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No Doubt About It

John 20:19-31

April 12, 2015

Sermon preached by Rev. Donald Ng at the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco.

Most of us grew up at school with a world map called the Mercator Map hanging on the wall. This map depicted North America and Europe more prominently, exaggerating their size over other parts of the world. Because those regions dominated the world in terms of economics and commerce, politics and decision-making, maps have long reflected a bias toward those regions.

About 30 years ago, Arno Peters came up with a world map known as Peters Projection that reflected better proportions of the geography of the world—more actual proportions and sizes of all the continents, not just the favored few. This map wants to be fair in showing the continents and countries in relation to one another, with all the longitudes and latitudes at right angles. Africa and South America are much larger on this map. The result is a different view of the world.

When you see Peters Projection, do you believe it? If Africa and South America are actually larger continents than North America, might we begin to see their significance more than our North American view of reality?

The way you and I see things is most important. Seeing is believing. Today I ask you, “Do you see with Easter eyes?”

This whole subject of how we see and what we see is at the heart of this passage from John. As we read John 20, people see the resurrected Jesus on Easter morning and believe: Mary saw Jesus in the garden; the beloved disciple “saw and believed.” Despair moves to joy. Discouragement moves to new life.

The text says, “when it was evening” (v. 19), the disciples were together in one place, locked in a room and afraid about what to do and where to go. Then it says, “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced as they saw the Lord.”

In all of these instances, seeing is believing. Seeing gives inspiration for living. Seeing leads to new life as disciples. Bonnie Lim saw Jesus Christ in her life and she believed and proclaimed her faith in baptism. How you see, what you see, means so much to us.

Thomas, one of the disciples, missed out on all of this. It doesn’t say why he was not there, but he was not there. Thomas said, “Unless I see, unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails, I will not believe.”

Through the centuries, many have been hard on Thomas. He is seen as so stubborn, slow to come around. How dare he be so demanding! The other references to Thomas in John’s gospel only give more reason for this harsh view of Thomas—he is often complaining that Jesus had not made things clear enough (14:5), and he is a bit combative or confrontational when he said to the other disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (11:16).

But maybe doubting Thomas can really teach us something today. Doubts and questions are part of life. Doubts can actually enrich our faith. It’s like when we doubted the Mercator Map, we eventually came up with a more accurate depiction of the world with Peters. Moreover, Jesus does not condemn him. Jesus simply offers Thomas what he needs, and then offers us encouragement in our own seeing, seeking and searching.

Look at what happens. A week goes by and the disciples are together again. And Jesus comes and stands among them, saying “Peace.” Jesus does for Thomas exactly what Thomas needed—“put your fingers here. Do not doubt, but believe.” And Thomas offers perhaps the greatest words spoken by a disciple in this gospel: “My Lord and my God!” From his doubt, he affirms his belief. From his combative ways, he moves to deep confirmation of who Jesus is—“my Lord and God.”

Believing is Seeing

But then there’s the catch. There is the next line from Jesus: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet…believe.” So often, when we believe—believe in the power and presence of God, believe in the light and life of Easter—we actually begin to see things anew. Believing is also seeing! When we believe, we see God in certain moments, we see God’s calling for our lives, and we see how we can serve God in various times and places.

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When we believe and see, God works with the challenges and issues in our lives, even our failures, and bring about something positive. When we seek to be a part of God’s healing purposes, God can take these twisted and confused aspects of our lives and our world and bring about redemption, hope and life.

We know that one thing that every person here will one time or another need to face is to be an actor in a drama that is tragic. And when you are, you are sure to feel, as Jesus must have felt, very sad, very much alone. While I don’t know if this was the case with Jesus, but when there is a tragedy, there’s often a searching questioning of our beliefs, even to the point of asking, “Where is God?”

We expect God to be with us when we gather for praise and prayer here in church. But we most want God to be with us during our times of tragedy, especially there. And this is the good news on this Sunday after Easter—God is with us, in our human suffering, betrayal, disappointment, and trouble. There is no tragedy in which we walk that he has not walked before us so that he could be fully with us.

When we ask you to believe so that you may see, you might say, “Where is God? I can’t believe until I can see!” We have been taught that doubting like the way Thomas did is bad. Therefore don’t doubt.

But you know what? Sometimes living a life of faith to the fullest will take you not only into the center of God’s will, but also into a cauldron of doubt.

