Friday, April 24, 2015

The Thomas Syndrome (John 20:19-29) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Doubt, you can't escape it.  You can run from it , but you can't hide from it; it's a part of our daily lives.  In 1993, FBI agents conducted a raid of Southwood Psychiatric Hospital in San Diego, which was under investigation for medical insurance fraud.  After hours of reviewing medical records, the agents had worked up an appetite. The agent in charge of the investigation called a nearby pizza parlor to order a quick dinner for his colleagues.

Agent: Hello. I would like to order 19 large pizzas and 67 cans of soda.
Pizza Man: And where would you like them delivered?
Agent: We're over at the psychiatric hospital.
Pizza Man: The psychiatric hospital?
Agent: That's right. I'm an FBI agent.
Pizza Man: You're an FBI agent?
Agent: That's correct. Just about everybody here is.
Pizza Man: And you're at the psychiatric hospital?
Agent: That's correct. And make sure you don't go through the front doors. We have them locked. You will have to go around to the back to the service entrance to deliver the pizzas.
Pizza Man: And you say you're all FBI agents?
Agent: Yes, we've been here all day and we're starving.   Can you remember to bring the pizzas and sodas to the service entrance in the rear?
Pizza Man: I don't think so.  And he hung up.

We deal with doubt in the field of law.  In a criminal case for example, evidence against a defendant must be presented by the prosecution that's beyond a reasonable doubt, that no other logical explanation can be derived from the facts or that the facts are beyond dispute about any reasonable alternative being possible.  It means jurors have no doubts about the defendant's guilt or that their doubts are unreasonable. 

Yes, doubt is a normal part of everyday life.  We have doubts at times about our career, our health, our friends, our marriage, our children, our community, our church, our government or about our job, will it last for years or will I be layed off tomorrow.  We sometimes must deal with depression because of anxious struggles with self-doubt. 

And yes, when it comes to faith in God, to our spiritual life, to our walk with Christ, we also at times have doubts.  I do.  How about you?   We are children of a scientific, technological, relative, and skeptical age, an age which lends itself to doubts in regard to faith.  

For Christians there are personal expressions of faith-doubts.  “God, have you heard my prayer?”  “God, why haven't you healed him?”  “God, are you punishing me?” “God, will you help me?  “God, why did she have to die?” “God, why didn't this work out, it looked so promising?”  “God, I'm having trouble believing you care.”   “I can't believe this story in Scripture.”  “I don't know if I am saved.”    We may have doubts about God's being either all-loving or all-powerful.

So don't beat yourself up when you find yourself wrestling with doubts about your faith.  It is not a sin to doubt.  Doubt in terms of faith is not an aberration or a mental disorder or a character flaw.  

We find examples of doubt in scripture.  Thomas in this morning's lesson is one of the most remembered figures in the Bible.  People who don't read the Bible or rarely read it will often say, oh, yeah, doubting Thomas, I have heard of him.   Thomas was not in the upper room in Jerusalem when Jesus first appeared after his resurrection.  He was still grieving after hearing that Jesus had been crucified.  So he emphatically states:  “Unless I shall see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” 

It is the Thomas syndrome!  We all are familiar with it.  “God, prove to me that you exist.”  “God, show me a big clear sign, well, how about a little sign?”  “God, show me you are real.”  “God I'll believe if you will only answer my prayer.”

Have you ever prayed like Thomas?  I have.  We are by nature rational creatures. God has given us the ability to think, to assess the situation, to use logic and reasoning when making up our minds. We like to rely on empirical evidence, like Sgt. Joe Friday, on the television series “Dragnet,” who always said: “Just the facts ma'am.”  We like facts on which to base our opinions, views and beliefs.  We want to see it, to feel it, to touch it, to smell it, to hear it.  So without question, Thomas’ doubt was a honest and normal expression of being human.

Recall another biblical story of the healing of a boy by Jesus.  A father whose son was possessed with an unclean spirit is speaking to Jesus.  The father says:  “Jesus, if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.”  Jesus replies:  “If you are able, all things are possible for the one who believes.”  To which the father responds: “I believe Lord, help my unbelief.”   How many parents have uttered similar words: “I believe in you Lord, help my unbelief.”   “I trust in you Lord; help me to trust even more.”

Some of you may have serious doubts about the truth and meaning of the Christian faith.  Why do we sometimes have doubts about God?  Why is doubt a part of faith?  Remember, it’s not a sin to doubt. 

First, doubts arise because of the nature of our Christian faith.  In the book of Hebrews, chapter 11, verses 1 - 3, we read:  “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. By faith, we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.”   I Corinthians says:  “For we walk but faith, not my sight.”  It also says:  “For now we see in a mirror dimly, then face to face, not we know in part, then we shall know fully.”

Trust, belief, the conviction of things that are not seen, this is the language of faith.   Faith can't be proven with logic or science.  When a prayer is answered or a miracle occurs, a believer says, “Praise the Lord” and an unbeliever says, “Ah, it was just dumb luck or a coincidence.”  

