God's Messengers

How often have God's messages been missed because we didn't like the messenger...

SJF • Epiphany 2b 2015 • Tobias S Haller BSG
The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, Here I am, for you called me. Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.

A few weeks ago I referred to the difference between hearing and listening. This is not just true of human dialogue, but of the way God speaks to us. The problem is that however God speaks, whether through nature or in the words of Scripture, through a prophet or as Christ himself, people often seem to be unable to listen, or sometimes even hear.

One of the reasons for this, as we see in our reading from the First Book of Samuel, is the inability to accept God’s message when it comes through a child. This shouldn’t be, of course: especially for us Christians. After all, we believe that God himself came to us as a child and he has told us that we cannot come to him unless we come as a child. Nor should this be a problem for old Eli, — for he knows that wisdom often comes “out of the mouths of babes.” Yet it takes three times for God’s call to Samuel to sink in for old Eli, to realize that God has chosen this child and wishes to speak to him and through him.

It is hard sometimes to hear God speaking through a child — but you can learn a lot if you listen. There was once a priest who had a framed print hanging in his office. It was a parishioner’s gift to a former rector, so even though this priest wasn’t particularly fond of the painting, there it stayed. It was a framed print of a painting by the Dutch modern artist Piet Mondrian: just horizontal and vertical black lines, with a few little squares of color to brighten it a bit; framed, under glass. Not unattractive as the such things go, but not terribly interesting. So it hung there, behind him, and the priest didn’t even look at it all that often.

One day a little boy about four years old came into the office with his mother who taught Sunday School. As soon as the little boy stopped at the doorway, he stopped short, and pointed up at the print over the priest’s head, and said, “Look, Mommy!” The priest turned to see what the child could find so interesting, but all that he could see was the framed geometric print. The priest looked over at the child and asked, “What is it, Johnny?” And the little child said, “It’s Jesus!” The priest was even more surprised, so he got up and came over to the child and his mother and looked back at the print, and said, it’s just colors and lines. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I don’t see him.” The child continued to say, “Look, look at Jesus.” The mother shrugged nervously, because she too had no idea what the child was talking about. So the priest bent down on one knee beside the boy and began to explain, “Now, Johnny, sometimes we see things that aren’t really there, and that can be our imagination; or it could be....” And then he looked up into the picture there, framed behind his desk. and there, sure enough, reflected in the glass over the print was the image of Christ from the crucifix from the wall opposite his desk, perfectly reflected on those black lines, his arms outstretched to embrace the whole world, there on that black cross of lines, and spots of color. It took a change in the priest’s perspective to see Jesus where he wasn’t supposed to be, and to understand the authoritative testimony of a child.

What was it Jesus told us?— unless you become like a child you cannot come to me? Perhaps if we adults were on our knees more often with the children, we would have a better appreciation of God’s messages for us.

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Now it isn’t only age prejudice that can lead us to reject or misunderstand God’s message. In our gospel today we see an example of how regional prejudice can also get in the way of hearing God’s voice. And in this case it is the voice of Jesus himself. What I’m referring to is Nathanael’s famous putdown of Jesus before he even meets him. When he’s told by Philip that they have found the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote, Jesus the son of Joseph from Nazareth, Nathanael responds with a classic putdown, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Fortunately for Nathanael, Philip doesn’t give up and continues to extend the invitation to “come and to see.”

But how many opportunities to hear God’s voice and to enter into God’s presence have been missed down the years by people who stopped at the stage of the putdown and didn’t get beyond their prejudice. How many times have people failed to hear the voice of God speaking through the person who came from the wrong side of the tracks, or, in Nathanael’s case in view of Jesus, from the other side of Lake Galilee; or the one who was too old, or too young, or who had a funny accent? How many people have missed the opportunity to be in God’s presence because they thought the one inviting them was the wrong color or the wrong sex? How many times in human history have the simple words of truth been missed because the person speaking them didn’t have the right kind of education, or go to the right school, or belong to the right club? In short, how much of God has the world missed because we have let our worldly standards stand in the way of God’s messengers?

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Tomorrow, of course, is the annual celebration of one such messenger’s birthday: Martin Luther King Jr. There will be a Bronx-wide celebration up at Holy Nativity in Norwood at 10 am, and I hope some of you will be able to attend. The bishop will be celebrating, and the bishop suffragan preaching. As I reminded everyone last week we’ll also take up a collection for the Martin Luther King Jr Scholarship Fund. This fund continues to help young people from the Bronx as they begin their college careers, helping to equip them as the next generation of young messengers to help build up the world.

Martin Luther King suffered the rejection that prejudice often inflicts upon God’s messengers. Certainly there were plenty of people who didn’t want to hear the message he brought. There were many who put him down because of his race, even though they could hardly slight him on the basis of his academic credentials or his powerful preaching. As his work progressed it became harder and harder to deny that God was working through him — until he finally was stopped not by a verbal putdown by an assassin’s bullet.

But I would like today more especially to remember another witness to the power of God: a much more humble witness. This is someone who was much more easily put down by the people of her time and place. Not only was she black, but she was a woman. Not only was she a woman, but she came from simple folks — like her Lord her father was a carpenter. And though she went to a trade school in her youth, beyond the studies she did at Teachers College she lacked any kind of advanced degree, or personal wealth, or anything else that might have given her prestige and prominence in any time or place, but especially that time and place — and yet, as poet Rita Dove put it: “How she sat there, the time right in a place so wrong it was ready!”

