Sermon for Sunday, November 18, 2018 || Proper 28B || Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25
We were talking theology over pizza last week at confirmation class, and one of the teens asked a question that was so thought-provoking, I spent the next several days thinking about it. Because the question was on my mind this week, my response to it ended up being this sermon. The question went something like this: “Adam, how do you believe all the time? Are there any times when you don’t really know about all this God stuff?”Continue reading “The Posture of Belief”→
Sermon for Sunday, August 26, 2018 || Proper 16B || John 6:56-69
Sometimes ordinary conversations spur the deepest of thoughts. This past Monday, I was cleaning up the breakfast dishes while listening to the kids talking to each other at the kitchen table. At their recent birthday party, they had decorated small terra cotta pots with glitter glue and stickers. Inside the pots they planted seeds that hopefully will grow into tiny spruce trees by Christmas. So there they sat at the kitchen table, and then they started listing off all the people they wanted to invite over to see their Christmas trees when they’re done growing.
They began with close family friends who had helped bake their birthday cake. Then they listed all their family members – Nana and Papa, Amma and Abba, their aunts and uncles and cousins. Then they moved onto friends who attended their party and their parents; then to other friends from school; then to people from church. They kept naming people they know, people with whom they have some level of relationship. And for a pair of four-year-olds, they had a pretty extensive list.Continue reading “You Will be Found”→
Sermon for Sunday, November 22, 2015 || Christ the King Year B || John 18:33-37
I find it ironic that the framers of our lectionary chose the Gospel lesson I just read as the one for today. Today is the feast we call “Christ the King” or “Reign of Christ.” And yet, for the entire length of his conversation with Pontius Pilate, Jesus specifically dodges Pilate’s questions about his kingship. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me? “So you are a king?” You say I am a king. But if Jesus is king of anything, if Jesus claims to reign over anything in this passage, his kingdom would not include land or crops or livestock or resources. His reign would be over “the truth.” For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.
A truth kingdom. I like the sound of that. Would that we lived in one of those. But for anyone who’s ever heard a joke about politicians, you know the punch line always involves untruthfulness of some sort. We might give them the benefit of the doubt and say they don’t out and out lie most of the time, but they are masters of prevarication, obfuscation, and equivocation, that’s for sure. We’re used to this behavior from our political leaders; so used to it, in fact, that when a politician stumbles into a genuine moment, we’re amazed and we start asking if it were staged.
In our Gospel passage today, Jesus seems to be engaging in just such an impressive display of political obfuscation. Perhaps he’s trying to meet Pilate where Pilate is. Perhaps Jesus is using Pilate’s own tactics to get through to him. Or perhaps Jesus is simply telling the truth, but we’re so used to prevarication that even the truth sounds false. If that’s the case, I’d like to try something this morning. I’d like to try to rehabilitate the truth simply by speaking Jesus’ truth to you. Truth has a special ring to it, and I hope you hear its crystal clarity this morning. There will be no prevarication or obfuscation. But there will be mystery; after all, the truth is too big for us to understand completely. Jesus says, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” So close your eyes now and listen for Jesus’ invitation to you to enter his kingdom. Listen for Jesus’ truth.
Are you hungry for more? Not for more stuff, more possessions, more things to clutter your house. Not for prosperity at the sake of others’ poverty. Not for more empty calories, the white starch of idolatry and self-deceit. There are so many idols out there scheming to fill you up, but you’ll only be left craving. There’s so much fear to gorge on, but fear will just leave you hollow. Are you hungry for more? For more meaning? For deeper connection? For sustenance that truly sustains? Then listen to Jesus: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).
But I still have dry times, Lord. I believe, but I still feel empty more often than I’d like. How can I trust your words when I feel like this?
I know how you feel, says Jesus. I felt desolate in the garden of Gethsemane. I felt abandoned on the cross. I know it can be so hard to hear my invitation when you feel lost in the desert. But I’ve been lost there, too. I’m lost there with you right now, so that you may be found. Listen again to my invitation: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
The desert I can handle, Lord. At least it’s bright there. But sometimes I look out at the world and all I see is darkness. There’s so much darkness, and I’m afraid there’s a shadow growing over my soul, too.
