April 19, 2020

 “Faith & Doubt”

John 20:19-31

 

A number of years ago, I was changing my guitar strings on my guitar while working at summer camp. Guitars get a work out at camp- playing at campfire every night, and I needed to change my strings at least once during the summer. So I remember sitting on my bed, taking all of the strings off, putting the new set in the peg holes at the bottom of the bridge, then connecting them to the tuner keys up at the top of the neck. Then you have to twist those tuner keys to make the strings tighter and tighter until they get to the right pitch. It is a routine part of playing the guitar. I had done this hundreds of times and wasn’t even giving it a second thought when, all of the sudden, one of the new strings snapped, and then popped up into my face! There was a big red welt across one of my cheeks as I looked in the mirror, stunned at what had just happened. I’d never had that happen before, and was shocked, to say the least. I had faith for years in the new set of strings I would put onto a guitar, and never thought one would snap like that and then hit me on the face. Ever since that day, which was back in 1983, I confess I wince and flinch now whenever I put new strings on my guitar and start tightening the strings. I just don’t have the same amount of faith in new strings as I used to, even though I have done this same routine for almost 40 years since then with no incidents whatsoever. I still have that doubt if they will be able to take the tension as I tighten and tighten…

 

Life can be like that for us. We go along in our daily routines, everything normal and going along well. God is good. Faith is good Life is good! Then something snaps- A crisis happens- a loved one dies. Our finances are a mess. We lose our job. Our children or grandchildren are in trouble. The car we depend upon needs major repairs. A global pandemic affects at least 2 million people worldwide, killing nearly 150,000 so far. It is during those moments when our faith is tested and the voice of doubt gets louder. In times such as these, we may find have a crisis of faith. We lose confidence in God in such times, doubt our faith, doubt that God has our backs and our best interests in mind. Doubt can really affect our faith in this time of global crisis.

 

Today’s gospel lesson is full of doubt. If I followed the revised common lectionary without deviation, we would focus on the story of Thomas every 1st Sunday after Easter. We all know about Thomas, whose story of doubt birthed the phrase, “Doubting Thomas.” Let us set the scene- The disciples were afraid for their lives- Their leader had been killed by an angry mob,  and they figured they were next on the list. It was time to lock the doors and lay low. All of them were there together, huddling in fear and in doubt about all that Jesus had tried to teach them. Then suddenly Mary Magdalene came running and knocked excitedly on the door. “Open the door! Jesus has risen! I have seen it!” She says. Mary, full of faith shared her story of seeing Jesus in the garden, then left the scene. The disciples, however, didn’t all get up and run to see what had happened at Jesus’ tomb. Instead, they remained in the upper room, huddled in doubt and fear, all except for one, Thomas, who may’ve gone out to look at the empty tomb for himself, although we don’t know for certain why he left.

 

 

Now we come to today’s gospel story- Later that evening, after Mary left and Thomas was still out, despite the closed doors, Jesus appeared among the huddled disciples, and said “Peace be with you.” Then he said, “as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.” What did Jesus mean when he said all these things to the disciples?

 

For John, unlike the other gospels, everything happened at once, all on Easter. According to verse 18, Jesus would soon be ascending to God, and in this account with the disciples, he gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit as well. In the other gospels, these events are well separated, but not in John- Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost are drawn tightly together in his narrative.

 

 

John also wants us to identify with Thomas. Word came to Thomas that Jesus has not remained in the grave. Yet when he was gone, he missed seeing Jesus. He missed the party.  Jesus appeared while he was out, and Thomas was beside himself in doubt. He declared that he would not believe unless he could place his hand in the wound in Jesus’ side and his fingers in the wounds in Jesus’ wrists. Doubt spoke loudly at that moment to Thomas.

 

Why did Thomas doubt? Who wouldn’t? He saw Jesus, crucified. He may’ve even helped take the body down from the cross. He saw Jesus, lifeless, dead. He saw them roll the heavy stone in front of the tomb. Who wouldn’t sensibly say-“Unless I have seen him unless I can see the wounds in his hands and feet and side unless I can touch them, I will not believe”?