I hope you know who I’m talking about: Miss Rosa Parks. She was the little lady whose refusal to give up her seat on a bus one day was the spark that helped ignite the torch that would light the way for Martin Luther King’s crusade for civil rights. And isn’t it the highest of ironies that this woman to whom few would have given even the time of day back then in 1955, the woman who was told to give up her seat on the bus, received in her passing from us fifty years later an honor reserved primarily for the Presidents of the United States: to be the first — and so far the only — woman ever to lie in state under the great dome of the Capitol Building in Washington DC.

And I hope you’ll pardon my imagination if I cannot help but picture that as this brave woman walks through the gates of heaven, that Martin Luther King himself rises from the seat he justly received when he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet, and says to her, “Miss Rosa Parks, please take my seat.”

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The tragedy in all of this, is how many of God’s messages are missed in this hateful and judgmental and prejudicial world of ours; how many young voices go unheard, how many old ignored; how many foreign tongues that praise God are dismissed as uncouth or unskilled; how many turned aside by the pride and prejudice that judges people on the color of the skin rather than the content of their character?

Were it not better, my brothers and sisters, to bend our knees and listen to the child who points us to the Christ? Were it not better to set aside all prejudicial judgments and preconceptions about who people are or where they come from or what they do — and listen to their voices instead — to hear God’s truth regardless of who speaks it? This is a challenge my friends, a challenge set before us by the man from Nazareth, the town from which they said no good could come, the son of a carpenter. He has words to speak to us, and we dare not turn aside simply because of the one who bears his message. May we, rather, like young Samuel, be ready always to respond, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”+

Witness Protection Plan

God offers a protection plan for those who witness in the power of the Spirit...

SJF • Easter 2a 2014 • Tobias S Haller BSG
These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Happy Easter! I say that because Easter is not just a single day, but a whole season, and we are now on the Second Sunday of that Easter Season. This season is a time to celebrate something that is too good just to commemorate with a single day — the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is something to celebrate for a whole 50 days, right up to Pentecost. And beyond! For I hope I don’t surprise you further by reminding you that every Sunday is a “little Easter,” a celebration of the resurrection. Even the Sundays that fall during Lent are called “Sundays in Lent” but not “of Lent” — that’s a little liturgical footnote.

Eastertide — those fifty days — is a special season that speaks to us eloquently, because it coincides with the awakening of the world to springtime glory. I often wonder what it must feel like to be celebrating Easter in the Southern Hemisphere, where it is the beginning of fall — that must give it a different feeling. But here we are lucky enough to have Easter coincide with all of those beautiful flowers coming up outside; some of which we owe to our dear friend Monica. After the winter we had, believe me, spring is most welcome. As is Easter.

This is also a time to hear passages of Scripture that describe the birthday of the church and its very beginnings, that emergence of the body of the faithful believers in Jesus as they shared with each other in their experiences of the Risen Lord. The seed that had been planted by Jesus himself began to blossom and to bear fruit, in those days after his resurrection. For the church this was new life in a new world: the world’s spring.

Primary among these believers is Saint Peter. In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear the first part of Peter’s very first sermon — the one that he preached on the day of Pentecost — and we also hear a brief passage from his First Letter. We will hear more from this sermon next week, and more from that letter over the coming weeks of this Easter season. And I want to spend some time today and in the coming weeks exploring the teaching Peter develops about what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be the church in this world’s springtime.

Peter’s sermon to the crowds on Pentecost was more than a sermon, of course. It was testimony, and that is the element I want to highlight today. Like any religious Jew of his day, Peter knew his Scriptures well, and also like any pious believer then or since, he always tried to bring his own experience into relation with Scripture, to place his own experience into the history of salvation to which the Scriptures bear witness.

So Peter does some scriptural exegesis — which is just a fancy word for exploring and explaining what Scripture means. He quotes from the Psalms of David, Psalms that point to eternal life, and the promise that God’s Holy One would not suffer corruption. And Peter has the guts to say to the gathered assembly, “Well guess what, folks. David died! Not only that, but he suffered corruption — he was put in a tomb, and his tomb is right down the street and you can go and see it if you want. So David wasn’t talking about himself, but about one of his descendants. It is this Messiah that David is talking about when he says that he “will not be abandoned to Hades or experience corruption.” Then Peter pulls this historic analysis — all well in and of itself — right into the present: He tells the people there, “It has happened, right here in Jerusalem and not so long ago: this descendant of David, this Jesus — the man in whose crucifixion you all played a part by getting the Romans to execute him — God has raised him from the dead, and of that we are all witnesses!”

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Now, recall the situation. Just fifty-two days earlier, this same Peter was huddled by the fire outside the court where Jesus was on trial. When people recognized him and accused him of being one of the disciples, he denied it three times before the rooster crowed; and it all ended in tears. Peter, too, you see, had played his own part in the crucifixion of Jesus. Yet here — now, fifty-two days later — is this same man now boldly proclaiming to the whole community not only that they are guilty of complicity in a terrible crime — the execution of an innocent man — but that this man was and is the Messiah, whom God has raised from the dead, and that he and the other apostles are eyewitnesses to this raising. The former coward and traitor has been transformed by his own personal experience and the coming of God’s Spirit into one willing to testify to the truth, even at the risk of his own life — for remember who he is talking to: he knows that those who had worked to bring down Jesus may well still be there among that crowd, and they might do to Peter and his colleagues the same things, to bring them down — as indeed some of them would soon do — and we’ll be hearing more about that in the coming weeks!