One time, says Jesus, I was looking out over the city of Jerusalem, and the tears just started flowing. Another time, my beloved friend died, and all I could do was weep. I know what it means to be a light shining in the darkness: a flickering flame that might snuff out at any moment. But have you ever seen a ray of darkness? There’s no such thing. Have you ever seen the darkness of a hallway flood into a bright room when the door opens? No. The light wins every time. The light will always win. As for the shadow growing over your soul, make sure it listens to my words: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
The light of life, Lord? How could I ever be worthy of such a prize? I spend too much time in darkness to deserve the light of life.
Nonsense, says Jesus. Do you think anyone has ever been worthy of the gifts God gives them? Do you remember that story I told about the son who takes his inheritance and squanders it? He came home penniless and ashamed, and what did his father do? His father ran out to him! His father could not wait another second to rekindle their relationship even though the son didn’t deserve it. Don’t be paralyzed by unworthiness. My love makes you worthy of my love. So listen to my truth, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
But it can’t be all about me, Lord, can it? You helped so many people in your life, but up to now I’ve just been concerned with myself? There’s got to be more.
Oh, there is more, says Jesus. So much more. When you realize I am with you, you’ll also realize I’m with everyone else. And with that realization will come the desire to serve others as you serve me, especially those who are poor and lost, those who are my special project. You’ll find joy in feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty. You’ll find joy in welcoming the stranger. You’ll find joy in clothing the naked and visiting the sick and imprisoned. Do you want to know the truth? Listen to this: “Just as you [served] one of the least of these who are members of my family, you [served] me” (Matthew 25:40).
Okay, Lord, so I live my life serving others, being a light in the darkness, and finding refreshment in your arms. But I’m still going to die someday. And I’m afraid.
I understand, says Jesus. I was, too. I even prayed to be spared, to let the cup pass from me. I can’t promise you a life free of pain. I can’t promise you a death free of pain, either. But I can promise to be with you in the pain of life and death. If you love others as I love you, then pain is inevitable. But so is joy. In the end, there is nothing but love and joy. Or should I say the new beginning? Listen to my truth: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)
Yes, Lord, I believe. Please help my unbelief.
A truer prayer has never been uttered, says Jesus. “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” So listen for my word in your life. Listen for my truth. Live my truth: For “if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).
Sermon for Sunday, November 1, 2015 || All Saints’ Day Year B || John 11:32-44
Today’s sermon is about practicality and belief. I don’t have time for a fancy intro about when I was in fourth grade or about how something my children did reminded me of the Gospel. We’ve got too much to do in this All Saints’ Day service for that – most importantly, getting to the baptism, which is up next. Since today’s sermon is in part about practicality, I thought I’d be practical in my time-management and just skip the intro. So to reiterate, today’s sermon is about practicality and belief.
We’ll start with Martha and Lazarus, then move on to the saints, and then mention baptism near the end. The Gospel lesson picks up after Martha and Jesus have their famous conversation, in which Jesus says among other things, “I am the resurrection and the life.” He asks Martha if she believes and she answers, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
But when they arrive at the tomb of her brother Lazarus, the oppressive reality of death threatens to overwhelm her belief. To keep from being overwhelmed, Martha’s practical side asserts itself. (In another story about Martha in Luke’s account of the Gospel, this practical side keeps her bustling around the house being the consummate hostess while her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet.) But in our story today, this practical side asserts itself when she mentions that Lazarus’s body must smell really bad. The translation I just read makes Martha sound something like a member of the British House of Lords: “Lord, already there is a stench.” I prefer to translate these words with an earthier, more colloquial quality – say, like a West Texas ranch hand: “He’s been in there four days; he stinks!”
Whatever way we translate Martha’s statement, the olfactory reality of death is on her mind: the practical notion that the most likely scenario is that Lazarus’s smell, and not Lazarus himself, will come out of the tomb. That’s when Jesus reminds her of her belief. “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Now I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again, but here we have another example of Jesus turning everything around. The popular axiom says, “Seeing is believing.” But Jesus, like he so often does, flips it: “If you believed, you would see…” For Jesus, believing is seeing.
