Doubt, Meet Grace

April 15, 2012

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 When Thomas Jefferson, whose birthday was on Friday, founded The University he had a vision for an Academic Community built upon the pursuit of truth. In a letter to a friend, Jefferson wrote, “This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. Here we are not afraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead.”
          Following the truth wherever it may lead is a distinctly pre­postmodern idea. Jefferson lived in a time of rationalism, when reason could be trusted. He lived in an age when the idea of objective truth was taken for granted. In our relativistic age, truth – at least in an overarching objective form (something that is true for everyone) has fallen by the way side. Now, what is true for me does not have to be true for you.
      I think, however, that following truth wherever it may lead still rings true for us. We still want to know what is right and true. When something registers as true, we are somehow reassured, put at ease, satisfied. Not being afraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead is what was on the mind of another Thomas who lived long before our 3rd President.
     On the day of his resurrection, Jesus came to be with all his disciples. One of the disciples, Thomas, wasn’t there when Jesus first showed up. The other guys told him about it but he didn’t think it was true. So he said, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails and place my finger into the mark of the nails and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.
Ten other guys – the other disciples- had all told Thomas that they’d seen Jesus. But he wouldn’t believe – he doubted their story. Thomas had to find out if it was true for himself. He had to put his finger in Jesus wounds from the nails and the spear on the cross before he would say it was true.
     You may have heard this story before. Usually it’s called the story of “Doubting Thomas.” And usually the name “doubting Thomas” is used in a pejorative sense: people are told not to be a doubting Thomas. No! No! You shouldn’t doubt! You mustn’t have those questions!
     We’ve got a high energy dog named Ginger who jumps up all the time. She reminds me of the old Far Side cartoon of a wiry little dog standing on
his back legs in front of an espresso machine with the caption “how nervous little dogs start their day.” I have a nickname for Ginger – “NoNoBadDog!” Where is NoNoBadDog? NoNoBadDog is jumping on the furniture! Most people treat Thomas like NoNoBadDog. NoNoBad Thomas. Don’t question, just believe what we say.
     I’ve got a different take on Thomas. I think there was something honorable and right about his insistence to find the truth out for himself. He was unafraid to follow the truth wherever it might lead, even if the truth meant that he was ostracized from his community. He was unafraid to follow the truth even if it meant that he might find his Lord’s body still in the grave.
     Remember he was the one who asked Jesus “how can we know the way?” when Jesus talked about the disciples following Him into heaven. The other disciples clearly had no clue, but they kept quiet, quiet as church mice. Not Thomas – he spoke up – he articulated his worries, his fears, his doubts, even if it meant standing out, ruffling feathers.
     Nickel Creek has a song named after him: “Doubting Thomas” “Can I be used to help others find truth, when I’m scared I’ll find proof that it’s a lie”? It’s a good question, and one that Doubting Thomas surely asked himself. Thomas needed his own proof: he needed to put his fingers into Jesus’ wounds to know that it was true.
     So what about you? If you’ve had doubts about God, if you’re having doubts about Jesus, if you will some day have doubts about Christianity, then please know that that is OK.  Some of us question how there could be so much suffering in a world that was created good. Some of us just don’t get how Christianity connects with your real life.
Three weeks ago, the Bishop came here and confirmed, thanks be to God, about a zillion people. Confirmation is the time when teens and adults stand before God and man and confess their faith in Jesus Christ. Several people asked if it was OK to be confirmed if they still had some doubts. The answer is… Of Course!
     Nobody I know is doubtless. We are like the father in Mark’s gospel who wants Jesus to heal his son. When Jesus asks him if he believes, he cries out, “I believe, help my unbelief!” We are an admixture of belief and