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So there are two parts to this phenomenon: Peter’s actual experience of being a witness to something, and then the action of testifying to that experience. Has anyone here ever served as a witness in a trial or a hearing? (I won’t ask for a show of hands, but if you did you’ll know what I mean, that there are two parts to the experience. Not only have you had personal experience of some event, but you are willing to testify to that event. It means having and sharing first-hand knowledge, being able to deliver your testimony. It isn’t enough to have hearsay — somebody told me this happened — no, it means being able to say, “I was there, and I saw what happened.” And it isn’t enough just to have seen what happened — you have to be willing to be sworn in and to testify to your memories of what you saw. You have to tell your story — a story that happened.

Peter lacked the courage to testify that he knew Jesus on the night that Jesus was betrayed, but in between that and the testimony we heard this morning, two great events took place: Jesus was raised from the dead, and the Spirit descended on the apostles. These two events changed Peter and made him willing to take a risk he had been unwilling to take just weeks before.

For there is a risk in offering testimony. As I said, Peter, in that sermon was testifying to the same people who, as he said, got the Romans to crucify Jesus. Sometimes the risk is so great that people who testify, in a modern setting, have to be offered special protection; sometimes even a whole new identity, a whole new life in a different place. They call it a “witness protection plan.” God had such a plan for Peter, and it too had two parts. First came his own personal experience of the risen Christ, the Easter experience of a new life raised from the dead. But even more powerful was the descent of the Holy Spirit that came on him and the other apostles on the feast of Pentecost — which is when he spoke the words of this bold first sermon to the people. These two events gave Peter a new identity, and equipped him with what Paul would later call “the armor of God” but which Peter refers to as “protection” — a depth of trust and conviction that converted him from fear to faith. And they gave him a new life in a new place — the church that was born on the day of Pentecost, as we’ll hear again in a few weeks. He could boldly preach Christ and him crucified, but also risen from the dead, and he did so in the witness protection plan of God’s Holy Spirit.

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In addition to our sermon from Peter, today’s gospel passage gives us another story of a witness, the patron saint of witnesses: Doubting Thomas. Thomas is a skeptic — perhaps by nature. John reminds us that Thomas had a nickname; he was called “the Twin.” Now, we don’t know if he was an actual twin, or if he just looked so much like someone that they called him that. But he had probably had to argue many times with people who tell him, “But I saw you at the shop yesterday,” when what they saw was his brother or someone who looked like him. Even people who aren’t twins suffer from mistaken identity often enough — perhaps our twins can testify; have you ever been mistaken for someone else? or each other? I’m sure you have; I know I have! Or have you ever mistaken someone else for someone else; gone up to someone on the street and started to say “hello” and they look at you like, “Who are you?” And then you realize, “Sorry, I thought you were someone else.”

So Thomas probably had that kind of experience for much of his life. And when you’ve lived with that long enough you can become very skeptical about the eyewitness reports you hear about others. You’ve been there; you know how wrong people can be.

So when the other disciples assure Thomas that they have seen the Lord, he is not persuaded by their testimony. His first thought is that they’ve seen someone who looks like Jesus. Even their eyewitness testimony is not enough to convince him. He won’t accept their word: he needs to see for himself.

So, when Thomas finally does see for himself, he is practically speechless; he is only able to say a few words — how many times have you repeated them yourselves as you knelt at this altar to receive Christ present in the Eucharist — that simple phrase, “My Lord and my God!”

And Jesus does not rebuke him: he merely reminds him that being an eyewitness is not possible for everyone. It is the task of faith to believe those who are witnesses to the truth. We are challenged to test everything, yes, but to we are also called, as Jesus tells Thomas, to give credence when we see the greatest good; to believe not only the testimony, but the good faith of those who testify, who, in their lives and in their works as well as in their words show forth the fruits of God’s Holy Spirit at work in them. That is putting the power of faith to work: not just seeing, but believing, and testifying and bearing witness in one’s life, so that others may see and believe in the power of God, and have the courage to have faith.

This is how the power of God’s witness protection plan works for us. It gives us a different kind of courage — but through the same Spirit that gave courage to Peter. This is the courage to believe that of which we are not eyewitnesses — the resurrection of Christ — yet hold fast to the testimony of those who are witnesses — and to allow that experience of God to work in our lives.

We are not eyewitnesses to the resurrection — but we do have the testimony of those first eyewitnesses, passed down to other believers, and then on to the next generation of those who believe, and who receive the courage of faith through the Spirit, to act on their own belief to do the work God gives them — gives us — to do. And the power of this testimony, handed down through the ages, can still change the world. Our own “witness protection plan” is not based on having seen, but having believed, as Jesus promised Thomas would be the case. This gives us our new identity and our new dwelling place — as members of the church, Christ’s body on earth, and with that new identity, “Christian.” This testimony is as fresh as the day it was first delivered, blooming up out of the soil of cowardice and fear into the light of faith. It comes alive, alive like the springtime, like Easter itself in its continued rebirth, every time that testimony is offered, every time you speak a word of faith to someone who does not yet believe, you help that seed to blossom into life. It is the power of God at work for good in the world that God created, the world God redeemed, and the world God fills with his Holy Spirit.

