Creekside Church
Sermon of April 11, 2021

"In Our Doubt There is Believing"
John 20:19-30

Pastor
Rosanna McFadden

 

Good morning! Happy Eastertide. The Sunday after Easter goes by several names: Low Sunday (because attendance typically drops off steeply after Easter) or Holy Humor Sunday (a modern attempt to entice folks to come back to worship after Easter). This morning, I am going to explore an important theological concept in a clear, engaging, humorous, unforgettable and thoroughly researched way. If you have your doubts that I’m going accomplish all that in less the 20 minutes, you are already experiencing the theological concept I’m going to be talking about.

So here is the Holy Humor portion of today’s message; I hope it gives you a chuckle.

Of course, Sunday was no laughing matter for Jesus disciples. Notice that this was evening of the first day of the week -- Sunday, resurrection day. This was evening of the day that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, found it empty, ran back to get Peter and John and had an encounter with the risen Christ. Mary, the “apostle to the apostles,” went and announced to them that she had seen the Lord! We don’t know what the disciples did for the rest of the morning and afternoon, but here’s what the gospel of John tells us they were doing in the evening of that day when they got the news that Christ had risen from the dead: they were sitting in the room where they met with the doors locked, because they were afraid of the Jews. I don’t blame the disciples for this: it had been just three days since Jesus was crucified. Although the Roman government had to authorize that execution, Pilate was reluctant to condemn Jesus to death; it was the religious leaders of the Jews who had encouraged the people to shout, Crucify, crucify him! Whether or not the disciples gathered that evening believed that Jesus had risen from the dead -- and it was clear that there were some lingering doubts -- they all knew for sure that Jesus had been executed by crucifixion. Jesus’ death was something the disciples could all agree on, even if they had been too afraid to witness it for themselves.

Hiding in a locked room is a pretty significant metaphor not only for being cowed and fearful, but also for being closed off from further possibilities and further information or insight. Hiding in a locked room is a pretty strong statement of “Go away and leave me alone.” And this is the place where Jesus appears to the disciples. And notably, he doesn’t stand at the locked door and knock politely, like the image in Revelation 3:20, where Jesus waits for someone to open the door and invite him in. The disciples are in a locked room and Jesus just shows up: standing there among them. It had to be startling, especially for a group of men who were already on edge. If you were here last week and remember earlier in John chapter 20, Mary Magdalene didn’t recognize the risen Christ when she first saw him -- she mistook him for the gardener. John isn’t as explicit in this account of the disciples, but the narrative leaves some room for wondering: Jesus shows up unannounced in a locked room and says “Peace be with you,” a prudent greeting under the circumstances: not only “I come in peace,” but “I know you need reassurance right now.” But even after this greeting, there is not an immediate recognition from the disciples. It is only after they see the physical evidence of the wounds in Jesus’ hands and his side that the disciples rejoice, that they realize that this is indeed Jesus, risen from the dead.

And then we get a character in the narrative who we haven’t heard much about before. He’s one of the Twelve disciples, a twin. His name is Thomas, and whether you identify with him or think he’s a jerk, he is a central character of this sermon and any time we talk about believing in the resurrected Christ. Thomas was not in the room with the other disciples the evening of Easter, so when they were all excited about having seen the Lord, Thomas was having none of it. He needed physical evidence -- to put his fingers in the nail marks of Jesus’ hands and see the wound in his side -- or he would not believe.

Some of you know that the particular focus of my seminary studies was Christian formation -- also called faith formation or spiritual formation. I learned a lot about how people are shaped as Christians. Of course, people who don’t believe in Jesus Christ as Lord are not Christians; they will certainly be influenced by forces and beliefs around them, but belief in Christ is not one of factors. But for those who do claim the name of Christ there are three broad categories of belief. Like any developmental category they are not Good or Bad, but they are sequential, so they tend to correlate with age. I’m going to be giving you the Cliff notes version of James Folwer’s stages of faith formation. The broad categories are Accepting; Questioning; and Integrating. Although everyone’s journey of faith is unique, they all have this in common: they start at the beginning. No one comes out of the womb or begins in Children’s Church with sophisticated and fully formed ideas about God and themselves. If you come to faith later in life, you may get through this first stage more quickly, but no one skips it entirely. Some people are happy and functional in the Accepting stage for their whole lives. These are people who accept what their teachers teach them, tend to have black and white opinions, and are uncomfortable with having their truths challenged. This doesn’t mean that they accept every idea that comes along, but they tend to respect authority, and are comfortable accepting what they’ve been taught. If you have a God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It bumper sticker on your car, God bless you, these are your people. Any theological system which fits on a bumper sticker cannot be very complex, but it can be genuine and heartfelt.

The second category is Questioning. If you grew up with Christian beliefs, in a Christian home or with Christian family, you may have encountered this stage when you left home for college, or to live on your own. You may have intentionally or accidentally bumped up against ideas you’d never heard before -- maybe even from people who claimed to be Christian. If you start to question one part of your faith, does that mean none of it is true? If you pull one brick out of the pile does the whole structure crumble and fall down? People in this stage tend to question everything. Sometimes that interrogation is genuine concern, and sometimes it’s just obnoxious. The Questioning stage is one where many people become disillusioned and leave the institutional church, or abandon faith altogether. Some come back, but increasingly, many are never returning to church. Questioning is an important part of faith, at least of any faith which moves beyond uncritical acceptance. Those of us who are in the church need to understand and encourage questioning as a part of Christian development and formation. Questioning isn’t only for young adults -- life circumstances can make us question our understanding of faith at any time. The impulse to question our faith can be disturbing, especially if we’ve been comfortably Accepting for most or all of our lives, but significant growth can happen when we wrestle with questions, and especially when we come to new understanding.

The final category is Integrating. In some cultures, including our Judeo-Christian one, this is also known as wisdom. It does not mean knowing all the answers; in fact, wisdom is being comfortable with paradox and ambiguity; the understanding that not every question has an answer, and if it does, God knows it and I don’t have to. People who have weathered Accepting and Questioning may have deeply held and passionate beliefs, but they are not defensive when those beliefs are questioned or challenged. They can be respectful of other points of view, because they are secure in their own belief. This is a mature outlook, but age alone is no guarantee that we will get there.

So our friend Thomas, when he questions the existence of the risen Christ and demands proof, does all of us, and especially preachers who have to be in the pulpit the Sunday after Easter, a big favor. He gives voice to questions perhaps we have had, but been hesitant to articulate. His is a personality which needs proof, and those people are an important part of the body of Christ: we need believers who are not afraid to say, “Wait a minute -- I need more data; I want to see this with my own eyes.” But Christ knows, and affirms those who are to come, those who will not see him in the flesh, but will still believe in his resurrection and power. People like you and me. The enemy of faith is not doubt: doubt is part of faith for nearly everyone. The enemy of faith is the fear or insecurity or even certainty which causes us to retreat to our locked rooms, and to be unwilling to venture outside of where we are and what we think we know. When we locked in, we don’t want to learn anything which might challenge our assumptions. This story is a reminder that wherever we are, and whatever we have locked ourselves into, Jesus has the power to stand among us. We are blessed when we believe, and also when we offer Christ our unbelief, our uncertainty, and our doubt. I pray that you will experience Christ with you in the coming week. God bless you.

 

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