The Greatness of Doubt

Now, I know what you’re thinking: of all the apostles to remember, of all those people who traveled with Jesus and participated in his ministry, why on earth would we remember “Doubting Thomas”? Isn’t there someone better, more worthy, more qualified than Thomas?

Feast of St. Thomas, Aspostle
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Judges 6:36-40
Psalm 136:1-4, 23-26
Ephesians 4:11-16
John 14:1-7

It may seem like a strange choice to break from our usual pattern to celebrate the Feast Day of an apostle.

For many Lutherans feast days, martyrs, and saints are all relics of the old Roman Catholic church, those people we “left behind” when the Reformers made their attempts to correct abuses in the church. That there are no such things as “saints”, and that people should have nothing to do with them. Yet even the Reformers themselves stated in the Augsburg Confession that “our people teach that the saints are to be remembered so that we may strengthen our faith when we see how they experienced grace and how they were helped by faith. Moreover, it is taught that each person, according to his or her calling, should take the saints’ good works as an example.” (Article XXI)

Keeping Time: The Church’s Years, a supplement volume to Evangelical Lutheran Worship, has a handy calendar of the major feast and festival days that we Lutherans are encouraged to remember and be familiar with. You’ll find one of these excerpts in your bulletin this morning.

In addition, we’re in that long, long, long season after Pentecost, 20+ green Sundays in a row, and it’s good to break things up once in a while. So today, as we gather this morning to worship God, we also remember the Apostle Thomas the Twin.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: of all the apostles to remember, of all those people who traveled with Jesus and participated in his ministry, why on earth would we remember “Doubting Thomas”? Isn’t there someone better, more worthy, more qualified than Thomas?

There’s a few reasons why we’re remembering Thomas today. One of them is that today, July 3, is actually the feast day of Thomas, Apostle. In fact, as I looked ahead at the calendar for the rest of the season after Pentecost, Thomas’s feast day is the only one that actually falls on a Sunday. So it was an easy choice to celebrate his feast day today.

But if you’ve heard me preach on any part of his story before, you might remember that Thomas is one of my favorite apostles, right up there with the disciple Jesus loved (both of whom are in the Gospel according to John). I don’t think he deserves the bad reputation he’s been given.

Thomas’s story is certainly an interesting one. As one of the twelve disciples, his name appears in all four Gospels as well as the Acts of the Apostles. But only in John’s gospel does he have a speaking role, and he speaks in three stories.

In the first story, Jesus and his disciples have just received the news that Lazarus is sick and dying, and after being certain that Lazarus is dead, Jesus announces that he and his disciples are going to go back to Judea, where Lazarus’s family is. The disciples are more than a little apprehensive about this; the reason they aren’t in Judea at the time is because the Judeans tried to stone Jesus the last time he was there. Afraid that the same thing might happen if they go back, the disciples try to convince Jesus to stay out. Jesus will have none of it, however, and sticks to his guns: he’s going back to Judea to see his friend’s body. And one disciple finds his courage. Thomas stands up and says to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him,” or in other words, “If he’s so determined to go, and if this is really where he’ll meet his end, then we who follow him are going to go as well.

The second story in which Thomas speaks is the story from our gospel reading this morning. Jesus is giving what is known as his “farewell discourse”, a very long speech he gives to his disciples before his arrest, trial, execution, and resurrection. In it he comforts them, promises that the Holy Spirit will come after him, tells them how much he loves them and that they should therefore love one another, prays for them, and expresses his confidence in them to continue in God’s mission once he’s gone. During the speech, he tells the disciples that they have come so far in their faith that they already know the way to where he is going. But Thomas, perhaps channeling the uncertainty of the other disciples, speaks up and asks, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

The last story in which Thomas speaks is the story most people know, the story of “doubting” Thomas. In it, Thomas is not present when Jesus appears to the other ten disciples, shows them his wounded hands and side, blesses them, and gives them peace. Thomas is upset by this, and declares that he won’t believe the other disciples’ story unless he too gets to see Jesus’s wounded hands and side (like they did). And so the following week, when all eleven disciples are gathered, Jesus appears again and offers to show Thomas his wounds, and Thomas gives what is perhaps the shortest and yet most powerful confession of faith found in any of the Gospels: “My Lord, and my God.”

That’s the end of Thomas’s story in the Bible, but church tradition has a number of stories about Thomas. In one of them, he is the only one present when the body of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is taken up into heaven after her death and burial. As her body is being taken up, she drops her girdle, which Thomas brings back to the rest of the disciples. In an ironic twist, it is now the rest of the disciples who don’t believe Thomas’s story.