Christian faith is a living and dynamic relationship with God in Christ.  And like any living relationship, whether with your spouse or a friend or your child, that relationship seeks understanding, it asks questions, it evolves, there are times of doubt, it changes, it grows, there are times of confusion, there are ups and downs.

Second, doubt arises because of God himself.  God is and remains ultimately a God of freedom and mystery.  The prophet Isaiah, in a moment of frustration, says:  “Truly you are a God who hides yourself.”  Faith is a relationship with a free and sovereign God.  God is not accountable to us.  God is not under our control or direction.  We cannot order God to do anything.   God won’t fit in any box, no matter how hard we try.  Yes, we can and do know God personally in Jesus Christ, and we say amen to that gift, and yet we realize that there are limits to how personally we can know God.  God is both knowable and unknowable, within our comprehension and beyond our understanding. 

Third, doubt arises because of our human predicament.  We must deal with questions about the existence of evil, disease, injustice and suffering.  Sin is the basic reason people resist believing in God.  But rationally, the existence of evil and suffering is without question an intellectual obstacle to faith.  We face challenges and problems, tragedy, and fear, which pose ever new questions for faith. 

Jesus our Lord understands more than anyone that his followers are going to struggle with seasons of doubt.  Jesus listened to the doubts and questions of his own twelve disciples.  Jesus listened to Thomas.  And Jesus hears us, you and me. 

Some of us came to faith because of the influence of our parents who were Christians.    It was their witness which first inspired us.  We inherited faith from them.   But sooner or later we must claim faith for ourselves, we must stand on our own faith. Why, because of life's challenges.  Am I a Christian because my parents want me to be or Am I personally committed to Jesus Christ because I want to be?

Faith and doubt is a fascinating dynamic.  The reality of doubt means we must on a daily basis cultivate our faith in God, develop it, deepen it, so that when the challenges of life confront us, we have a spiritual foundation of strength and hope and spiritual depth, and don't collapse in despair.  Faith is a conviction not a convenience.  It's not something we trot out on occasion.  Life's challenges means faith must be a way a life, a life-style. 

The aim is always to grow in our faith, to strive for a mature faith, for spiritual maturity.  Growth in understanding and growth in faith is only possible when we honestly confront our doubts and continue our daily and intentional walk with the Lord.  I like what one of my favorite theologian's says:  “An honest doubter is closer to the truth than a superficial or dishonest believer.”   Doubt can be a positive or negative factor when it comes to faith.  It can lead us to turning away from God or it can spur us on to fight the good fight of faith, to strive for understanding, to go further in our journey and seek to draw nearer to God.

Author Robert Louis Stevenson was a sickly child who was burdened by ill health for most of his life.  He died at the age of 44.  From skeptical beginnings, his spiritual journey eventually led him to become a man of radiant faith.  He started by debunking the Christian faith as the “deadliest gag and wet-blanket that can be laid on man.”  He referred to himself as a youthful atheist.  As he grew older, he began to have what he referred to as “his first wild doubts about doubt.”  Later, he commented:  “Tis a strange world, but there is a manifest God for those who care to look for him.”  Finally, Stevenson wrote:  “Faith is a good word to end on.”  So Stevenson went through his struggles of faith, until he found himself doubting his doubts and disbelieving his disbelief.

God calls you and God calls me to make a leap of faith. And to make that leap everyday of our lives. God invites us to stake our lives on a person and a power greater than ourselves - in the one whom we cannot see the imprint of the nails or touch his wounds with our fingers or put our hand into his side – even Jesus Christ.

In closing Thomas declares: “My Lord and My God!”  Jesus said to him:  “Have you believed because you have seen me?”  Yes one is indeed blessed if you have seen the Lord, if you have had a vision of God in your life.  Thomas doubted, but later was indeed blessed. 

You may have never seen the Risen Lord.  And yet you are here this morning worshipping him as lord and savior?   For remember Jesus’ blessing to you as well:  “Blessed are you who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”  Amen!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Greetings! (Matthew 28:1-11) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A pastor writes:  “A friend of mine named John had a number of responsibilities in his job, including traveling to small rural communities to conduct funerals, where they didn't have churches.  He would go out with an undertaker and they would drive together in the hearse. One time, they were on their way back from a funeral and my friend was feeling tired.   He decided  to take a nap and went to lie down in the back of the hearse.

The undertaker pulled into a service station to gas up. The attendant started filling up the tank and was kind of freaked out, because a body was stretched out in the back.  While he was filling the tank, my friend woke up, opened his eyes, knocked on the window and waved at the attendant.  John said he never saw anybody jump so high and run so fast in his whole life.”  

Yes, when you abruptly see life, when you're expecting death, it shakes you up.   So it was on that first Easter.  On the third day, everything changed.  The disciples, the women and crowds thought they were going to see death, but instead they saw life!   And that shook people up.  History records that Jesus' followers, were shattered, disillusioned, and heartsick at seeing Jesus crucified, but suddenly they were motivated to witness to others with a newfound passion, power and purpose, because they had seen life, when they were expecting death.   We rejoice with Christians around the world today in remembering the astounding shock of Jesus' resurrection.