In other words, our belief in the God made known in Jesus Christ gives us a particular lens through which to view our lives, our relationships, our gifts and callings, not to mention the whole of creation. In last week’s sermon, I called this lens the “eyes of faith.” Our belief enlivens these eyes of faith and activates our special God-tinted lenses. We look back through our lives and see God’s movement stitching together the defining moments and relationships that make us the people we are. We look out and see God’s presence in those whom God calls us to serve. We look beyond and discover the fullness of new life in God with all the saints.
However, our God-tinted lenses get cloudy and scratched all the time. Often, this happens when practicality overrides belief. You look back through your life and see a series of coincidences and happenstances that led you to where you are. You look out and see the need, but perhaps not the people who are in need. You look beyond and see emptiness or maybe a vague notion of the hereafter or maybe a flicker of hope staving off the dread of death. “I don’t want to get caught up in ‘pie-in-the-sky’ thinking,” we might say, “so I’ll just be practical. Who could honestly believe all that anyway?”
The answer: I do. Not perfectly, not by a long shot. Not everyday, not even a majority of the time, to be honest. But I think seeing with God-tinted lenses is like hitting a baseball: even the very best baseball players only get a hit about a third of the time.
Here’s the tricky part. Here’s why the interaction between practicality and belief is so hard to navigate: We need our practical sides in order to live the kind of life our belief in God catalyzes. Without practicality, we would never translate our belief into action. We would never actually follow through on the callings we hear from God. We might notice God’s movement in creation, we might even generate a vague notion to respond to such movement, but we’d never make a plan. We’d never figure out how many drivers we need to deliver Thanksgiving meals or what books are most appropriate for the students at our partner school in Haiti. Without our practical sides, we’d be hard-pressed to act, and our follow through would be anemic at best.
So instead of seeing practicality and belief as opposing forces, we can see them as unlikely allies. While practicality can undermine belief, practicality can also give belief legs when used to further the missions we believe God has given us. The saints we celebrate today turned their belief into action, and I’m sure they used a heavy dose of practicality to do it. Mother Teresa, for example, believed with all her heart that God had called her to the sick and dying of Calcutta – and she was also an uncannily good fundraiser.
When we baptize _____ in a few minutes, we’ll see once again the interaction between practicality and belief. We will pour water into this basin and thank God for it. We will remember that water is sacred and life-giving. Then we will give _____ a bath. I know, I know, it won’t be a very thorough bath – just go with me on this imagery here. What could be more practical, more mundane than washing? And yet, we who wear these God-tinted lenses see something so much greater than a simple bath taking place. We see a welcome into God’s household. We see the power of sin washed away. We see the gifts of the Holy Spirit awakening. We see Christ making us his own forever.
And with the washing done, the words of the Baptismal Covenant, which we are about to say, echo again the practical, boots-on-the-ground facet of our belief. The Covenant begins with the affirmation of belief and continues with the practical ways we live out our mission, with God’s help. And so our unlikely allies, practicality and belief, animate our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. We need both, and we’d be diminished if one were absent. After all, when Lazarus comes out of the tomb, I doubt he smelled like a bed of roses. I’m sure Martha’s practical prediction about his stench was confirmed. But Lazarus came out of the tomb, just the same.
Sermon for Sunday, April 27, 2014 || Easter 2A || John 20:19-31
Today we are going on a journey to the center of a word. This word happens to be one of the most misused words in the English language, and it happens to be an important word in our Gospel lesson today. This word is “believe.”
For several years now, I’ve tried to use the word “believe” only when talking about God. This is tricky because practitioners of modern English rarely treat the word with that kind of discretion. The word “believe” has become commonplace. How often have you heard a question like this: “Do you believe in [fill in the blank with a hot button issue of the day].” Somehow, the word “believe” has become synonymous with “think something is okay.” This watered down understanding is a far cry from how the word is used in our Gospel lesson today: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” Here “belief” is synonymous with life and relationship with God, not with mere assent to a particular position. As we journey to the center of the word “believe,” let’s try to recapture an undiluted definition.
The best way to talk about the word “believe” is to tell a story. Here’s a version of one that I heard a priest friend of mine tell several years ago (and he heard it from someone, too, so there’s no telling to whom this story belongs).
