Doubt Stimulates Growth

John 20:19-29 – 19 It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.” 24 Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!” But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.” 26 After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!” 28 Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

  1. Prayer: Lord, we believe! Help our unbelief! Open our hearts and minds to your Word, your Living Word that has the power to transform and change us and the power to guide us through the days of our lives. Enable us to live as those who prepare to die and to die as those who are ready to live through Christ our Lord, in whose name we pray. Amen
  2. “You must be relieved now that Easter is over.” It is a remark I’ve often heard as a pastor over the years. My answer is, “Yes, it is a relief to have Easter day and Holy Week over.”
    1. They are strenuous periods in the life of the church, if you have not noticed, Beth and Jennifer take a collective sigh of relief, and we find ways to renew ourselves.
    1. I must say that this last Holy Week in Easter was an extremely gratifying experience for me as we experience God’s Spirit at work in our congregation in some remarkable ways for which I am grateful. Those days did leave me a little depleted in terms of energy.
  3. After agreeing with the statement, “It must be a relief to have Easter over another year,” that is true if Easter is only a day in the early spring when the flowers are beginning to bloom, when it’s getting warmer, then the Easter is over.
    1. But, if it is a day when we pull out all the stops, celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord, if that is what Easter means, then Easter is over. That was last Sunday.
  4. But today is the Second Sunday of Easter. It is affectionately called “Low Sunday” because as you can tell, there is more room in the sanctuary this morning. That is not to bring any judgment upon anyone who was here last week and not here this week.
    1. The lilies are starting to droop.
    1. The trumpet is gone.
    1.  But the Easter reality is not over.
  5. I love Low Sunday. As much as I enjoy Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord, there remains a question hanging out there, isn’t it? 
    1. What do we do with this Easter message? What does Easter reality mean, not just for the high celebrations, but for the day-to-day living of our lives?
    1. You and I have a decision to make either the facts of life are set—you are born, you grow up, you live your life, and then you die—and there is nothing to do but grab what you can in the time left.
  6. OR! If what Jesus did make a difference, it is the defining moment in human history.
    1. If the Lord is risen indeed, then there is a whole other agenda set before us.
  7. Take a look at today’s Scripture reading from John.
    1. Thomas has heard that Jesus is alive and that the other disciples have met the Risen Christ, but he is not buying it.
    1. He wants personal proof of the resurrection—that the Jesus standing in front of him is the same Jesus who was dead as a doornail just days earlier. He wants the tactile experience of touch not words.
    1. Thomas wants to see Jesus so he can believe! What he ends up gaining from his encounter with Jesus, however, is presence. He gets so overwhelmed by the presence of Jesus, that it appears in John’s passage, that he ends up dispensing with the idea of poking his finger into Jesus’ flesh, even though most paintings show Thomas touching Jesus.[1]
  8. From Thomas, we have learned that searching for proof of God’s existence is difficult. But experiencing God’s presence is precisely what we need. Whatever language we use to describe our hope for an encounter, the miracle we are after is knowing the presence of God in the daily decisions, the words and deeds, and the inner complexities of our lives. The miracle we want is the miracle that Thomas gets: “My Lord and my God!” he exclaims.
  9. However, maybe some of us have doubts about all this Easter stuff!
    1. From my point of view and personal experience — Doubt stimulates us to develop a stronger faith.
    1. We grow spiritually as we search out why we have doubt.
    1. John Wesley has repeatedly said that our faith really grows stronger when we use the God given gift of reason.
  10. Let’s see how that works.
  11. In a Peanuts comic strip, Charlie Brown is talking with Lucy as they walk home on the last day of school. Charlie Brown says to Lucy: “Lucy, I got straight A’s. isn’t that great!” Lucy in her typical fashion shoots down poor Charlie Brown and says: I don’t believe you Charlie Brown. Unless you show me your report card, I cannot believe you.”
  12. Can you relate to Lucy? Seeing is believing, isn’t it? Most people must see something before they can believe it.
  13. This is often how we describe the apostle Thomas but is this really accurate? 24 Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
  14. As Christians, many of us initially believed in God and Jesus because someone else told us it was true. Our parents, grandparents, friends, co-workers, or someone else presented the Gospel to us, we believed it, and trusted Jesus for our salvation. The Holy Spirit confirmed that truth in our hearts, and we knew we were saved.
