2014 04 27: Doubter’s Sunday

Posted on 28 Apr 2014

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

It is perhaps merely an “urban legend,” but there was a thrifty and cost conscious business executive whose office had a burned-out, 6 foot fluorescent light. Rather than pay the exorbitant price of having the maintenance department replace the bulb, the executive decided secretly to replace the bulb himself. So he snuck into his office early one morning with a new 6 foot fluorescent bulb and replaced the old one. He then planned to leave the office late, take the burned-out bulb with him on the subway, and dispose of it at a construction site near his home. When he entered the subway car, he held the old 6 foot fluorescent bulb upright and waited for his stop. Then a strange thing happened. Other people entered the subway and they, too, began to hold onto his 6 foot bulb, as if it were a standing support.  By the time the subway arrived at the executive’s stop, five different people were holding onto his 6 foot bulb.  What was the thrifty business executive to do?  He simply walked off the subway and left them holding the bulb.

Human beings have a fondness for holding onto things even if they don’t really offer the stability that they appear to – and at times, this can include the followers of Jesus- especially those who have been rattled when a childhood faith that has never been tested or tempered has been challenged by disappointments and doubts.

My friends, what support are you holding onto?  When life makes a sudden stop, will you find yourself holding onto something solid, or will you be merely clinging to a false support?  This morning, let me share with you three insights drawn from the story of the Apostle Thomas that I believe will help you in the moments when you are struggling.   First, doubt your doubts, Second, find a community of mutual support, and Third, trust that God longs to you bless you with his peace.

We should never criticize the honest, but doubting Thomas, nor should we judge him as a lesser apostle. For three years Thomas had trusted the words which his friend Jesus had spoken.  He understood that his master’s journey would lead him to a tree on a hill called Calvary.  On the road to Jerusalem he had sounded the battle cry to the other disciples, “Let us also go that we may die with him.”  There was no doubt that Thomas loved Jesus.  And yet, when the expected truly did happen, when his friend Jesus was crucified and buried, Thomas was crushed beneath the weight of the cross.  He didn’t want to share his loss.  He didn’t want others to experience his pain.  He wanted to be alone with his grief.  And so it came to pass that on the first day of the week when Jesus was raised from the dead and returned to his disciples to offer his peace and stand in their midst, Thomas was not there.  The other disciples celebrated the resurrection, but as for Thomas, the good news remained too good to be true.  He wanted to believe, but he simply couldn’t.   “Unless I see in his hands the prints of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  Thomas was left holding a 6 foot fluorescent bulb as his subway came to a screeching halt.

Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with human doubt.  As one preacher said, “Doubt is like a front porch.  All of us go through it before we get into the house of faith.”  The great American preacher Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, challenged followers of Christ, “to doubt their doubts.”  He believed that those believers who recognized their doubt had the power to discover a deeper faith.  Yes, all of us in our hearts of hearts can cry out, “Lord, I believe.”  And then, “But help my unbelief.”

Throughout the ages, faithful men and women have struggled with doubt and often for good reason.  The renaissance scientist Galileo called doubt the father of discovery. There was a time when, in the scientific world, the earth was considered flat and that the sun circled around it. The idea was accepted, but a few brave souls bravely dared to doubt that theory. We can speak about the strong faith and affirmative belief of scientific pioneers, but deeper examination shows that every scientific advance started with doubt.

Jesus himself was a doubter- not in his heavenly Father, but he doubted the practices of faith. He doubted that violence was the way, and so he taught his disciples,  “To put down your sword, “and “Forgive one another.”  He doubted that certain rituals, the Sabbath ordinances and the food laws were essential to faith,  and so he spoke about a simple faith. He doubted that the Samaritans were an inferior race, and instead told the parable about the good Samaritan who had a wholesome faith.

