a Johnny Tuttle Sermon on Doubt

A sermon offered by Duke Divinity School Intern, Johnny Tuttle, for Easter III,  April 19, 2015.

Oh God,

Sometimes we believe you,

And sometimes we don’t.

And sometimes all we can ask

is that you would help us want to want to believe you.

So, we need you to speak to us

and to be known to us in the breaking of the Bread.

Amen.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

At my private, Christian high school,

we were reacquired to take a Bible class every year.

Each year’s curriculum was different,

but the highlight of the Bible curriculum

was the junior year course on “Apologetics”.

 

All of us 16 year old Christians

wanted to be loaded with ammo

in any event our faith would be under “attack” by –

well, let’s face it –

by “the liberals.”

 

We had statistics and proof texts at our disposal,

and we were fed so-called “facts”

so that we could put our money where our mouth was.

One particularly memorable class period

consisted of watching a video

where a popular minister proof-texted the Quran

to demonstrate the inherent violence of Islam.

(Clearly, he had never read Joshua or Judges).

We had to defend our faith.

 

I don’t want to give the wrong impression.

I am extremely grateful for the love and support

I received from my teachers and classmates in high school.

And despite the fact that many of us would disagree

on nearly everything right now,

I sincerely love them.

 

The reason I bring all of this up

is to point out what I now understand

to be an extreme insecurity among many Christians,

such that many of us feel the need

to engage in certain forms of rhetoric

to prove to someone, anyone, maybe ourselves,

that we do not doubt.

 

So, what does it mean for a Christian to doubt?

The first thing you see on our website is this statement:

“At the Episcopal Church of the Advocate,

we welcome people from every kind of household,

at every stage of life and faith and doubt.”

I want to unapologetically (pun intended) affirm this statement.

 

I suspect many of us here

have not necessarily been tempted

toward the evils of Christian apologetics,

though some of you may have had

a similar experience to my own.

So, I understand that my story

is something of an extreme example.

But, I wonder if I don’t sometimes fall

into the same insecurity

by simply giving it a different name.

 

We may even say we are okay with doubt, with disbelief.

But when we say

we “don’t check our brains at the door,”

what do we mean?

If doubt is seen as uncertainty,

as not having it figured out,

I confess that I have tried

to narrate the church into the accepted forms of “intelligence”

in order ward off this very appearance

of ignorance, uncertainty, and doubt.

 

I am uncomfortable with appearing uncertain,

of allowing myself to doubt.

So, I have uncritically adopted certain positions

in order to defend the church and myself

as a Christian against appearing uncertain or ignorant.

 

To be clear, there are many Christians,

past and present, who have struggled to believe

many of the Church’s doctrines.

But does that doubt lead one

to claim some alternative explanation

from an acceptable, supposedly “unbiased” source –

one proven by “research” and “evidence”?

 

I have too often bought into the myth

that there is such a thing as objective, unbiased fact

in the hope of certainty.

 

To use a recent example –

in order to avoid sounding like Ken Hamm,

I sign off on Bill Nye

without realizing that they’re just two sides

to the same intellectual coin.

 

+++

 

“While in their joy

they were disbelieving and still wondering,

he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’

They gave him a piece of broiled fish,

and he took it and ate in their presence.”

 

Given the anxieties I have tried to name,

these verses from the Gospel story stand out.

He has just shown them the marks of his death,

the scars on his hands and his feet.

Joy begins to spring up among them.

Could this really be him? There is no way!

They continue in their disbelief,

wondering if it is indeed the one they had followed,

the one they had abandoned.

 

This is very similar to the version of this story

in the Gospel of John we heard last week.

But of course, last week we heard

about so-called “doubting Thomas”.

It is quite fashionable now

to second-guess this label for Thomas.

 

I think, at least,

the insecurities I attempted to name earlier

are at work when we designate Thomas as the “doubter”.

His disbelief must be fixed

or else he is unfaithful.

 

But we often forget that Thomas receives nothing more or less

than what the other disciples received as evidence.

They too were shown the scars,

and Thomas asked to see nothing more

than what the others had seen.

 

And while “doubting” Thomas has,

at least in my experience,

been a pejorative designation,

I don’t actually see Jesus treating him

as though this is the case.

 

After all, Thomas is the one

who said earlier in John,

“Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

He has been as loyal to Jesus as the others.

 

But I don’t want to take away

from the fact that Thomas doubted.