Two women went to the tomb to anoint Jesus' body with oil and spices as was the Jewish custom.  The women encounter an angel who says to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary – “Do not be afraid; He is not here, He has risen; Come and see; Go quickly and tell the disciples.”  Jesus the Risen lord appears to the women as they were leaving the tomb and says - “Greetings.”   Our Risen Lord says greetings to you, to us, this morning as well.

The resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of the Christian faith, it's the linchpin of Christian hope, its the historical basis for the celebration of Easter.   Easter is a light in the darkness of this world.  For if you and I are merely earthbound creatures, with no promise of tomorrow; if aging, suffering, pain and death are all we have to look forward to, then nothing but darkness and sadness awaits us.   We read in I Corinthians: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.  If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.”  

But Easter announces a radically different word; the tomb was empty, God rolled away the stone, and God rolls away stones and opens tombs today.  The stone was not rolled back so Jesus could get out, but so others could get in, and see for themselves that Jesus had risen from the dead.   Because of the power of faith in Christ, as a pastor I have personally seen lives saved from tombs of despair, from tombs of grief, from tombs of shattered relationships, from tombs of meaninglessness and hopelessness.  

Dr. Bernard Thompson, Yale University staff to persons with drug and alcohol addiction issues writes:  “Really, the only widespread dramatic instances of remission, are to be seen among those whose will is redirected through a religious experience.”  Singer Natalie Cole who struggled for years with a drug problem said:  “Most importantly, I thank my Heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, for his unfailing grace and mercy in my life.  He gave me the victory.

The power that brought Jesus back to life, is available to us, to bring our spiritually dead selves back to life.  Easter announces that there is no grave deep enough, no stone heavy enough, no evil strong enough to keep Christ in the tomb and to keep us from the Risen Lord.   The world says evil is stronger than good, hate is stronger than love and death is stronger than life.  Christianity says no, not so!  Why?  Because on Easter Jesus the Risen Lord said- “Greetings.”

Easter declares there is hope for tomorrow, not hopelessness; there is life for tomorrow, not annihilation, not obliteration, not death.  Easter dares to proclaim this message, even in light of the global threat we face from radical extremist Muslim violence, killing and persecution. 

Easter points to the promise of a renewed creation, a new earth.  Easter points to an afterlife, a life to come, a life that awaits us, an eternal life beyond this earthly life.  Eternal life awaits those who surrender their lives, who trust, who believe in Him.  Scripture promises:  “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”   Life begins when we discover this truth for ourselves and act upon it.

I give thanks to God for the life and ministry of Rev. Robert Schuller, founder and pastor of the former mega-church, the Crystal Cathedral in Southern CA, who died April 2, at the age of 88.  He brought the Christian hope to millions of people around the world for over 50 years.  He wrote:  “I happen to focus on the secular world.  I'm not interested in talking to people who have religion.  I'm trying to talk to people who turn God off.”  He was famous for such catchwords as:  “Inch by inch anything's a cinch,” “God's care will carry you, so you can carry others,” “Selfishness turns life into a burden, Unselfishness turns burdens into life;” “When faced with a mountain I will not quit, I will keep on striving until I climb over, find a pass through, tunnel underneath, or simply stay and turn the mountain into a gold mine, with God's help.”  Rev. Schuller is now living the hope he preached during his ministry; he has begun his new life in heaven with his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and the communion of saints.

In light of the hostility in our world, we are constantly faced with our own mortality.  It is not a subject we spend a lot of time contemplating.   Easter declares God's victory over death.  The resurrection shows that even the seemingly indomitable power of death is inferior to the will and power of God.  Easter announces that Jesus' resurrection opens the future and assures us of a future. 

Listen to the testimony from the apostle Paul in I Corinthians; this is the core of our Easter faith: “I would remind you, brothers and sisters of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you, unless you have come to believe in vain.  I handed on to you, what I in turn had received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, then to the twelve, then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died, then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me.”   

As you look out at our world today I ask you two questions – do you have hope for the future and what is the basis for your hope?  Christians around the world are not in worship today saying: "The stock market has risen. It has risen indeed." They have not gathered to say, "The dollar has risen.  It has risen indeed." Or "Google has risen. It has risen indeed."   The hope that has ignited the hearts, stirred the souls, and uplifted human beings across every continent and culture for two millennia is: "Christ is risen. He is risen indeed."

Easter confirms that Jesus alone, and no one else, is the Son of God, so let us take to heart these great promises of our Lord:  “There are many rooms in my Father’s house, I am going there to prepare a place for you, I would not tell you this if it were not so, and I will come back and take you to myself, so that you will be where I am.”  Jesus says: “Because I live, you shall live also.”  Jesus says: “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, even though they die, shall live.”  

Yes, we celebrate Easter because on the third day, Jesus said, “Greetings!”  Alleluia.  Amen.