The Twins: Faith and Doubt
I like to do the cryptograms in the newspaper. You know, those puzzles that are usually sentences about 10 words long, and look like a message made by a spy, in secret code, with different letters standing for the actual letters in the words. As a young adult, I was too intimidated to tackle those puzzles, thinking that they were just too hard. Then, one day my younger sister said that she did them all the time. Suddenly, they didn’t seem so hard, after all. Armed with confidence, I tried and discovered that I could do them pretty well. The cryptograms in the Inquirer are often inspirational sayings by famous persons, so sometimes when you solve the puzzle, you also wind up with a quotation that is food for thought. One quotation I learned this way went like this: “Doubt is not the opposite of faith, it is part of faith.” I had to look up who said it, and actually there are a few people who said something like this, including St. Augustine and the theologian Paul Tillich.
“Doubt is not the opposite of faith, it is part of faith.” This was comforting to me because, if there is anything worse than having doubts about God, it’s then feeling guilty because you have those doubts. You know, we don’t talk about doubt too much in church. There’s a lot of certainty, not too much uncertainty. The song goes, “I know that my redeemer liveth” not “I’m pretty sure—most of the time—that my redeemer is probably out there somewhere.”
Now, when the Christian Ed committee was planning the picnic that we are going to have right after church today, Cheryl mentioned that she could not be here today, and then suggested that the committee lead the service this week. Then she asked if I would do the sermon. I said, “Sure”-- a little uncertainly. Then she asked if I wanted to provide all the hymns, lessons, prayers, confession, etc., for the bulletin. I think my “sure” this time had a little squeak to it.
But there’s that idea of ‘confidence’ again. Or you could call it ‘faith in yourself.’ This came up in another context just the other day. I volunteer as an English teacher at the Nationalities Service Center, a nonprofit that works with immigrants and refugees. Just the other day when I was there, I was talking to my friends Ellen and Yanina. Ellen is the head of the Center’s Education Department, and Yanina is a student, who also led a Spanish class for volunteers that I took, so if we have any Spanish-speaking visitors: “El cuarto de baño esta por al pasillo, a la dereche.” Yanina, who is from Argentina, is not fluent in English, and is studying to take the TOEFL test (Test of English as a Foreign Language), which will require her to understand and answer questions about passages in English, and she was saying that she was nervous about it. But Ellen told her that a lot of taking that test is just having confidence. Just having confidence. A lot of things are like that. Confidence and faith can be defined the same way: in spite of not knowing and not having proof and even having doubt -- going ahead anyway. Doubt is part of faith.
Now one of the things I enjoy about Summit is that nearly every Sunday there is a theme for the service, reflected in the sermon. You have probably noticed that the sermon each week usually reflects on the second Scripture reading for the day, and you may have noticed that the first Scripture reading also is relevant to the same idea. But what I did not notice, until just a few months ago, was that it’s apparent that Cheryl and Ryan and the Worship Committee usually put together a worship service where one central idea from that Scripture is reflected throughout the service: in nearly all the hymns, and also the Affirmation of Faith and the Confession, the pastor’s prayer after joys and concerns, and elsewhere.
So I set out to do the same. For a theme, I thought back to my youth. Like a lot of us, I was not raised as a Presbyterian. We were Episcopalians. Episcopalians being very nearly Catholics (but not, thanks to Henry VIII), most Episcopal churches are named after saints. Ours was St. Thomas. Are you seeing the theme, yet? Yes, Doubting Thomas. It was interesting that our church was named after Thomas, because the story of Doubting Thomas fascinated me as a child: He needed to put his fingers in the holes in Christ’s body? Really? He was a disciple! They were men of God—didn’t they all know who Christ was? Didn’t they just believe by their nature?
But maybe that’s the lesson. The disciples were just common people, fishermen that Jesus plucked from their fishing boats and so forth. They weren’t some kind of angels on earth. I think the disciples are meant to remind us that we can be like them. Just as they had doubts, argued among themselves, failed Jesus in some ways (Peter denied him three times; Judas betrayed him), and so forth, so too do we. But also, therefore, just as these common men had the same failings and weaknesses as we have, they also were followers of Christ. And therefore, we can be followers of Christ.
As I was thinking about this theme of doubt and faith in the days after I agreed to do this sermon, I got inspiration in an unexpected place. I was driving up to Kilian’s to get some Sunday School supplies, and listening to Terry Gross on National Public Radio. Terry was interviewing the comedian Louis CK. Terry played a short skit that Louis CK did on faith and doubt. Louis said he doesn’t know whether there is a God or not, but that he really doesn’t get people who think that they know that there isn't a God--
That's a weird thing to think you can know. "Yeah, there's no God!" "Are you sure?" "Yeah -- No, there's no God!" "How do you know?" "Because I didn't see him!" "How do you --? There's a VAST universe! You can see for about a hundred yards when there's not a building in the way! How could you possibly --? Did you look everywhere? Did you look in the downstairs bathroom, where he goes sometimes?" "I haven't seen him!" "Yeah, well, I haven't seen "Twelve Years a Slave" yet, it doesn't mean it doesn't exist! I'm just gonna wait until it comes on cable!"