Indeed, Jesus confronts Thomas’s doubt

by giving him what he asks for –

he shows him his hands, feet, and side.

And he invites Thomas to feel his wounds

so that he will not doubt anymore.

Jesus patiently reveals himself to Thomas once again,

drawing Thomas once again

into his emphatic belief:

“My Lord and my God.”

 

Our story this week does not single out Thomas.

Instead, the disciples are all together

around the risen body of Jesus,

and they do not believe. They doubt.

They are in disbelief. They think he’s a ghost.

They did not immediately believe

the testimony of the two

who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus.

 

But Jesus does not rebuke them. He asks for some food.

He is going to stay and eat with them.

He is patient, taking the time to remind them

of what he had taught them,

to tell them the stories once again,

and to share a meal as they had

the night before he was arrested and crucified.

 

Like with Thomas in John’s Gospel,

Jesus does not repudiate their doubt.

Instead, he bears with them,

shows them the signs,

tells them the stories again,

and eats with them.

As I mentioned earlier,

Christians earnestly working out their faith

have struggled with many of the doctrines of the church

at one time or another.

What would it mean for us to sit with the doubt,

Waiting – waiting for Jesus to tell us the stories again,

show us the signs, and eat with us?

 

I think we should resist the urge

to defend our insecurities

with ill-formed arguments on the one hand,

or purportedly “objective” facts on the other.

Certainty becomes an idol we chase after,

because, ultimately, those things that give us certainty

are usually made in our own image.

 

If nothing else, I think this story

puts us in good company –

in the company of the disciples –

as we sit with our doubt and wait on Jesus.

We sit with them three weeks after Easter,

after hearing the incredible,

unbelievable news of the resurrection.

And we are met with both joy

and disbelief at the same time.

We wonder if it can be true,

and yet we gather together

in joyful hope that it might be true.

 

This is the crucial point:

Doubt, or disbelief, is neither the enemy to be feared,

Nor is it an intellectual end in itself.

Rather, it is an invitation to rely

ever more deeply on one another,

and to wait on Jesus to reveal himself to us once again.

It is the space to recognize the grace of our limit,

and that our limit is actually a tent of meeting,

a place of communion.

 

What would it look like for the church

to be a place where joy, disbelief, and wonder

could exist in the same space,

in the presence of Jesus?

What would it look like

to invite both disbelief and faith

into the same space?

 

I know there are more than a few people

who have trouble with many or all of the claims

made in the Nicene Creed.

And if I am honest,

there are days when it’s difficult

for me to say the words.

But we say, “We believe…” rather than “I believe…”

because no one can sustain the faith of the church

on his or her own.

We are mutually dependent on one another

as we work out our faith,

and there are days when all I have

is the brother or sister next to me

reciting the words that I cannot say for myself.

 

As this congregation continues to think

about the Advocate’s goals,

particularly the goal

of supporting one another as a community,

we have to recognize that,

just as “our common life depends on each other’s toil,”

so do we each depend on the faith of the community.

 

As we seek to support one another

in the coming year and beyond,

we are called to bear with one another,

to be signs of faith, hope and love to one another,

to tell the stories again together,

and to share meals with one another.

 

What would it look like for the church

to be a place where joy, disbelief, and wonder

could exist in the same space,

in the presence of Jesus?

What would it look like

to invite both disbelief and faith

into the same space?

 

Even though the disciples were with Jesus

throughout his ministry –

heard his stories, saw his signs, and ate with him –

the risen Jesus confronted the limits of their knowledge

and pressed through the boundaries

they thought were most certain.

But Jesus did not condemn them in their doubt,

nor was he exasperated by their disbelief and wonder.

Instead, he told the stories again,

he showed them the signs again,

and he ate with them once again.

 

Though many of us have followed Jesus

for quite a long time –

we’ve shared the stories with one another,

seen the signs of God’s presence

in both the joy and suffering

of our brothers and sisters,

and we have shared the Eucharist together –

we still sometimes come, perhaps in joy,

but also in disbelief and wonder.

But when we come,

We come around this table

where Jesus greets us saying,

Peace be with you.”

 

And we hear the stories,

we see the signs even as we look at one another

gathered together as the body of Christ,

and we share this meal,

waiting for Jesus to reveal himself to us once again,

that we might know him as he is revealed

in Scripture and in the breaking of the Bread.

 

Be present, be present O Jesus,

as you were present with your disciples. Amen.