Friday, April 4, 2008

A Sermon of Doubt and Faith

Here is the sermon I preached at both services last Sunday:

Conviction Arising from Mystery
John 20: 19-31
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe!” So said Thomas, one of the Twelve disciples, upon hearing from his friends that Jesus--crucified and buried—was alive. “Jesus appeared to us, Thomas,” they told him. “In this room..."

“No. Unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will never believe that,” responds Thomas.

One week later, same thing happens. This time Thomas is there and Jesus invites him to “reach out your hand and put it in my side.” He does. He then responds with perhaps the most powerful confession in the Gospel: My Lord and my God!

Jesus gave Thomas what he needed to believe. Actually, if we read this passage carefully in vs. 20 we see that it’s the same thing he gave the other disciples. And in vs. 29 Jesus gives us all, these many centuries later, what we need: reassurance that seeing the Risen Jesus physically is not necessary for faith. [NIB]

This morning I want to talk to you about faith. My context for this topic is my own faith journey, so let me begin with a caveat. I’m convinced that my own faith journey has something to say about how faith happens and how we mature in faith. At the same time, even though I’m portraying this with real conviction, conviction is not certainty. Faith is always interwoven with not-knowing, and my own particular journey to faith is by no means the way God brings and matures everyone to faith.

We didn’t go to church much when I was growing up, but at 17 I went on a high school choir trip and “got saved,” as the terminology goes. Joined my local Baptist church and was baptized there. In college I got involved with a conservative Christian group, one that passed out those little tracts, those little books that explain God’s plan of salvation. It was appealing to me at the time. I was looking for answers, and it felt good to have this 'certainty' safely tucked inside my wallet!

Through the years, I began to think about things more deeply, and to wonder. If this is the way God works, if this little diagram of the plan of salvation is right, it certainly leaes out a bunch of people. All the people in the whole world who don’t profess Jesus? Well, they're going to hell, I was told. All the people through the centuries who never even heard of Jesus? Nope. They're going to hell. A heckuva lot of people I know and love today? Sorry. They won’t be making it to heaven. And I wondered: What does that tell me about the character of God?

And there were other questions that troubled me deeply--questions about this human being who at the same time was God. How to make sense of something so impossible?

Mind you, I didn’t talk about my questions to my Christian friends. Oh, blasphemy! Christians do not doubt! My friends would say I was going to hell if I spoke these questions out loud!

I finally began to wonder about the wisdom of having those little answer-tracts when all they did, for me anyway, was create more questions.

But I did keep going to church. I kept going to church because something about the religious life just made sense to me in my gut. Intuitively, it felt truthful, worshiping God in community.

In 1988 a friend invited me to East Dallas Christian where I got to know the senior pastor pretty well. Michael M____. I was in the Sunday School class he taught, and I’d ask all kings of things—not the most important things, of course, because I didn’t want him to think I wasn’t a real Christian. But I’d ply him with other, lesser questions. Sometimes he’d offer his thoughts. Most of the time, though, he’d just annoy me by taking the question even further than I’d considered it, and then he’d just sort of leave it hanging in the air for me to think about further. It was irritating to have him not give me all the answers, but by that time in my life another part of me deeply respected it. Somehow, it evoked trust in me. At least this guy isn’t going to give me a stock answer—he’s going to wait until he and I understand the importance of the question to me.

One day I got up the nerve to make an appointment with him to talk about my doubts. This was an extremely scary for me to do because down deep I had actually bought into this notion—hook, line and sinker bought into it—that to doubt was the opposite of faith. So, with fear and trembling, I broached some questions to him. And finally I voiced 'the biggie'—I said this whole thing about a person being God just didn’t make sense to me. (And I’m just churning inside. Part of me couldn’t believe that these blasphemous words were actually coming out of my mouth.)

Well, Michael sat back in his chair and I’ll never forget what he said to me. He said, “ Katherine, I drive down Central Expressway some mornings thinking, ‘What if it’s not true? What if I’ve given my life to something that just isn’t true?’

The cosmos exploded! My whole world just detonated! My mouth dropped to the ground. A minister was saying this to me?!

