June 11, 2017 – The 1st Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
A few years ago, I was in charge of a wedding, and I only met the father of the bride at the rehearsal. Usually, it’s the bride’s family that I know better, but this couple had decided to get married at the groom’s church. Because of that role reversal, I wanted to go out of my way to make the parents of the bride feel at home, so I sought them out to introduce myself and see if they had any questions about weddings in our church. I sensed right away that he was sizing me up, and before long that was confirmed when he asked, “So…how many of these weddings have you done before?” I smiled at him and said, “You know what? This is my very first one. But I took a class on weddings in seminary, so I think everything will be ok.”
There are some moments in life when you don’t want to encounter doubt. When they’re wheeling you into the operating room, you don’t want to hear your surgeon say, “I’m not too sure about this.” When you’re about to jump out of an airplane, you don’t want your skydiving instructor to say, “I can’t remember whether I checked your chute before we took off.” No one wants his investment manager to say, “I don’t know if this is going to pay off, but let’s try it.” No one wants to stand at the altar at her wedding and hear her husband-to-be say, “I’m having second thoughts.” And, for many of us, one of the most threatening doubts we can hear is the one that comes from our minister, when, in our moment of crisis, he or she admits, “I don’t know.”
So I must admit that I find it more than a little strange to read the end of Matthew’s gospel account and see that, as the disciples prepared to bid farewell to the risen Lord, some of them doubted. Did you notice that detail in this short gospel lesson? “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” You know, Matthew didn’t have to include those words in his story. They don’t seem integral to the overall message. If you were trying to convince your readers that Jesus of Nazareth, who had been crucified by the Roman Empire, was, indeed, God’s Son—the one whom God had sent into the world to rescue God’s people from all that oppressed them—you might decide to leave out that bit about his followers doubting him. But Matthew wants us to know the whole story—not just the part that makes for a convincing account but the whole thing, doubts and all.
As I wrote this week in my blog, the word that Matthew uses for doubt is a funny word that only appears one other time in the New Testament (see Matthew 14:31). Elsewhere in the New Testament, the word translated as “doubt” is a word that implies a waffling of sorts—the kind of back-and-forth judging that an uncertain person might have. In this passage and in that one other place, however, the word means “two-stanced” or, perhaps, “doubleminded.” The disciples, therefore, saw the risen Jesus and worshiped him, but some felt pulled in another direction—as if they weren’t quite clear on how to make sense of what was happening. Now, I don’t know about you, and you may find it threatening to hear your preacher say it, but that lack of clarity sounds like something I feel a lot of the time.
The world isn’t as comfortable with uncertainty as it used to be. Most of us carry the power of Google in our pockets, and we expect every question to have an answer that’s only a click away. And that has an effect on religion, too. In this age of science and archeology and reason and textual criticism, what does it mean to believe in Jesus? Now that we have access to tools that can test the veracity of the claims of Jesus’ followers, what does it mean to be a Christian in the twenty-first century? Sometimes it feels like Christianity is under attack from all the skeptics and secularists who would like nothing more than to unravel completely the faith that we have inherited from our ancestors. It’s as if anyone who would call herself a Christian has to be ready to prove that faith beyond a doubt at any moment. Sometimes it feels like there’s no room for good old-fashioned faith in a world that demands that proof. How do we hold onto faith in a culture like this?
Do we cast doubt aside? Do we dig in our heels and cling fast to the traditions of our ancestors and expel anyone who questions the things that we have always taught our children about God, about the Bible, and about the Christian faith? Do we double-down on certainty and bury our heads in the sand lest someone out there try to convince us or, worse, our children that what we’ve always believed isn’t true? Maybe that will work…for a while, for a day, for a moment in this over-connected, instantaneous culture we inhabit. And then what? What happens when, despite all our efforts, doubt creeps in? What happens when it’s our turn to lie awake at night and wrestle with the sorts of questions and inconsistencies that just don’t have answers?
In the Christian faith, there are two ways to deal with doubts. Some people sweep them under the rug, chase them out the door, banish them from their midst, or otherwise label them as thoroughly unchristian. And the rest of us sit with them and wrestle with them and linger in them and work through them for as long as it takes until light begins to shine in the darkness. We don’t have to have all the answers in order to follow Jesus. Jesus is the one who shows us that it’s ok to feel pulled in different directions—for part of us to recognize him as the risen Lord and for another part of us to be unsure whether he is the one we should fall down and worship. And why is that ok? Because the resurrection of Jesus shows us that God isn’t ever going to let our doubts stand in the way of his coming to us and saving us.
God isn’t waiting for us to put all of the pieces together and see the whole picture in perfect clarity before he is willing to reach down and rescue us from all that ails us. The risen Lord stands before his disciples and commissions them just as they are—doubts and all—and sends them forth to share the good news of God’s undefeatable love with the world. That love doesn’t depend upon our understanding. It meets us right where we are—confident or not, certain or not—and works its way into our hearts—sometimes slowly and other times all at once—until we know that love in ways that surpass our understanding.
Believing in Jesus doesn’t mean understanding him, nor does it mean having unquestioned certainty in the words of the Creed or the doctrines of the church. Believing in Jesus means trusting in him. It means putting your faith and giving your life to something that none of us can ever fully understand. It means looking at the risen Lord and recognizing that God’s love will always be bigger than you can comprehend and knowing that God’s faithfulness will always exceed even your strongest doubts.