A Bible scholar trekked deep into the heart of the Amazon River basin, and there he found an indigenous tribe that had barely had any contact with the outside world. Like any decent Bible scholar would do, he set about learning the language of the people in order to translate the Good Book into the local tongue. While staying in the village, he lived with a farmer and his wife. For months, the scholar worked and worked: he listened to the people talking, made notes, slowly built a lexicon, and then set to the task of translation. He spread his papers out over the rough wooden table in the kitchen of the hut and put pen to paper.
But soon he stopped. He was stuck. In all his study, he had never heard the villagers use a word that seemed to him synonymous with “belief,” which was, after all, an important word in the Bible. He put his pen down and sat there, just thinking and feeling sorry for himself. Just then, the farmer came in from the fields all hot and sticky from a hard day’s labor. He sat down in the chair opposite the scholar, leaned back on two legs, propped his feet on the table, and let out a grateful sigh. In halting words, the scholar asked the farmer what his word for “believe” was. The farmer didn’t understand. The scholar tried to explain using other words, and comprehension dawned on the farmer. “Do you see me sitting here,” he said in his own language. “I am leaning back in this chair after a hard day’s work. My feet are up. I am resting all my weight on these two legs.” And the scholar found his word.
So to believe in something is to rest all of your weight on that something. Think about the first time you ever went to the pool. The older kids who knew how to swim were doing cannonballs into the deep end and playing Marco Polo in the shallows. The teenage boys were staring at the lifeguard in her red one-piece and layers of tanning lotion. The adults were laying in reclining lawn chairs around the edge of the pool, far enough away to be out of the splash zone.
But you took no notice of any of this. You were too busy contemplated your next action. You were standing by the edge of the pool, your toes curled over the cement lip of the shallow end. You had your arms crossed in front of you and your knees bent in. Your teeth chattered – from either fear or cold, you couldn’t tell. And there was your Dad standing three feet from you. He was standing waist deep in the water like a titan, impervious to Poseidon’s attempts to plunge him under. And he was extending his arms out to you, beckoning you to jump. He would catch you, of course, he said. You would not drown. You would be safe. You would have fun once you got used to the water. All you needed to do was jump into his arms.
You had a choice to make. You could waddle back to the safety of the towels and the bag with your sister’s change of clothes in it. Or you could jump, believing with all your might that your Dad would catch you, that you could rest all of your weight in his embrace. That’s belief.
But recall, I mentioned that belief is a tricky concept. It’s tricky for several reasons. Here’s one. When you decided to jump into your Dad’s arms on your first visit to the pool, you took the leap because you believed what he said. He would catch you, no matter what. You could rest your weight in his arms. Equating this belief with belief in God is where everything gets tricky. Here’s the problem.
There is a chance, however slim, that your Dad would fail to catch you.
No matter how earnestly we believed in a parent’s omnipotence or a coach’s perfection or a teacher’s omniscience, those people turned out to be…well, people. They were all stricken with the gene for human fallibility. Of course, not being perfect didn’t make them bad people. It just made them people. When we equate our belief in humans with our belief in God, we often make the mistake of hedging our bets were God is concerned. We apply to God the expectations we have when we believe in other people, thus unwittingly reducing God’s power and glory to the levels that fit comfortably in a fallible human body.
Now, please don’t misunderstand. I’m not telling you to repel all human contact because those fallible humans are not to be trusted. Human beings are fundamentally good. We usually do the right thing. We usually live up to the trust others have in us. What I am saying is this: there is no “usually” with God. God always does the right thing. God always lives up to the trust we place in God, else God wouldn’t be God.
So when you speak of belief, remember that God is the One in whom you can always rest your weight. God is the One who never fails to keep a promise. Therefore, God is the one whom we can always believe. When we reserve the word “believe” for God alone, we can begin to recapture the majesty that the concept of belief has lost through overuse in unworthy situations.
If believing is about resting your weight on something, then belief means knowing and trusting the something that takes your weight. This is your foundation. Every foundation that is not God is not a foundation at all, but a structure built on God, who is the ultimate foundation. God is, so to speak, the ground upon which everything rests. Believing in God is all about not being content until you find that ground, that deepest foundational level, upon which to rest your weight.
