Sunday, May 6, 2012

Some Doubt

Some Doubt. . .
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
May 6, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 20: 24-29

Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show us the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life. 

John 20: 24-29

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 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.”
26 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.” 27 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.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 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.”
           Doubting Thomas, this story, has been used for years to challenge people to believe. Nobody really wants to be considered a "doubting Thomas." It is safe to say, I think, that anytime a person's name becomes a label you are going to have problems. I know you've heard it before. It usually is proceeded by, don't pull a ________, then you insert someone's name. With Thomas though, I'm not sure that his forever label is really fair, or whether Jesus is as critical of him as the history of Bible Commentary has been. I mean really is doubt a bad thing, an unforgivable sin in a world where we are saved by faith alone?
I want to begin this morning by talking a little about my process for studying the Bible and forming an idea for a sermon because this process may give you a little insight into where I am coming from in what I'm trying to say this morning about this well known passage.
I was trained at seminary to always exegete and never isogete, when entering a Biblical Text. Many of you are probably wondering what the difference is. If you are like I was before going to seminary you'd have no clue. The two words were thrown around so much in my first year that I was afraid for a long time to ask what they meant. It seemed I was supposed to know; it seemed every else knew what it was except me, but I had absolutely no clue. What I found was that basically Exegesis, which is the good one is focusing on what the text is saying, what you get --Exo--, out of the text, beyond your own biases, listening to exactly what the text is saying. On the other hand, Isogesis, which is the bad one is reading --Iso-- into the text, bringing your own biases and preconceived notions on what the text says before you ever read it. I think it's is true that Exogesis is the better of the two, but how easy is it to completely divorce yourself from your thoughts before entering a text? It is nearly impossible, and it is even worse when a passage is well known. I also am never trustworthy of any thing, person, or process, which tells you to be completely devoid of personal thought. So what I do instead is try to question everything within the text, what I've heard, what I've thought in the past, trying my best to prove it wrong. Then when I get that figured out, I again challenge that, and then that again, and that again, until its Saturday afternoon/night and I'm ready to collect all these thoughts together into some kind of coherent idea.
So let's go through that process a little with this text. The first thing that comes to mind when you read this story, and I've heard it preached this way many times, is that it is better to not be a doubter, as I began this morning, "who wants to be a doubting Thomas." This is the interpretation that sees doubt as the opposite of faith, and faith is good, making doubt therefore bad. In other words, forget what you think, forget what you feel, forget what your mind tells you, and believe. You must, otherwise you are a heretic, a sinner, a "bad" Christian, and a bad person, and therefore unworthy of the grace that Christ has to offer. I mean we are saved by our faith right? Have you ever heard it interpreted that way? Probably, and regrettably so.
So according to my process, I wanted to do everything I could to poke holes in this interpretation. So here goes, the problem with this interpretation to me is that doubt is natural. We all have doubts. And if doubt is both natural and bad, then we have a major problem because the impenetrable barriers of dishonesty will be brought into our  relationship with God. Imagine it, God says that I can't doubt, but I do. . . now what? Somewhere along the way if I want to be good, then I've got to start lying to somebody, either to myself or to God, and is that the basis of the relationship that Jesus came to reconcile? It sounds to me a lot like what sin is, barriers to relationship with God. Is there room for doubt in faith? I would say yes. There must be, right. Great, so Thomas is not bad, but is somehow good. It is ok that he doubted, maybe even good.
Ok good, we've got that figured out. But before we go too far with it, let's poke holes in this thought now. I was doing ok with this idea, and I was ready to package it, but then I looked again at the text, and there it was, in Jesus' own words, giving credence to the other interpretation. Jesus says, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now what am I going to do with that. It seems to really suggest that it would be a lot better if we didn't have doubts. But I'm not ready to say that doubts are bad. I still think going down that road is way too dangerous. I mean we've been down it before. It is the stuff of Inquisitions and witch trials and persecution and hypocrisy. It is ugly stuff.
So maybe I'm missing something about the word "blessed." Let's look that up. We usually see "blessed" as a synonym for "saved" right, at least when it is found in the Beatitudes, but maybe, just maybe this blessed comes from a different Greek word for blessed that means like lucky or something, rather than "saved". . . It can't be the same Greek word as the Beatitudes. . . You know

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake."