Tradition also says that during the time that Paul was writing his letters to his churches and friends, Thomas was sailing to India to spread the good news of Jesus Christ there. He is still very highly regarded as the patron saint of India. While there he founded seven churches and performed miracles, which the people remembered and passed down. It was quite a shock to the European missionaries when they arrived in India only to find an ancient community of Christians already there.

Eventually, we are told, he was martyred, killed in India by being stabbed with a lance, and his relics are kept in many places around the world.

This is Thomas, the man we so often disparagingly call Doubting Thomas. And you know, looking at the biblical stories about him, doubt does play a central role, but not in the way we might think.

In the first, it is the other disciples who doubt, and it is Thomas who declares his intent to follow Jesus to his death. In the second, the doubt that Thomas harbors leads directly to asking tough questions, to engaging with Jesus, to wrestling with faith. And in the third, the man who is often called the doubter is the only one who declares that Jesus is Lord and God.

So even if we continue to call Thomas “Doubter,” perhaps we need to reevaluate what that means. In her book Outlaw Christian: Finding Authentic Faith by Breaking the Rules, Jacqueline Bussie challenges the “rule” of faith that says “Don’t doubt. Doubt is faith’s opposite, and is therefore sinful.” Talking about doubting Thomas, she says this:

“Thomas, in other words, is the only person who remembers Jesus’s whole story–all the hurt, and the hope too. Thomas believes redemption is more than just an erasure of pain. For him, redemption involves the way people live on in spite of the fact that they still carry scars on their skin. Thomas expects scars. If the guy in front of him doesn’t have scars, Thomas will know he can’t be the Jesus he knew–because the real Jesus suffered something awful. Thomas is the only one in the room brave enough to remember that a friend’s painful wounds still remain without having to be shown them first…”

“It’s so sad that we label Thomas ‘doubting Thomas,’ but ignore the fact that he is also ‘willing-to-die-with-Jesus Thomas.’ What is the ironic point of the story? Could it be that scar-sharing is the solid foundation for any authentic friendship? That no one really knows who we are until we are brave enough to show our scars to them? That the people who have put their fingers and eyes on our scars and still stick with us anyway are the people who understand best how to love us? Thomas’s story teaches us all of these lessons and more. Those people in your life who accept and name suffering for the wounding thing it actually is are the only friends who can ever override the fear of walking with you down all life’s paths of pain. Only people who believe your wounds are real in the first place can ever imagine placing their wounds next to yours.” (pp. 59-60)

Thomas was one of Jesus’s disciples, one of his closest companions. And even he, at times, doubts. But out of that doubt comes some of the most profound statements of faith and belief. Thomas has been through the best and the worst with Jesus. He’s asked the tough questions,  made the tough choices.

Doubt, then, is not a weakness. It drives us to faith, it drives us to question, it begs for answers, it motivates and draws us closer to God. It exposes our wounds to a God who doesn’t think less of us for them, but instead invites us to see and touch God’s own wounds. For how can anyone who has not been wounded understand our own hurts, our own fears, our own doubts?

This is the strength of Thomas–that in the doubts around him and in the doubts within him, he finds what he was looking for all along: courage, trust, and love. Don’t be afraid of your pain. Don’t be afraid of your doubts. May we, like Thomas, embrace our doubts, embrace our questions, embrace our fears and our hurts, so that like Thomas, our faith will shine through and we too may proclaim: “My Lord, and my God.”

An Alternative Response

It might surprise us that some of Jesus’s closest followers would think that destroying an entire town over one insult is okay, but should we be surprised?

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost C
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

This sermon was preached from notecards, without a manuscript. The following is an approximation of the sermon’s message and theme.

1 Kings 19:15-21
Psalm 16
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

This month’s Living Lutheran had a fantastic reflection written by Professor Timothy K. Snyder of Wartburg Theological Seminary (one of the seminaries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Titled “Interrupting ordinary time”, Snyder’s reflection focused on the way Jesus in the lectionary readings for the month of June constantly overturned people’s expectations, interrupting their thinking and their beliefs, and brought something new to the table.

Jesus has spent the last few weeks overturning the powers that oppress wherever he finds them, whether they be the powers of death, sin, or even possession. Now, we are told, he “turns his face toward Jerusalem.” Whatever the phrase itself actually means, it’s clear that Jesus is now diving headfirst into the bulk of his important mission work. And the first place he plans to stop on his way to Jerusalem is a Samaritan village.