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This is the promise and the fulfillment of Easter: the season of resurrection, of new beginnings and new possibilities, when life comes to the dead, cowards become courageous, doubters become believers, and even those who have not seen dare to speak out, dare to stand firm and to stand forth against all that works against the human spirit or God’s Spirit, to testify that they are saved and redeemed by the blood of Christ: witnesses protected by God!

This is our faith; this is our testimony; this is our courageous proclamation in the Spirit; this is our story, this is our song! beloved sisters and brothers in Christ. We may not have seen him rise, but we know he lives.

Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Ignorance, Doubt and Fear

The disciples' fear, doubt and ignorance is overcome, by the grace of God -- a sermon for Easter 3

SJF • Easter 3b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Peter said, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer.

It may seem odd in the midst of an Easter season, in spite of today’s weather, that I should be preaching a sermon on the themes of ignorance, fear and doubt. However, that is what we are presented with in today’s Scripture readings. And the irony in all of this, particularly in the part about ignorance, is that the ignorance itself plays a crucial part in the story of salvation, what theologians would call a “happy fault.”

One of the important things to note about ignorance is that it is not the same thing as stupidity. Very smart people can be ignorant; in fact, the smartest people of all are the ones who know when they are ignorant about certain things, and don’t try to pretend they know more than they do. (Someone tell our political candidates, please!) For ignorance is simply the absence of knowledge: not the inability to have knowledge.

The ignorance in question today is the ignorance of those who conspired to bring down Jesus, and to bring him to the cross and his death upon it. In today’s reading from Acts, Peter is beginning to make his case that Jesus is the Messiah — and he will very shortly be on trial before the Council for making that case and thus have the opportunity to make it even more dramatically and eloquently. He has just performed his own first miracle of healing, and the crowds are amazed. And Peter tells them, essentially, “See, Jesus really was the Messiah; he has promised that such things would be done in his name — I did not perform on my own merits but through the power of God that was at work in Christ — this miracle proves it. You and your rulers put him to death but God has raised him to life, and we are eyewitnesses. But I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your rulers.”

Peter is arguing that this ignorance served a purpose, God’s purpose. Jesus himself had prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do!” Peter affirms that they were ignorant and that their ignorance of who Christ really was furthered the work of salvation. Had the rulers and the people accepted Jesus, he would not have suffered death at Roman hands at their instigation. There had to be a kind of “suspension of belief” so that salvation could come: universal salvation, to the whole world — not just the delivery of Israel from Roman rule. Had all the people accepted Jesus, and crowned him as merely an earthly king of Israel, he would not have fulfilled his role as the savior of the whole world, not just for this world, but for the next — not just to defeat the power of Rome as an earthly monarch, but by dying and rising to life again to destroy death itself.

In some sense God must have willed that the people and their rulers would not accept Jesus as Messiah, as had been prophesied, in order that his saving death could be accomplished — much as God had hardened Pharaoh’s heart in the days prior to the Exodus in order that God’s glory might be shown in the power of deliverance, when he brought his people out of Egypt with great signs and wonders.

And I called this a happy fault to echo that older and first happy fault of the fall of Adam and Eve. As the old English Christmas carol says, “had not that apple taken been” — had humanity never fallen — the Son of Man would not have had need to become incarnate as one of us to save us from that fall and raise us up again.

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In our Gospel passage, however, we turn to the darker side of ignorance: the ignorance that leads to doubt and fear. Jesus is standing there before his disciples and they still do not accept him as raised from the dead. They think he is a ghost! I suppose their fear is understandable — I would be rather unsettled to see someone I knew had died come walking into the room, particularly through closed doors. But they’ve just been told by the two who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus that they have seen him, and that Simon has seen him too.

Yet some of them still, even with him standing there, and in their startled terror, disbelieve. Even after showing them his hands and feet, the wounds of the nails still visible, they are still disbelieving, though in a somewhat happier way — I guess like someone who finds it hard to believe she has won the Lotto and keeps looking back and forth between the winning numbers on the screen and the same numbers on her lottery ticket. It is hard to believe that something so amazing has happened.

But am I the only one here who detects a little bit of exasperation in Jesus saying, “Have you got anything to eat?” In any case, Jesus then lays out the whole story before them — in much the same way Peter would later do with the people and their rulers — though perhaps a bit more like a very patient teacher with a somewhat slow-on-the-uptake class. He dispels their ignorance by opening their minds to the Scriptures.

And suddenly, for them, the veil is parted. Suddenly it all makes sense. This is what the prophets were talking about when they said the Messiah would suffer. All those bible stories we heard as children, all those psalms we sang in the synagogue, all the sermons we listened to with care, and for that matter the sermons we slept through — this is what it all was about. It has happened, finally, actually happened, for real, in our lifetimes, and in our own neighborhood.

It is this realization, coupled with the descent of the Holy Spirit (which we will hear more about on Pentecost) that empowered the disciples to change the world. Some skeptical modern doubters say that Jesus did not rise from the dead
and that the disciples just made it all up. If that were true then the disciples would have to be the greatest con-men in the history of the world. To “sell” such a con, and risk their lives to do so, would take massive amounts of self-confidence and ample supplies of that Jewish virtue chutzpah, if not the Greek vice hubris. But do the disciples show any evidence of chutzpah or hubris prior to the appearance of the risen Lord? Don’t they do just the opposite: don’t they cower in fear and doubt — even when he appears to them! To think that these fearful, doubtful, weak-willed men concocted a plan to fool the world, and had the gall to carry it out — well, that defies belief. If I doubt anything, that is the most doubtful thing of all — that the disciples made it all up.