 

It is interesting to note that in verse 26 when Jesus reappears to the disciples, they are once again in the house. Were they too on stay at home orders? Had anyone been out, or were they like us, hunkered down in fear? If so, I find it remarkable, in that they have actually SEEN Jesus, and been given the gift of the Spirit. Yet they were…still…in...the…house! Apparently, Thomas wasn’t the only one who was stuck in doubt and fear.

 

Jesus and Thomas then have their famous encounter, and Thomas proclaims, “My Lord and my God!”  Jesus’ response to Thomas’ doubt- “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe” Thomas’ doubt has been replaced by faith.

 

 

We live in a world of doubt today- strange days indeed. We are called to believe in a powerful and loving Creator, and yet we see suffering beyond measure, global fear, and death. The curve may finally be flattening in our nation. Yet, people are still dying. Widespread testing, essential for opening things up again someday, is still not available. A cure for the virus is still months away. People are losing their jobs by the millions, desperate to find ways to feed their families.  It is hard to see anything of God or Jesus in today’s COVID-19 world. It isn’t hard to be a doubting Thomas these days.

 

I found myself struggling with doubt this past Saturday morning. You see I had planned on writing most of my sermon this past Friday. But instead, I spent a good portion of the day dealing with the aftermath of a fire on the back porch of my office at the church. Thanks be to God the fire was caught quickly. Thanks be to God for our wonderful firefighters and their quick response.  I spent the rest of the morning and a good part of the afternoon cleaning up the mess left over from the person who had been camping on the porch and who started the fire, talking with the police department, contacting the session, speaking with our insurance company, etc. So, my sermon writing time was shoved into Saturday. When I woke up yesterday morning, I was full of doubt that I would be able to write much of anything. I was feeling pretty glum about what was happening- so much death and fear and suffering and loss. How do I speak to faith in the midst of such doubt and fear?

 

Fortunately, I did not remain inside, huddled up like the disciples. Instead, like Thomas, I went outside. I decided to go for a run to the golf course, to clear my head and get out in God’s nature. At first, I struggled with my run. Doubt and fear weighed heavily upon me.  I began to see glimpses of hope around me: A neighbor in our community who put up a sign, encouraging us to pick a rock out of her corner rock garden, paint it and put it back for our neighbors to see-What a cool idea! Then I saw a neighbor with a big smile on her face, painted rock in hand, walking to place her message of hope into the rocks. I saw God in one hopeful neighbor’s act of love for the community. Then I noticed that purple flowers were growing on one of the fairways at the golf course, which then led my eyes up to our surrounding hills ant Mt. Grizzly. Sure enough, Purple Meadow Larkspur are starting to bloom and change the rolling hills to purple. I saw the constancy of God, the creativity of God in nature.  Later during my run, I passed by a group of 3 older adults, and one of the women in the group did a little “Dance of encouragement” as I stumbled past, putting a smile on my face. I began to feel God dancing that little dance as well, encouraging me on.  As I completed my run, I stopped at the place where the rocks were and chose my rock to paint later. I painted the word “Hope” on my rock and took it to the colorful community rock garden. Now in looking back, I didn’t lose all those elements of doubt that I began with on my run. However, I was reminded of my faith, and my hope in God- That helped me refocus my thoughts MORE upon faith and less upon doubt.

 

I think our lives are in a constant dance between faith and doubt. When we are surrounded by difficult circumstances, it is hard to have faith in God, to trust in God, and our doubts speak loudly. We want concrete evidence in a good and loving Creator in times like these, just as Thomas did. We want to place our finger in the hole of Jesus’ hands, just to have a little more faith in such times. Theologian Paul Tillich wrote, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.” So, in these difficult times, we struggle with our doubt, in the midst of our faith. I am reminded of the father who went to Jesus, pleading for him to heal his dying daughter, crying out in desperation, “I believe! Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)

 

Corrie Ten Boom, who went through so much suffering, darkness and death in her own life wrote, “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”  So we go into a world with our faith along with our doubt, praying for God to help quiet those voices of unbelief in this difficult time for the world, doing our best to trust the unknown future to the known God who loves us. “We believe God! Help our unbelief!” Alleluia. Amen.

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