Broadway Christian Church · Columbia, Missouri
The Worship of God · June 17, 2012
Based on Psalm 20
May the Lord answer you in the day of trouble!
May he send you help from the sanctuary.
May he grant you your heart’s desire, and fulfill all your plans.
May we shout for joy over your victory, and in the name of our God, set up our banners.
Give victory to the king, O Lord; answer us when we call.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
World without end. Amen. Amen.
Dear Creator and Holy King, we come to this place of sanctuary with our hearts open wide, fully accepting of your warm embrace. As a community of faith and a fellowship of believers, we are united as one, but as individuals, we walk a unique path with you, O God. We ask that you guide us on that path, that your Holy Spirit remains within us as we cross the troubled waters.
Lord, we lift up our thanks to you this morning for we know that in times of pain and suffering, you will be there to comfort us. That in times of strife, you will be there to support us. And that when we are hungry, you will be the one who fulfills us.
Lord, we know that we could never mirror the sacrifice of Jesus, but help us to be willing to make the sacrifices we need to proclaim his glory.
We lift up these words to you as we pray the prayer that your Son, Jesus, taught us…
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
What If I Need Proof?
We have been in our summer series, and this is just the third week. Our series is the Adult Question Box – the questions of faith you have submitted. We found our 14 Sundays and our 14 themes. The first Sunday we dealt with, “What’s the difference between Jesus and Christ? How do those go together?” Last Sunday, Nick walked us through, “What do we do with the contradictions in the Bible, and what does that mean about the nature of Scripture, itself, and how is it authoritative?”
This week, we have our third question, and that is, “What if I need proof?” By that, the question is getting at, “Is my need for spiritual proof a contradiction of faith? Does it stand in opposition to faith? Does it, somehow, discredit my faith if I need to have proof for that?”
In the last national census, one of the census volunteers was in Montana. The volunteer went to a remote cabin. When she knocked on the door, an older woman, a resident of the cabin, came to the door. The census volunteer was trying to explain what they were doing. She said, “Once every ten years, the government wants to find out how many people there are in the United States.”
The woman looked at the ground for a minute and then said, “Lordie, Honey, I sure don’t know.”
There are some questions that are really big! The numbers are really big! What do you do with that? The focus Scripture for this question is one well known to us. It’s Thomas. It’s the resurrection of Jesus. Of course, Thomas was absent when Jesus appeared. When they described it to him, he said, “Unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands, and unless I can put my fingers in his side, I will not believe.”
Well, there you go. Because of this declaration, Thomas often has been labeled as “Doubting Thomas.” You know it well. It has entered into our common language of our culture. (“Oh, he’s a Doubting Thomas.”)
It’s really a misnomer, however, because it confuses doubt with needing evidence. Those are two different things. I want to talk about those two things. I want to talk about doubt first and then return to the need for evidence next.
We often set up a kind of false dichotomy between doubt and faith. It’s one or the other. If you have doubt, then you don’t have faith. If you had enough faith, then it would just push the doubt away, as if they can’t coexist. Right? Perhaps you’ve said that, yourself, or perhaps you’ve heard someone else say it.
I actually believe the truth is quite to the contrary. In fact, as Paul Tillich would say, “Doubt serves as a confirmation of faith, in so far it is demonstrating that faith is being taken with absolute seriousness. If you are ultimately concerned about something, then the proportion of doubt increases along with your ultimate concern. You don’t bother to doubt something you don’t care about.”
So, doubt is a confirmation of faith. It is the natural questioning of our deepest convictions. If we placed all our eggs in one basket, we’re going to question the veracity of that basket.
But doubt isn’t only an aspect that confirms faith. It also tests it. It asks the hard questions. What it does over time is to subject our faith to the rigors of inquiry. Doubt questions our assumptions, the things we take for granted, the way we receive answers without scrutinizing them. A faith that can’t stand up to that is not much of a faith at all. Doubt is the anvil upon which our faith is hammered out.
Since doubt is an aspect of faith and not its opposite, it helps to refine and recast faith over a lifetime. Think about how your faith has changed over the last ten years, or 15, or 20, or 30.
I remember meeting with a woman one time, a long time ago. (Another city; another church. I’m not talking about Columbia, and I’m not talking about Broadway.) She was talking about her faith, and the role of prayer in her life, and what she believed prayer could accomplish if you only believed in it enough. A little child had a life-threatening illness, and he needed lots of prayers. So attempted to mobilize everyone she knew, every church’s prayer chain far and wide into the cause of praying for this child. But, like in so many cases, that little child died. I remember talking to her, after the fact. The only question she had was, “What do I make of prayer now?”
Out of her experience and out of her doubt, she began a journey of crafting a whole new understanding of faith and prayer. It’s not that her faith went away. It did not. But, its form, her understanding of how God worked in the world, what she came to expect, the way that faith operated – all that did change. And her doubt played an important role in making that happen.
Our doubt, if we allow it, may act as a friend of faith, not to destroy it but to refine it. That is why the honoring of questions, I think, is so very important. There is nothing quite so necessary to faith formation as this faithful curiosity. If we squelch that, then we dismiss one of the greatest allies of faith. It is faithful curiosity that argues with tradition. It is faithful curiosity that challenges the well-worn assumptions, the orthodoxies. In the end, it is that holy argument that shapes us into the people of faith that we become.
I remember, not long ago, in another place, there was a church that was a big-box church on the edge of town. It was the place where all the beautiful people went. It was the popular church. A young man in that church committed suicide. He took his own life. Because the piety of this church would not admit things like brokenness, tragedy, and doubt, that shaped the way a funeral was going to take place. Because so many of our parents and children were involved with this young man, we went to the funeral. I went to the funeral. I have never witnessed such a conspicuous display of denial in my entire life. The elephant in the room was never named. They treated it as though this young man was in a traffic accident. No. He took his own life. There was despair. It was tragedy. What could have been done? None of that was articulated. “This was a young man who was deep in the Word,” they said. “He was a leader among leaders. Everyone turned to him for his ques. He was an inspiration.” “Good job,” the pastor said to their church for shaping him so.