No, ignorant doubters and those who live in fear do not act with such conviction and power — power enough just prior to our reading from Acts today to heal a man unable to walk, and in the portion read today to confront a crowd of doubtful, ignorant people with the “good news” that they are all ignorant murderers — but have the chance to be redeemed, by turning to the one whom in their ignorance they handed over.

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There is a powerful lesson for us in all of this: not just not to be too sure of ourselves when we don’t know what we are doing, but to have confidence in him when we do what he commanded us to do. We are not eyewitnesses, but we have the charge to continue the testimony that they so powerfully delivered to us. It began in Jerusalem and it spread to the four corners of the world, and it is spreading still — to new ears and hearts and minds — the saving Gospel that enlightens all ignorance with the grace and majesty of the presence of God with us, still among us, powerful to heal and strong to save. To him be ascribed all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and for ever more.

WIthout a Doubt

How to certify a birth in the kingdom of heaven? Faith and doubt are sisters... A Sermon for Easter 2

SJF • Easter 2a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

Any of you here with young children or younger siblings are no doubt familiar with the phenomenon of triangular conversation. This is what happens when you are trying to have a conversation with a person of your own age in the presence of those much younger than you are. It is a skill somewhat more difficult than the more primitive spelling-out of words that you don’t want the child to hear; which always risks the embarrassment of a wise child saying, “Mommy, I know how to S-P-E-L-L!” But for those who have mastered the art of triangular conversation, it can save many a headache, and a good deal of time. Once you have the system down, you may appear to be speaking to the child, but your message, what you want your spouse or friend to understand, gets across. When successful, the child feels included in the conversation but doesn’t understand the significance of what you are saying to the mature person.

The Gospel according to Saint John is in large part just such a triangular conversation. Although it is written as a series of encounters between Jesus and his disciples, much of it — if not most of it — is written for the benefit of those who will read it — including us. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is often speaking to us over the heads of the disciples.

This is perhaps nowhere so clear as in those closing verses of our Gospel reading today. The ones who “are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” aren’t the disciples, but are the members of the church who hear this gospel proclaimed to them — and that includes us at a remove of nearly 2000 years. Jesus may appear to be speaking to Thomas and the other disciples, but the message is for the church at large — for the many generations of believers who have come to believe not because of what they had seen but through what they have heard: the proclamation of this very gospel. As the last verse proclaims, this Gospel had a purpose, and is “written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.”

The whole incident preceding John’s conclusion leads up to it with a kind of inexorable logic. Remember that this is Jesus’s first appearance to the gathering of the disciples — prior to this he has only appeared to Mary Magdalene, and though she has told the disciples about it, they are still cowering in fear behind locked doors. Suddenly — and as I said last week, magically — Jesus appears in the locked room and reveals himself to the disciples minus one. Thomas the twin isn’t there. Why? The Gospel doesn’t say. But it would be fair to note that Thomas may not have been quite so fearful as the rest of them — perhaps the only one courageous enough to be out and about in a city grown threatening, truly now a stranger in a strange land indeed.

For whatever reason, Thomas misses out on the resurrection appearance, and expresses his doubt in no uncertain terms. Or perhaps it would be better to say, in uncertain terms. He expresses his uncertainty, his doubt, not denial. He does not affirm something that he knows, but something that he does not know. He confesses he does not know that Christ is risen — but he doesn’t declare that Christ is not risen. That would not be doubt, but denial. He does not say, “He is not risen,” but rather, “Show me the proof and then I will believe.” And once the proof is given, so he does.

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People sometimes wrongly say that doubt is the enemy of faith; but that is not really true. Doubt and faith are sisters; and whether you say “I don’t believe it” or “I do believe it” you are speaking primarily about your own state of mind and not about the ultimate reality or unreality of some objective fact. Facts, after all, are just facts. People don’t believe facts, they know facts. So knowledge is not the same thing as faith, nor is ignorance the same thing as denial. No one would say, “I believe that one plus one is two.” You would say, “I know that one plus one is two” — or, as I said before, “I know how to S-P-E-L-L.” Nor does my saying, “I don’t know how to do differential calculus or speak Chinese” mean that differential calculus or the Chinese language don’t exist. Ultimately, one does not need to have faith in, or belief in, something which you know to exist. Faith only is needed where doubt is possible.

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When Christ appeared to the other disciples they did not gain faith in him — in fact they had been just as faithless as Thomas. They had not believed the testimony of Mary, who had seen Jesus. What they gained when Christ appeared to them was not faith but knowledge. And Thomas seeks the same thing: he says he will not believe, but he demands knowledge — he literally demands hands-on experience — but faith is belief in the absence of hands-on experience , in the absence of certain knowledge.

And this is precisely why Jesus, and John as author of this Gospel, speak to us over the heads of the disciples including Thomas, in saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” We do not have direct knowledge of the living Christ, in the same way the disciples in that room did. But we do have their testimony. And as Peter also affirms — writing to a congregation long ago but who just as well might be writing to this congregation gathered here today, “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

None of us has seen the risen Lord with the eyes of the flesh, or heard his voice with our earthly ears — but we have seen him with the eyes of our heart and heard him speaking to us through the Spirit. He speaks to us through the Scripture over the heads of the doubting world. But more than that, we see him through the acts of sacrifice and service, to the wounded, the captive, the hungry, and the sick. We believe, and believing, have life in his name.