Louis CK’s monologue reminded me that it’s human and natural to be skeptical of unseen things and demand proof. Yet it is also important to go forth with confidence and faith in matters of importance, where proof is not to be had.
But how to reflect this theme in an entire worship service? As I said, there’s not a lot of discussion of doubt and agnosticism in the standard repertoire of hymns, prayers, calls to worship, etc. But we managed to fit some in today. As Devin said in the Call to Worship, “most of the world did not recognize him.” Thomas did not recognize him. Mary Magdalene did not recognize him; she thought he was the gardener. Two disciples didn’t recognize him on the road to Emmaus, until he later broke bread with them. Then the Scripture says “He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.” When Jesus is telling parables, there are many references to the disciples not understanding what the lesson is. We learn from Scripture that Jesus had the ability to cloud minds or to open minds. In the Gospel of John, just before he ascended to Heaven, it is written: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scripture.” These followers are the mirrors of our frailties, that we, in a sense, prefer our wills to God’s and make “hesitating witness,” as we confessed in the Confession today. We fail to recognize Our Lord--our minds can be closed to his word. That is why we need to “trust in God to guide us”—as we sang in our first hymn.
In the Second Reading from John today, we are told Jesus said to Thomas, “Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” After Thomas acknowledges him as Lord, Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now, some have interpreted Jesus’ last words there as a rebuke to Thomas for not believing at the first. But commentators smarter than me have pointed out that Thomas was not the only disciple who doubted. Luke tells us that, when an angel at the empty tomb tells the women that Christ is risen “they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.” Luke continues: “Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they (the apostles) did not believe them (the women).” Peter ran to the tomb to see for himself. Looking for evidence. Looking for the living among the dead. Did you look in the downstairs bathroom? Wrong place.
Thomas said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Proof for Thomas came in seeing that the risen Christ is the same one who was wounded, by examining the very wounds.
Christ’s wounds even come into our language. The Third Commandment forbids us to take the name of the Lord in vain, and trying to obey that commandment and not say “God” or “Jesus” in a curse, has led to many creative euphemisms: ‘Gosh,’ ‘Jeez,’ and I think even the desire not to call on “Holy Mary” led to the saying “holy mackerel.” Shakespearean scholars may note that in the 17th century people swore to Christ’s wounds but—to obey the 3rd Commandment—left off the name of God or Christ. So, for example, you can find in Shakespeare the curse “Snails” which is a contraction of “God’s nails.” And a more common one that you may have heard is “Zounds”—which is a contraction of “God’s wounds.”
It is not surprising that much of our faith focuses on Christ’s wounds, for we are all wounded in some way. Yet, as Devin assured us in the Assurance of Pardon, “by his wounds you have been healed.” In some ways, Christ’s wounds define our relationship to him. It is interesting to me that the sign for Jesus in sign language is this [show]. That’s what Thomas wanted to see. The reason I chose “Were You There?” for our second hymn today is that you weren’t there, clearly. Yet Thomas was there, and he still doubted. Sometimes we doubt the evidence of our own eyes. [show tube] Sometimes we see holes in our palms when they aren’t there. The story in John’s Gospel says that Thomas was called “the Twin.” The Bible doesn’t say who the other twin was. Maybe it is us.
We can’t demand to see Christ’s wounds, and what would it prove anyway? Even in my moments of greatest doubt, I like to think of what I learned about proofs in math class in high school. This is my rudimentary understanding: Mathematics has theorems of how certain mathematical functions work, and mathematicians spend a lot of time proving those theorems. Mathematical proofs are based on certain self-evident principles, called axioms. Axioms are so basic that they cannot be proven. They are just assumed to be true. For example, one axiom is that if two numbers are equal to a third number, then the first two must be equal to each other. Pretty obvious. Can’t prove it, but the whole system of mathematics depends on axioms being true. Just can’t do math without that assumption. To me, God is like an axiom. I can’t prove that God exists, but everything I do depends on accepting that truth.
You know, when someone comes to Summit and asks to become a member, they meet with the Session, and Cheryl usually asks them to tell the Session about their “faith journey.” Faith. Journey. Both of those words speak of uncertainty. And we are all always on a journey. Always seeking. We just need to have confidence to keep going forward. Faith. Faith that passes all understanding. And, as the hymn we are about to sing says, walk by that faith and not by sight.
Gracious God, we, your wounded and flawed people, have faith that the proof of your amazing love is this: that you gave your son to suffer and die for us on the cross. In his wounds, we are healed. Amen.
Summit Presbyterian Church
 [In the Children’s Message earlier, I demonstrated this optical illusion: if you roll up your bulletin and make a tube of it, then hold it next to your right hand and up to your left eye, keeping both eyes open and relaxed—it appears that you have a hole in your hand.]