Sermon: Doubting to Believing

[This sermon was preaching on Sunday, April 23, 2017 (Easter II) at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, MN]

May the words of my mouth
and the meditations of all our hearts
be always acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Amen.

Distinguished Lutheran preacher Edmund Steimle says this about faith:

“You can never get a person to believe by talking to [them] about faith. If you want a child to make friends with the child down the street, you can talk to [them] about friendship till you’re blue in the face and it gets you nowhere. What you can do is arrange a meeting where friendship might occur. Or it might not. It is no longer in your hands.[1]

This is an important perspective to consider as we take up the story of so-called “doubting” Thomas. Poor Thomas gets a bad rap. People of faith who are probably a little too sure of themselves tend to project all their doubt and skepticism onto poor Thomas because of his refusal to believe what his brother disciples were reporting to him.

However, if we are honest, we might tell our own truth, that many of us are hanging by the threads of faith. We know what we are supposed to believe, and yet we often find ourselves coming up short.

Much of this comes from the massive misunderstanding of what belief means in the first place. For many of us, faith is cognitive exercise where we collect facts about God and choose to believe they actually happened or they did not. Like I said last week about Easter, faith for many is a problem to be solved, like a cosmic Rubik’s Cube. We twist it, and turn it, and try to figure it out. And then we heap shame upon ourselves and others when we fail to attain to appropriate levels of belief.

Except that belief is not cognitive, it is emotional. The Rev’d Fleming Rutledge, distinguished Episcopal priest, says this about belief:

“…faith… is not assent to any theological proposition. It is not agreement with any religious principle. It is not acquiescence to any spiritual program. It is a radical trust in the person of Jesus, the One ‘who calls into existence the things that do not exist’ (Rom. 4:17), the One who creates faith where there is no faith.”

What she is saying is that faith is the result of having met Jesus face-to-face, the byproduct of having met the Sun of Righteousness and being completely unable to turn away from him. Faith, dear friends, is a response to God’s goodness. God’s goodness is not a response to our faith.

This might help us better understand this Gospel episode featuring Thomas. When we first run into Thomas it was after Jesus had visited the other ten disciples immediately after the Resurrection. The Evangelist suggests that they were locked in the room “for fear” of the religious authorities. The only one who was not locked away in fear was Thomas. We aren’t told where he was or what he was doing, but the subtext is that he was not locked away “for fear” of the religious authorities. When the other ten disciples come to him and tell him what they had seen, Thomas had the normal, human response: “unless I see it, unless I experience the resurrection for myself, I will not believe.”

The ten disciples made a common mistake we often make as people of faith. We assume that there is something so compelling about our stories that those who do not yet believe will come to faith simply by hearing them. This is spiritual pride, because it assumes that those to whom we are sharing have no sacred stories of their own. What people are looking for is not stories by themselves, but stories that set us up to encounter God in our midst.

Think about it – if a person is suffering depression, you can tell them all the stories of a God who promises “joy in the morning,”[2] or you can incarnate that God and sit with people who are struggling to cope with the pressures of life and debilitating mental illness. If a person is hungry, you can tell them stories of a God who “satisfies the needs of every living creature,”[3] or you can feed them. If a person is feeling unloved and unwanted, you can tell them about the love of God until the second coming, or you can listen deeply to their stories and validate their feelings. We can talk about a God of boundless compassion, or we can show up to our friends who are assaulted because of who they are and what they believe bearing in our presence the compassionate heart of God. We are the mystical body of Christ, called into his service, to bear his love to the world. Through us, Christ is reborn anew, each day, in the dark and dingy places of our world.

What Thomas shows us is the heart of Gospel ministry – incarnation. The antidote to his skepticism was not story, but invitation and presence, forgiveness and grace. That’s why Jesus responds to Thomas the way he does. He doesn’t scold him for not believing, he invites him in, he engages him in order to help him find his way through doubt towards belief. What has become clearer for me in my relatively short life is this: belief is not a destination, it a journey wherein we commit daily to meeting Jesus and being invited deeper into the mystery of God’s love for us and the world around us. This journey involves questions, and skepticism, and doubt coupled with commitment and trust. We don’t believe because we see. After all, we are a people who “walk by faith and not by sight.”[4] Rather, we come to see because we believe, because we have chosen to throw our trust into the unknown believing that someone, somewhere will catch it. Dr. Martin Luther King, says that “faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

This way of viewing belief and faith call for more from those of us who claim a share in the saving community of Jesus. It involves a willingness to show up and be present. It calls for vulnerability and openness. It asks for humility and mindfulness. It requires risk. In short, it calls for discipleship – the daily practice of being formed more and more into the likeness of Jesus Christ who is himself the perfect image of God the Father.

But here’s some good news: as much as this asks of us, we are invited into ministry with a savior who believes in (trusts) us before we ever think to believe in (trust) him. He comes into our locked places, our dark places, our fearful places, our frightened places, the places we’d rather hide from the loving gaze of God and offers us heaven’s peace. It was the belief that Jesus placed into his disciples that transformed them from fearful followers to brave apostles. Each of us is continually transformed by a God who believes in us and loves us deeply.

This passage from John is less about “doubting” Thomas and more about a “believing” Jesus who enters our lives and who desires to draw all hearts into blessed communion with the God of the Universe.

It is about experience being the antidote to doubt, and our sacred task of putting flesh and bones to our sacred stories and living them out in the world.

It is about a call to trust in God – a God who creates with song, redeems with love, saves with faith, and restores with abundance.

And with an amazing resume like that, who wouldn’t want to meet him?

It’s just up to us, you and I, to set up the blind date.

Thanks be to God. Alleluia. Amen.

[1] Edmund Steimle, “Introduction” in Help My Unbelief, Fleming Rutledge, 4

[2] Psalm 30:5

[3] Psalm 145:16

[4] 2 Corinthians 5:7

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