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Doubt and faith are sisters. Doubt will not harm you unless it hardens into denial, unless it demands physical proof, and incontestable evidence.

In his first novel, A Separate Peace, John Knowles portrays two privileged young men at a posh New Hampshire private boarding school in the midst of World War II. The two boys have engineered a fantasy in which they have come to deny the reality of the war itself — like some modern day conspiracy theorists, they think the war is just an elaborate hoax. They have made, as the title of the novel suggests, a separate peace; and it ends in tragedy. Denial catches up with them in the end.

And you might well say, how foolish not to know what is going on around you, not to believe the evidence of one’s senses, even after the seeing the newsreels and press reports. Or, in a more recent context, how foolish not to believe even when the much-demanded long-form birth certificate has been produced. Yes, there are still some who will continue to live in denial!

But is our disbelieving world any better for not seeing the signs of the presence of God in the hearts and hands of faithful people everywhere? That is our task, my friends. Not just to believe for ourselves, but to put our belief into action so that others may see what we have seen — not the risen Christ himself, or his wounded hands or side, but the hands and arms and shoulders of fellow Christians reaching out to lift and carry the weak, to comfort and heal the sick, to feed the hungry and console the orphan and widow. These are a certification of a birth far more important than a merely earthly one. They are the signs of the birth of the spirit in our hearts, and they certify our citizenship in the kingdom of God.

It is not for us to hear words from the lips of Jesus himself like those gathered on the mountainside, but to hear that message carried forth as testimony by many messengers — and to become messengers ourselves — apostles each and every one of us — sent to the far corners of the earth to bring the message of salvation and new birth, shouting out the Gospel over the heads of a disbelieving and unbelieving world, which, like a wise child, may realize there is more to the conversation than they know — so that all people everywhere might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and that through believing they might have life in his name.+

WIthout a Doubt

SJF • Easter 2b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”+

There are all sorts of little sayings you hear in the church, little sayings that are said so often that people come to accept them as if they were Holy Writ. The problem is that many of these little sayings aren’t in the Bible, and worse than that they aren’t even true. One of them is, “Jesus said, ‘Love the sinner but hate the sin.’” Whenever I hear that one I always ask for chapter and verse; for, of course, Jesus said no such thing, at least as far as the Scriptures record. But that’s for another sermon.

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Today I want to look at the little saying that goes, “Doubt is the prelude to faith.” At least that’s one form of it. Alfred Lord Tennyson put it more poetically (which is fitting for a poet), “There is more Faith in honest doubt than in all the creeds.” Well, as someone who says the creed every day and twice on Sundays, I want to challenge that little saying, and on the contrary assert that doubt is the enemy of faith, something to be overcome; not an essential prerequisite or prelude to faith, but a poison that can infect or destroy faith.

Of course I acknowledge that doubt exists, but I affirm that faith survives and triumphs because it overcomes doubt. Many great Christians have had moments of doubt, moments in which they felt they’d made a terrible mistake, dark nights of the soul when they’ve felt so abandoned by God they began to doubt God’s providence, maybe even God’s existence. However, they survived those doubts; they regained their faith. We should hardly have heard of them if they had remained doubtful, certainly not as great Christians! In the same way people can survive deadly diseases: but that doesn’t make disease a beneficial stage towards a healthy life! Health comes with the end of the disease. And while it may be true that a healed broken bone is stronger than one that has never been broken, that is hardly a recommendation to go out and have all your bones broken!

No, I’m afraid that doubt remains a detriment to faith. It is something to be overcome, not embraced. Jesus puts it plainly when he faces the doubter Thomas, in five sharply pointed words: Do not doubt but believe. You can’t do them both at the same time!

As for Tennyson and all the others who have sung doubt’s praises, to be fair to them, what they’re talking about probably isn’t doubt at all, but ignorance. And those are two different things. Doubt is the enemy of faith, as much as suspicion is the enemy of trust. You can’t really trust them if you are suspecting them at the same time. The doubting skeptic will deny, until he is given reason to affirm. He tries to subsist in the world of “wait and see” — and “show me the money” — and since there are many things one never can or will see or be shown, things which must betaken on faith or the testimony of others, the doubter may spend an eternity waiting. Doubt, then, is thinking that something is false until proven otherwise; it demands first hand evidence.

Ignorance, on the other hand, keeps an open if not an empty mind: ignorance is simply not knowing — and given our human limitations, ignorance is a major part of our human condition: there are many things we do not know of a certainty, yet in which we have faith. To put it another way, Ignorance can be informed, but doubt must be convinced.

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Let’s look at our lessons for today, because they can help us see the difference. Peter addresses the people of Jerusalem, those responsible for the death of Jesus, in a moving speech that shows just how far God will go to forgive. He tells the people that they rejected Jesus; they chose to have a murderer go free, and killed the Author of Life. But he goes on to call them “friends,” and tell them that they “acted in ignorance.” As Jesus himself had said, “they know not what they do.” This ignorance, this clouding of the mind as Paul would later say, was necessary in order for God to fulfill what had been foretold through the prophets, that the Messiah must suffer. And Peter calls on them to repent and accept the truth of which they had been ignorant.