Who are the Samaritans? They are an ethnic group that is still around today–there’s about 750 of them. They claim descendant from the two half-tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh (the sons of Joseph), which makes them very closely related to Jewish people, who are descendants of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. Like the Jewish people, they believe themselves to be the true descendants of the Israelites. They have their own version of the Torah and they worshiped on Mount Gerezim instead of in Jerusalem.

And during Jesus’s time, the two groups absolutely hated each other. That’s not an exaggeration. They hated each other so much that both groups were basically forbidden from even speaking to the other, let alone touching each other or otherwise interacting. Which, at least in my mind, begs the question:

Why did Jesus plan to go to a Samaritan village?

Now for whatever reason (and we aren’t told what reason that is), the village rejects Jesus’s messengers. This rejection is so insulting and offensive to two of Jesus’s disciples, James and John–nicknamed the “sons of thunder”–, that their proposed solution is to destroy the village with divine fire.

Did you catch that? When insulted and offended, two of Jesus’s disciples thought that a perfectly just and appropriate response to this slight was to burn down the village and kill everyone in it. That’s how angry they were. That’s how much they hated Samaritans, that they were willing–eager–to destroy the whole town just to get back at them. All they needed was an excuse to exercise their rage.

13433306_10100138487187909_509039965970767913_oThere’s a reason I’m wearing this shirt this morning. Last week, I returned from a week away at Camp Luther in Conneaut, OH, where I served for the week as camp chaplain. As the chaplain at the camp, I was responsible for organizing daily worship. But I was also responsible for providing pastoral care in the case of an emergency, or if someone needed to talk to a pastor for any reason.

This was my second year serving as camp chaplain, and unfortunately, both times have been marked by tragedy. Last year, I was sitting on the porch of our cabin when I heard about the Charleston shooting, where an ELCA member went into a historically black church, sat down for Bible study, and when it was over got up and murdered nine people simply because they were black.

This year, before we left for camp, I drove my father-in-law to his church so he could lead worship. Just before the service began, one of his congregants ran up to him with their phone in their hand and said, “Pastor, you need to see this. There’s been a shooting in Orlando.” At that time, there were twenty people confirmed dead in the massacre that occurred at the Pulse gay nightclub. By the end of the service, that number had risen to forty-nine.

Forty-nine dead and fifty-three wounded. One man, one angry, disturbed man, converted to a radical, distorted version of Islam, hated the LGBTQ+ community so much that he felt justified bringing an assault rifle to a gay nightclub and shooting as many people as he could. This led to a three-hour standoff, a hostage crisis, a heroic rescue, an explosive breach of the building, and the death of the assailant. All because he hated gay people, hated them so much he thought it was okay to slaughter them.

When Jesus hears his disciples eagerly ask permission to destroy the Samaritan village out of hate, he rebukes them and calls them out on their hatred. It might surprise us that some of Jesus’s closest followers would think that destroying an entire town over one insult is okay, but should we be surprised?

In the Old Testament, there are plenty of examples of just that. The destruction and slaughter of Jericho by the Israelites simply because it was in the way, the total annihilation of Sodom of Gomorrah because of their lack of hospitality, the ten plagues sent against the entire Egyptian population because one man, Pharaoh, wouldn’t release his slaves, the whole book of Joshua and the conquest of Canaan; all of these examples would suggest that in the face of people you hate, it’s perfectly justified to call for genocide.

And lest we think that such logic only exists in the Old Testament, absolving us Christians, don’t forget that Jesus used the same logic when he cursed a fig tree to death because he was hungry and it didn’t have any fruit for him, and Peter strikes down Ananias and Sapphira dead when they try to cheat the fledgling Christian community.

Total destruction may have been what James and John expected, given their hatred of the Samaritans and the history and culture which they grew up in. Instead, Jesus outright rejects the idea he should destroy an entire town of people who disagree or even hate him, even people as vile and evil (in their eyes) as Samaritans.

Jesus’s entire life and ministry has been about rebuking violence and hate. Through Jesus, God presents alternatives to such destruction. There’s a reason why in a few weeks we’ll hear the story of the Good Samaritan, the Good Person-Y0u-Absolutely-Revile-and-Hate-and-Wish-Was-Dead, a story about putting aside the very same reckless hate that motivates James and John and embracing mercy for those we hate. Jesus’s last command to his disciples is that they should love another as he has loved them, with all their faults and wrongs intact.

