This morning we read my absolute favorite passage from the book of the Prophet Isaiah, and I can’t let it slip by without preaching on it. This passage touches on a common element of the spiritual life that I don’t think gets enough press because people don’t particularly enjoy sharing their doubts. See if this sounds familiar.
You’re pumping gas or flossing your teeth or washing your hair or doing any sort of mundane activity. The numbers tick by on the gas pump, and your mind wanders. And for some reason, you have a sudden and unbidden attack of existential doubt. Has that ever happened to you? One minute you’re thinking about your grocery list, and the next your heart drops into your stomach, and you shake your head a little and you narrow your eyes and you look up at the sky and you say, “Why do you care about me, Lord?”
Sermon for Sunday, September 27, 2020 || Proper 21A || Matthew 21:23-32
There are a lot of contenders for most famous comedy routine of all time. There’s Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch or perhaps, “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” There’s the cheeseburger skit from the early days of Saturday Night Live. There’s George Carlin’s seven words you can never say on TV (which are also words I won’t say in a sermon). But they all fall short of one comedy routine, the absolute pinnacle: the baseball routine of Abbott and Costello, commonly called “Who’s on first.” The Yankees have some players with very strange names, and as Abbott teaches the players to Costello, Costello gets increasingly confused and frustrated.
Abbott begins by telling him the infielders: “Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on third.”
No sermon this week, as the intern at St. Mark’s had the reins for First Sunday of Advent. So I thought I’d share something I wrote a few weeks ago at a youth revival/retreat weekend. After hearing a talk given by one of the teens, we had about half an hour to compose a rap in response. This is the text of the one I shared with the group.
Sermon for Sunday, April 3, 2016 || Easter 2C || John 20:19-31
Both my first and last names come from the Bible. To be sure, a large portion of names used in the United States do, but many if not most of them do not share the dubious pedigree of mine. Every Hannah out there gets to claim as her namesake a woman of complete devotion to God. Every Matthew and Mark and Luke and John out there gets to share a name with a writer of the Gospel. But me? I get the guy who ate the fruit he wasn’t supposed to eat and then shifted the blame to his wife. And I get the Doubter – and that’s Doubter with a capital “D.”
And while I don’t have much energy to defend Adam’s poor decision-making, I do get a bit revved up whenever I hear someone label the disciple Thomas as “Doubting,” as if it’s his first name. As if he’s one of the seven dwarfs: “I know you’ve met Grumpy and Happy and Bashful, but have you met Doubting?” This really irks me – and not simply because Thomas and I share a name. No. Calling him the Doubter is not just unfair (why single him out?); calling him the doubter is actually a complete misunderstanding of the Gospel. So let’s unpack Thomas a bit, and hopefully by the end of this sermon we will see that doubt is not an evil thing.
Once we move past the caricature of Thomas as the Doubter, we see a fuller picture of him form. He is one of the more visible disciples in the Gospel of John; indeed, after Peter, he is tied with Philip for most lines of dialogue. When we look at his interactions with Jesus as a whole, we discover a man of deep faith, deep convictions, and deep questions.
We see his deep faith in today’s lesson. When the other disciples find him, he sets this condition: “Unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Then when he meets Jesus, he never actually follows through. He sees Jesus there in the flesh, and then makes the most startling claim of Jesus’ divinity in the entire Gospel: “My Lord and my God.” Yes, Thomas is a man of deep faith.
Earlier, about halfway through the story, Jesus receives news that his friend Lazarus is dying. The trouble is that Lazarus lives only about two miles from Jerusalem, and things are pretty hot for Jesus there. In fact, the immediate result of Jesus raising Lazarus was to confirm in the chief priest’s mind the necessity that Jesus be put to death. The disciples know how dangerous it is for Jesus to head towards Jerusalem. But it’s Thomas who persuades them, saying: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Yes, Thomas is a man of deep convictions.