  15. However, as we live out our faith, there will be times when we have doubts; when we are just not sure about something.
    1. Maybe we hear a person say something about Jesus that does not sound quite right.
    1. We may begin to doubt when we keep asking questions and the answers we get do not seem to satisfy us.
    1. Maybe we question the existence of God or the healing power of prayer.
    1. Maybe we doubt that the resurrection actually happened?
    1. Or we struggle what some of the passages in the Bible mean.
  16. They may be small doubts about relatively insignificant matters or they might be huge doubts about foundational doctrines of Christianity.
    1. Whether large or small, be assured, there will be doubts. It is our human nature – the God given gift of reason to question and there is power in addressing our doubts.
  17. Consider that John the Baptist, the appointed messenger of Jesus’ coming, had doubts while a captive in prison (Matthew 11:2-4). When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
    1. This was not an expression of unbelief on John’s part, but a request for reassurance. Jesus did not rebuke John for asking either, but rather sent men to describe to John what Jesus was doing as evidence that Jesus was indeed the long-awaited Savior.
  18. Doubt can actually be a good thing, if we continue to trust God, because it forces us to nail down why we believe what we believe.
  19. This doubt can actually cause our faith to be strengthened as we work through issues that simply are not as clear as we would like them to be.
    1. By spending time understanding the deeper things of God, our faith and our relationship with God is deepened.
  20. Merriam-Webster defines ‘doubt’ as, “1: uncertainty of belief or opinion that often interferes with decision-making; 2: a state of affairs giving rise to uncertainty, hesitation, or suspense; 3: a lack of confidence” (1).
    1. There is a big difference between doubt and unbelief.
  21. Doubt is not the opposite of faith.
    1. Unbelief is the opposite of faith and doubt is not unbelief.
  22. Doubt is still open to God’s guidance and teaching; unbelief has made up its mind against God.
    1. Doubt …forces us to nail down why we believe what we believe.
  23. Michael Patton writes, “Doubt is not unbelief. Doubt is the bridge that connects our current faith to perfect faith”
  24. As I mentioned before, doubt can actually be a path to a stronger, deeper faith, depending on how we respond to it.
    1. Doubt can certainly lead to unbelief if not handled the right way.
  25. Faith is a trust in, and a reliance on, Jesus’ saving work. Doubt is a lack of assurance concerning some doctrine, belief, or some other aspect of our relationship with God.
    1. Doubt is quite often found in the life of one who thinks deeply about the things of God.
  26. Do you remember the story in Mark 9 where Jesus heals the son of a man who was possessed by an unclean spirit — 23 Jesus said to him, “If you can believe,[a] all things are possible to him who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
  27. Unbelief is a rejection of the Truth of the Gospel.
  28. It is the point where one says, “I don’t believe this anymore, and I’m going to live for myself.” An example is that more than 20% of the US population today is “nones!” No belief!
  29. Sometimes, doubts that are not addressed by turning towards God for answers, end up with the doubter turning away from God altogether.
  30. Pause
  31. Let’s explore the resurrection.
  32. I know I should still be riding the wave of Easter excitement, but I have to confess something: The excitement didn’t really come this year for me. At least not like it has in years past.
  33. That’s not to say I’ve suddenly stopped believing in God or that I love Jesus any less than I did last year. I’m simply disappointed that this year marks some decades in a row that I’ve woken up on Easter Sunday morning to find no Easter basket waiting for me. No pecan egg that I can wolf down in two seconds. I guess the Easter Bunny missed my home. Or maybe I am too old to continue to dream of Easter eggs!
  34. What has tempered my Easter enthusiasm this year is a question that has been hanging over my head long before Holy Week began. It’s a question I first heard asked during my time at Wesley Seminary, but which comes roaring back like an unstoppable torrent of doubt every time there’s another mass shooting in the US, or more murders in Baltimore and Washington DC. Violence and evil seem to always be at the forefront of the news that we hear, see and witness.
  35. The question, my professor said back then, was the most challenging question he had ever been asked. The question came from another theology student. It was and is as challenging as it is simple:
  36. “What changed after the resurrection?” was the question that I remember until today.