During the process of her canonization begun while Pope John Paul was still alive, the world learned some interesting things about Mother Teresa. In the 1930s, Teresa began hearing direct, audible instructions from Jesus himself, she reported, telling her to found a convent in India to care for the poorest of the poor. Faithfully following those instructions which Teresa received daily for almost three years, she did just what God asked her to do. She got permission from the church; gathered sister nuns to help her; and with few resources, but lots of faith, Teresa loyally followed Jesus’ command to open a charity hospital in the worst of Calcutta’s slums. Then once the hospital opened and the poor flooded in—suddenly, inexplicably—the direct, audible instructions simply stopped. Just when Teresa needed God the most, that gift of guidance from Jesus was withdrawn.

Now, Mother Teresa may be a saint, but don’t you think that she had more than a few sleepless nights, filled with doubt? Teresa told an interviewer that she did. Teresa suffered terribly, but she kept at it: Doing what she felt God had asked her to do.

Not only did Thomas had doubts and Mother Teresa had doubts but there are many others throughout our Christian history. St. Augustine shaped his Confessions, as his doubts and questions. Job goes on for chapters about how upset and angry he is at God for testing him and letting devastating troubles overwhelm him. The lament Psalms can help people give voice to their distresses but they are all songs of doubt. Jesus himself used one of these lament psalms (22) to cry out in anguish from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

In my 40 years of ministry, I have doubted. But I have kept my promise to Christ. As Paul said to the Philippians, “I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (3:13-14).

In June, I pray I will be able to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). God has used my doubts and questions throughout my life and have led me to believe in the light and life of Easter. Everyday I see things anew. When we believe, we see God.

God Comes

Jesus did not wait until Thomas had it all figured out to then come to him. No. In the midst of the mess, Jesus came. Right through the walls; right through the barriers of fear and doubt. Those things certainly did not keep Jesus out then. Nor do they now. God is not bound by our ability to believe or disbelieve. God will not be kept out just because we are too overwhelmed to keep faith in.

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When you read this story closely, this gospel passage directly, gladly refutes the mistaken belief that if we cannot believe, than the relationship with God is severed. Thomas cannot believe, but that does not preclude God from coming to him. That is because our relationship with God does not depend on our ability to believe. No.

Thanks to our Savior, our relationship with God is always and forever guaranteed by God’s ability to love. Our relationship with God is not determined by our works, but by God’s grace. Which is limitless. Which we humanly cannot limit by belief or disbelief. No. Thomas can’t believe. Won’t believe. But God is present. Jesus still comes. Not to condemn Thomas, but to love Thomas; to help him through his midnight toward the dawning of God’s Easter light.

If you are like me, then there have been times in your life when all hell has broken loose and you feel that God cannot be found. Not if, but when, you feel like that, do not limit God to your perception of God’s presence or absence. Do not cordon off God from your hell by equating God’s presence with you to what you can or cannot believe or feel or know.

Hebrews 4:15 reminds us that we do not have a God who is unable to sympathize with us; for our God was, like us, tested in every way that we are tested. Jesus can relate to Thomas and to us when we are stricken. For our Savior has also been in that same place; he too knows what it is liked to be crucified.

So, when you are being torn apart or when your belief is shaken or when you feel forsaken, know that that is the time when God in Christ through the Spirit is with you. Both present to you in ways you most likely won’t be able to see but are with you to make it from the hell of Good Friday into the blessing that is Easter. Jesus knows how to make that journey: from hell to heaven; from cursing to blessing; from death to life. He will make sure that you also make it through.

If there is any mistake to be made with doubt, it’s giving up. Lots of people leave the church when that is where they most need to be. Lots of people prematurely give up on God when they perceive that God cannot be found.

If we read the spiritual advice from all the saints, the giants of faith, their counsel containing the spiritual wisdom of two millennia advises this: In this life, trials will come. With trials, doubts will come, too. Do not let that fact disrupt your trust in the deeper truth that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ.

Today, I want you to hold on. Know that God is present despite your ability to feel that presence. Know that God is sustaining you despite your ability to perceive how. Know that God is making a way right now for you to move you from death to life. Know that and let go of the need for answers. Simply trust in the answer. God will see you through and not if, but when night comes and doubt begins to finally fade, your relationship with God will be stronger, your faith will be more alive than any tomb you know now.

As Christ came to Thomas and resurrected him when he needed that the most; Christ will resurrect you. Just like the Peters Projection map, you are now able to see the world in an entirely new way. Believe and see the Lord!

No doubt about it!

Let us pray.

Dear God, be with us when we believe. Be with us when we doubt. Lead us to trust in you that you will never abandon us especially during the darkest times in our lives. Come into our lives and reassure us once again that Jesus Christ, your only Son died on the cross for our sake and rose in life to proclaim that you love us both here on earth as well as in heaven. There is no doubt about your grace and mercy in Christ. Amen.

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