Soon after, Jesus is having that famous meal with his friends in the upper room. His arrest is imminent, but before they go out to Gethsemane, Jesus speaks many words of truth to his friends. We often quote some of these words at funerals: “In my father’s house there are many dwelling-places…You know they way to the place where I am going.” Here Thomas interrupts Jesus: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” To this Jesus responds: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” A deep answer to a deep and desperate question. Yes, Thomas is a man of deep questions.
When you combine faith, convictions, and questions, do you know what often results? It’s the recipe for Doubt. Our faith gives us a reason to ask deep questions about God and life and what it all means. These deep questions do not have readily apparent or digestible answers; if they did, they wouldn’t be deep questions. Conviction gives us perseverance, which allows faith to exist within the sphere of uncertainty. This is actually where faith thrives. Certainty is the enemy of faith because it leads to stagnation, or worse, fundamentalism. Doubt, on the other hand, gives us the fuel to push on our beliefs, examine them, strengthen them.
And yet, our Gospel passage today seems to set doubt up as the enemy of belief, to put them on opposite sides of a dichotomy. After all, Jesus chastises Thomas: “Do not doubt but believe.” Except that’s not what he says. Our English translation takes some liberties to get the word “doubt” out of the Greek word that’s on Jesus’ lips. Another translation reads like this: “No more disbelief. Believe!” (CEB). In English, when we add the prefixes “un–” or “dis–” to something, we give it the opposite meaning, right? Kind and Unkind. Belief and disbelief. That’s exactly what happens in Greek when you add the letter “a–” to the front of a word.* In today’s passage, Jesus says just such a pair of opposites. Belief and unbelief. Not belief and doubt.
So what he’s really saying to Thomas is this: “Don’t jettison your belief all in one go. I know you have deep questions, but you have deep conviction too. Your faith is still there in the midst of your doubts. But here I am. It’s really me.” And that’s when Thomas drops to his knees and proclaims: “My Lord and my God.”
We all have our doubts. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been brushing my teeth or pumping gas and been stricken by a wave of doubt. What if this is all just a bunch of hokum? Even if there is a God, why would God care about lil’ ole me? And those are just the entry level doubts, the nagging ones that don’t really have a particular trigger. Bigger ones surface when we confront egregious disappointment or untimely death or heinous acts of evil like what took place in Pakistan on Easter Day.
But remember, doubt is not something to be feared. Doubt is not something to ward off at all costs. In fact, doing everything in your power never to doubt is the way to dangerous fundamentalism. Jesus never said not to doubt. He said simply: “Believe!” And belief in the Risen Christ – the One who overcame the power of death itself – can survive an onslaught of doubt. In the power of the resurrection, eternal life swallowed up death. In the same way, belief fueled by the enduring promises of God swallows doubt into itself. Just as death is part of life, doubt becomes a part of belief – the part that keeps it moving and growing and alive.
Thomas was a man of deep faith, deep convictions, and deep questions. He desired to follow Jesus no matter the cost; he wanted so fervently to know the way; and in the end he proclaimed Jesus for who he really is: “My Lord and my God.” I’m sure Thomas had his doubts. After all, he was off wandering on his own during those frightening days. I’m sure he was processing his confusion, wondering how it all went wrong. But in the midst of his confusion, his teetering belief, the Risen Christ comes and calls him back: “No more disbelief. Believe!”
When you are struggling with your own doubts – about God, about yourself – remember that doubt is a part of belief, not the opposite. And remember that you’re not alone in your doubts. Don’t be afraid to be like Thomas, who heads back to the upper room even though he hasn’t seen Jesus yet. Ask your deep question. Share your struggle with us. I guarantee you someone else will say, “Oh, me too.” And together, with God’s help, we will find deeper wells of faith and conviction, which will compel us to drop to our knees in front of the Risen Christ and proclaim: “My Lord and my God.”
* Some of these survive in English: atheism (NOT God), anaerobic exercise (NOT exercise that gets your heart pumping).
(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.”