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When in Doubt, Doubt!
ACTS 9:1-20, JOHN 20:24-28
We have just a sung a hymn about faith. In seminary we called this hymn the "sanforized hymn." "O For a Faith That Will Not Shrink." Some of you are too young to know about shrinking and sanforizing.
O for a faith that will not shrink,
Though pressed by every foe,
That will not tremble on the brink
Of any earthly woe!
But, one does not obtain a sanforized faith easily. Usually such a faith has had its share of doubting. Doubting is the other side of faith, and a strong faith often comes out of strong doubting.
The Scripture lessons this morning are about two heroes of our faith, two ancestral spiritual giants, both of whom were also giant doubters. When they doubted, they doubted and felt so deeply, they acted on the doubt. And, when they believed, they believed with a sanforized faith that will not shrink. They believed with a passion that propelled them into action. They were firm in their convictions, passionate in their commitments, and zealous in their serving. God can use such people, doubters and "faithers" like Thomas and Paul.
Thomas, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, trusted his powers of reason. In the upper room where Jesus ate his last meal with his disciples, Jesus told them, (John 14:2-5) "In my father's house are many rooms.. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And when I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself. And you know the way where I am going." No doubt these words were over the heads of the disciples. I doubt if any of them knew what Jesus was talking about; yet it was Thomas who was honest enough to ask, "Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?"
And, Easter evening when Thomas returned, the disciples excitedly told him that Jesus, supposedly dead, had appeared to them. Thomas found this incredulous. He doubted the party line. He doubted the majority. His powers of reason told him this was unreasonable, and he was honest enough, strong enough, firm enough to doubt. He said, "Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe."
Thomas was a doubter, yet open to the truth. A week later Jesus again appeared to the disciples. This time he turned to Thomas and said, "Thomas, put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side." And Thomas believed. He confessed, "My Lord and my God."
Thomas felt things deeply and passionately. When he doubted, he doubted, and felt so deeply he acted on the doubt. And when he believed, he believed with a sanforized faith that will not shrink. He believed with a passion that propelled him into action. Thomas was firm in his convictions, passionate in his commitments, and zealous in his serving. God can use such people, and God most definitely used Thomas. We read little about Thomas in the Bible. Our New Testament tells us about Paul and Peter, but little of the other disciples. Tradition tells us that the other disciples also went on missionary journeys spreading the good news of Jesus. Tradition tells us that Thomas went all the way to India. When the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama arrived in India in the sixteenth century, he discovered Christianity flourishing in two cities. Yet today there are churches in South India which call themselves "The Christians of St. Thomas." Vasco de Gama learned the story that Thomas had preached and baptized many converts. Thomas ordained seven priests and founded two churches. God can and does use doubters like Thomas.
The other hero of our faith we heard about this morning was Paul. Saul, as he was called before his conversion, trusted his mind as well. He would not believe the stories about Jesus. He doubted, and he had the firmness of his convictions to act upon his doubts. He helped round up Christians and bring them to Jerusalem in an effort to contain Christianity which was beginning to spread. He acted on his doubts, but when confronted by the risen Christ in a blinding light on the way to Damascus, he too was honest and open enough to change his mind. And, God used Paul! Most of the New Testament are letters written by Paul which tell us not only of his monumental mission achievements in starting churches, but letters which serve as the foundation of Christian theology. God can and does use doubters like Paul.
When in doubt, doubt! When you believe, believe with a sanforized faith that will not shrink, and act on those beliefs. I wonder if one failing of us modern, American middle-class Christians is that we don't feel deeply enough. What I see in Thomas and Paul as models for us are men who felt things deeply and passionately, men who were firm in their convictions, passionate in their commitments, and zealous in their serving.
On Palm Sunday I had the centurion who was in charge of Jesus' execution say he wasn't a good soldier because he could see both sides of issues. He had difficulty taking orders unconditionally. At one end of the spectrum, are those who are dogged, determined, and never doubt. They take orders unconditionally, accepting creeds, party lines, and government pronouncements without equivocation. This is a dangerous mindset. Such a mentality is ripe for someone like Hitler to take over. One of the saving features of democracy is the freedom to doubt, to use the minds God gives us.
