Honest Doubt

Honest Doubt

The first written reference to the resurrection is in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

For I handed on to you what I had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised from the dead on the third day, and that he appeared to Peter, then to the Twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time.  Then he appeared to James, then to all of the apostles.  Last of all he appeared also to me.

Nowhere in the gospels is there a record of an appearance to more than 500 brothers and sisters at one time, unless perhaps our scripture this morning is a memory of that mass appearance made by the risen Christ.  The location where Jesus met with the disciples in the last chapter of Matthew was in Galilee on a mountain top.  The particular mountain was not specified, although according to tradition there were two possible locations, Mt. Tabor and Mt. Hermon.  Mt. Tabor is a sort of Monte Sano size mountain in the Jezreel Valley in southern Galilee.

Mt. Hermon in northern Galilee rises to over 9,000 feet above sea level.  Either location would have provided a safe place away from the watchful eyes of the authorities for a group of 500 or more subversive peasants to gather.

The followers of Jesus climbed the mountain and the risen Christ appeared to them, and what did the disciples see?  Our scripture doesn’t give us much of a clue, just one verse 17:  17  And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted.

I am always struck by that verse.  “And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted.”  Whatever the followers of Jesus saw that day must not have been as plain as the nose on your face.  Despite his appearance there was still room for doubt, honest doubt.  Some among them couldn’t believe their eyes or their ears.  Jesus appeared to them and spoke to them, and still they doubted.

I take some comfort from this passage, because people who were closest to Jesus, followed him, heard him teach and witnessed the miracles around him, even they had honest doubts.  Mother Teresa had doubts, even while she was doing great good work for Jesus.  Sometimes we are tempted to think, if only I could have been with him then, listened to Jesus preach the Sermon on the Mount, watched him heal a leper, touched the hem of his garment, then I would see and believe.  But here we have a report that followers of Jesus who had every opportunity to know him, to listen to him, to follow him, to witness his miracles, when they saw with their own eyes the Risen Christ, they had honest doubts.

So what does this mean for our faith?  First, I think it means we have to give up the Tinker Bell faith.  Remember in the play Peter Pan, when we were supposed to help Tinker Bell recover, and we were supposed to clap our hands and say, “I do believe in fairies, I do believe in fairies, I do believe in fairies?”  The path to greater faith is not clapping our hands and repeating:  “I do believe in Jesus, I do believe in Jesus, I do believe in Jesus.”

We don’t increase our faith by insisting that we have to believe everything in the Bible is literally true, or praying certain prayers, or reciting creeds, or listening to Christian music all day long.  No, the way to a more mature and stronger faith is to follow the way of Jesus.  Do the things Jesus asked us to do.  You know the hard things like, “love one another as I have loved you.”  Love God and love your neighbor.  Share with each other.  Don’t judge one another.  Practice radical hospitality and egalitarian table fellowship.  Turn the other cheek.  If your neighbor needs food, feed him.  If your neighbor is cold, give him a coat or a blanket.  If your neighbor is homeless, help him find shelter.  Turn the other cheek and while you’re at it, pray for your enemies.  Check your ego at the door, and consider other people to be as important as yourselves.  If you would be greatest in the Commonwealth of God, you must become as children.  Understand that God is God and you are not.

That’s part of the problem with Jesus he says, “come follow me,” and then he wants us to do all of this hard stuff.  But doing the hard stuff is the path to more mature faith.  Now it is true that prayer and worship can support us in doing the hard stuff.  Prayer helps us connect with that divine energy source that can help re-program and reshape our unconscious thoughts and desires.  And joining a community of faith, where we have good spiritual friends, who will help hold us accountable to doing the hard stuff is essential to our spiritual formation.  Asking people to pray with us and for us allows God to speak to us through other people.  Living out our faith in a community of love is part of God’s gift to us to follow in the way of Jesus.

Jesus and the faith community will even help us with our physical health as well as our spiritual health.  Jesus was a healer.  What are the three most common prescriptions offered by physicians?  Exercise, lose weight, and change your diet.  We can ask good spiritual friends to pray with us for weight lose and exercise with us to help us in our efforts to achieve better health.  If we give our spiritual friends permission, they can even help us to be accountable about our diets.  As we learn to offer thanksgivings daily for our blessings, we improve our psychological and spiritual outlook, becoming more optimistic and lifting depression.  Also, when people pray, miracles happen.  Our faith community can be a powerful agent of healing.

And remember it doesn’t require perfect faith to make a miracle.  Consider the father of the epileptic boy.  He asked Jesus to help his son.  He said, “If you can do anything please help us.”

And Jesus said, “If you can?  All things are possible to those who believe.”

And the poor distressed Father responded, “I believe, but help my unbelief.”  And that was enough faith to heal his son.  So remember even faith mixed with doubt has the power to work miracles.

Jesus also offers us hope that reaches beyond this life.  If for this life only we have hoped in Christ we are of all people most to be pitied.  The resurrection of Jesus is a message to all who follow him that not even death can separate us from the love of God.  None of us will get out of here alive, but we are assured that this life is not the final answer.  How do I know that?  I don’t.  That’s why it is important to know that God has room for honest doubt, just like those followers on that mountain top so long ago who even saw and heard the risen Christ and still doubted.  But let me tell you this, even though I have my honest doubts, the more I follow Jesus, the more I do some of the hard stuff Jesus asks me to do, the more I pray and seek to be accountable with good spiritual friends, the more I am learning to trust.  Ultimately faith is about trust.  Going ahead and doing what we are called to do even in the face of our doubts.

Let me share with you a story about the great 20th century preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick, who pastored Riverside Church in New York City.  As a young man just out of seminary Fosdick was plagued by doubts.  He wanted to believe, but he found contradictions in the scriptures, and sometimes it seemed to him that the message of Jesus, just wasn’t realistic in a dog eat dog world.  You know that argument some people like to use, Jesus’ teaching is all well and good, but it just isn’t very realistic.

So Fosdick went to visit his spiritual mentor, an older pastor, who invited him to his summer retreat.  As they sat beside the ocean Fosdick poured out all of his doubts to the older minister.  Finally his mentor said, “Harry you worry about too many things.  You don’t have to give up any of your doubts.  But here is what I want you to do.  I want you to live as if the way of Jesus is true for one year.  And after that year, you will have your answer.”  So Fosdick went back to his church, and he began trying to live as if the way of Jesus is true.  It wasn’t easy.  As we’ve said, Jesus asks us to do some hard things.  But after a year, Fosdick had learned to trust, and he had his answer.

And so I make the same suggestion this morning.  If your doubts seem to get in your way, don’t deny your doubts, but live as if the way of Jesus is true for one year, and you will have your answer.  Pray, worship, and love one another as Jesus has loved us.  Love God and love our neighbors.  Share with each other.  Don’t judge one another.  Practice radical hospitality and egalitarian table fellowship.  Turn the other cheek.  If our neighbor needs food, feed him.  If our neighbor is cold, give him a coat or a blanket.  If our neighbor is homeless, help him find shelter.  Turn the other cheek and while we’re at it, let’s pray for our enemies, even the people we are angry or irritated with.  Let’s check our egos at the door, and consider other people to be as important as ourselves.  If we would be greatest in the Commonwealth of God, we must become as children.  Understand that God is God and we are not.  And even faith mixed with honest doubt has the power to transform lives and work miracles.

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