Thursday, June 8, 2017

Worship and Doubt


I'm having a hard time figuring out what to preach on Trinity Sunday, so I am hesitant to say too much here because I worry I won't have anything else to say from the pulpit. Maybe that's a good example of the sort of worship and doubt that the disciples had in Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 28:16-20) when they said farewell to Jesus.

The disciples went to Galilee to the mountain to which Jesus had told them to go. There, they saw Jesus, and they worshiped him. But, as Matthew goes out of his way to say, some doubted. Why? Although I'm always interested to know why some of the disciples had their doubts, I'm more interested to know why Matthew bothered to add that little detail. Why would he say that? That's like standing at the altar on your wedding day and saying to your almost-spouse, "I'm having my doubts." In that moment, as you prepare to exchange vows, you may very well have your doubts, but that's not the time to say it out loud! Of course you have your doubts. We all have our doubts. The disciples had their doubts. But why did Matthew bother to mention it right as the disciples were getting their final instructions from Jesus? Why not let that little detail go by unmentioned so that the readers of your gospel account aren't left scratching their heads at a less-than-perfect ending?

I plan to say more about the integrity of doubt (uncertainty, wavering) in the midst of worship (awe-ascription, divinity-identification) in Sunday's sermon, but for now I'd like to celebrate the other moment in Matthew's gospel account when worship and doubt intersect. But first a little Greek.

The word Matthew uses for "some doubted" is ἐδίστασαν, which is a form of the Greek verb διστάζω. That verb is only used one other time in the New Testament. It turns out that the far more common word used by New Testament authors (19 times, in fact) for doubt is διακρίνω, which means "I judge" but carries the connotation of needing to decide between something. Part of the root is the Greek word δια, which means "through" or "back and forth." If you combine that with κρίνω, which means "I judge," you get someone who is in the process of judging back and forth or weighing two different options. In other words, διακρίνω implies that someone is at variance with himself. That's the sort of doubt that means non-wholehearted conviction. It's an act of discernment, not a position of double-mindedness. (For more on this word, see Strong's Concordance on biblehub.com here.)

But the word Matthew uses in Sunday's gospel lesson, a form of διστάζω, combines the Greek root δισ, which means "two," and the Greek root στασισ, which means "stance." This word means someone has a double-stance, a two-mindedness, an unresolved conflict of internal opinion. In a casual way they mean the same thing--doubt--but in Matthew's use there seems to be a considerable difference between the back-and-forth consideration of διακρίνω and the two-stance position of διστάζω. And I think the only other time the latter is used in the New Testament points us to that. (For more on this word, see Strong's Concordance on biblehub.com here.)

In Matthew 14:22-33, Jesus sends his disciples across the sea ahead of him. After some quiet time for prayer, Jesus notices that the disciples' boat is struggling against a storm. So he walks out to his disciples across the water. When they saw him, they were terrified because they thought it was a ghost, but Jesus reassured them, saying, "Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid." Peter seizes upon this opportunity and says, "If it really is you, tell me to come out on the water to you." As Peter walks out upon the water to him, he notices the strong wind and becomes frightened and begins to sink. At once, Jesus reaches out his hand and pulls Peter up and says, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" When he says it, he uses the two-stance word for doubt. And after they climb into the boat, the disciples all worship Jesus, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."

I don't think it's an accident that there are only two times when this particular word for doubt is used, and I don't think it's an accident that both come in Matthew's gospel account, and I don't think it's an accident that both come adjacent to a moment of worship. The disciples are of two minds. They have a double-stance. They straddle the fence of recognizing who Jesus is and failing to comprehend what that really means. This Sunday, I hope to explore that mindset of living in two places and seeking God's help to reconcile it.

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