In our Gospel lesson today, Thomas discovers this foundation when he sees the Risen Christ’s wounds and says, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas’s journey has led him to rest his weight on the Risen Christ – to believe. The next time you use the word “believe,” ask yourself if the context surrounding that word is your foundation, something you can truly rest your weight on. If not, try a different word. We rest our weight on the One who is our foundation. For we believe in God.
This June is the 5th anniversary of Wherethewind.com, and we are celebrating by looking back at some of the best of the last five years of this website. Today we have a post from the first couple months of the blog. I was at a county fair in West Virginia with a couple of friends and the following encounter happened. (Originally posted August 12, 2008)
The smells of sweat and fried dough hung in the air, mixing with the burned oil of the tractor pull. He was sitting with hands clasped, wearing a plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a challenge on his deeply lined, leathery face. She was standing, looking all the world like a Grant Wood painting, and thrusting matchbook-sized pamphlets into the hands of passersby. I walked by out of reach, but I couldn’t help looking at the booth, one of many at the county fair. “How sure are you of going to heaven? Are you 50% 75% 100% sure?” read the banner. My friend wondered aloud about how one arrives at a 75% surety of heaven. I chuckled, but I was unable to keep walking by the booth. On the table, a wooden contraption with three small doors read: “Do you know the three things God CANNOT do?”
I stopped. The Grant Wood painting saw my furrowed brow and handed me a pamphlet. It looked like a doll’s magazine. A smiley face decorated the cover along with the words: “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” I closed my hand around the pamphlet and pointed to the three doors. I tried to keep the incredulity out of my voice, but I failed miserably: “So, what are the three things God can’t do?” I said.
She opened the first door: “God CANNOT lie.” She opened the second door: “God CANNOT change.” She opened the third door: “God CANNOT let people into heaven who have not been born again.”
We talked for fifteen minutes. I told them I did not disagree with the first door, but that I preferred to state the sentiment in positive terms: “God always tell the truth” or “God is trustworthy and faithful.” I said that a “lie” is the absence of the “truth,” and that I’d rather talk about God’s goodness shown in God’s truthfulness than to try to hook people with the trappings of sensationalism. After five minutes, the man commented that I was very intelligent. I took that as a compliment, but I have a sneaking suspicion it was not meant as such.
As our conversation continued, I realized we weren’t conversing. We were sparring. I’ve never had a taste for theological pugilism, but I was already three rounds deep, so I kept jabbing and blocking. I’ve had this same conversation with county fair proselytizers, but never as an ordained person. After the man commented on my intelligence, he asked me what I did. I said, “I’m a priest.” Without another word, he thrust another pamphlet in my hand. It was about how Roman Catholics aren’t real Christians and are going to hell.The same thought kept jumping to the front of my mind: “People like these, no matter how pure and ardent their intentions, make my job harder.”
It didn’t matter that I wasn’t a Roman Catholic. It didn’t matter that I agreed with the man and woman several times during our bout. The only thing that mattered was that I didn’t buy into the way they framed the Christian faith–as a bottom-line venture whose only goal is to “save souls” by following the instructions in the smiley-face doll-sized magazine. Surely, there’s more than that. Surely, the abundance of what God has done and is doing is more important than a “what’s behind door number 3″ marketing scheme concerned with what God CANNOT do.
As I walked away, I wondered what had been accomplished during our boxing match. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus says that when two or three are gathered in his name, he will be in the midst of them. Were we gathered “in his name” or in our own names, intent on KOing the other’s theological stance? Was Jesus there? Was I 50% 75% 100% sure of his presence? Looking back, Jesus was there, but he was not in my corner and he was not in their corner. He was there trying to get us to leave the ring.
(Sermon for April 11, 2010 || Easter 2, Year C, RCL || John 20:19-31)
I’ve always had a special affinity for Thomas. Perhaps, because we share a name, I feel fraternally responsible for defending him against those who label him with one of the most enduring epithets of all time: Doubting Thomas. (Curiously enough, I’ve never felt much like defending Adam for his stupidity in the garden, but that’s another tale.) So, we have this fellow uncharitably nicknamed Doubting Thomas. We remember him for exactly one reason: he doesn’t trust the words of his fellow disciples when they tell him that they have seen the Risen Lord. Their witness is not enough for Thomas. He needs to see and touch Jesus, just as the other disciples had done when Jesus came to them the first time in that fearful room behind a locked door. Thomas needs the visual and tactile proof of the resurrection for himself. And for this one, simple reason, Thomas has been stricken with his unfortunate nickname, much maligned for his obstinacy, and readily dismissed for his doubt.
