas’ instead, so that each of us has the opportunity to think about how we do (or do not) come to believe.”

I said before that there is a continuum extending between complete belief at one end to complete doubt on the other, and that most of us live our lives out at various places along the middle of the continuum.

The people who lived way back when Jesus lived and died and actually got to see and touch him in some manner in his resurrection – well, I imagine them as having been on the extreme “belief” end of the continuum.   They had a first hand experience to draw upon that pretty much blew all doubt out of the water.  (Though interestingly, Matthew 28:17 tells us that even in seeing the resurrected Jesus, some of the disciples still doubted.)

So John is writing to encourage those of us who haven’t had such an experience, and therefore continue to struggle with our doubts.

Throughout the centuries there have always been a relatively small group of people who, I think, have been blessed by experiences given to them that similarly pretty much took away all the doubts.  The Apostle Paul, for instance, as far as we know never met Jesus when he was going about his ministry.  But two years after his death and resurrection he was astonished as he was making his way to a town called Damascus by a vision of the glorified Christ that transported him up to what he called the seventh heaven.  He had all kinds of struggles afterwards, but doubting the reality of the risen Christ wasn’t one of them.

In 1902, the great psychologist William James wrote a book entitled “The Varieties of Religious Experience” in which he recorded dozens and dozens of first hand accounts of intense religious experience.  At our men’s group this past Friday we listened to a Ted Talk in which the speaker quoted the words of one of those accounts, from a young man named Stephen Bradley who wrote these words: “I thought I saw the savior in human shape for about one second in the room with arms extended appearing to say to me, ‘Come.’  The next day I rejoiced with trembling.  My happiness was so great that I said I wanted to die – this world had no place in my affections.  Previous to this time I was very selfish and self-righteous but now I desired the welfare of all mankind, and could with a feeling heart forgive my worst enemies.”

Some of you may have read the book, “Ninety Minutes in Heaven,” written by the guy who described going to heaven when his heart stopped after what appeared to be a fatal auto accident.  Or maybe you read the bestseller, “Heaven is For Real”, that describes what a four year old child reported having seen when he nearly died on an operating table.  I’ve been drawn to the accounts of countless other people who have had what are termed “Near Death Experiences”.   I just read the autobiography of Dr. Raymond Moody who first popularized the NDE when he began collecting hundreds of such accounts, publishing them in the book, “Life After Life.”   Having heard so many stories, Moody was pretty convinced of the reality of heaven.   But it wasn’t until years later that he had a NDE experience himself that he felt he knew for sure.

People are often shy about talking about these kinds of experiences because they are so different from any other kind of experience they’ve ever had, and they find words inadequate to express them. They often fear people will think them crazy if they speak to them about what they saw. (If any of you have anything like this sort of experience, I’d love to hear from you.)

People who had such experiences generally speaking feel as though the reality they encountered was so undeniably real that from that point on they never again doubted the love of God or the reality of heaven, or, for that matter, that life on earth has a God-given purpose.

Since I have never had such an experience myself, I live in that realm between belief and unbelief.    I envy people who have had these kinds of experiences, though I don’t envy what they often had to go through to receive such visions.   But their testimonies encourage me, just the way John’s stories were meant to encourage his readers, so that we can make our way further down the continuum towards deeper faith and trust.

I still have my moments of doubt, but the bigger part of me trusts that when I breathe my last breath here on earth, I will see that which so many have caught glimpses of, and, that like Thomas, I will cry out a whole-hearted “My Lord and My God!”   

In the meantime I draw encouragement in my faith journey from the faith and love expressed by you, my fellow pilgrims, which is what a church at its best should provide.

I am encouraged to keep my eyes and ears and especially my heart open to witness God instances – those strange coincidences that occur in life that you probably wouldn’t notice if you weren’t looking for, but which are there for those who I are ready to notice.  These God-instances aren’t of the magnitude of the direct visions I’ve been describing, but they nonetheless provide impetus to move further down the spectrum towards faith and trust.

I told David Turner I was writing a sermon on Thomas, and that I hadn’t made much progress.  He told me had kept an essay he had read about the subject that had encouraged him, and he shared it with me – which is an example of the kind of encouragement that fellow pilgrims can provide for one another.  I want to finish with a quote from that essay by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas on her blog, HolyHunger.org:

“Someone once remarked that two sorts of people please God: those who serve God with all their heart because they know God, and those who seek God with all their heart because they do not know God. Christians of all sorts–whether parishioners or priests. religious or laypersons–are both finders and seekers of God. We are finders of God, any of us who have been drawn, however briefly, into a sense of wonder and awe before the living Mystery in whom we live and move and have our being. And we are all seekers of God, too: people who, time and again, need to confess our foibles and failures, people who hunger for a deeper intimacy with the Holy One, people who wrestle with all kinds of questions and doubts.”

 

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