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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 11, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 28:16-20
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

The Gospel lesson we just heard is traditionally called “the Great Commission,” but I noticed this week that the commission is just one of the three important things in this passage.  Three things, and they are all interrelated.

First, there is the wonderful line about doubt.  The resurrection has happened.  The disciples have experienced the presence of Jesus even though he’d been killed.  Matthew has the disciples gather on a mountain top, a location of holy events throughout the Bible.  They see Jesus and they worship him; “but, Matthew says, “some doubted.”

How glorious is that?!  There they are in the very presence of the resurrected Christ, and some of them doubt.

Doubt is part of the life of a disciple.  Doubt is normal and as much a part of the life of a disciple as trust is.  In fact, the famous theological Paul Tillich said, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.…  Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”  16th century reformer John Calvin said, “Surely … we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety.”  Madeleine L’Engle said, “The minute we begin to think we know all the answers, we forget the questions, and we become smug like the Pharisee who listed all his considerable virtues, and thanked God that he was not like other men.…  Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself.”  And, perhaps my favorite quote about doubt comes from Frederick Buechner:  “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.  They keep it awake and moving.”[1]

Getting back to the scripture lesson, there they are on the mountain top, worshipping Jesus, and some of them doubting, and Jesus gives them a job to do.  This “great commission” is the second thing in this passage.  “Go … and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them … and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you,” Jesus tells them.  This is one of several passages used by the church through the ages to inform their sense of mission.

Now, I suspect I am not the only one here who has some resistance to a call to go into all the world to make and baptize disciples.  It sounds too – what? – too aggressively Christian, maybe?  It sounds too much like going out to save souls.  But when I can get past that knee-jerk reaction, I can hear an invitation – for me to go extend the invitation, within and beyond the community of Jesus-followers, to a deeper and deeper life of discipleship.  Figuring out what it looks like to love God and neighbor in any given situation is not always easy to do, and I need people who are on the journey to help me figure that stuff out.  That’s what the line about “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” means to me.  I need to come together in prayer and worship, in study and fellowship and service to figure out how to best obey the most basic thing that Jesus taught:  That the law and the prophets can be summed up in these two commandments – love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.  That’s one of the reasons it is important to pause and say thank you to all the people who make our coming together on Sunday mornings possible and meaningful.

And then there’s the third thing:  a promise.  Jesus comes to his disciples despite – or maybe even because of – their doubt.  And he commissions them to keep going deeper into their own discipleship even as they invite others to discipleship with them.  And he finishes with a promise:  “And I am with you always, to the end of the age.

“Notice Jesus’ language:  it’s not just future tense.  Christ is with us.  Even now.  Even here.  Even amid our struggles at home or at work or at our congregations or in the world.  Christ is with us.   Encouraging us, comforting us, working with us, guiding us, granting us the grace and courage necessary to be the people of God in the world right now.”[2]

“The very last thing Matthew records of everything Jesus said and did is a promise:  ‘And I am with you always, to the end of the age.’  Right here, right now, and forever.”[3]

This sermon started out as being for our high school graduates and I was going to focus on doubt, because doubts are such a normal part of the faith journey, especially for young adults.  It became something for us all.  We all experience doubts in the midst of our faith, and we can use those doubts to encourage our journeys.  We are all called to mission, often in different forms, for we are different people, often in different forms at different stages of our lives, for we are evolving people.  And we all are recipients of Jesus’ promise, that he is with us, present tense, to the end of time.

“Go ahead and doubt,” Jesus says.  “I’ve got work for you to do anyway.  And don’t sweat it because I’m still around.”

Amen.

[1] These quotes taken from Tim Suttle, “Ten Great Quotes About Doubt & the Christian Experience,” Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/paperbacktheology/2016/04/ten-great-quotes-about-doubt-the-christian-experience.html (posted 25 April 2016; accessed 7 June 2017).

[2] David Lose, “Trinity Sunday A: ‘The Great Promise,’” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/06/trinity-sunday-a-the-great-promise/ (posted and accessed 7 June 2017).

[3] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 27, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 20:19-31
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I’ve got a scar on my left knee that’s about an inch and a half long.  When I was 10, it stuck out and looked like a worm had attached itself to my leg, especially after I’d been swimming long enough to get cold (the scar would turn an interesting shade of purple).  I remember exactly how I got it.  I was at day camp the summer I was 7, and I was running from one activity to another—camp was so much fun I just had to get to the next activity—when I tripped and sliced my knee open.  I probably should have been shipped off to a doctor for a half dozen stitches, but I was having too much fun at camp to miss any of it, and the cut was deep enough it didn’t hurt.  “Just put a band-aid on it,” I insisted and I was off to the next activity.  In my mind’s eye, I can still see the grass where I tripped and feel its texture.  I can still see the look of the wound as it was washed out.  I can still feel the excitement I felt at being at camp.

