Sunday, August 1, 2021

Doubt is part of faith 

The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector 

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church 

Katy TX 77493 


Sometimes a sermon is inspired by just a single word. This week the word was waffled. Now you are thinking, I didn’t hear that word today. Well no, not in the NRSV. However, it is in the Message version and that word sparked a discussion on Tuesday and ultimately today’s sermon.  

30   They waffled: “Why don’t you give us a clue about who you are, just a hint of what’s going on? When we see what’s up, we’ll commit ourselves. Show us what you can do.” 

 Who is Jesus and what is the relationship between Jesus and Christ? Who is Jesus and what is his relationship with God the Father is the overarching question that the gospel of John is trying to explain. John’s gospel is really the first place where the bible starts to wrestle with this issue. John’s gospel shows the most theological development of the relationship between Jesus and God the Father and is really the only one that truly uses that concept. It is complicated and rather dense for John is concerned not with history, but mystery. The mystery of Christ. We only begin to explore the Christ mystery with Paul who rarely uses the name Jesus in his letters. Paul uses Christ over 300 times but only mentions Jesus in connection with Christ or Lord rarely alone. So John is the beginning of the transition from Jesus to Christ in the gospels, but it follows all the Christ language of Paul’s letters written some 50 years before John was written. 

 What is that all about? Richard Rohr among other theologians are quick to point out the Christ is not Jesus’ last name. What we get in the 3 synoptic gospels is Jesus, the man on earth that people can see and touch. A baby born in a stable to a young mother who grows up to be a prophetic figure in the 1st century. A man who performs miracles and signs and ultimately is crucified and resurrected. But Christ doesn’t suddenly come into existence at the resurrection and certainly not at the birth of Jesus in a stable. John focuses on Christ or what some theologians refer to as the Cosmic Christ. Christ the one who was and is and is to come. The Christ that the prologue to John presents to us, the Word who was in the beginning with God and was God. Our Nicene Creed defines the Cosmic Christ. 

 Jesus is the physical intersection of Christ into our physical world, but Christ has always been and always will be. This is who John is presenting to us and it is such a foreign concept that the poor disciples are truly confused.  

 Over the next few weeks, the lectionary departs from Mark’s gospel, and we hear Jesus speaking of who he is in an attempt to explain to the disciples, to the crowd and ultimately to us, who Christ is. The problem is that this is hard for earth bound people to understand because it is so different from anything else in our world. In another week or so the disciples will say this is a hard teaching “who can accept it?” 

 One of the things is that many of us read these stories and wonder, how can this be? I’m not sure I believe this or how can I explain this in a way that makes sense that follows the laws of nature are we understand it. The Enlightenment has not done much to help people grow in faith. Many think that science and faith are not compatible and cannot be reconciled. This causes folks to doubt and many feel that doubt is the same as lack of belief.  

 This fear over lack of belief is not anything new. A father who desperately wants their child healed in Mark 9:24 exclaims, “I believe, help my unbelief.” This is such a common theme that I have a book by that title written by Fleming Rutledge (and a wonderful book of sermons it is). 

 Where I found my solace in this concern about doubt is in the work of Paul Tillich a theologian from the mid 1900s. One of his more famous books is Dynamics of Faith. He states in his definition of faith that “doubt is a necessary element in it. It is a consequence of the risk of faith.”1 “the existential doubt which is implied in faith accepts this insecurity and takes it into itself in an act of courage. Faith includes courage. Nevertheless, an act in which courage accepts risk belongs to the dynamics of faith” 

 What I believe Tillich is saying is that if we really examine what we read in the bible it is normal to scratch our heads and say, “really” or I’m having trouble understanding this. If we accept everything at face value in a literal way we miss the point that the bible. Both Old and New Testaments are filled with metaphor and allegory with literary devices that are there to explain the unexplainable. Most of the authors are telling a story to make a point and not recording history.  

 Asking questions of our faith is a normal part of growing in our faith. In fact the bible especially the Hebrew scriptures were written to be argued over. There are spots where the bible contradicts itself from one verse to the next. Why? The final redactors (editors) couldn’t decide which was the correct version of the story so the put them both in and they expected people to argue over which was right.  

 Richard Rohr tells us that faith, religion is all about mystery. A mystery that calls us to explore the mystery, but not to explain it. We all have different ways to explore mystery and different levels of our ability to accept ambiguity.  

 Rachel Held Evans did a video that some of you have seen. In the series on the sacraments, she was talking about Confirmation. She said that Jesus is a story that she is willing to risk being wrong about. That’s what Confirmation for her was about.  

 Sometimes we need that faith of a child who is willing to love and trust and isn’t worried about explaining everything. As we grow that faith hopefully deepens and the questions get deeper. An example of how I put that into practice is my thoughts on communion for children. A priest I worked with once was talking to a mother who didn’t want her child to get communion until “she was old enough to fully understand it.” Stephen looked at her and said, “Well then I guess I cannot give you communion either, in fact I shouldn’t receive it because I do not fully understand.” But children do understand at their level.  

 When I was on Cape Cod long ago, the rector of the parish did not give communion until the child was in 2nd grade. Well, it’s a resort town and we had a lot of visitors in the summer. One day a family came up and David just said a blessing for a little boy who had his hands out. As mom led him away from the altar, he sat down in the aisle in a very loud 4 year old voice said, “NO, I didn’t get my Jesus. I want my Jesus.” At which point I went out in the aisle and gave him his Jesus. Now you can’t tell me that little guy didn’t understand. Could he explain it, of course not, but at that moment at that time he knew what was important and he was not going to be denied.  

 We all understand but as Paul says we see through a mirror dimly. We will at some point, not in this life, but in the next understand and see clearly. For now we wrestle with our faith. We are in good company as we wrestle with our faith. The disciples had Jesus standing there in front of them and they didn’t understand. What is important is that our faith calls us into relationship with God and to explore the mystery that we call Christ. Along the way we will have questions and doubts and that’s perfectly normal and healthy. Let those doubts flow and trust that Christ will give you the answers that you need and do not be afraid to sit in the mystery.