St. John reminds us that there is no weakness in doubt.  His very inclusion of this story of Thomas, the apostle who brought the gospel to India, teaches us that doubt is a part of the sacred word and journey.  The doors of the upper room were shut and locked for fear of the disciples’ neighbors. And all of the disciples were included in that number.  Every worshipping community today is still a bit like the disciples hiding behind locked doors, just like the disciples: some doubt, some are seeking, some are troubled, and some believe.And yet, all are welcome, even if you are plagued with doubts. God is there for you with his abiding presence. He enters your life when you least expect it.  Even when you are hiding behind closed doors.

Second, find a community of mutual support.  Flawed and as imperfect as they may be communities of faith have the potential for renewing your faith.  Yes, I do understand that questioning and doubt has not been the strong suit of many churches, but it should be- even among Lutherans. The reformer Martin Luther himself wrote. “It is more than a truism to say that doubt is easy because faith is hard.  Sometimes the things that we are expected to believe seem incomprehensible and impossible.”  For Luther it was important work to seek God’s presence in the study of God’s word together with other believers.  He taught that when you seek God’s wisdom together with others you will discover God’s word for you embedded in scripture.

But I think there’s another reason that we, like Thomas, need a community of mutual support. If you spend enough time with people over a long period of time — in all kinds of difficulty, you discover an important and powerful truth.   We hide from each other the things we have most in common. Think about it. When you are having difficulty in your marriage, and you feel a sense of failure, you hide the pain instead of reaching out for help. When a young person is filled with a sense of being unacceptable, but instead of reaching out to someone who they know will care for them- they search instead for an escape. When you find yourself struggling at work, you feel that asking for help will show inadequacy.  As a pastor, perhaps most difficult to hear, is the former parishioner who has been absent from church for some time, who you meet be coincidence in a store, who says, “I don’t feel like I can come back to church until I get my act together!”  It is in these troubling and doubtful moments that we need a community of faith for mutual support.

This past week I bought a fire bowl for burning some of the winter’s fallen branches.  I am always amazed at what happens in that process.  As the coals move close together, even those that are stone cold, they are reignited by the warmth of the neighboring coals.  That is actually what happens when one is reunited in the community of faith.  The doubts are tempered and the faith is warmed and renewed- just by being close together again.

Finally, trust that God longs to bless you with his peace. Throughout my years of parish ministry, I have known Christian men and women who have demonstrated a magnificent faith. They were confident in their sense of mission and calling.  In the face of trial and temptation, they remained faithful, and in hours of triumph, they remained humble.  But I have also learned that for these men and women, faith didn’t happen in a day. It was nurtured and developed over time.  They had grown to trust that God was always longing to bless them with his peace.

Polycarp was a 2nd century martyr and bishop of the church in ancient Smyrna. When he was 86 years old he was threatened with death.  He was ordered by the Roman authorities to deny Jesus and acknowledge Caesar as Lord. Polycarp’s accusers were kind to him, and so they said, that because he was old, all he had to do was bow slightly to Caesar and they would let him go. But Polycarp refused.  He would rather die at the stake than betray his savior. His words have been etched in Christian history: “Eighty and six years have I served Jesus and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”   Polycarp had no doubts.,  He had grown to know the abiding peace of Christ in his life.

There is a time in all of our lives when God says to us, “It is time to stop your doubting. It is time to believe and experience the power of belief.”   We are all preparing for that hour.  There is a time when through the support and example of fellow believers that you must begin to doubt your doubts, question your questions, and become skeptical of your skepticisms.  And it is in this community of faith, that you will meet a Jesus who and he will breath on you his abiding peace.

Let me assure, Jesus welcomes and receives you as you are –even with your doubts.  That is what the story of doubting Thomas teaches us.  Jesus invitesd Thomas to touch the mark of the nails, and the wound of the spear in his side.  To experience his life and death- and the new resurrected life..  That is your invitation as well.

My friends, what are you holding onto? What are the supports you are clinging to?  Wealth? Power? Prestige? Achievements?  Relationships?  Will they support you when life comes to a screeching halt, or will you discover that you grasping onto nothing more than a 6 foot  fluorescent bulb?  Like Doubting Thomas, Jesus welcomes you and accepts who you are and where you are, and then he gives you the strength to get you where you need to be. Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.