Maybe that is my out, I can get around the blessed thing, and say it has a different meaning, but only if it's not the same word as that famous passage because we know what Blessed means there. But no such luck. It is the same Greek word,  μακάριος.  It is funny though as I was looking, even though it is the same Greek word, I found that it doesn't mean saved, but rather it  means "happy, or fortunate." So now I've opened up a whole can of worms with the Beatitudes, but it does open up the door for us in this passage.
Look at it, "Happy and Fortunate are those who can believe without seeing." The Beach Boys song, "Wouldn't it Be Nice," comes to mind. Wouldn't it be nice if we didn't have doubts. We could walk again with God in the cool of the day, no doubts, no sin, just perfect relationship, but for most of us that is not the case. We do doubt. We do, so where does that leave us in this passage. Hey it would be nice if we didn't doubt, but we do, so Jesus says, "Thomas, Put your finger here and see my hands, reach out your hand and put it in my side." In other words, Thomas, I'm here put your doubts to the test. I can handle it, and I can show you. Jesus can do that because he is real. The scars are real, the cross is real, and the resurrection is real. The truth does not fear doubt, only lies do.
Think about it. How often when someone has something to hide, they aggressively deny anyone's right to doubt them. I mean this is an election year. We're surrounded by that kind of talk. You can go a long way by silencing those who doubt you. The history of the church is full of that type of doubt smashing. I always wondered why, what are we trying to protect people from? If it is all true why do we need to punish people for their doubts. It seems like a position taken in doubt rather than in faith,  but Jesus doesn't do that. He doesn't send Thomas and his doubts away, instead he embraces Thomas and his doubts, and shows Thomas the truth. It would be better if you could take my word for it, better for you, but since you can't here you go, let me show you the truth.
There is another important action in this story though. And that is Thomas, himself. He does it. He sticks his hand in the hole, he feels the wound on the side, and he allows his mind to change. This seems to me more important than his doubt. He is willing to doubt his doubt. He is willing to be proven wrong, and then willing to adjust his thinking. He is open to the change, to learn something new. He welcomes it. He poses a question, "Is Jesus really resurrected?" Then he challenges the question, "I don't believe it until I see it for myself." And then he does see for himself. . . Have you ever done this in your life? It is easy to pose the question, and it is easy to set the parameters of your doubt, but then it is so hard when the truth becomes apparent to then accept it as truth. Isn't that hard? It's hard because that type of thing forces you to change your life, to completely realign who you are, and what you believe. For Thomas that means living out a life of travel, preaching, and eventual martyrdom for his faith, all of which begins with "seeing" doubt challenging moment here. Maybe he would have been lucky to have believed without seeing, but you can't question the power of a faith that transforms life like his does. Is doubt our problem, or worry about where our faith will take us? Only you can answer that question for yourself? So I invite you to ask it. Ask yourself that all too difficult question. If you had the opportunity to put your hands into the holes in Jesus' resurrected flesh would you, knowing that when you do, your life would have to completely change?
Ok let's change direction for a minute. Let's look at this from another angle. Can you have faith without doubt? Are the words incompatible opposites or are they two important complimentary pieces of a whole? Is faith without doubt still faith? I don't think so, it's then knowledge or fact, things you merely acknowledge, rather than believe. To be honest complete knowledge actually creates sin, doesn't it because it creates arrogance instead of humility. Doubt allows you to empathize with others who have doubt, and to realize that you must be dependent upon Christ. I come back to the Blessed are those who believe and do not see. I can imagine Jesus saying, "Wouldn't it be nice if this were the case because I wouldn't have had to go to the cross." It would be nice, but then why would you need me? I said earlier that people, throughout the centuries have looked at this text and said "I doubt therefore I am not good." Exactly! Perhaps there is something to that. I had said that it creates a system where we are either lying to ourselves about our doubt, or lying to God to hide our doubt. Perhaps that is the very thing that can create a little humility in us, that instead of creating a breach in relationship based on lies, it can be a beginning to a relationship based on honest confession, bowing down before Christ in need. I cannot boast in anything, not my goodness, not the quality of my faith or my blessedness, I simply can only boast in Jesus Christ.
So let's rewind a little bit here because it has basically been a circular journey with many different stops and changes of direction. First we looked at the idea that doubt is bad, and if our salvation was based on our lack of doubt, as many have preached for centuries, we will have trouble because doubt seems to be natural to us. So I posed the opposite thought that doubt must be good in some way, or at least ok. But then we looked at the text and found Jesus saying that those who simply believe without seeing are blessed, and that blessed here is the same as the blessed in the Beatitutes, but that it means lucky or fortunate rather than "saved." This opened the door for us to look at how yeah it might be better for us to not doubt, but since we do it is ok, and Jesus allows us to work within it, for he makes himself available to Thomas, showing him the wounds. But then we looked at Thomas and the amount of faith and courage it took to actually reach out and place his hands in the wounds, knowing that his life would change forever. Then we looked at also how faith needs doubt, and that our doubt makes true our very need for the grace of Christ.
Yes. . . . What a whirlwind. . . Here we are at a new place, perhaps a new understanding. . . and it all started with a little doubt. One little question. Is this true? I've been told it's true, but am I sure. Let's test it. Part of it seems true, but there is this over here that doesn't fit so nicely. What do we do with this piece? Ok got that now, but that changes what I thought about that before, remember the Beatitudes. I'm going to have to relook at that sometime. One little question begins a new journey and a new walk, and a larger glimpse of the truth, and a truer relationship is formed. Do a little doubting, see where it takes you. I invite you to because I am confident of the truth. "Put your finger here, put your hand here, do not doubt, believe." Doubt is only bad if it cripples you scaring you from the questions. Don't let it. Ask away!
I preach this to my students almost every day. Some people call it being open minded, but I've never liked that term. It reminds me too much of a lobotomized air head. People that tell you to be open minded have an agenda. I prefer the term Welcome Minded. Your mind is like a house. Welcome all visitors, but at the end of the day you are the owner of the house because you pay its eternal rent.
I wrote this poem a number of years back, before I had thought about a term like Welcome Minded. It's called "May I Ever Come to Know"

May I ever come to know
That what I know
Falls far short
Of what I need to know. 

May I learn
That in my thirst
For what I don’t know
That I won’t forget
The truth that I do know, 

And that is that I know
Considerably less
The more I am blessed
To come to know.

 It is funny when I wrote that I didn't do it on purpose, but when I centered the text it was in the shape of a Pineapple, the international symbol for Welcome, and that's what made me come up with the term. So be humble, be faithful, doubt, and be welcome minded, ask the hard questions, be willing to go where they take you, though it may be a difficult journey, one thing is sure it will surely be a true journey. . . and it will be a journey of and with a God who is true. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 20:24-29). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.