Monday, April 24, 2017

"From Doubt to Belief" - Sermon, April 23, 2017

Community UMC, Quincy
“From Doubt to Belief”
April 23, 2017 – Second Sunday of Easter
Pastor Andrew Davis
John 20: 19-31

        Last week as I was perusing social media while unwinding from a GLORIOUS Easter worship service last Sunday, I came across a little comic that said “Christ is alive: The Clergy’s Dead.” I think I can concur, as Easter sometimes feels like the Super Bowl or any kind of national championship game for many of us in the church, as we had the season of Lent that is almost like the playoffs for forty days (minus Sundays) before, then culminated with the big day.  But during this time, we also have all the extra prep-work, the extra services in between, and striving to make sure that everything will be excellent, maybe even close to perfect when the big (yes, I admit I’m a bit of a perfectionist).  But then like any holiday for that matter, Easter comes and goes very quickly.  Although I didn’t take part in a sunrise service this year like I have these last three years, I was still plenty wiped out and think I slept nearly 30 hours the first few nights of this last week.  I guess Holy Week was a little more tiring than I thought, but was so worth it. 
        But while the candy, faux-grass, baskets, plastic eggs, and other stuff have now been sold or put away for another year at the stores, IT’s STILL EASTER!!  Here in the church, we have this Great 50 Days from Easter until Pentecost (June 4 this year) in which the risen Christ appears to the disciples in one way or another in the Gospel lessons.  Easter is also a journey for all of us in the church, because if we did not have the resurrection of Jesus, we would not be gathered here like we are today.  As we saw with Mary Magdalene in last week’s Easter message, she was never the same again because of Jesus’s resurrection, and likewise, the world would never be the same again either.   The empty cross (like our crystal cross behind me) would not have the same meaning that it does today if it wasn’t for the resurrection.  Jesus defeated death and showed us that sin or death would NOT have the final answer, as hopelessness and sorrow became new hope and joy on that early morning!!  Yet amidst the empty cross and the empty tomb after Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, there would still be some doubt and unbelief that would linger among some, except that doubt would ultimately turn to belief just as hopelessness turned to joy. 
        How many of you deal with doubt on a regular basis?  In all reality, doubt is a major part of our lives and even on our faith journey.  And doubt oftentimes gets a bad rap.  I even admit that there are times when I too have my doubts, like whether or not we will see Spring or summer, or if the Giants will make the playoffs this season considering the slow start, or if the Sacramento Kings will ever make the playoffs again.  Even though doubt oftentimes gets a bad rap, believe it or not, doubt can actually be healthy, as doubt is not so much the opposite of faith.  Depending on who you ask, certainty is the opposite of faith.  Yet, we live in a world that craves certainty, that craves proof.  We live in a world where people want to see things for themselves.  As the late Dr. J. Ellsworth Kalas who taught at Asbury Theological Seminary explains in his book, The Thirteen Apostles,
                We are cautious to call something a miracle;     we’re more skeptical,
more demanding of proof.  Science has trained us to ask appropriate questions, to the point, in fact, we sometimes ask them in inappropriate places.  We want evidence; we want to be sure that studies have been made, and that they have been properly controlled and observed.  We’re concerned about objectivity and the prejudices of the researchers.[i]
So, it’s no surprise that we encounter someone like Thomas in this morning’s Gospel lesson.  Thomas is what J. Ellsworth Kalas refers to as a “twenty-first century man” who “had the mindset of a modern or post-modern person; he could believe a thing only after all the facts were in” and “looked not for hopes and dreams or poetry, but for facts, observable facts.”[ii] People are very quick to talk about Thomas’s perceived doubt, although Thomas definitely was one who craved certainty and proof.  Nevertheless, our faith is what aids us towards belief, towards trusting in the promises of God.  Even while we don’t see Jesus, we still believe.  And yes, sometimes our doubts do catch us and cause us to wrestle a little bit, but our doubts can also help us to believe.  Now the story can easily be about Thomas and his unbelief and desire for proof, but it’s more about how Jesus shows up and helps us move our doubt towards belief, as Jesus is speaking to us too, not just Thomas and the disciples.
        Even though the disciples ran away and locked themselves away for fear of their lives, except for the un-named, beloved disciple, walls or locked doors cannot hinder Jesus from appearing to them.  Amidst the locked doors, the risen Jesus appears and is not harboring any hard feelings for the way they fled and offers the traditional greeting of “peace be with you,” then essentially calls them back into service when he tells them “as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (Jn. 20: 22, CEB).  Jesus could easily be disappointed with the disciples for running away the way they did out of fear, but he still calls them back into service regardless of AND forgives them for running away. 
       However, Thomas seems to be left out of the party at first, as he wasn’t there when the risen Jesus first appears to the disciples, and doesn’t exactly believe them when they tell Thomas what happens.  But then the disciples didn’t exactly believe Mary Magdalene when she told them what happened at first either.  Thomas is skeptical and is popularly given the nickname, ‘doubting Thomas,’ but was Thomas really doubting, or was there a little more than what meets the eye here? 
        The disciples tell Thomas that they too saw the risen Jesus, but Thomas is not 100% convinced that Jesus has risen from the dead, although ironically the disciples didn't exactly believe it was true at first either.  Thomas is more demanding than he is doubting, as he wants to see Jesus for himself, or as J. Ellsworth Kalas described earlier, wanted the hard facts.  In some ways, Thomas is just like many of us.  We want the facts.  We want proof.  I’ve even struggled with it too, as I like to have facts and proof too.  But some things require faith and belief more than anything.
      In her collection of sermons, Home by Another Way, Episcopal Priest turned professor Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor explains more about the character of Thomas in her sermon “Believing in the Word” that Thomas “was a brave and literal-minded maverick who could be counted on to do the right thing, but only after he had convinced himself that it was the right thing.”[iii]  Even when Thomas finally moved from doubt to belief, Jesus
did not dismiss Thomas from the circle of his friends for failing to trust what the others had told him.  On the contrary, Jesus made sure Thomas was included in that circle by coming back and repeating the whole scene a second time for his benefit alone.  In the end, no one who was there that night had to take anyone’s word for anything.  They all saw for themselves and believed.[iv]

