A Week in the Word: Asking, Seeking, Knocking Your Way To Faith (New Life in Christ, Part 4)

We continue our series on the weeks following Easter, celebrating the new life Christ’s resurrection makes possible for you and me.  This series was originally a series of sermons spanning from Easter to Pentecost at Diversity in Faith: A Christian Church for All People, a Progressive Christian Alliance church in Fayetteville, NC.

I hope these words help you find faith in the midst of your times of doubt, questioning, pain, and fear.

And I ain’t just whistling Dixie,

your progressive redneck preacher, Micah

micah in hat thinking

Asking, Seeking, Knocking Your Way To Faith

In this song, the Roots raise questions about “why”? They questions where God is and why God allows the pain and the brokeness in our lives.

I think all of us go through experiences at times that lead us to question, to doubt, even to feel tempted to walk away from our call or even to turn our back on the new life with God Jesus makes possible.

Have any of you experienced this? Would you be willing to share an example of a time like this for you?

In our Scripture today we will be looking at an occasion where doubt and questioning overshadowed the reality of the resurrection and almost led one of Jesus’ disciples to turn his back on the new life Jesus brings. As we read this example, let’s consider what this teaches us about how we can deal with our doubts and questions in a way that helps us embrace God’s new life.

caravaggio-doubting-thomasLets read John 20, 24-31 together:

24 Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came.25

The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”

But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails,

and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”

26 After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the

doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said

to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief.

Believe!”

28 Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

30 Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. 31 But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.

Jesus, as we confront our questions, doubts, and deepest fears, meet us through your word and through the bread and cup that symbolize your broken body and shed blood. Open our eyes so we may see you and ourselves more clearly. Help us to know your will and presence more truly. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

What is the source of doubt or questioning Thomas faces? What can we learn about the role of questions and doubts in our new life with Christ here?

jesus resurrection appearance5We are invited by Thomas’ experience to realize three things: First that we need to know that instead of chastising us for questions in our new life, Jesus invites us to take our questions to him; secondly, where to go to renew and strengthen our faith when our path becomes uncertain; and finally, that the new life is not about living without doubts but learning to have thriving faith in the midst of uncertainty.

First I said that we need to realize that instead of chastising us for our question in our new life of faith, Jesus invites us to take our questions to Jesus ourselves. Too often in the church the other message is given: that if you ask question, if you doubt, if you voice uncertainties you are wrong, you are risking your relationship with God, you may be risking your eternal soul and hope of heaven itself. Have anyone of you gotten that message before from churches?

I know I did growing up. I remember being full of questions but getting the sense some of them couldn’t be asked. I remember hearing people be told “How can you even question that? Aren’t you saved?” from friends in the youth for Christ group at my high school; and even from adults at my church to each other. I remember hearing many a sermon where people who questioned the doctrine of the church were painted out to have walked away with God. I remember many a well-meaning church lady and speaking deacon telling people those questions burning in their souls were all the work of the devil trying to lead them astray.

This fear of admitting my doubts and questions plagued me later in life. I remember later in life fear gripping my chest when I saw things that I was taught that didn’t add up and I felt I couldn’t share my questions and doubts about things like my church’s doctrines, my own salvation, or about heaven & hell. Later in Bible college I was shocked to see my professors openly question many of these ideas. I remember it causing a crisis of faith for me. And this same fear made it hard for me to talk in my first years as a minister about doubts I had about what I had always been taught about women not being allowed to be preachers or being gay being a sin.

Though I faced the message again and again “don’t question, don’t doubt, just go along”, this is not what Jesus does. Instead Jesus stands, waiting for Thomas to open up to Jesus about his doubts.

When Thomas openly expresses his doubts, Jesus instead of reprimanding Thomas actually works with Thomas to bring Thomas face-to-face with the reality of Jesus’ new life — and Thomas’s new life in Jesus — in a way that Thomas receives what he needs for a fuller, more living faith.

I want to suggest that Jesus’ response to Thomas shows us that far from leading us away from God, really becoming open with our questions and doubts can help us produce a fuller faith. This experience does so for Thomas. He not only acknowledges Jesus is risen, but recognizes Jesus is God in the flesh come to save! Ultimately this experience of being open about his questions and searching out until Thomas finds the answers he needs not only makes Thomas’ faith his own but grants him such a real, strong, authentic faith that Thomas willingly risks his life traveling to the furthest reaches of the known world, dying sharing his faith in distant India.

QuestionsQuestioning then is only an obstacle to faith when we ignore those question and push them down. When we let ourselves openly explore our questions before God, looking and listening for God to guide us to answers those questions can actually help us grow.

Interestingly enough this is how early Christians recorded Thomas later reflecting on his own experience. Many sources in the early church remembered Thomas as interpreting Jesus’ command to ask, seek, and knock not being about asking for God to give you this or that material blessing but instead you actively going to God questioning. In one writing, they recall Thomas as saying “Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will rule over all.” (Gospel of Thomas, Saying 2)

This process is what Thomas went through. He questioned — and his questions at first disturbed him. But his questions led him to a deeper understanding of and knowledge of Jesus, one so personal he touched the risen Lord with his own hands. That experience that came through his questioning made him marvel, opening his eyes to the new life Jesus brings — and that marveling led Thomas to a life where he could more fully rule all through service, just as Jesus practiced being King through being a servant to all.