Peter is an eyewitness to the resurrection, there to testify and convert their ignorance into knowledge and bring them thence to faith, from unbelief to belief. And many of them accept his testimony.

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In comparison, consider doubting Thomas. For years those who want to cherish their own doubts have tried to exonerate Thomas. They want it to be okay for him to have doubted the reality of Christ’s resurrection, to have doubted the witness of the other disciples, and swear he had to see with his own eyes and feel with his own hands before he’d believe their testimony. After all, once he would see, their testimony would be superfluous. And although skeptical Thomas went on to do great things — tradition tells us he went as far as India, the apostle to bring the gospel into Asia — he couldn’t have done that if he had remained Doubting Thomas. Had he remained Doubting Thomas there would have been no gospel for him to preach, only his empty doubts.

Thomas’ doubts were not okay. They were something to be gotten rid of, to overcome. They would have killed his faith were it not for our Lord’s extraordinary willingness to put up with this disbelieving apostle, this disbelieving skeptic, and pay an additional visit to that upper room.

Jesus had shown his wounded hands and side to the other disciples, but he invites Thomas to go further. He invites the skeptic to poke and prod, to touch the risen flesh, delivered from death by the power of God. And he says to him, Do not doubt but believe.

There are paintings of this famous Gospel scene that show Thomas sticking his finger in the Lord’s wounded side. Personally I find that very hard to believe, nor does the Scripture tell us that Thomas accepted the invitation to handle Jesus so roughly. No, the text simply tells us that Thomas answered his Lord’s invitation with, “My Lord and my God.” And I picture him shocked and hardly daring even to look up, let alone to poke at Jesus’ wounds.

Even then, Jesus doesn’t let him off so lightly, he doesn’t let the beam of his severe attention drop. Okay, so Thomas now believes because he has seen. His ignorance, which should have been informed and dispelled by the witness of the other disciples, had hardened into doubt, had calcified into skepticism and it took a personal appearance from Jesus to wipe that doubt away: that first hand evidence, as Canon West used to say, of a hand with a hole in it.

And so Jesus goes on to say, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Blessed are those for whom the news of the gospel, lightening their ignorance, is enough. Blessed are those who only need to hear the good news, to gain the knowledge of God’s saving mission to humanity. Blessed are those whose faith rests not on the foundation of a ruined doubt, but on the solid rock of plain honest ignorance enlightened by the testimony of the Gospel.

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The evangelist John wants us so much to understand this. That’s why he wrote the Gospel, after all: to tell those who would come after what had happened. Doubt is not good. It can kill faith as much as jealousy can kill love; as much as suspicion can murder trust. Ignorance, on the other hand, is not our problem; it is our condition. The evangelist John, to make this point, steps forward for a moment at the end of the reading we heard, he steps forward as the author of the gospel to remind us, his readers, that there are many other signs Jesus performed “which are not written in this book.” He repeats this author’s note in the very last verse of his gospel, when he states that if everything Jesus had said and done were written down the whole world could not contain all the books it would take to tell it. In short, John is saying, I don’t have space or time to tell you everything. You are still ignorant in part. But you don’t need to know everything. What I have told you is enough. It is sufficient. The Scripture you hold in your hands, the Scripture you hear with your ears, is enough so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you might have life in him — and blessed are you who have come to believe.

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This is our condition, my sisters and brothers in Christ. We don’t know everything about Jesus. We don’t know how tall he was, what his voice was like. We have probably lost any number of his teachings and sayings along the way, things he did or said that no one ever wrote down. We are in partial ignorance; as Saint Paul said, “we know in part.” But, as Saint John reminds us, we know enough — and are blessed in that sufficient knowledge: like the daily bread that is enough for each day; we have enough.

We do not need to poke at the nail holes and the spear wound. We do not need even to see our Risen Lord as did his disciples in that upper room. We are among those blessed with limited knowledge, but also blessed with abundant faith, blessèd ones who though we have not seen, yet we have believed through the words of John and the other witnesses. For though we now can touch the Lord’s body only through the outward forms of bread and wine; though we now can serve the Lord only through our ministry to each other, and to the downtrodden and the needy, yet in our faith, our faith that thrives in the knowledge and the love of God, in our faith we are strengthened to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and believing in him, to have life in his name; and in his name we pray.+

Doubt That Kills

Saint James Fordham • Lent 1a • Tobias Haller BSG
The tempter came to him and said, If you are the Son of God…

Today is the first Sunday in Lent, and just a little while ago we sang a long litany that included a striking petition: our earnest appeal to God that we might finally one day “beat down Satan under our feet.” Satan is, of course, the Adversary, in particular humanity’s Adversary, from the time he misled Eve in the garden to the day he tempted Jesus in the desert, the greatest troublemaker there ever was. The trouble Satan makes comes in the most part through what he tempts us to do.

As I say, he’s been at it an awfully long time. Right from the beginning, Satan has been at his work of temptation. In the garden, as a snake in the grass, he tempted Eve. We all know what that led to. Later on, he tempted Jesus in the wilderness, coming at him at the end of a long and weary fast, when he was weak and famished, hitting him when he was down. In both of his assaults on humanity — humanity at its very beginning and at its culmination — Satan tempts his victims to doubt.