I’ll tell you what. The following week, we had lines of parents at the doors of the pastors’ offices in our church, who were in that service asking, “What in the world did we just witness?”
“What you witnesses was a conspicuous display of denial. Whenever you think that doubt, tragedy, and brokenness cannot be admitted to the room, because it is the opposite of faith, that’s what you get.
Doubt is not the opposite of faith. It is an aspect of faith. It has to be recognized, owned, and appreciated.
And really, doubt isn’t the only thing that is at the core of what’s going on with Thomas. It has to do with his questing for evidence, for proof. To get to that, I want to talk about John’s Gospel and something that is very particular to it. It is something that exists in John’s Gospel that is hidden from the eye.
It’s like rowing across a glassy lake with the reflection in the water. I know this, because I went fishing with my daughter Saturday morning. When the sun came up, I couldn’t see beneath the water. We lost about five lures. You can’t see beneath the water, because of that reflection.
In John’s Gospel, it’s the same way. The reflective surface of the story, sometimes, keeps you from seeing what’s underneath it. There’s a deep pattern in John. It goes like this: Jesus performs a miracle or sign. People gasp in amazement. They are turned to faith. Just before you turn the page, the Gospel writer says – in more or less the same way – every time, “But blessed are you, who do not depend on signs.”
John reports signs and wonders, and then he turns around and immediately criticizes the way people depend on them. What does this mean? Which is it? Do I listen to the signs and wonders, or discount them?
Scholars have noticed this strange pattern for a long time. John relays a story, a sign, a miracle, a healing, some account that elicits belief, and then follows it, immediately, with its negation. It is just like the passage we have today with Tomas.
The risen Christ presents himself. Thomas touches the mark in his side and believes. To that, Jesus replies, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who do not see and yet believe.”
Many scholars believe there was a collection of signs and wonders attributed to Jesus that circulated in the early Christian communities of the first century. It was a collection meant to inspire belief and faith. Some have even referred to it as The Signs Gospel. They believe John had a copy.
These signs included miracles, healings, raising the dead, resurrection appearances. And though John passed these through his Gospel, every time one appears, he immediately reinterprets it. Always suspicious of a faith that is overly-dependent on signs and miracles.
For instance, when Jesus was in Cana of Galilee, an official came to him asking for healing for his son. When the official asked Jesus to heal his son, Jesus answered, “Unless you have signs and wonders, you won’t believe.”
That was not a compliment.
When the crowds followed Jesus to the lakeshore and asked him, “What sign are you going to give us so that we might see and believe you?” he answered them. “You have seen me, and yet you don’t believe.”
That was not a compliment.
In exasperation, one time, Jesus retreated from the crowds. John tells us, “Though he performed many signs in their presence, they did not believe him.”
Finally, Thomas, today… After he had received the sign of the mark in Jesus’ side, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”
John is very concerned that Christians will become overly sign-dependent, unable to trust with faith. So, what’s the problem with that, being overly sign-dependent? Well, it is the most precarious kind of faith you could have. If your faith is dependent on externals, you are very vulnerable. Those can be taken away in a moment. If you are dependent on external signs to motivate you to faith, those can be disproved. Then, in the future, if your faith has been dependent on it, where are you then?
There is nothing inherently wrong with seeking to untangle the Gordian Knot, to understand mysteries, analyze the dynamics and forces of the universe that point to the purposeful power of God. Is it a betrayal of faith to correlate science with religion, to take us to places where logic can get us? Well, of course not. Faith seeks understanding. That’s good, and that’s natural. But, there is a world of difference between faith seeking understanding, using every tool in the tool kit, and making faith dependent on external signs, or evidence, or data.
That is why when somebody asks me about some doctrinal particular of the faith, or the biblical tradition – like the virgin birth, or is it a bodily resurrection of Jesus or a spiritual one – I say, “It might be important to me, but it is not essential to my faith. My faith does not rest on one doctrinal proposition. It might inform my faith, but my faith does not rise or fall on it.”
Basically, the Gospel of John is counseling us to fly by faith and to hold a healthy suspicion of those who insist that we have to believe in certain signs in order to have faith. “Let it not be so for you,” he says. “Your faith should be more resilient,” he says.
And so, is it a bad thing to need proof? If you need proof in order to believe, then you may have the cart before the horse. “Faith is, after all, the conviction of things unseen.” “We walk by faith, not by sight.”
But, if your strong faith, not dependent on externals, causes you to explore every aspect the mind can conceive, including every insight of science, learning, your own experience; that is simply faith seeking understanding, and doubt, of course, is a part of that.
I leave you with one thought. Another lens through which you can look at this question. As long as we conceive of faith as our own project – something we do ourselves – then our garnering of evidence seems very important. But what if, as we say, God is always seeking us? God is always seeking a relationship with us. And what if our response to the Spirit’s moving toward us is always to ask for more evidence? What do you think that does to the Divine-human encounter? If our response to God’s initiative is always just to require more proof, what does that do to a relationship that is love driven?
“I love you!” one lover said to the other.
“Prove it!” came the answer.
“Really? You really want me to prove it?”
I know, perhaps, evidence beyond words is required in relationships, but that is tough on romance. What a wet blanket. Prove it? What do you think our demand for proof does to the love affair we have with God?
“I love you,” says the Creator to the creature.
And how shall you respond?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, may the peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and your minds, in Jesus Christ. Amen.