        Jesus’s willingness to appear a second time a week  when Thomas was actually around says a lot about Jesus, as Jesus wants us to believe and to trust in the promise that he has made before, but like Thomas and the disciples, Jesus will forgive us whenever we doubt or show skepticism, as we can still wrestle with doubt. 
      Even Mary Magdalene was a little hesitant to believe at first when we read the resurrection story from John’s Gospel last week, as Mary did not recognize Jesus until he called her name and called her into service.  On the other hand, Thomas takes things a little further in wanting proof and sure enough, Jesus is willing to show Thomas his wounded hands and side, even inviting him to touch his wounded side and his wounded hands.  If we were to study the character of Thomas a little more, we can find that he’s really a practical person, a straight-shooter, and one who doesn’t dance around with small talk, but cuts right to the chase.[v] Thomas has a lot of the qualities that I wish I had more of as a person, as I wish I wasn’t so tentative to ask tough questions and could just cut to the chase, but this is also a reminder that each of us have our own unique gifts and limitations. 
At the same time, Thomas is also humble enough to move from doubt to belief when he exclaims “my Lord and my God” in verse 28 (John 20: 28, NLT).  In her commentary on John 20: 19-31, New Testament professor at Perkins School of Theology, Jamie Clark-Soles writes that Thomas
knew when he was beat. He knew there was a time to shut up and bow down. In my eyes, Thomas was blessed, and maybe I’m a little envious that he got such a wonderful opportunity. But you know what Jesus says? He says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me (reread John 2:23–25 and 4:48 to see that John is quite impatient with those who need signs and wonders to believe and follow Jesus)? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” That, of course, includes at least the reader of John’s Gospel, including you and [me].[vi]

        Although we don’t necessarily see Jesus physically today, we still believe and we still trust that he’s here with us even when we may have our doubts at times.  We believe that by following Jesus and learning from his teachings, we too can live into the same promises that he gave to his disciples and all who followed him.  Again, while it may feel like doubt gets a bad rap here, I believe that doubt is still something healthy in our faith journey. I feel like it is when we are sometimes in the midst of such un-beliefs or doubts that God shows up in the most profound ways like Jesus did with Thomas, which has the power to move us from doubt to belief when we choose to believe. 
      I remember when I first became the music director at Rio Linda UMC in early 2001 at the age of 20 what it might be like to be in Thomas’s shoes.  I felt like I was ready to take on the challenge of being a music director and may have been a little too pompous and pushy at times in trying to get there, but when it actually did happen, it was almost like a “be careful what you wish for” scenario, as there were a lot of people in the congregation who were very skeptical, and even times where I had my doubts in my abilities.  A lot of people thought I was too young, and because I grew up in that church, rising to the role of music director changed the dynamic of some of the relationships in the church.  But in the long-run and by trusting God, things ultimately turned around and worked out, as people moved from doubt to belief, as well as for myself as I believed in my abilities.  Although all of us in the church had to sit with some of our doubts in one way or another at that time, we agreed to trust each other and God, and began a new relationship with each other, one which taught me a lot about ministry in the church and while I did not see it then, that time has helped both of us where we are at today in this church in our first year together.  And even last year at this time in this congregation, there may have been some doubt and skepticism towards the appointment process in the UMC, but I think it’s worked out so far in almost a year now. 
        Finally, whenever we look towards creating new ministries or envisioning new ideas in our church to better serve people around us, or while trying something new together as a community of faith, there will be some initial doubts and things that could happen that may test whether we’re doing the right thing or not, as many of us are practical like Thomas and we want all our facts laid out before we believe in something.  However, some things need the hard facts before investing time or finances, although that could be another sermon there.  As I alluded to in last week’s Easter sermon, we have some awesome opportunities around town to engage in some new ministries around our town such as supporting  Ohana House after hearing a wonderful presentation on Thursday, finding ways to partner with our schools and become more engaged with the college, and cast a new vision with our Christian Education ministries to better serve the families in the neighborhood.
      But in everything we can think of, we need to believe that we can engage with ALL people and share the Good News with them, as anything is possible by believing in the power of the risen Christ.  Even with the world becoming more skeptical and doubtful about believing in the risen Christ, there is a greater urgency to share that Good News today and what it means to be part of a community of faith.  Plus, as we saw in our text, not even locked doors or walls can keep Jesus out.  Even though doubt does happen and that we will wrestle with doubt at one time or another, we are likelier to have a profound encounter with God and perhaps the risen Christ just like the disciples and Thomas did, in which we can see our doubt turn to belief.  Let’s keep striving towards believing in what is possible as we keep on sharing God’s love, even in the times when we want to have proof and all of the facts.  Because next week and in the weeks to follow, the resurrected Jesus will appear once again in some of the profound ways before he ascends to God. 
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spiri

[i] J. Ellsworth Kalas, The Thirteen Apostles: The Men Who Journeyed with Jesus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012), 95. 
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Believing in the Word” in Home by Another Way, pg. 113-118 (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefielf Publishers Inc., 1999), 114. 
[iv] Ibid., 115-116. 

[v] "Commentary On John 20:19-31 By Jaime Clark-Soles". 2017. Workingpreacher.Org. Accessed April 20 2017.

[vi] "Commentary On John 20:19-31 By Jaime Clark-Soles". 2017. Workingpreacher.Org. Accessed April 20 2017.

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