Now, doubt is not an entirely bad thing. A little healthy skepticism is an important part of common sense, particularly when you get an email telling you someone has found $10 million in an abandoned account and if you just send them all of your private information they’ll do the transfer for you. Right. Some doubt can save you from some trouble. But the person who doubts everything is in some ways as much a fool as the person who doubts nothing at all. Some doubt, then, makes common sense. But the doubt towards which Satan tempts Eve and Jesus, and all of us — every man, woman and child since — is not the reasonable doubt of common sense, but the unreasonable doubt that assaults both who we are and who God is.

This is the doubt that kills: to doubt God and God’s promises, and to doubt ourselves at the very core of our being. These two doubts, so pointless and so hopeless, are the doubts Satan lays before us, setting his snare: Who am I? and Where is God? These are the doubts that lead to despair and death of the soul. They make us feel like less than we are, and also rob of us of trust in the only one in whom we can become more than we are, leaving us high and dry in the desert of despair, of loss and isolation, ready prey for Satan to snatch us up and carry us off to hell. These are the two sore points that Satan has worked away at endlessly and tirelessly since Eden, and they leave their marks on the human soul like the twin punctures of a serpent’s fangs.

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The crafty serpent came to Eve, and the hidden assumptions behind the advice he gave to her planted those seeds of doubt. “You will be like God...” the serpent said. But Eve was already like God, made in God’s image and likeness. Satan put his advice in the future tense and conditional mood, as if to say, “You are not like God now, but you could be, if only you eat the fruit.” So the serpent led Eve to doubt herself, her own likeness to God, her very being. He made her feel like less than she was, and then offered a way to feel better about herself.

Does that sound familiar? Haven’t women and men been caught by the same nasty doubts ever since? How many products are are marketed precisely by making people feel bad about themselves and then offering them a quick solution. The modern day serpents whisper to us that we are too fat or too thin, that our hair is the wrong color, or not shiny or plentiful enough, and on top of that — we smell bad; and then offer us the diet plan or exercise machine, the hair color or shampoo or baldness cure, — and the mouthwash and deodorant. Satan was, it seems, the first creature to get someone to use a product they didn’t want and didn’t need. And he did it by getting Eve to doubt herself.

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He also got her to doubt God. That’s the second fang in the serpent’s mouth. Satan’s crafty temptation to Eve calls God a liar — “You will not die; you will become like God! God hasn’t told you the whole story! And how can you trust him if he isn’t on the up and up with you? Who is this God, anyway? Where is he? But look at that fruit; it’s a sure thing! It’s right here... Where is your God?” And Eve, without responding to the devil, silent in the face of the doubts he has raised, takes the fruit.

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How strong is the power of doubt! Eve has known God’s blessings all her short life. She’s never even been out of the garden, in which God has been such a gracious host. She has been cared for and watched over, God graciously providing for her every need. Yet against her whole short life’s experience, she is prepared to listen to the hisses of a snake in the grass, and turn from God in mistrust, without so much as a word.

Again, doesn’t this sound familiar? How many relationships have been wrecked through a casual bit of unfounded or malicious gossip? How many reputations have been ruined by false accusation, by devilish doubt ready to leap out against even the most trusted, most belovéd person, pouncing like a rattlesnake. Oh yes, Satan is still busily at work, and ever since Eve, people have been giving in in silence to the doubts that chill the heart and kill the soul.

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Yet Jesus shows us a different response to Satan and the doubts that Satan spreads. Satan confronts Jesus in the wilderness, and he bares the same two fangs of doubt he’s chewed on people with since time began. “If you are the Son of God...” he begins each assault. If? If? Is Satan trying to get Jesus to doubt that he is the Son of God? You bet he is! And with his one-two punch Satan follows up with temptations that try to poke holes in Jesus’ faith in God’s providence, God’s protection, and God’s authority.

But Jesus, unlike Eve, knows that silence will not do to clear away these powerful doubts. Jesus knows that just ignoring Satan won’t make him go away! The hissing of doubt must be answered, the murmur of doubt must be silenced by the voice of faith. And so Jesus answers every doubt that Satan raises. He will not let the devil have the last word, and it is Satan who ends up retiring from the field, silenced at last by Jesus’ rebuke.

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Jesus talked back to the devil, to the one who tried to get him to doubt God and to doubt himself. We too can talk back to the devil, whether he appears in the guise of friend or family member, co-worker or public figure, or as that more familiar devil, that nagging little voice within you. You’ve heard him — don’t deny it! He is that little voice of insecurity who tells you you are less than you know you are, or that bids you not to trust the Lord with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.

To the voices that seek to whittle you down, to cut you into little pieces, to nibble at your insecurities, you can boldly respond, “Quiet! I am a child of God, loved by God and made in God’s image!” To the little devils who spread rumor and distrust, you can boldly respond, “I’ve known my friends far longer than I’ve known you, and I trust them more than I trust you.” And to the deep, evil voice that asks us “Where is your God?” we can confidently respond, God is with us, among us and within us, and we can go nowhere out of his providence, his protection, and his power.

We can talk back to all of these faithless chatterers, internal and external; and with bold words of rebuke beat down Satan under our feet. And there are few more choicely worded rebukes to the talkers of doubt (within and without) than these from Ella Wheeler Wilcox, with which I close:

Talk faith. The world is better off without
Your uttered ignorance and morbid doubt.
If you have faith in God, or man, or self,
Say so. If not, push back upon the shelf
Of silence all your thoughts, till faith shall come;
No one will grieve because your lips are dumb.+