Ultimately, God demonstrates this alternative to destruction on the cross. I’m not a fan of the penal substitutionary model of atonement: that Jesus -had- to die on the cross to pay a price for our sins, because God is not capable of forgiveness and must square the debt or God explodes (you can already see my bias). It’s just one theory of atonement. Instead, on the cross, I see God’s final rejection of such wanton destruction borne out of hate and wrath.

Instead, the cross demonstrates the great lengths that God will go to show mercy to those who hate and revile God (that would be us). The cross proves once and for all that God stands with us in chaos and violence, showing us another way to respond: not with hatred and violence, but with love, mercy and sacrifice. Christ went as far as human beings can go, death, to show us another way.

After this teachable moment with his disciples, Jesus’s mission seems to get more urgent, more immediate, as if something about that encounter convinced Jesus that there was a lot more work to be done. Maybe he saw in James and John the tendency that runs through all humanity to identify people we hate and seek to do them the maximum harm we’re able to inflict. Human history can easily be distilled into a constant barrage of “James and John in Samaria” moments. Maybe he knew that hate was going to be something he encountered for the rest of his ministry and that, ultimately, it would lead him to the cross.

So what about us? Do we fall prey to our desires of destruction? Even if we aren’t like those pastors, yes, pastors, who openly celebrated the deaths of the Orlando 49 as God’s will and something to cheer about (and I won’t dignify their comments with links–look them up yourselves), do we let our hate get the better of us? Do our opinions about the LGBTQ+ community and our silence about the hate done to them contribute to that very hate? Do we, like the priest and the Levite of the Good Samaritan story, walk by on the other side of the road because it’s not our problem?

How we respond to hate is just as important as whether we hate or not. For like Christ, we are called to show the kingdom of God. When James and John called for genocide, Christ called for peace. In the face of oppression, hate, and violence against his own self, Christ reflected courage, compassion and trust.

How do we respond?

Featured Image: “LGBT love is stronger than anti-gay hate – Peter Tatchell and other activists at London’s vigil in memory of the victims of the Orlando gay nightclub terror attack.” by Alisdare Hickson is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Afraid of God

It would seem that our fears and terror are the perfect soil for God to grow something new.

Third Sunday after Pentecost C
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

1 Kings 17:17-24
Psalm 30
Galatians 1:11-24
Luke 7:11-17

At last week’s Wednesday morning Bible study, one of the participants brought up an interesting observation he had made while reading over Martin Luther’s Small Catechism in preparation for the class (everyone, by the way, should read Luther’s Small Catechism a few times a year, and I can order you a copy of it if you let me know—just saying!). He noticed that all of Luther’s explanations for the Ten Commandments begin the same way:

“We are to fear and love God, so that…”

Have you noticed that? The Ten Commandments, according to Martin Luther, all begin by fearing and loving God.

This generated a bit of discussion in the group concerning the nature of God. Are we, as Christians, supposed to fear God? Is being afraid of God part and parcel of being a Christian?

Needless to say, we didn’t resolve the question right there in the two minutes before Bible study began. I would argue though, that whether or not being afraid of God is something we as Christians should do, it is most certainly a tried and true human tradition when it comes to reacting to God’s activity in the world. Whenever God acts, people are afraid.

Both of our miracle stories this morning have to do with the fear of God. The first, having to do with Elijah, needs a little back story.

We know nothing about the prophet Elijah before his first mission from God, which happens to be just before this story. At this point in the history of the Kingdom of Israel, the kingdom has had 7 kings since the united kingdom under Saul, David, and Solomon broke up. In the judgment of the Deuteronimistic historian (the editor of 1 Kings), every single one of them has been bad.

In retaliation, it seems, for what the historian considers to be Israel’s rebellion, God decides that for the foreseeable future no rain shall fall on the kingdom of Israel or the surrounding lands, sending them into a terrible drought. And it is during this drought that Elijah is told by God to go to a town called Zarephath, in a land far outside the borders of Israel; to the house of a widow, and a foreigner.

After performing a great miracle for her, in which he literally saves her and her son from starving to death right in front of him, we get to this story, this curious tale of death and life. Elijah’s work is quite extraordinary, raising a dead body back to life. Some people focus on Elijah’s stretching out over the body three times and what that means, but that’s not the point. Elijah takes a dead body, prays to God, and brings the boy back to life.

“So what?” you may ask. What does this have to do with fear?

The circumstances in which Elijah and this foreign widow find themselves are circumstances full of fear. The Israelites have had 7 kings in about 60 years, some of whom reigned for as little as 7 days. The political climate was one full of fear. Now God has withheld the rain from the land, causing people like this poor foreign widow to be on the brink of starvation. People were afraid that every day might be the last; that at any time, their meager stores of food would give out, and they would starve.

