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Gift of Doubt – Br. Mark Brown

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Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1—2:2; John 20: 19-31

I have a “Doubting Thomas” question this morning and an imaginary answer from God. But that comes later.

What comes through loud and clear in these almost 2000 year old texts is a tremendous energy, an irrepressible enthusiasm. And, especially, an urgency to tell others about this extraordinary event of the resurrection of Jesus.  (“These are written so that you may come to believe…” “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands…so that you may have fellowship with us…so that our joy may be complete.”)  There is an irrepressible impulse in these writings, an urgency to share with others.

The thrust of the original event was powerful enough to launch movements in several directions at once.   So we have the 1st century communities that produced the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke; we have the writings of Peter and Paul and their followers; we have the letters of the community connected with John and the 4th Gospel and so on. Each of these traditions has its own slant on things, its own emphases.

We’ve inherited these multiple traditions emerging from the same originating, galvanizing event. The common denominator is an irrepressible urgency to share the experience of the resurrection of Jesus—an experience so compelling that they couldn’t not spread the news around, even at the risk of their reputations and lives.

Compelling because the resurrection addresses a universal fear: the fear of death.  The resurrection of Jesus says that we need not fear death, because it is the beginning of a new kind of life. And, as Paul was to elaborate, nothing stands in the way between us and this new kind of life; Jesus’ death on the cross was the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, once and for all.  There is a new life beyond this one and it is freely offered to all—we need not fear rejection on account of anything we’ve done or said or left unsaid or left undone.

This core message of resurrection is a fire that has leaped across every fence, every boundary of culture, language, ethnicity, class—precisely because of the dry tinder of the inevitability of death and our fear of it.  I’m personally convinced that this core message of the church is grounded in events that actually happened. But there’s a bit of the Doubting Thomas in all of us, as is natural for thinking beings. And, for that matter, for a faith that is grounded in the Scriptures with all their ambiguities and inconsistencies.  (Was the Holy Spirit given on the day of resurrection as we just heard, or fifty days later as we read in Acts?)

I think it was Frederick Buechner who once described doubt as the “ants in the pants of faith”.  We can be convinced in our own minds, we can hold fast to what we believe, and still have a certain modesty about what we say we know absolutely to be true.  There is a healthy interplay in the life of faith between our need to feel settled in our beliefs and the desire to ask more questions. Paul speaks of faith as a gift of the Holy Spirit.  If that’s true, the kind of faith many of us have received is an interplay between belief and doubt, faith and questions.

Here’s my Doubting Thomas question for today: why doesn’t God do a kind of refresher incarnation every hundred years or so, a reincarnation so we can enjoy more certainty in our beliefs, so we can feel absolutely sure?

And here’s my imagined explanation from God (we should now all sing a few verses of “Fools Rush in Where Angels Fear to Tread”).  I imagine that God wants to do something new—again. Actually, something old in a new way. And that something new is this: to raise up a new kind of body. To incarnate and raise up a new kind of embodiment.  And that embodiment is the body of which we are members: we are, in one sense, the risen Body of Christ.

His love, his grace and truth are to be embodied in a new way, that is, in us.  The First Letter of John speaks provocatively of this: God is love, but God’s love is perfected in us.  God desires this new kind of body so that his joy may be complete, that his love may reach a new level of perfection, of fullness, of completion. 1 John 4:12: “…if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

And that perfection, that completion of love embodied in our humanity is “phase two” of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are that new body being raised up.  So we begin to see the urgency of those first century writers in this light.  They had to share their witness in order for Christ to be raised up yet again in this new way.  The fire has to spread.

To the extent that we believe, we have confidence to face death in expectation of our own resurrection to greater life. To the extent that our faith falls short of absolute certainty, we are perhaps more inclined to embrace the reality of the new body being raised up here on this earth, in this world that God so loves.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten…” [John 3: 16]

Its in 1 Corinthians that Paul speaks of faith as a gift of the Holy Spirit [1 Cor. 12: 9].  The kind of faith many of us have been given is an interplay between belief and doubt, faith and questioning.  The particular kind of faith we have, this interplay of seeming opposites, is itself a gift. The God we know has left a trail of crumbs for us, but remains to a great extent elusive and just beyond the grasp of absolute certainties.

And that in itself is a gift; we might say we have received the gift of doubt.  Just enough doubt to take this world seriously, this world that God so loves. We are to fully embrace this world, in all its joys and sorrows.  Although we may cherish the belief that we will enter into eternity fully alive, we are to embrace this life while we have it. The whole point of the great resurrection of Jesus is to address our fear of death, so that we may indeed fully embrace this life, its joys and sorrows, its possibilities for incarnating the love, grace and truth of Christ– without fear. We are to fully embrace “phase two” of the resurrection of Christ.

We are invited to live into this new body fully and not with our hat and coat on, bags packed by the front door and car warming up in the garage. (At least until it really is time to go.)