  37. Of course, you don’t need a degree in systematic theology to have a prepared answer waiting should anyone have the audacity to ask such an obvious question.
    1. Any Sunday School veteran worth their salt knows that after the resurrection our sins were forgiven, the grave was conquered and all things were made new. Or, you know, something like that.
  38. Now, to be clear, I believe those claims, and more are true. But here’s the rub: if we press pause on the Sunday School answers and look around at the world around us with dogma-free eyes — a world filled with death and sorrow, terrorism and abuse, rape and murder, oppression and exploitation — it’s hard not to wonder if anything actually did change after the resurrection. This is an example of doubt.
  39. We can pile on all the theological implications we want to the resurrection, but they don’t change the fact that even as Jesus was walking out of the empty tomb people in his own country were still dying, still suffering under the oppression of the Roman empire, still being taken advantage of by their neighbors, still suffering and causing others to suffer.
  40. It’s continued that way for some 2,000 years now as if nothing happened that holy morning.
  41. When you think about it that way or when you simply turn on the nightly news, it becomes hard not to ask if anything actually did change after the resurrection and, at least in my case, just as difficult to find the energy to get excited about Easter when the promises of Easter seem like they’re still going unfulfilled.
  42. To be completely honest with you, I don’t know how to answer my predecessor’s question and, if I recall correctly, neither did my professor.
  43. Why does a loving God allow evil to persist in the world God created, is a question without an easy answer — or perhaps any answer at all. It’s a shadow that’s hovered over the good news for millennia and will continue to haunt the Church for centuries no matter how hard we try to drive it away.
  44. But hope is not lost. As challenging as my academic predecessor’s question appears and indeed is, it’s not the question we should be asking.
  45. Because the Church doesn’t believe something changed after the resurrection. We believe something is changing.
  46. It’s a subtle difference, but a profoundly important one.
  47. As Christians, we are not naïve enough to believe that Jesus walked out of the tomb that first Easter morning and in an instant, everything changed, all things were made new and suffering and death were no more.
  48. As Christians, we believe that when Jesus walked out of the tomb that first Easter morning everything began to change, all things began to be made new and the reign of suffering and death was finally beginning to come to an end.
  49. But in believing thusly, we also profess that the kingdom of God is a present but not yet fully realized reality, and it won’t be fully realized until our Lord returns.
  50. This is, in part, why Jesus teaches us to pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
  51. It’s an active prayer, not a stagnant one.
  52. It’s a prayer of expectation, not a declaration of a promise fully realized.
  53. It’s a call to stop standing idly by and start participating in the always unfolding fulfillment of heaven coming to earth.
  54. Which is why the question to be asked this Easter season is not what changed after the resurrection, but what has been changing since the resurrection?
  55. If the transforming effect of the resurrection was merely a one-off moment, the centuries of unspeakable suffering and tragedy that have followed in its wake would serve as an indisputable denouncement of our faith in a risen savior.
  56. But if the resurrection is a moment that happened and continues to happen and will continue to happen not just in the life of Jesus, but also in the lives of those of us who call him Lord,
  57. Then we can begin to see its transforming power in how we respond to the tragedies in our own lives,
    1. how we love and console one another,
    1. how we work together to keep evil from ruling tomorrow, and
    1. how we come together to alleviate the daily suffering that is all around us.
  58. The resurrection was a powerful, history changing moment and the resurrection is a daily reality that transforms the world around us through us by the power of the Holy Spirit so that “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” becomes not just a prayer, but a way of living the resurrected life.
  59. If we look at Christ’s resurrection and ask what happened, it’s easy to become jaded and say, “Nothing.”
  60. But if we look at Christ’s resurrection and ask what is happening, we find an invitation to participate in the transformation of creation, the making new of all things and the ultimate conquest of suffering and death.
  61. This is what is so incredible about Easter and what makes the resurrection worth believing in despite what we see on the nightly news or even in our daily lives.
  62. The resurrection didn’t just happen.
  63. It’s happening now.
  64. Thanks be to God.  Dick

[1] Some of the material comes from Tim Keller: Hope for a Better World Starts with the Resurrection. Christianity Today April 9, 2021