On top of it all, this strange man from Israel comes and stays with this widow and her son, and now her son dies? That’s not a coincidence in her eyes. Elijah’s presence has drawn God’s attention to her, and in her opinion, God has seen all of her sins and has killed her son as punishment; and she’s next. She is afraid of what may happen to her now that God is present.

And even when her son is raised from the dead, she is still afraid. Witnessing such dramatic power, challenging the very basics about life and death that our lives revolve around, she is still afraid—grateful! But afraid.

The same thing happens in the town of Nain in the Gospel reading. It’s no coincidence that these two stories are read on the same day in those churches that use the Revised Common Lectionary. Both are about poor widows. Both have lost their only sons. Both boys are raised from the dead.

And the reaction from the people in each story is the same. What’s the very first reaction the people in the Gospel reading have when they see that the boy who was dead is now alive? “Fear seized them”, we’re told. This was not the way things were supposed to be. Once you died, you died, and you stayed that way. That’s a natural order that should not be messed with.

We might expect that the first reaction of someone in that situation might be joy: the widow has her son back! Jesus, a great prophet like Elijah is in their midst bringing the attention and the power of God to their town! What great things will be done here! But tell me if any of these sound familiar:

On my very first day of summer band camp before my freshman year in high school, when I knew no one in the room, I was terrified. I was about to start something new and wonderful that would stay with me during my adult life, but right then, I was terrified.

What would it be like? What were all these new people like? Would I get along with any of them? Would I get along with the band director? Would I find out I was absolutely terrible, even though I was pretty good in my grade school band?

The same thing happened when I left home for college 6 hours away from my family. And the same thing when I decided I was going to go to seminary. I was terrified that I was making the wrong choice, that this was not what I was supposed to be doing, that this wasn’t my call. My life could be made or broken by my first seminary year.

And of course, I was terrified moving up here, for all the same reasons: it was a huge, major change, something new and yes, something wonderful, but unlike anything I’d experienced before, and it required a lot of rethinking and adapting to get used to the new idea.

Great, wonderful things can be challenging, un-easing, and downright terrifying, even and especially when God is involved. At least with human beings, there are certain limits to what we can do. Transitioning between schools is only scary for a little while, and in general, we as human beings pretty much know what to expect. New jobs, new partners, new places to live, new trips, new family members, new life circumstances, good and bad; we’re fairly knowledgeable about what such changes entail. They scare us, as all new things do, but for the most part, we can handle them.

Not so with God. How do we handle a God who not only changes things like the things I just listed, but goes above and beyond? How do we handle a God who breaks down the walls we built? How do we handle a God in the Holy Spirit who is perfectly fine going about radically and sometimes rudely changing our deeply held beliefs because God has another idea? How do we handle a God who challenges our basic foundational notions about things as concrete as life and death?

I don’t blame the widow that Elijah stayed with or the crowd that followed Jesus for being afraid, for being terrified when they witnessed God’s actions in the world. At times, God isn’t subtle. God is absolutely willing to change whatever God wants, even something God previously laid down as unchangeable law. How terrifying is that?

But I’m given hope. I’m given hope by the continued reactions of the observers in our stories this morning. I’m given hope because even in the midst of her fear and despair, surrounded by drought and starvation and death, the foreign widow looks to Elijah, and in her fear and despair declares: “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.”

And again, when the crowd, stunned by this great, cataclysmic reversal of death, gets over their initial terror at such a drastic challenge to the way they understand the world around them, they glorify God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!”

Something about their experiences, terrifying as they are, drives them to proclaim their faith in their God. Something about their fear of the change that God brings compels them to witness to that very same God to any who will listen.

It would seem that our fears and terror are the perfect soil for God to grow something new.

We live in a world that thrives on perpetuating fear: fear of the “other”, fear of each other, fear of war, fear of violence, fear of death, fear of change, fear of losing, fear of… well, everything. Even in the church, we fear new people, the loss of heritage and tradition, fear of rejection, fear of closing, fear of dying, even fear of God.

Taking people’s fears, God has healed the sick, soothed the suffering, comforted the afflicted, banished demons, raised dead people to life, brought tongues of fire and even brought peace to those who couldn’t escape the grip of fear.

Given all of that, I wonder what God can do with ours!

Featured Image: “She’s scared.” by gostealahead is licensed under CC BY 2.0.