I’ve found such to be true in my own life. When I quit pushing down my questions and took them to Jesus, opening up to Jesus about them, Jesus led me to places to find answers and to circumstances or people where I could experience jesus child abusethings that opened my eyes to see things more through Jesus’ eyes. Some of what I saw like ways people had been hurt by some traditional approaches to faith, like gay men and lesbians who were closer to God than many of the folks I grew up with who put them down, like women who when they stopped being silent spoke more powerfully for God than me — really disturbed me, shaking up my preconceive notions. But when I let my eyes open I began to see where Jesus was at work and to be able to join Jesus in new ways. So Thomas’ example shows us that our questions, when embraced as another way to connect with God, can strengthen our faith.

I mentioned that this account reminds us where to go when doubts and questions begin to cast a shadow over our new life in Christ, leading us to consider walking away from it. We see this in what Thomas does. Thomas first shares with his friends who walk with Jesus what has happened. Then he goes to where Jesus has shown up alive, bringing those questions with him.

In our lives we can do the same thing — we can open up to other believers who can listen without lecturing or judging, about our questions. Just through them listening we can begin to sort out what we need from Christ. Who knows? They may have been through something similar and be able to share how they got through it.

Also we can go where Jesus shows up. Where does Jesus show up consistently today?  Many places — in Scripture, in meditation, in prayer, in worship at church with songs of praise and the breaking of the bread of communion. Sometimes in nature some of us we open up to God’s presence; and in serving our neighbor Jesus promises we can find Jesus alive and present in a special way. Often when we are questioning these are the places we turn away from and avoid.

Instead Thomas models going to these different places where Jesus shows up alive, and there looking for Jesus to show up answering the questions.

jesus resurrection appearance 7The flip side of this, though, is that this means you and I need to work to be people who can be that friend who listens without judgment, letting another share their doubts and questions who lets them know they aren’t alone. As a church, we say in our mission that we will welcome all people to grow with us in their faith. What can we do to welcome those who join us, like Thomas, full of questions and doubts?

We as a church need to work to be a place where we let people know that this is a safe place to not have things all figured out, to have questions, to search. This is part of why as a church we affirm the faith freedoms — soul freedom, that we each have a personal relationship with God so no one can stand between another and God to judge if they are right with God; Bible freedom, that we each have the right to study the Bible with an open mind questioning and searching each coming to our own conclusions; church freedom that no one has a right to impose on our church from the outside beliefs, practices, or politics we don’t feel called to and we can’t do that to people in other churches; and religious freedom — that we have respect other’s paths to faith even if they are different than ours, even if they aren’t Christian, recognizing only God knows who are God’s. We emphasize these freedoms to make our church a safe place to question. But being a safe place is about more than saying the words — it is about being welcoming to the person who doesn’t have all the answers, even the person who says, does, and believes things that you aren’t sure fit your picture about what Christianity is about. Our church needs to be a place that meets people where they are without judgment.

So we need to go with our questions to the place where Jesus shows up, but also we need to work to be people who are safe for people to be honest with about their questions and doubts.

jesus resurrection appearance 6Finally Jesus shows us our new life in Christ is not about living without uncertainties or doubts, but developing thriving faith in the midst of uncertainty. We see this because Jesus says that though it is great that Thomas follows trustingly once Jesus helps Thomas find the answers Thomas is looking for, how happy and blessed are those who don’t get those answers yet believe.

Growing up I thought this meant that people would be happy if they just kept mouthing the words, gritting their teeth to force themselves to believe what the preacher taught, even though they had no proof for it and really a part of them was riddled with doubts. Just cover your ears, cover your eyes, and follow blindly.

Since being a pastor I have begun to see what that actually produces — little old ladies who give away their pension to TV preachers who say “have faith — God will bless you!” and go without while a conman preacher uses their money to live in the lap of luxury; parents who hear “your child is healed if you just believe” so they watch their child die because they don’t take her to the doctor; people who cut off their children for being gay because their preacher says to even though deep in their heart they question how that could really be loving God. Blind faith is not beautiful or good. It wrecks lives.

Instead I think Jesus is letting us know that living faith includes ongoing questions, ongoing uncertainty, and embracing the uncertainty as all a part of the new life in Christ. New life in Christ means recognizing you don’t always see, and that is ok. You don’t have to pretend you’ve got it all figured out — you can trust God without knowing all the answers.

This is why Jesus spoke in parables, using stories and metaphors to teach. These communicate truth but because each person can interpret them differently, don’t give a black and white certain answer.

This is also why Jesus uses what Buddhist call koans — short statements like blessed are those who don’t see but believe; or blessed (happy) are those who mourn (are sad); the first shall be last. In Buddhism such statements are studied to help someone get used to uncertainty, to the fact that there are truths that cannot be explained. They help show that to be happy in life you have to be willing to embrace uncertainty as a gift not a curse. I think that Jesus’ statement about blessed are those who do not see but believe invites us to embrace the uncertainty and paradox of life that makes it so first can be last, the sad can be happy, and that we can often believe the strongest and truest not when we are certain but precisely when we have no clue.

Embrace your questions and uncertainties– they are a gift, the end of which is a thriving faith.

Would you pray with me?

Risen Jesus, who is not only the Answer to our longings, but also the Questioner of our Souls — do not let us stay content with pat answers, but help us like Thomas to truly ask, seek, knock when we are uncertain, so that we might discover living faith that will last. Amen.

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