I suspect each of you has a scar story.  Somewhere on your body there’s a scar that if you look at it or touch it will take you back to the incident that caused the wound.  Some, maybe even most of your stories are not as happy as mine.

I read a story this week about a woman who had massive matching scars on her knees.  “Several years ago she scooped up her toddler son from the swimming pool and began to walk towards a lounge chair.  As she stepped onto the tiled patio, her foot slipped on the wet, slick surface.  She was also seven months pregnant, and it was one of those moments where you feel like you’re moving in slow motion but there’s nothing you can do to stop the fall.  Within a split second, she knew her momentum was toppling her forward, and she could either face-plant and land on top of both her son and her unborn child, or she could fall on her knees.

“… She chose to fall on her knees directly onto the unforgiving concrete.  Her knees immediately burst open and blood went everywhere.  She ended up needing stitches, which resulted in [the] scars, but her son and unborn child were both unscathed.”[1]  This woman’s story seems closer to the scar story we heard in today’s gospel lesson than mine.  Hers involves pain and sacrifice … and life.

So let’s do a show of hands.  Is there anyone here who thinks they can name all 12 disciples?  You’ll notice I didn’t raise my hand.  You may be surprised to learn that if we had Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John here, John wouldn’t have raised his hand—his gospel only names seven of the twelve (though he identifies two others without their names and simple as “sons of Zebedee”).  One of the disciples John names is Nathanael—not named by the other gospel writers.  There are discrepancies between the lists from the synoptic gospels, and even within.  For instance, Mark identifies the tax collector that Jesus calls as “Levi,” but later when Mark lists the disciples, he lists Matthew.  Go figure.

One conclusion I’ve reached as a result of this is that the number 12 is much more symbolic than specific.

If I were to ask you to write down the first word that comes into your mind when I mention a disciple’s name, in many cases you’d leave the paper blank.  For instance, Thaddeus or Bartholomew or Philip.  In other cases, we would probably produce a bunch of difference responses.  For instance, Peter.  We might get rock, heaven, dense, passionate, impulsive, dedicated, human, denier, impetuous, pumpkin eater, homey, larger than life, emotional, intense, forceful, good-hearted, slow-witted.  And in a couple cases, I suspect there would be a convergence around one word.  For instance, Judas.  I suspect that most of you would write down “betrayer.”  Or Thomas.  I suspect most of you would write down “doubter.”

Poor Thomas.  Always associated with doubt.  This is the guy who, in John’s gospel when Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem, a decision that the other disciples think it will lead to certain death for all of them, declares, “Let us all go with the Teacher, so that we may die with him!” (John 11:16)  “Courageous Thomas” might be a more appropriate moniker than “Doubting Thomas.”  And given how today’s reading ends, perhaps “Confessing Thomas” works, too.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Thomas is known best of all as the doubter and I find it interesting that just one week after all the partying, one week after the grand celebrations of the resurrection, the church turns to the subject of doubt.  In fact, I find it reassuring that the church turns to the subject of doubt.  The resurrection is really the most unlikely of events.

When told that the others have seen the Lord, Thomas logically assumed the other disciples are speaking nonsense.  “What kind of super-humanity do we expect from Thomas?  To trust that life overcomes death, when he is still reeling from his loss?  He’s learned to trust the power of death, whose stench lingers on the empty crosses and sick bodies who beg along the road to Jerusalem.  Now, with the death of his teacher and friend, the fragile hope he had started entertaining has snapped in two, and he has committed himself to never suffer such foolishness again.”[2]

Jesus can’t be resurrected.  And when the resurrected Christ shows up again, this time with Thomas there, Jesus honors Thomas’ need and invites Thomas to reach into his wounds, to touch him.  Touch played a vital part in Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus touched the untouchables—the lepers, the blind, the unwhole and impure.  And he let other’s touch him—a woman who has been hemorrhaging for years, a woman who has a reputation who anoints him.  And here, Jesus invites Thomas, “Touch me and see.  No ghost has flesh and bones like this.”[3]

Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” 1602-03.