I realized later that Michael was giving me permission to explore!...And in that one moment, I began to know true faith. Contrary to what that little tract would lead me to think, I began to sense how doubt is not the opposite of faith. It’s doubt that may open the door to faith!

Faith is that story of Jacob wrestling through the night with God, and coming away from that experience a wounded, but transformed person. Mature faith is like that—it’s grappling with BIG uncertainties. It’s not passively accepting answers… In that one moment I saw how the questions were drawing me to God…not the answers. The questions!

The MYSTERY of life and death…I saw my mother die. One moment she was alive, and then, with her last breath, she was no longer there. Well, what is that?! What is it that really animates us?

The MYSTERY of what it means to be saved… Salvation. Oh, it's so huge. Is it only about the afterlife? Or can it have something to do with life in this very moment?

The MYSTERY of how time and eternity meet when God does indeed come to this earth, knows great suffering and great joy, experiences death, and lives again! That Incarnation of God. Oh, my.

One of my professors at Brite, Andy L____, made the same point to me years later, bringing the whole thing full circle for me. I don't recall the context for this now, but we must’ve been talking about faith. Seared into my brain is the phrase he used. He said, “Well, Katherine, you’ve staked your life on the Christian gospel.”

Staked my life.

He said I’d staked my life on this truth of Jesus—the story of God’s work in the world through the Christ. And he was right. We’re not just betting a few bucks, or risking a few years of our time. We’re betting our very lives! How we’ve committed to living our lives in this world depends on what we cannot really know. We are betting our lives on things not seen. We’re staking our lives, how we live on this earth, on things that will not be proven.

Through the years, I’ve come to see that for me certainty is egocentric. Certainty is always about me—I know this. I’m certain of that. But Christian knowledge is grounded in a mystery that takes us beyond our little egos—the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. It’s one of the best paradoxes I know: assurance and conviction arising from mystery.

I’ve come to see also that God keeps refusing to fit inside my little box labeled “comfortable faith.” Faith is a horrifying business. At some level it requires a decision to let go, to not know, to jump off a cliff! and simply TRUST--trust in this awesome, beautiful Mystery that is God, the Holy One, known best to us as Christians through Jesus Christ.

Finally, I’ve come to see that the Risen Christ provides what we need to live our lives faithfully. Jesus is no longer here physically; we can’t touch the wounds in his side. But in another very real sense he is still here--His Spirit is here. And that Spirit continues to breathe on us and constantly give us New Life, constantly make New Life available to us.

That’s what my faith tells me, anyway--that with the Spirit of the Risen Christ we can jump off a cliff and trust that no matter what happens—as St. Julian of Norwich reminds us, we can risk everything and still trust that all shall be well. All shall be well. And all manner of thing shall be well.

I want to close with a prayer of thanksgiving. Will you pray with me?

"Receive our thanks, gracious God, for the miracle of Easter, for the power that changed the lives of the disciples. We give you thanks for the witnesses to the Risen Christ you have raised up in each generation. We thank you for those whose faith encouraged us. We thank you for parents and grandparents, friends and neighbors, teachers and pastors, and our children who have helped us to learn of you. We give you thanks for those with courage to act on their faith, those public witnesses whose lives reflected a gracious goodness. The Risen Christ meets us constantly with new life for each moment, and it is in his name that we pray and give you thanks. Amen." [from Logos]


Soulstice Community Church said...

Thank you so much for you publishing this. I am teaching this weekend on Thomas and the whole idea of doubt. We're in a series called "Easter and Everything After" working through people that encountered Jesus after the resurrection.
My journey has been somewhat similar to yours especially regarding the topic of certainty.
I'm sure I'll use some of your ideas to prompt my own working this out for our community so thank you...very insightful and refreshing.

Katherine E. said...

Thank you, Soulstice Community Church! I'm glad it was helpful.

Anonymous said...

Well I see that I'm making a similar comment to the one made about a year ago. I stumbled across your blog while searching for material on doubt. And my faith journey has been similar to yours as reflected in your thoughtful article. Thank you....and I pray that you're enjoying the continuing journey of grace. DG

Katherine E. said...

Thank you, DG