unbelief, of faith and doubt. Remember, Jesus Himself tells us that we only need faith the size of a mustard seed to move mountains! If you faith is only the size of a mustard seed, then there is clearly a ton of room left over for doubt.
     To question, to test, to probe, to ask questions, to challenge, to seek to understand is to be a human being unafraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead. Thomas, I think, represents for us the search for truth, the kind of search that uses doubt to fuel its fire.
     Thomas reminds me of Bono. Bruce Springsteen once said of the singer, “It is this element of Bono’s talent, (the Boss was talking about doubt) along with his beautiful lyric writing, that gives the often-celestial music of U2 its fragility and its realness. It is the questioning, the constant questioning in Bono’s voice, where the band stakes its claim to its humanity and declares its commonality with us.”
     What have I said so far? I’ve said that being unafraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead is a good thing, hopefully the thing that marks our lives as authentic people.  I’ve said that Thomas is an example of that unafraid search for truth. I’ve said that although people dis him as Doubting Thomas, he is right to want to know the truth for himself. Wanting to know the truth for ourselves is a big part of what it means to be a human being.
     Everything I’ve said so far really is just my take on things. What about Jesus’ take on things? How does he respond to Doubting Thomas? Jesus does an amazing thing in this story. Even though Thomas doesn’t believe his friends, and even though Thomas makes particular and rather gaudy demands (put his fingers in Jesus’ nail holes?!?), Jesus doesn’t scold Thomas. He doesn’t NoNoBadDog him. Jesus doesn’t condemn Thomas for having doubts and questions. Jesus doesn’t ridicule Thomas for wanting to follow the truth wherever it may lead. When Thomas meets Jesus, Doubt meets Grace.
     Instead, as I said, Jesus does an amazing thing. He shows up when Thomas is back with the disciples and He acquiesces to the very demands that Thomas makes. He doesn’t make Thomas give up his demands or conditions! He says, Thomas, you want to put your fingers in my nail marks? You want to put your hand in my side where the spear sliced
through me and blood poured out? Well, then, have at it! Go ahead. I’m all yours! When Thomas meets Jesus, Doubt meets Grace.
     What I’m saying is that Jesus meets Thomas right in the middle of his own doubts. Jesus shows up especially for him, he invites him to do the very thing he’s demanding. To put it another way, Jesus loves Thomas exactly as he is. When Thomas meets Jesus, Doubt meets Grace.
     Jesus does this for you too. He doesn’t condemn you for your doubts or questions. He doesn’t NoNoBadDog you. “He died to take away your sins, not your mind.”   He loves you so deeply that He will meet you exactly in the middle of whatever doubts about him that you have.
     It might seem funny to you that a preacher is preaching a sermon in defense of doubt. But, Jesus wasn’t threatened by doubt. Nor am I, because I am personally convinced of the truth of Christianity. I’m personally convinced by the power of the Risen Lord. I think that the only reason to believe Christianity is because it is true. So I believe that an unafraid search for the truth will of course lead one and all to the one who is the Truth, and the Way and the Life.
     There’s even some hope that Thomas Jefferson himself found his way to the Truth. The great skeptic and doubter who cut out the parts of the Bible he didn’t like, called for the first Rector of Christ Church, when he was on his deathbed at Monticello. The Monticello records say that Mr. Jefferson received the Reverend Hatch as a friend and colleague rather than as a minister. Maybe this was, in part, due to Hatch’s dreadful preaching. According to records, Jefferson’s daughter said she was “quite spoiled by the Boston preaching, and dreads the necessity of listening to Mr. Hatch.” Maybe the good reverend needed a sabbatical.
     Still, perhaps even Thomas Jefferson, like Thomas in the Bible when presented with the loving acceptance and the firm truth of Jesus Christ, may have fallen on his knees and cried out, “My Lord and My God!” That’s what happens when doubt meets grace.
     This is what I hope for all of us. But we’ve got to find this out for ourselves. Jesus is here, saying “Reach out your hand and put it in my side. I died for you. I rose for you. I will do what it takes to make you my own”. He does this, as the scripture says this morning, “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.”
     Amen.

Bible References

  • John 20:24

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