The scripture isn’t clear if Thomas touched or not.  The renaissance painter Caravaggio seemed to think Thomas did.  Perhaps the invitation was enough and Thomas didn’t need to actually stick his fingering into the wounds after all.  In any event, Thomas found in that moment the mystical union of life and death, sorrow and joy that we call “the resurrection.”[4]

Just as Jesus honored Thomas’ doubts, I believe Jesus honors our doubts.   But that may be because “doubt is essential to faith,” as author Lesley Hazelton has said.  “… Abolish all doubt and what is left is not faith but absolute, heartless conviction.  You’re certain that you possess the Truth [with a capital T].…  This certainty quickly devolves into dogmatism and righteousness, by which I mean a … pride in being so very right—in short, the arrogance of fundamentalism.”[5]

Doubt is a part of us we need to cherish.  “We have this idea that doubt is somehow imperfect, that there is something wrong with doubt.  It is this desire for certainty that I see is so dangerous, this desire for perfectibility.  Let’s just let go of perfection.  Let’s just accept that we’re human.  We’re imperfect.  That’s what makes us interesting.  That’s what makes the world interesting.”[6]

Think about what it was like for those Jesus followers when John wrote his gospel.  It was not only not best of times, in most ways it was some of the worst of times.  Doubt must have filled their hearts.  “They doubted that Roman persecution would ever end.  They doubted that tensions would ever cease between the church and the synagogue.  Racial and religious divisions among them left the church doubting their unified identity in Christ.

“The first eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were long-ago dead.  Jesus’ return was long overdue.  For these deeply doubting believers, hearing John’s gospel story of Thomas was to hear their story.”[7]

Thomas listened to the disciples’ tall tales of seeing the resurrected Jesus.  But why should he believe it just because he heard the story?  Why should the early Christians believe any of this resurrection stuff just because they heard the story?

Thomas was lucky.  Jesus showed up again and give him the chance to see the evidence with his own eyes.  Seeing is believing, I’ve been told.  His response changes his moniker from “doubting Thomas” to “confessing Thomas.”  “My Lord and my God!” Thomas exclaimed.  Given what things were like when John wrote his gospel it’s no surprise that John tells us Jesus replied, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

I would say that even more important than coming to believe is coming to have faith.  There’s a difference between faith and belief, between faith and conviction.  Faith is much more about relationship that belief is.  Faith is about trust and trustworthiness and fidelity.  Belief is about mental assent.  Faith is about the whole being; belief is about the head only.[8]

Hazelton, who describes herself as an agnostic Jew, puts it this way:  Faith and conviction are in two separate spheres.  “The people I know of deepest faith are not convinced.  They have faith despite their doubt, in fact because of their doubts.  It’s a dance, and they’re very, very aware of this and it goes beyond ‘belief in.’  They know that this is not rational and yet they commitment themselves.  And it’s that act of commitment, that existential act of commitment that I so admire.”[9]

The sermon title for today really should be “Faith While Doubts Bloom,” not what’s printed in your bulletins, because that’s what the story of “doubting Thomas” is about for me.

I like the way Lauren Winner put it:  “Some days I am not sure if my faith is riddled with doubt, or whether, graciously, my doubt is riddled with faith.  And yet I continue to live in a world the way a religious person lives in the world; I keep living in a world that I know to be enchanted, and not left alone.  I doubt; I am uncertain; I am restless, prone to wander.  And yet glimmers of holy keep interrupting my gaze.”[10]

May our eyes always be open to the holy interruptions of our gaze.  And may our faith grow as our doubts bloom.  Amen.

 

[1] Christi O. Brown, “”The Greatest Scar Story,” Scars of Hope, quoted in an email from sermons.com dated 21 April 2014.

[2] Kari Jo Verhulst, “Wounds that Reveal Life,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/wounds-reveal-life (accessed 25 April 2014).

[3] Rose Marie Berger, “The Sense of Touch,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/sense-touch (accessed 25 April 2014).

[4] Verhulst, op. cit.

[5]Lesley Hazelton’s TED Talk, “The doubt essential to faith,” http://www.ted.com/talks/lesley_hazleton_the_doubt_essential_to_faith (accessed 26 April 2014).

[6]Lesley Hazelton, TED Radio Hour, originally broadcast 18 April 2014, listened to online at http://www.npr.org/2013/11/18/245949211/believers-and-doubters?showDate=2014-04-18 on 26 April 2014.

[7] Nancy Hastings Sehested, “A Shelter of Doubt,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/shelter-doubt (accessed 25 April 2014).

[8] This point of view is influenced very heavily by Marcus Borg.  See, for instance, his chapter “Faith” in The Heart of Christianity.

[9]Lesley Hazelton on the TED Radio Hour, op. cit.

[10] Lauren Winner, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, quoted in a email from Brenda Loreman, dated 23 April 2014.

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