But this caricature misses the subtle interplay between doubt and faith that we are going to explore the next few minutes. Notice that Thomas never actually follows through with his stubborn ultimatum. He tells the other disciples, “Unless…I put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” The next weekend, Thomas is with the other disciples when Jesus comes to them again. And when Jesus invites Thomas to fulfill his requirement for belief, Thomas no longer needs to. Rather than reaching out his hand to touch Jesus’ side, Thomas lets loose from his lips the highest affirmation of Jesus’ divinity in the entire Gospel: “My Lord and my God!” Thomas is a man of deep faith.
This is the same Thomas who, when Jesus decides to travel near Jerusalem to raise Lazarus, says to the other disciples, “Let us go with him, that we might die with him.” Thomas is a man of deep conviction. This is the same Thomas who, when Jesus tells the disciples he goes to prepare a place for them, asks of his Lord, “How will we know the way?” Thomas is a man of deep questions.
When you add faith, conviction, and questions together, oftentimes doubt results, at least for a time. Faith gives you the reason to ask questions, and conviction gives you the perseverance to allow doubt to temper faith into a stronger whole. Too frequently, trouble happens when we mistake doubt for the opposite of faith, and therefore as something to be avoided at all costs.
One of the reasons for the persistent mistake of thinking that doubt is the opposite of faith comes from this very Gospel text (and indeed, this particular English translation of the Gospel text). When Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds, Jesus says, “Do not doubt but believe.” This sets up a dichotomy between doubt and belief and puts the two in opposition to one another. You can either doubt or believe, but you can’t do both. However, “Do not doubt but believe” is not actually what Jesus says. I don’t say this very often, but the English translation we read in church gets this sentence horribly wrong.
Because the New Revised Standard Version messes this verse up so badly, we need to have a short lesson in ancient Greek, the language in which the Gospel was written. I promise that I won’t make a habit of giving these lessons from the pulpit. But I also promise that you already know more Greek than you realize.
In Greek, to turn a word into its opposite, you add an alpha, which is really just an “a,” to the front of the word. We do the same thing for English words that come from Greek. Try this one: Bios is a Greek word that means “life.” We get the English words “biology” and “biotic” from it. “Biotic” means “relating to living things.” If we add an “a” to the front, we get “abiotic,” which mean “relating to non-living things.” Or how about this one: Theos is the Greek word for “God.” In English, “theism” is the generic word for belief in God. So, add the “a” prefix and we get “atheism,” which is the belief that there is no God. We could come up with a dozen more examples, but I think you get the point.
Now let’s go back to our verse, which, if you recall, this morning’s reading translates as “Do not doubt but believe.” The Greek word translated “believe” comes from the word pistis, which means “faith.” The word that is translated as “doubt” is simply the word pistis with the “a” prefix – apistis. Therefore, the word should really just mean “unfaith” or “unbelief,” rather than “doubt.” With this new translation, the verse becomes, “Do not be unbelieving but believing.”
“Do not be unbelieving but believing.” This is a far cry from “Do not doubt but believe.” Jesus never tells Thomas not to doubt. Rather, Jesus tells Thomas not to jettison his belief all in one go. There is a huge difference between the two. This supposed “Doubting Thomas” is still incredibly faithful, even in the midst of his doubts. Remember, Thomas is a man of deep faith and conviction, who has the nerve to ask tough questions. Doubt arises in such a chemical makeup. But having doubts does not signal the loss of belief. Having doubts does not signal the abandonment of faith.
Doubt happens when you have enough conviction about your faith to question it. Thus, doubt gives you a reason to reexamine your faith and to sign up with Jesus Christ over and over again. Of course, too much doubt can lead to unbelief, just as, conversely, too much certainty can lead to stagnant faith.