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20 Comments

  1. Rhode on August 25, 2016 at 07:27

    Five months later and this message is still fresh.. Here I am, a solid 62 yr old bag of bones, sitting on a foam cushion, yet, I am also a small universe of teeny particles turning with this earth at 1000 miles per hr around the sun; hurtling along with our expanding universe at the speed of light.
    My only visual proof of movement is the rising and setting sun and aging.
    Faith in a supernatural God, who creates, plans and provides for me and this whole world, while I am just sitting here, feels sometimes like the thought of hurtling through space ….. I am a part of all this real movement… which I am all so unaware of, until I stop to examine. I figure, my doubt is a partner to my belief. We are on this ride together.

  2. Mryka on March 31, 2016 at 10:57

    I have for a long time thought of Thomas not so much as the doubter as the “absent”. Whenever anything exciting is going down, Thomas is off somewhere else. And after Pentecost, if tradition is to be taken literally, he goes off to India or someplace and is never talked about or heard of again, but manages to found a church there that endures absent from the mainstream for millennia. I look at Jesus’ words “blessed are those who have not seen but believe” in that sense and take it to mean that I don’t have to be in the centre of things or particularly loud or noteworthy in order to accomplish God’s work. I need to believe as God gives me faith to do so and take the unnoticed parts of the world and of my world as belonging also to God. Maybe Thomas could be the patron saint of introverts and wanderers: or maybe of introverted wanderers!

  3. a city monk on March 31, 2016 at 10:20

    this year, I will not rush Pentecost. this year, I will journey with Mary, and the awe struck apostles gently toward the Pentecost… Veni Sancte Spiritus. This year, I am entering more deeply into Mary’s pondering of her heart. What did the Resurrection of Jesus mean to his Mother and her relationship to her new son, John? How did John experience his new responsibility to Mary? An invitation to learn the prayers of Mary’s journey to Pentecost… not to rush!
    All those years of holding in her heart the Mysteries of her heart…now, through to the Resurrection of her Son. Hers a faith without doubt? Full of Grace… leaves room for contemplation for… pondering.
    This year, let my heart move slowly through the 50 day from Resurrection to Pentecost. Let my heart, find the warmth of Mary’s and John’s consolations penetrate any hardening of heart, so as to welcome afresh the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.
    50 day vigil to Pentecost… praise be to God!

    very
    grateful

  4. Rhode on March 31, 2016 at 08:25

    Beautiful and practical lesson. ‘Perfect love casts out fear’ i read as love perfected. The love of God is perfect, casting out all fear that His Words of love are false, though my love for Him is not perfected yet, so i fear and I stumble along through days of belief and nights of doubt. But the more I read of how His love worked miracles of commitment and shepherding to peoples of old I see in my everyday life his commitment and shepherding of my little life as my own miracle. This wonderful God who has borne my sorrows and placed my unworthy life in the shadow of his rock is truly worthy of my allegiance, obedience and the hope of seeing my love perfected in Him. Praise God!

  5. margaret fletcher on March 31, 2016 at 08:21

    “If we had certainty why would we need faith?”

  6. Michael on March 31, 2016 at 08:16

    A friend once said, Sell all your intelligence and buy pure awe. The mystery, along with its inevitable doubt are part of our journey.

  7. John David Spangler on August 12, 2015 at 06:19

    Since Br. Mark’s excellent homily is about “The Gift of Doubt”, I thought it appropriate to cite this quote from The Folio Book of Days for August 13th: “Prayer of a private soldier just before the battle Blenheim, 1704. ‘O God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul.’”. Responding to your comments, Ruth, I share your view that the Holy Eucharist is “a way to fully live” and is, as you say, “without doubt a holy mystery”. As I approach the Eucharist, or actually as it approaches me since it is now brought to me in the pew, I recite the prayer attributed to Elizabeth I:
    “He was the Word that spake it;
    He took the bread and brake it;
    And what his word did make it,
    That I believe and take it.”.
    adding
    “Then, He took the cup of wine and blessed it;
    And what his word did make it,
    That I believe and take it.”
    And then receive his “most precious Body and Blood” by faith with thanksgiving.

    • Christina on August 12, 2015 at 09:11

      In addition to reading the Brothers’ words in the mornings, I also read the responses. You have two (happy birthday earlier on in the year – I too am an octogenarian) for this reading. Thank you.
      More recently, I had the thought that Belief is in my head. We learned from childhood, ‘I believe…..” But, for me I think we have to move from saying that we believe to KNOWING in our heart of hearts.
      Others have expressed this thought too.
      Christina

  8. David Cranmer on April 9, 2015 at 14:28

    Br Mark,

    Your phrasing in terms of “a certain modesty about what we say we know absolutely to be true. There is a healthy interplay in the life of faith between our need to feel settled in our beliefs and the desire to ask more questions” expresses extremely well what I have thought for a long time. Thank you for giving me the words to express this idea in. And I thank Lisa for the reminder that we don’t have to believe everything in the mind, but that we can also believe in the heart.