We United Methodists have been given a test of authority called the quadrilateral because it has four parts. When you are deciding what to believe, or making an ethical decision, or evaluating what you are told to believe or do, ask four questions.
That's the Methodist Quadrilateral: the tests of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Application of such a test saves us from the extreme of unreasoned, unquestioned, blind loyalty where doubt is not allowed, where we accept whatever we are told by whomever declares him or herself to be in authority.
At one end of the spectrum are those who doggedly never doubt. At the other end of the spectrum are those who are so tolerant, they are wishy-washy. It is possible to see so many sides to an issue, there is no longer any issue, only sides! Sometimes the First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto is called a liberal Protestant church, and accused of not believing anything very much, a church where its members are not expected to believe very much in anything, not expected to live much differently from the rest of the world, and not expected to get involved in attacking evil. Does that accusation fit us? Are we so tolerant we tolerate everything? Do we feel anything deeply enough to stir us to action?
Last week Bob Hamerton-Kelly challenged us to put our faith into action. He particularly challenged us to do something about our drug-infested culture. This morning the chapel class began a discussion. Come to the chapel next Sunday at 9:00 a.m. to become involved. Do we care deeply enough to get involved? Are we angry enough? You have to be angry to be a prophet. You have to feel deeply to be incensed. You have to feel deeply to be compassionate.
Paul and Thomas felt things deeply and passionately. When they doubted, they doubted, and felt so deeply they acted. Paul even searched for Christians to persecute. And, when they believed, they believed with a sanforized faith that will not shrink. They believed with a passion that propelled them to action. Thomas went to India to preach and teach. Paul went to Rome and was martyred. They were firm in their convictions, passionate in their commitments, and zealous in their serving.
Last week we were blessed by the German choir. It was a great experience for our church. The choir members are ordinary folks like we are. They are members of free churches; that is, Christians who historically doubted the party line. They doubted and questioned the state Lutheran or Catholic churches, opposed them and became Methodists, Baptists, etc.
Sunday night as they sang and I watched and listened, I began to wonder. I thought to myself: here are 90 Germans. Some were alive when Hitler was in power. Where were they when six million Jewish children, women and men were rounded up, taken away in the dark of the night, herded into slaughter houses and exterminated? Where were they? Did they care? Did they ever doubt the party line? Did they ever doubt the government pronouncements? Many in the choir were not born at that time. Now today as they sing and live their lives, what does such an historic event do to the national psyche, I wondered. How do these ordinary folk handle that horrible evil act? Do they forget it? Have they buried it in their national consciousness? Are they ashamed? Would they allow it to happen again? How do they right the wrong?
Then as I sat there wondering about the Germans, it suddenly dawned on me, "Hey, I don't have to pick on the Germans! (Although I am 1/4 German as one of my grandmothers was a German. I'm also half English and the English hardly have a blameless human rights record!) What about us Americans? How do we Americans handle the memory of the wholesale, intentional extermination of the American Indians, the native Americans as we now call them? Our ancestors set about to drive them from their land so they could steal it. Our ancestors killed them with smallpox unintentionally, liquor for the profit, starvation mercilessly, and with guns intentionally. How we do handle the guilt? Are we ashamed? What about our national psyche? Do we bury the memory in some patriotic consciousness? How do we right the wrong? The General Conference of our church has declared this Sunday to be Native American Awareness Sunday. At least, we should begin with awareness as we seek to redress the wrongs.
I believe God needs doubters today, doubters like Thomas and Paul. God needs people who feel deeply and passionately. God needs people who will doubt the party line, who will doubt the government pronouncements on Central America, nuclear arms buildup, the Iran-Contra fiasco, the war on drugs, etc. Our nation needs people who will doubt until the truth is learned. God needs doubters. When in doubt, doubt! When you believe, believe with a sanforized faith that will not shrink; believe with a passion that propels us into action. God needs people who will be firm in their convictions, passionate in their commitments, and zealous in their serving.
© 1989 Douglas I. Norris