Okay, now that we’ve established that doubt is not something to be avoided at all costs, let’s use our Easter celebration to bring the power of the resurrection into this discussion. Our faith finds its home in Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus triumphed over death in order to keep his promise that he would be with us always, despite the end of our physical existence. Resurrection happens with eternally vaster scope than death ever could. Because of this, death exists within the power of the resurrection. The resurrection subsumes death into itself, making death a piece of the reality of eternal life. In the same way, belief is so much more expansive than doubt; belief subsumes doubt into itself, making doubt a part of the pathway of faith.
Jesus tells Thomas, “Do not be unbelieving but believing.” And Thomas responds with such grand words to express his belief: “My Lord and my God!” Rather than dismissing Thomas as that good-for-nothing doubter, embrace Thomas as a faithful, thoughtful, courageous follower of Christ whose doubts ultimately lead him to a wondrous confession of faith.
God knows that we, too, have our doubts. We wouldn’t be human without them. But belief in God gives our doubts purpose, shape, and context. Do not be ashamed of your doubts. Shame only works to erode faith. Rather, see doubt as a sign of your conviction, as a sign of the fact that you care enough to ask tough questions. Then use that conviction, that perseverance to push through the doubt to the deeper faith beyond. And with those five glorious words of Faithful Thomas, praise the Risen One who is the beginning and end of our belief: “My Lord and My God.”
Practicality often gets in the way of noticing the glory of God. Don’t misunderstand, there is nothing wrong with being “down to earth”; indeed, a healthy dose of practicality is downright necessary. If my practical side didn’t assert itself, I don’t think I’d ever remember to buy groceries. But a life governed by “the practical” misses the better portion of what makes life worth living—that is, rejoicing in the glory of God that perpetually surrounds me. This Sunday is All Saints’ Day, and I’m really excited that I get to preach because the Gospel text comes from perhaps my favorite chapter of the Bible. I talked about the first half of the chapter a few weeks ago on Episcopalcafe.com. Go read the second part of John 11 before continuing this post.
Jesus commands the onlookers to remove the stone, but before they can start rolling, Martha jumps in. Notice that the narrator, with odd redundancy, reminds the reader that Martha is the sister of the dead man. The oddity of this reminder makes it stand out. Martha, who had just made one of the strongest statements of Jesus’ divinity in the entire Gospel, once again has her mind on the practicalities of death. And this is made clear in her comment, which the NRSV makes slightly more sanitary than it is. The NRSV translation sounds rather like a member of the British House of Lords: Already there is a stench. Another reading gives this statement the earthier quality of, say, a West Texas ranch hand: It’s been four days; he stinks! With unpolished directness, her practical side asserts itself and comments on the absurdity of the scene that’s taking place.
Before coming to the tomb, Martha was ready to believe everything that Jesus said to her. But, now, confronted with the stone covering her brother’s tomb, this belief seems so small and silly compared to the reality of Lazarus’s death. The practical notion that the dead body of Lazarus smells is so much more palpable than the rather dodgy notion that Jesus can possibly bring him back to life. For a moment, she clings to this practicality because the alternative drove past the exit for Impracticality miles back and is stopping at a rest area over the border in Impossibility.
But Jesus turns the car around: “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God,” he says to Martha. In other words, don’t focus on reasons why what I’m about to do won’t work. Instead, remember that you believe in me, which gives you the ability to discover the one reason why it will work—because I AM. There are plenty of practical reasons why Lazarus’s stench, rather than Lazarus himself, will come out. But Jesus trumps all these reasons with a helping of delightful divine unreasonableness, which reminds me of some of Paul’s words: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25). When Jesus calls for the stone to be rolled away, the olfactory practicality of human decomposition is insignificant compared to the divine impracticality of raising someone from the dead.
Belief in God is impractical because (unlike my groceries) it can’t be seen or touched or bought or sold. However, when God integrates belief into my practical life, I notice the incompleteness of a life full of practicalities. The unreasonableness of belief in God becomes my reason to live. And the impracticality of putting my faith in an impalpable being infuses all parts of my practical life. Martha’s probably right in the end: when Lazarus comes out of the tomb, I doubt he smells like one of those little trees you put on your rearview mirror. But he comes out all the same.