  9. Tracy on April 7, 2015 at 22:21

    It is interesting to contemplate doubt & faith being a gift. I’m so used to doubt being referred to as a weakness. I know if answers are too hard to explore then I’d get fed up, but if you get bits of the answers leading onto great answers/insights here and there, then what a wonderful journey. I wonder if life is in the ‘process’/’working it out’ (how we live) sometimes & not the end result….. although at Easter time I think perhaps it could be about the end result for us as Christ’s bride – I would like to make it to the heavenly wedding! That would be a great ending to this fallen life! Anyway, my bags aren’t quite packed yet, I’ve misplaced my jacket & I can’t hear any engine – I think I still have time to savour God’s gift of earthly life without fear. To overcome it is to face it so here goes…..

  10. Ruth West on April 6, 2015 at 18:01

    Thank you for this sermon, food for thought.
    I see the Holy Eucharist as a way to fully live into this new body. As we approach the Sacrament, we pray that “He may dwell in us and we in Him.”
    It is, without doubt, a holy mystery, and we must take the “most precious Body and Blood” by faith with thanksgiving. May God bless you.

  11. Muriel Akam on April 6, 2015 at 15:44

    Thank you so much for the explanation of the resurrection in that as we need not fear death but to embrace this life fully having faith in God’s love for us and to embody this love in loving others. Easter for me symbolises new hopes , new beginnings in a spiritual sense and a renewal of faith. I want to live here on earth to fully understand God’s purpose for us all.

  12. KAREN PIDCOCK on April 6, 2015 at 13:55

    Yes, we are the incarnation of the Risen Christ…I agree!

    But no more can I swallow atonement!

    Christ is risen & will go before us into the Nazreths of our worlds! Alleluia!

  13. Lisa on April 6, 2015 at 11:42

    I’ve come to feel that I don’t have to believe in my head, I can believe in my heart – have the sense of it and that gives me enough to go forward.

  14. Michael on April 6, 2015 at 11:03

    I fully understand the idea of faith and doubt living in juxtaposition to one another. What this conflict forces in our nature, I am far less sure. Brother Mark’s explanation while steeped bibical quotes fsils to make thing less clear to me. This may be exactly the point he is trying to make and we need to adjust to living with mystery and confusion. I struggle with this

  15. Sandra of Oakland on April 6, 2015 at 10:34

    Thank you Br. Mark. You present the elephant in the room with such poise and reassurance. Belief and doubt, faith and questions- these are daily dilemmas. Sometimes it is hard to ignore that nagging questions in our head. But your sermon reveals that just as the apostles faced these issues, albeit with greater understanding than I, we can go forth with reassurance. It is when we are stretched physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually that we evolve and mature . I was once given the example of a pinhole on a piece of black construction paper; it is only when you get very close to the black paper that
    you can see the light through the pinhole. The black paper is fear, unknown, any aspect of darkness. But one must approach the darkness as an act of faith
    knowing that God’s love is always with us.

  16. Joanna. Cotter on April 6, 2015 at 10:31

    I too believe one must have doubt to have faith. Living in today’s world is a gift to savor for there is so much good, beauty & love to see, feel & cherish, ofttimes at our fingertips. One may have to look beyond, under & around the chaos, but it’s there. Quiet moments along w/celebrating simple wonders daily gives life
    to even a gloomy day. So, in closing, my faith is stronger for now. Is there after-life? Mostly I believe; if there’s any doubt, it’s there. However,I do feel my young son, my angel-in-waiting will embrace me saying,” How’s it going, Joey?”

  17. Christopher Engle Barnhart on April 6, 2015 at 08:45

    Each day is a blessing for me. I am thankful to have been given opportunities to live in the most wonderful places that I never expected to live. As I grow older each day, I know that the days ahead are shorter than the days behind. But that is joyful to me. Although physically I can’t do what I did when I was say thirty, I can find solace in knowing that I do my best each day to live a Godly life with study and prayer. I have no fear of death because I know I will become anew with God after death. So I try to make my days ahead as filled with the Holy Spirit as I can.

  18. John David Spangler on April 6, 2015 at 08:28

    Dear Br. Mark, I thank you mostly heartily for your explanation of “the whole point” of Jesus’s resurrection as being “to address our fear of death, so that we may indeed fully embrace this life, its joys and sorrows, its possibilities for incarnating the love, grace and truth of Christ– without fear. We are to fully embrace “phase two” of the resurrection of Christ. We are invited to live into this new body fully . . .” I was reminded of John 10:10: “I came that they [we His sheep] may have life, and have it abundantly.” Many thieves have indeed “come only to steal and kill and destroy”. Bless you for coming to explain and for the invitation. Now I fully and properly understand the resurrection. My lament is that I, a cradle Episcopalian, had to wait 86 years for the understanding. As a post-script, I, referring to your Doubting Thomas question, that I have come to believe that one must have doubt to have Faith (I was born on his day.). Peace! David

    • David Cranmer on September 15, 2016 at 22:33

      Hi John David,
      Having myself had to wait 70 years to hear and understand, with you I rejoice that God has revealed these things to us. When the meaning of “O Death, where is thy sting?” finally hit me, I rejoiced greatly and finally understood the message of the angels to the shepherds at Jesus’s birth. DavC

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